RADIO LONDON

Duncan Johnson

The full version of this interview can be found in OEM 122.

During the production of the Jumbo Records documentary album The Wonderful Radio London Story, Ray Anderson met Duncan Johnson and interviewed him for the documentary album.

What was your first radio in the UK?
Well I didn't do any radio, I did a few voice-overs for overseas, for Radio Luxembourg and companies using Radio Luxembourg and Gambia and places, Nigeria and places like that. In November 1964 I read about Radio London in the Daily Mail and I thought, "Now I must find out about this". So I phoned the PR Company and they put me onto the telephone number and I got onto Ben Toney, Radio London's Texan programme controller. I went to see him and he said, "have you got a tape?" I said "well only an old tape of some commercials I made in Bermuda, there's only three commercials on it and they're very similar" and he said, "That'll do for me". I gave him the tape and heard no more from him for months and then I was working on a movie set doing extras and just gofers and doing everything like that, I rang up Ben Toney when this all finished, when the movie finished, and said I'd like to come and see you" and he said "no, I'd like you to come and see me, can you be here at twelve o'clock?". He said I'd like you to meet Philip Birch". Philip Birch shook my hand and said "welcome aboard" he said "I'm glad to see a nice looking, clean cut chap like yourself has come in to join us because there's some funny looking people around here" meaning Kenny Everett and Tony Windsor and Paul Kaye, who I didn't know at the time. Then he walked out, turned around and walked out again and I looked at Toney and I said "what's that mean?" and he said "well you start tomorrow" That was it, I got there and got on the late tender which was six hours late which wasn't unusual at that time of year, got on board the ship, Radio London, the MV Galaxy, and couldn't get off if I wanted to for three weeks because of the bad weather. And that's how my radio experience started.

What do you remember about going on board? The ship wasn't very comfortable in the early days I understand.
Well, having met the tender coming off and a very cold looking Tony Windsor coming off the ship who wasn't the least bit interested in seeing me or meeting me as a new person going on and a couple of others who looked a bit blue around the gills. I arrived on the ship and he said "be careful where you walk because some oil drums have split in the storm and spread oil all over and you might slip and slide off ", I then said "oh, that's fine, I can handle that" I never get sea-sick but it did shake around a little bit. The next day was even worse. There was a Captain on called Captain Vinegar who spoke very good English and I went to complain and I said I wanted a life jacket because the sea was so rough. I thought it was going to be dangerous, he said "come with me" and we went up to the steering deck up to the top, he said "see that gauge there?" and everything was kicking around banging and clunking and making noises, he said "see that gauge there? It's gone 25 degrees that side hasn't it?" as the ship rolled over, I said "yes" he said "now look at that" he said it's only going 15, it has to go 25 both ways before the ship will turn over". He said "now come downstairs and have a drink with me because you can't have a life jacket, there aren't enough to go around". So I started off on what became a very good relationship with the Captain because whenever I wanted anything he took me in and gave me another drink of sloe gin. So we got on very well together.

What do you remember about those early days, was there much mail coming into the station or was there much audience reaction?
I didn't get a lot of mail, I used to get some letters, I can remember one letter and unfortunately I lost it, I kept it for a long time from a girl in somewhere in Ipswich or Suffolk at least, wrote to me and said she had had this terrible argument with her mother because her mother was talking while she was listening to the news and her mother said "I don't understand it, it's the first time you've ever mentioned anything in the news, you take no interest whatsoever in the news" and she said "well I do now!" and then she said "but the real reason is I love the sound of your voice and that's why I've listened to the news" she said "I could listen to you talk about anything". And that was one of the letters I could talk about I suppose.

How did everybody get on onboard together because you were living you know on sort of a fairly, two weeks on, one week off, all living in a closed confined area. Did everybody get on alright or were there a few personality problems?
I think there were a few clashes but I was fairly amenable, I didn't take too much notice of what they did and also I didn't socialize with them in the week that I was off. Kenny Everett was too young, he wasn't quite into our set not in the first six months anyway or the first year and the rest of them we saw each other in the office and maybe lunchtime in the pub but not in the evenings. Then there was, after a while, a bigger mixture, but in the first six months of only eight of us working and going on and off we didn't really have time to get upset about anybody. I got on better with the crew I thought and the Captain because I could go for a drink and he thought that was the way to do it, you know be sociable with the crew. I was keeping in touch with them and generally not being English about it which went down much better with the crew because we still had a lot of English crew on at that stage.

Were you on board the day the USAF Phantom jet crashed into the North Sea close to Radio London?
Yes I was in the studio when this happened and I kept saying to them "well what's happening" and nobody would tell me because there was no communication between the upper deck and the lower bowels of the ship where we were and it took a long time to find out what was going on. And this bloke came down and then they didn't want to make a big thing of it they thought "oh don't, it's nothing special that happens all the time". They used to buzz us, I don't know how many of these jets used to buzz us every now and again and one of these jets kept flying by at nearly the speed of sound just a few hundred yards above and they were supposedly out doing their training it did give us a bit of a fright.

Do you look back on it and feel that it was a good moment in your career or not?
Well I don't know about being a good moment in the career but it was, I have done a lot of silly things in my life. But yes I enjoyed it and that's why I didn't stay as long as some of them did because the boredom level was reached fairly rapidly and because nothing much was changing. But it was good excitement, on the good days it was very good and the other days, well it was interesting.

You're remembered for London After Midnight, what do you remember of that programme?
Not a lot, trying to get an Aussie to write a signature tune for me, that's about it and he rapidly became the managing director of an advertising agency in London and then found out he had to work for a living doing that so he disappeared a few years later. But that's about all I can remember and getting the signature tune from him I think it was a John Shroeder production if I remember right, I can't even remember the name of it now. Yes, that's what I remember most about it, trying to find the right signature tune for doing it.

How did UKGM come about and why were you earmarked to organise it.
Well I think it really started when Philip Birch said "what would you do if you had another radio station, one that you could work yourself?" and I said I'd make it a Top 40 but slightly more middle of the road, go for a slightly older audience" he said "oh I was hoping you'd say something like that". Then Alan Keen said "we've got all these great records here we never play any great records on Top 40 stations because they're all pop records". So he said "we've got this idea to do on this fort in the Thames estuary, it's already operating but not operating very well and we've got an opportunity to take it over". So we go down to Whitstable with Reg Calvert, who owned this Radio City fort, or said he owned it and we were there and there was a photographer hanging about waiting and we get on with Keith Skues, myself, Dennis Maitland who was the sales manager and in control of the boats and things and Martin the engineer and Reg Calvert. We go down and get on this boat and we didn't realise this bloke taking all these photographs was up to anything, we thought "oh well there are photographers wherever we go", we go and have a look around we crawl up this fort, I wouldn't go up the lift, the hoist that they had because I thought it would snap at any time and break, and we crawl up this rusty old ladder and Skues said "Oh well I'm with you", so we go up and we finally get to the top or near the top and there's a few steps which were all, felt a bit loose and I was going very carefully and very gingerly up these things because they were about 80 feet above water I suppose. We reached the top and there's someone in a Rudy Nureyev blue costume, cap, jumper and tight jeans and he said "hello my name's Tom Edwards but everyone on here calls me mother". Two days later we open the morning paper and there's a photograph of Keith and myself and Martin the engineer and Reg Calvert "who was shot dead last night near his home in Essex" that's what they were all looking for and I was frightened to go out and I didn't go out for a couple of days 'till I found out what was going on, but there was a bit of an 'argy bargy' between him and... Reg Calvert and some of the other people. No one was ever found guilty of anything he was a strange chap anyway.

Did that result in the project being killed off?
Yes, literally, they still were determined to carry on, Alan Keen by that time was in charge of part of Radio London and he was determined for it to carry on and said "we've done all this, we've got the programmes, we've hired the equipment, bought the equipment it should go" and I said "I don't think it's going to work" but we were still having discussions and they were going to call it Radio London United or Radio London something and I said "no you can't do that, I'm not a musician, Alan Keen is and he can't have three beats to the bar if we're going to have some decent PAMS jingles made up we'll have four beats in there, it's got to be UKGM we're going to cover the country" and Philip Birch agreed with that and that was the last thing that ever happened, that I was involved in, UKGM and deciding we would call it UKGM.

Looking back do you feel that you were pleased to have been a part of it?
Oh yes, but I've got a long history of always getting in early to places and never being there when it starts, when it finished or even being there when the good times happen when all the money was being made, I always get in first I suppose, the pioneering spirit perhaps. But I did that with Radio London, started there and started with Radio 1, started with Greater London Radio

You started at Radio Northsea as well.
Well I did have a moment or two with Radio Northsea yes, that was another experiment.

How did that come about?
Rodney Collins who worked for the Record Mirror at the time, who I had met during my days of Radio London when he used to work in a local newspaper somewhere then introduced him to the editor of Record Mirror and he then became a columnist with Record Mirror. He said to me one day "you should go out and work on Radio Northsea I can fix you up with it, I've been in contact with the bloke" I said "I'm not too sure about that" and he said "well come out there with me this time because I'm going out they have invited me out", "how do we get there?", "oh we meet Roger Day at Gatwick and we fly over to Holland" I said "that's something interesting". We get over there, we arrive in Scheveningen you know, somewhere like that, stay overnight in a hotel because it's too stormy, get on this boat and the Swiss man in charge of it said "well you're not staying in the hotel another night because I'm not paying for you to stay there so you're getting on the boat". So we had a twelve hour journey across the North sea, Rodney Collins was green he turned absolutely green and he let go, we were standing on deck we were the only two left apart from the drunken Captain who weren't sea sick and he said "I can't take any more" and he let go and I grabbed hold of him by the scruff' of the neck and held him on the boat because he would have slipped off; it was all I could do. After that when it calmed down a bit I fell asleep myself ,rolled up somewhere in a corner, we had twelve hours of that and I thought "this must be absolute madness" got on Radio Northsea and I knew it was absolute madness. That was an interesting excursion which had nothing to do with radio I'm sure.

Duncan Johnson interview by Ray Anderson, All Copyrights reserved East Anglian Productions.