Last week, after the final show in the current season of “Upstart Crow”, my wife and I were having a conversation which led me to reflect on how good Jonathan Ross’s old radio programme was. For a few years, until around 2009, it occupied the Saturday late-morning slot (10am till 1pm) on BBC Radio 2, and was a highlight of the listening week. The thousand words that follow record how we moved from chatting about a new comedy on BBC2 to reflections about a radio show from ten years ago.
“Upstart Crow”, in case you missed it (Monday nights, immediately after “University Challenge”), is scripted by Ben Elton and has just finished its second series. (It’s available on the iPlayer, here, for another 19 days.) David Mitchell plays Shakespeare and each 30-minute episode focuses on a specific aspect of the playwright’s life or one of the plays. It is consistently funny. There are plenty of jokes to be made about the plays, about the times, about actors and politics then and now. This week the subject was “Romeo and Juliet” and one of the lines, about a sausage, has had us laughing ever since. There are some familiar faces in the cast. Liza Tarbuck plays Shakespeare’s wife, Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox play his parents. My wife knew less about Paula Wilcox than she did about the other actors. I explained that she had starred in the ITV sitcom “Man about the house”. I am more familiar with the show than my wife is. I spent more childhood hours watching TV than she did, and she spent more childhood hours practising violin and flute than I did.
“Man about the house” featured Robin (Richard O’Sullivan) sharing a flat with Chrissy (Paula Wilcox) and Jo (Sally Thomsett, who we knew from “The Railway Children”). They rented their place from the couple downstairs, Mr and Mrs Roper (Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce), who would later have their own spin-off sitcom “George and Mildred”. (In my household we recognized Yootha Joyce from an earlier comedy called “Me Mammy”, which starred Milo O’Shea.)
It was while describing Richard O’Sullivan and his later show “Robin’s Nest” (also a spin-off from “Man about the house”) that a theme from a Jonathan Ross radio show came to mind. He (Ross) would discuss topics with his producer and throw them open for comments from the listeners. Texts, calls and emails would come in and the show would run with them. One week he introduced a topic with something along these lines. “I’ve got a great idea for a new TV series … We’ve got “Strictly Come Dancing”, right, big hit for the BBC. How about this? It’s another show for Saturday evenings. We’ll call it “Strictly 70s Crumpet”. It’ll feature all those lovelies from 1970s TV shows, people like Anoushka Hempel and Gabriella Drake. Viewers can vote for their favourites. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but what do you think of it as an idea?” The producer sounded unimpressed. Ross continued, explaining that it wasn’t just “for the fellas”, there’d be something for “the ladies” as well. There’d be guys like Patrick Mower and Nicholas Ball (who played “Hazell”), Trevor Eve perhaps. He opened it up for suggestions from the listeners. As I recall, various names were suggested throughout the rest of the show: Sally James, Lynsey de Paul, Madeline Smith, Paul Nicholas. My wife and I were listening and I joked about sending a message in, nominating people that hadn’t been suggested yet, like Kate Nelligan or Hannah Gordon.
This was around 2007 and the phrase “Strictly 70s Crumpet” has come to mind from time to time ever since. Richard O’Sullivan would probably have been a suitable candidate for the show, if it had ever been made. He was right up there with Patrick Mower and Nicholas Ball. Discussing Richard O’Sullivan was what led me, last week, to remind my wife of the “Strictly 70s Crumpet” theme from that Jonathan Ross radio show, and reflect on the show in general. I recalled that O’Sullivan’s co-star in “Robin’s Nest” was Tessa Wyatt, Mrs Tony Blackburn at the time, or maybe they had already separated. Was her name put forward by any of the listeners on Jonathan Ross’s show? Quite possibly. I remember, vividly, a friend discussing “Robin’s Nest” one morning at school, around 1980. Had we seen the previous night’s episode, he asked, had we seen Tessa Wyatt wrapped up in the bedclothes and, for all he could tell, topless? For once I hadn’t watched it, but he had clearly seen her in a new light. He didn’t go “Phwoar” or make any crude 1970s gestures, but he was clearly taken by her.
Ross’s Saturday morning radio show fizzled out sometime in 2009, after the furore that followed the ill-advised messages left by him and Russell Brand on Andrew Sachs’s answering machine. In the immediate aftermath of that incident the show continued for a while, pre-recorded rather than live, but it wasn’t the same. Without the interaction with his audience the show was no longer the radio highlight of the week. I no longer arranged my Saturday mornings to allow me to hear as much of it as possible. Around 2007 I had discovered that other people I knew were doing the same thing, they spent their time cleaning the house or preparing lunch between 10am and 1pm so that they could listen to the radio at the same time. For me, long drives up the M1 to Leeds to watch the football had been made more enjoyable by being able to listen to all three hours uninterrupted, apart from a quick break at Leicester Forest Service Station. The guests on the show were different from the chat-show on TV, not just there to plug their latest movie or comedy tour. There were writers who would never have been invited onto the TV show. The interviews were more in-depth, the bands (playing live during the last hour) were more edgy and interesting.
That whole idea of “Strictly 70s Crumpet” was just a bit of fun, the subject of a single radio show, or maybe two, and I hope that has come across in this piece. Clearly the idea didn’t take off. If you use the world’s most popular search engine to find the phrase, in quotes (either as “Strictly 70s Crumpet” or “Strictly Seventies Crumpet”), there are no matches. If those three words have ever appeared as a single phrase on any website there is no easy way to find it. Ten years have passed since the idea was floated so if anyone were interested now maybe it would have to be updated. I have no idea who would be eligible for “Strictly 80s Crumpet”. Some of us are still stuck in the 1970s, or (when it comes to Saturday morning radio) in 2007.