Mark Radcliffe

‘The spectacle of Glastonbury never quite wears off,’ says Mark Radcliffe, wistfully. ‘Standing up there, from where we do the TV coverage, looking over the site, it’s an amazing thing. It’s like fairyland, really. You check out of the normal rules of the world for three days. And I think it will feel even more like that for me this year because, you know, if the cancer had had its way, I wouldn’t be here at all.’

Weekend is talking to the much-loved broadcaster as he prepares for his first Glasto TV shift since surgeons removed a lump the size of an apple from his neck, and a second, walnut-sized tumour from the back of his tongue (his wife Bella joked that it was ‘practically a Waldorf salad’).

Without an early diagnosis, he was told, the cancer would have killed him ‘in months, not years’. After an intensive course of radiotherapy, the 60-year-old endured an uncertain Christmas and winter, one that left him feeling emotionally off-kilter. But he was back at work in February and, when Weekend catches up with him the day after his latest hospital check-up, he’s full of beans.

‘I’m really great,’ he says. ‘In some ways, it’s hard not to be a little bit over-zealous, because it just feels like life has started over again. I recently went to Turkey to my daughter’s wedding and gave her away in the sunshine, which was great after a long, dark winter. It’s hard to get away from the clichés, but it does make you re-evaluate things.

‘And I’m really enjoying not working every day. This is my 40th year in radio, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy things, and not be in such a rush. I’m doing the weekend breakfast show on 6 Music [co-hosted by Weekend music critic Stuart Maconie], and my Radio 2 folk show, and just other bits and pieces that I fancy.’

Hence Glastonbury, where he’ll be introducing the likes of Stormzy, The Cure, Kylie and Janet Jackson to viewers who prefer to experience the world’s greatest music festival from the comfort of their sofas. Presumably he won’t be slumming it in a two-man tent either?

‘I usually stay in a pub in Street,’ he reveals. ‘But I’ve done it all sorts of ways. I have camped, I’ve rented a little sort of Hobbit house for me and the wife and kids. I’ve never had a luxury hotel or a yurt with butler service. But we did have a motorhome one year.’

Born and raised in Bolton, Radcliffe began his career at Manchester Piccadilly Radio. He moved to Radio 1 as a producer for John Peel, and later took over the station’s weeknight graveyard slot in partnership with ex-Fall guitarist Marc ‘The Boy Lard’ Riley, mixing an alternative music playlist with irreverent, deadpan comedy, poetry readings and a general air of agreeably ramshackle nonsense.

In 1997, when Chris Evans walked out of the Radio 1 Breakfast Show in a row over hours, station controller Matthew Bannister decided that Mark and Lard’s brand of lugubrious northern irony would be the perfect fit for the biggest, most prestigious radio show in Europe.

A droll, lo-fi antidote to the usual hyperactive zoo of breakfast radio, Mark and Lard (the latter in the role of idiot stooge) spent the mornings bickering their way through such deliberately shonky items as Dobbins or Bobbins (in which listeners had to separate the names of racehorses from made-up gibberish) and barber-based quiz Trivial Hirsute.

For those of us who prided ourselves on being in on the joke (a group that apparently included then-PM Tony Blair, who asked to meet Mark and Lard during a visit to Radio 1), it was the greatest radio show of all time. Sadly, not enough people agreed and, with, ratings in freefall, they were hastily replaced by Zoe Ball.

‘We didn’t want to do it,’ explains Radcliffe. ‘I do believe Matthew had a choice between us and Ant and Dec. I’ve never had that officially confirmed, but it seems to me he made entirely the wrong choice…

‘I don’t think it ever occurred to us – perhaps in our naivety, perhaps in our arrogance, I don’t know – that it wouldn’t work,’ he admits. ‘We thought we’d be a very down-to-earth, very different alternative to Chris Evans, who’d become, by his own admission, sort of a showbiz monster. We were an alternative, but clearly not one that people wanted.

‘But I do think there’s something rather glorious about failure on that epic a scale. Just failure in front of so many people. It was kind of character building, really. Like a public execution.’

In their new afternoon berth, Mark and Lard enjoyed huge, triple Sony Award-winning success, before going their separate ways (Radio 2 for Radcliffe, 6 Music for Riley) in 2004. One of that vanishingly rare breed of DJs who’s a music fan first and a showbiz personality second (even if he did once win Celebrity Stars in their Eyes as a mewling Shane McGowan), over the years Radcliffe has been privileged to meet many of his rock heroes, including Kate Bush – the famously reclusive singer invited him to her house for cheese flan – and, on numerous occasions, David Bowie.

‘I don’t think anything will ever get better than David Bowie, because he was the first person who really spoke to me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘I bought the Ziggy Stardust album when I was 14, with money from my paper round, and it’s still a very odd feeling to see that record spinning round on national radio. It seems like that record has stayed the same, while my life has completely changed around it.

‘David Bowie seemed so remote a figure to me when I was a kid, just the biggest star in the world. So to get to the point where he knew me, even slightly, was kind of amazing. I met him seven or eight times, we introduced him a few times on stage, and he even gave me a quote for the front of one of my books.’ 

He recalls another memorable day when ‘there was just me and Paul McCartney, sitting in Abbey Road, where The Beatles recorded all that stuff. You’re sitting there with him playing Blackbird in front of you, three feet away. Incredible.’

Incredible, perhaps, but Radcliffe – who still fronts his own folk band – fancied himself a bit of a pop star himself in his youth, and later chronicled his various doomed attempts to establish a musical career in his book Showbusiness: The Diary of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Nobody. Is there a part of him that still feels playing records is a poor relation to making them? Or have things turned out okay?

‘I would say both those things are true,’ he reflects. ‘There’s nothing quite like the feeling that you’ve created your own art. But perhaps, in a highfalutin way, I might think that some of the radio shows I’ve done have been quite interesting.’

Plus, he scraped a top 20 hit with The Shirehorses, his and Riley’s ‘indie Barron Knights’, providing spoof versions of songs by the likes of Babybird (‘You’re Gormless’) and Placebo (‘Lardy Boy’). And he even got to play drums for Macca during a radio session. ‘It was only for one song,’ he says. ‘But no-one can ever say I didn’t do it.’

Musicians, in Weekend’s experience, can sometimes be tough interviewees – partly because the process of making music, with months of twiddling knobs in the studio, isn’t necessarily conducive to good anecdotage. But also because many rockers prefer to affect a sort of studied, taciturn nonchalance – as if the whole process of talking about their work is somehow beneath them. 

‘Funnily enough, it’s often the biggest people, who have nothing to prove, who tend to have moved beyond that,’ ponders Radcliffe. ‘Bowie always had a very playful sense of humour – he was always very chummy, never remotely starry or stand-offish. McCartney, too. They just liked to have fun.’

At the other end of the spectrum was Radcliffe and Maconie’s famously excruciating 2016 6 Music interview with an unresponsive, monosyllabic Father John Misty. ‘I’m still not quite sure what happened there,’ says Radcliffe. ‘It was like we’d massively offended him, without meaning to, and it just went awry very quickly. Stuart was really angry. I was kind of bemused, really. But I did see him again, and he did apologise. I think he said he’d been an absolute wretch. He gave me a big hug, so I thought, fine, let’s move on.’

It used to be said that rock and roll was a young man’s game. As a grandfather who’ll turn 61 over the Glastonbury weekend, shouldn’t Radcliffe really have grown out of all this by now?

‘I suppose at one point people expected that we would, didn’t they?’ he musues. ‘People thought you’d listen to pop until you were maybe in your 30s, then perhaps you’d move onto a bit of Mantovani, and eventually on to Mahler or something. But you’ve got people from the first generation of rock and roll, like Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones, who are still doing it, so why would you stop listening to it?

‘You’ll never replicate the excitement of those records and bands that hit you square between the eyes when you were 14, 15, 16. Seeing David Bowie at the Manchester Hard Rock for a pound in 1973 was as exciting as anything could possibly be. But there’s still a hunger for hearing new things you haven’t heard before. If you like films, you watch the latest films, if you like food you experiment with new recipes and new restaurants. I think as you get older, it’s important to retain that. I mean, what a depressing thought that would be – that everything you’ve ever liked, eaten, heard or seen is in the past.

‘When I started out, I made a deal with myself,’ he adds. ‘I said, if I could do anything that dealt with music, then I wouldn’t worry about the money too much: if I could afford a hatchback car and a semi-detached house, and have a job I enjoyed, then I’d settle for that. 

‘As it is, it’s worked out a bit better than that.’

An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 27 June, 2019

(c) Waitrose Weekend