'He always had integrity' - Why John Peel was such a hero of mine
In his latest On Air in Suffolk column, broadcaster Stephen Foster pays tribute to the late, great John Peel.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time is something that I learnt very quickly. My style of radio presentation isn’t to everyone’s liking (whose is?) but I’d like to think when I open the microphone fader I’m still Stephen Foster.
During the Radio Broadland takeover of Radio Orwell and Saxon Radio in 1990 my new boss Mike Stewart urged me to put more of a smile in my voice. I knew what he meant and also knew I’d have real trouble talking with an imaginary coat hanger in my mouth.
At that point I realised I’d better start looking for a new job and thankfully within weeks I found one at a more suitable place for my broadcasting style - BBC Radio Suffolk.
One of my radio heroes is the late, great John Peel, a man who certainly did things his way. He always had integrity and remains a huge influence on me to this very day. I was lucky enough to get to know John. I interviewed him several times, the most memorable chat with him coming on 29 May 2000.
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Why do I remember the exact date? How could I forget it? It was the day Ipswich Town beat Barnsley at Wembley to secure a place in the top flight of English football.
Our interview wasn’t underneath the twin towers, it was on a wall outside the Woolworths department store in Bury St Edmunds. We were both working for the BBC covering a Music Live event which happened to coincide with one of the most prestigious games in Town’s history.
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I’ve been a Town fan since 1969 and Liverpool diehard John and his wife Sheila had been regulars at Portman Road since their move to Suffolk in 1971.
You can imagine how bitterly disappointed we both were to be missing out on the club’s big day. We were far from happy to be stuck in Bury St Edmunds (nothing against Bury I hasten to add) although the result later that day certainly cheered us up.
John’s sudden death four years later while holidaying in Peru was one of the saddest days of my life. I attended his funeral at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and was in tears as I reported live on the occasion for BBC Radio Suffolk.
The John Peel legacy lives on in so many different ways. Locally, Sheila helped set up a venue in his name in Stowmarket and in 2017 she unveiled a blue plaque in the village of Great Finborough. In the run up to that ceremony I was invited to Peel Acres where I interviewed Sheila about her husband’s brilliant career and his life in Suffolk.
We recorded the chat in John’s studio which also houses part of his his enormous music collection. It's a room with the most beautiful view of the countryside. Is it any wonder John preferred to do his Radio One shows from there rather than drive into London?
While I was having coffee with Sheila at Peel Acres I noticed my favourite picture of her husband on the kitchen wall. It was Sir Peter Blake's magnificent portrait of him which the artist did in 2006.
I’m a big believer in being true to yourself. Make the very best of who you are and what you stand for. Try to improve your shortcomings, build on the positives and most importantly treat people with respect. Those are all qualities John Peel had in abundance.
It was always a pleasure being in his company. While music and broadcasting were a huge part of his life he never forgot his roots and his beloved family. What an honour for Suffolk that he chose to spend so much of his life here and that he was laid to rest in the village which meant so much to him.