The day I took BBC Radio Suffolk off air in a temper, Nicholas Pandolfi interviewed
- Credit: Archant
Nicholas Pandolfi returns to the airwaves from Monday. He tells entertainment writer Wayne Savage why, sheds light on his BBC Radio Suffolk exit and why “local” matters.
You could easily lose an afternoon listening to Pandolfi’s stories. It’s a handy skill to have if you’re a radio presenter.
Spread out on a sofa at DanceEats, he talks about quitting Town 102 three years ago, why he’s returning to helm the drive-time slot from Monday, the – at that time – impending White Paper on the future of the BBC; even his infamous firing from BBC Radio Suffolk.
Whatever diversion we take, and there are many, he comes back to his love for Suffolk and what matters to those of us who live here.
“The reason I switch the radio on and buy the East Anglian Daily Times every day is because I want to know what’s going on. I want to disagree with what someone’s written in a column, I want to be made to think. Who are we to say local is better,” says the actor and voiceover artist, whose spoof of local radio phone-ins, Brian from Melton, earned him a phone call from Ridley Scott’s production company, looking for an introduction, and a serious editorial in one of the Sundays.
“That was the North London brigade thinking this is what we’re really like. It (local radio) is about human contact, a connection with the place you and I call home. When did Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour last mention Cobbold Road in Felixstowe? I know I’m not necessarily atypical, but I have a genuine passion for Suffolk and always have.”
He even loves the way its inhabitants keep each other in their place.
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“Anyone who ever gets any ideas above their station is levelled out, not with rudeness but with just very calm collected comments. When I started as a child actor (he played Matthew Cartwright in 12 episodes of the BBC children’s television series Grange Hill in the early 1980s) and came back to Felixstowe, a couple of parents of the people I was at school with said ‘well, we’d never watch that nonsense’ and then go on to relay the entire scene. I think ‘you did... you know it better than I do; were you in the studio?’,” he laughs.
“I remember getting a text from somebody annoyed I’d made a competition too easy. It read ‘Pandolfi, you’re a complete muppet’. I thought I should be offended but I’m just grateful they spelled my name correctly; they’re paying attention.”
He’s worked with some of the best and some nightmares, citing Peter Kay’s Car Share and Alan Partridge as brilliantly accurate portrayals of some of radio’s rampant egos.
His reason for leaving Town 102 FM’s breakfast slot in 2013 was much simpler. He didn’t like getting up at 4am.
“When you work in radio, people assume everyone’s ego is so huge you’ve got to have the main show of the day. Well, I never wanted to do that. I always wanted a nice afternoon show. They don’t believe you.”
Pandolfi wanted to get out of bed at a normal time, find out what’s going on in the world, do a bit of work, head home, have breakfast and stay up as long as he wanted.
“The easy part was on air... The marketing, going to every event possible, often with toothpaste still on your chin because no-one had bothered to tell you at four in the morning when it’s a bit dark, ‘I’ve come dressed with Colgate’.... Hair literally out here and looking slightly dazed. Dealing with people saying ‘I don’t like you anyway; I listen to Radio One or Two’. You think plumbers don’t get this; they come, mend your boiler – they don’t get ‘we prefer the plumber down the road. He had the right attitude. Look at you coming in here with your trousers,” he laughs.
When he left, he’d done what he’d set out to do. Listening figures were up, but his creative juices were flagging. Stuck in a wheel of repetition, he was worried about becoming a cliché of himself.
“If you’re in a creative industry, unless you’re a genius you can’t (keep) doing the same thing every day. I’ve never understood how soap actors do it; they’re great actors but they’re not really acting. Audiences get tired and I was getting tired of it.
“Remembering what I’d spied 20 years ago, that if I became one of those people who start thinking the industry’s not as good as it once was, that’s when you get off the bus. Not wait to be pushed off, bitter twisted, angry.
“I lost loads of my heroes this year, but my broadcast hero was Terry Wogan. I was lucky enough to meet him once; I don’t think I said anything remotely interesting, I just gulped and smiled like a nervous child on a school trip. His delivery and ease of way... If you can replicate that on air, even though there’s loads going on around you... When you switch the radio on no-one’s interested in what sort of day you’ve had; you’re there to make them feel better.”
I bring up the late Sir Terry being lambasted in the run-up to Eurovision, accused of spoiling the contest by mocking the acts.
“Eurovision devalues itself. What he did was add a line of entertainment the same way Graham Norton does. If you had a commentator who was completely straight, you’d watch it for five minutes and switch off. We are brilliantly British; we look at something and from our island position we point and laugh in the same way the French point and laugh with us with regards to our appalling food and dress sense. We don’t invade each other any more; we point and laugh, and that’s probably healthier.”
Pandolfi admits to feeling like he always had something to prove in those early days. He recalls, while working at the EADT’s sister paper, the Ipswich Star, a journalist referring to him as a “showbiz turn”. He doesn’t think it was meant as a compliment, but took it as one nonetheless.
“Twenty years on I’ve realised, now, I’m doing it because I enjoy it, I’m doing it for me and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
Switching tack to his Town 102 return, he says it’s a rarity having a former boss he still speaks to.
“I always joke I’m not normally invited anywhere twice. I joke, but there’s probably some truth in it.”
Which brings us to his mysterious exit from BBC Radio Suffolk nearly 10 years ago.
“My half-Italian blood kicked in and I took the radio station off air in a fit of temper,” he confesses, recounting his side of the story which, in fairness to the other parties and me not wanting to spend an afternoon tied up talking to lawyers, I can’t share.
“I’d just won presenter of the year award and I had to go to Norwich for a serious disciplinary management hearing. (They asked) ‘what would you do?’ and I thought ‘you’re the one in management. I’m the freelance showbiz turn, love. You tell me’.
“I behaved inappropriately and the BBC did the right thing. I thought I’m going to be like some cursed radio presenter – ‘that’s him; he’s the bloke who takes radio stations off air’. I’m fully responsible for my own actions. Do I regret it? No. Would I do it again? Yes. That’s not me being bombastic, bolshy or trying to impress you with my stupidity, because people say ‘what an idiot. Did you learn nothing from your mistakes?’ I learned: if you don’t stand up for yourself, no-one will.”
Leaving BBC Radio Suffolk was the best thing that ever happened to him, although it was horrific at the time. It catapulted him into commercial local radio.
“I became a whole new dancing donkey that could do a whole new bunch of tricks.”
That said, he loves the BBC, describing it as a power of good for Britain.
“I think it’s a wounded beast and I fear there isn’t really the will for it to be protected in the way it once would have been. That’s a huge shame because it’s an amazing organisation that puts Britain on the map. Life without it would be poorer. However, I remember the 1992 TV changes and when the regional franchise of ITV was broken up by the then Government,” he adds, as we discuss the Government’s tinkering.
“ITV is a poorer place today. Thirty years ago, jobbing actors like me would’ve got on the train at Liverpool Street and got a job in Tales of the Unexpected at Anglia, a huge production house now whittled down to little more than a news programme a day. When I was at uni they had quality journalism on ITV: World in Action, This Week. You don’t see things like that now.
“They’ve broken it before and will break it again. I think the BBC will probably be a far smaller, less effective organisation, and that’s a real shame. They don’t get everything right. But if we’re referring to bias within the BBC, if I look on Twitter I see people from the right saying it’s bias and people from the left saying it’s bias, which says to me they’re probably getting it spot on,” he laughs.
Pandolfi probably wouldn’t have dabbled with BBC 3 and BBC 4, but is sufficiently old enough to remember when BBC2 used to have an arts remit, broadcasting opera and groundbreaking stuff. Rather than parking it on a new channel, he feels it was a waste of money.
“That was silly; that was vanity. They were concerned they didn’t have enough platforms, so they spend money and... I would make it (the BBC) smaller. I would certainly have it aimed at entertaining all. It’s an organisation that can have political debate, can bring the nation together around someone baking a cake and can put drama like Poldark or Wolf Hall on, so why would you want to tamper with that, really?
“When I was in radio, the talent was always on air... There’s an awful lot of management in the BBC. I’d get rid of that. Are people’s wants in Lincolnshire exactly the same as they are in Cornwall, Devon, Shropshire and Suffolk? No. So I’d let radio stations run themselves from the bottom up.”
His philosophy is: if you can make the audience smile, you’re getting there. If you make them laugh out loud, brilliant. If you can get them to switch on the next day, job done.
“I’m looking forward to returning because the ability to go on the radio and perform, entertain, is what I was doing when I was seven – when I insisted my aunty Sue sit down and I would put on a show for her. She was a blood relative, so used to clap.”