Laughter, Tears and Applause at Peelie's Farewell
Friday, 12th November; sunny but with a distinct chill in the air, a chill not just down to the late-autumn temperature.
As the 10.00am Norwich to London train eased out of platform 2, round the tight right-hand curve and clattered over the Wensum swing-bridge - a route I'd travelled a million times before - I mused over my first ever, face-to-face, encounter with John Peel some eleven-and-a-half years previously. Today, I was outward-bound with the sad, sad mission of saying "Goodbye" at his funeral in Bury St Edmunds Cathedral of St. James. I was compelled - I had no choice in the matter. Back in 1993 I was actually working a lunch-time London train as the guard and, quite possibly, the same rolling stock in which I now sat; there being only ten loco-hauled sets plying the route, after all.
On that particular summer day, we got as far as Chelmsford - actually into the station as luck would have it - but then all forward propulsion ceased. The 'road' ahead, it seemed, was blocked so we waited and we waited and we waited...By the time I stepped-out on to the platform, a perplexed J.P. was already pacing up and down, anxiously looking for a telephone.
It transpired he was on his way to have that all-important, initial interview with the newly appointed Controller of Radio One. With the benefit of hindsight, I now assume this meeting was with Matthew Bannister who, during the ensuing weeks of 'the long knives', saw off such personalities as Dave Lee-Travis, Simon Bates, Gary Davies, Bruno Brookes, and Co. - the 'old school', in fact. This was Bannister's endeavour to revitalise his flagging Station that was being disparagingly but, fairly accurately, caricatured by Whitehouse and Enfield's spoof D.J's 'Smashie' and 'Nicey'.
Obviously - though the listening public weren't necessarily aware of the hatchet job taking place at this point in time - this had got to be pretty well a crucial and pivotal afternoon in Peel's broadcasting career. Blissfully unaware of the 'bloody' drama being played-out, there and then, at Broadcasting House I was, never-the-less, delighted to volunteer the use of the mobile phone in my brake van to enable John to outline his dilemma, offer his profuse apologies and postpone the meeting with his new boss at the Beeb.
Any hopes of reaching Liverpool Street being abandoned, our train was rescheduled as a 'return working' and he and I shared the guards van back as far as Stomp3rket. During this extremely relaxed yet auspicious (for me, at least) homeward journey we naturally chatted about music and I did pose the inevitable question as to whether it was true or a myth that he invariably broke-down on hearing 'The Undertone's' Teenage Kicks. "True!" I went on to say that their, My Perfect Cousin, ranked amongst my all-time favourites. No sycophancy on my part, I hasten to add, it genuinely did and still does to this day.
It's now around ten-thirty p.m. on Friday - two or three nights later - and I'm driving home along Norwich Riverside having worked the same 'diagrammed' InterCity service all week. Car radio tuned into Radio One, I suddenly become focused on Peelie's voice cutting through the ether - "...This is for the 'chief guard' who saved my bacon on the way to London the other day...My Perfect Cousin". Amazed, I just had to make it home asap, ring the studio and ask for my joyful gratitude to be passed on to him.
On being patched through I was met with John's voice answering the extension. Completely taken aback I spluttered "Christ, I thought your producer would answer the phone, not you
"This is late night BBC - don't expect the luxury of a producer, everyone went home hours ago" came his chuckling but deliberate, soft delivery. A bond had been formed.
Numerous meetings and lots of laughter were to follow. He didn't travel first class so I would come across him in coach 'C', if anywhere, as it offered the relative seclusion of airline style seating. He would greet me with " I was waiting for you to come along (to check the tickets) - I heard your voice over the p.a." A roll-reversal if ever there was one. One particular evening approaching Christmas-time, he appeared a little bit 'down' and, concerned, I asked after his welfare. "Oh, I've been to a showbiz party. You know - Dawn French and the likes. Not my choice of how to spend an evening but my agent/producer thought I should go along for appearances sake".
"Do you want to come up front with the driver "
"Come on then!" I ordered.
All intentions of my doing any tickets were forgotten at that point. He was beside himself with glee and we just couldn't shut him up. He reflected on his time in The States and related how, on more than one occasion, he finished up in casualty as a result of his young Texan wife roughing him up, to the point where he became something of a cult figure with his fellow Yankee out-patients - drunks, brawlers, etc. They would exclaim, "Your wife beats you, Wow, Man Hey listen-up - this guy's wife beats him!" Travelling into the night at 100 mph - nose pressed up against the windscreen - he confessed to how scared he was of flying (though Andy Kershaw claims it was really a fear of paying for flying!). He even recalled how he met his beloved wife Sheila.
"...Our Tom won't believe this...Tom will be so jealous..." Something told me I had made somebody's day...
And now fast forward to the present. I, along with one or two other obvious mourners and members of the media, alighted at Stomp3rket to catch the on-going connection to Bury which comprised a single coach "Scud" diesel rail-car - with all seats already taken. The platform, following a subsequent arrival from London, by then had taken on the appearance of a living 'Who's Who ' and as we squeezed aboard this mobile Tardis I was huddled - nay, compressed - against Andy Kershaw, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Gambaccini and Tom Robinson to mention but a few - the latter of whom we had to plead with the lady conductor to allow aboard as she had drawn a line the wrong side of Tom for safety's sake in case of emergency evacuation. Tell me, could one soul - especially the singer of 2-4-6-8 Motorway and War Baby, really have made that much difference
The short trip was light hearted and good humoured - Mr Gambaccini suggesting that we occupy the luggage racks " As did Gene Pitney on crowded trains". We spilled out at Bury where the town taxis were having a field day. "Can we share " enquired a young woman who, it turned out, was a reporter for an in-house BBC magazine. "Too sodding right you can", I thought to myself, bearing in mind my strong aversion to paying cab fares. She even picked up the tab on her expenses. Fate was indeed endorsing my ongoing plans for the day.
As the crowds of well-wishers and celebrities alike poured into the Cathedral Close we were channelled according to rank/guest list. I took my place in the queue hoping for one of the coveted remaining 300 seats inside - 600 places already having been given over to family and friends. Needless to say, the ever-growing crowd was very upbeat and some bloke claimed it was more akin to a festival than a funeral. Everyone within earshot concurred.
I chatted with people who had come from Newcastle, Kent, Brighton and beyond - some travelling overnight in the need to pay their respects and say "Cheerio". All sectors of society appeared to be represented - quite elderly, matronly ladies in tweeds, business-suited individuals, ageing punks and goths, with ironmongery penetrating their facial flesh, and one or two poor souls whose threadbare clothing barely clung to their backs. Some - men in particular - were openly weeping. My theory is that, every-so-often, there comes a need for people to vent emotional safety valves and events such as this, and Princess Di's passing for instance, act as a catalyst to such needs.
As the time approached one-o'clock it was obvious that there was no further room in the church but, on reflection, I'm rather glad that I had to remain outside because we then didn't suffer the inhibitions imposed by a place of worship. I do stress, nevertheless, that all present held the utmost of respect for the occasion.
A ripple of distant applause gradually grew closer and louder- almost like an audible 'Mexican Wave' - as it traced the path of the two hearses and family cortege towards the south door of St James, until clapping and cheering filled the whole sprawling church yard. John could have been running through the players' tunnel, with the Liverpool team, and on to the turf of his exalted 'Kop'. By now the drizzle had turned to rain but no-one left, we just shrank further into our turned-up collars.
The service details have been widely reported in all of the media so there's no need to touch on that but it was a light affair as Peelie would have wanted with both extremely touching as well as humorous moments throughout its one hour, twenty-five minute duration. I must make space to mention the two pieces performed by Stomp3rket Choral Society - of which Sheila is a member. The two works were superbly sung and beautifully haunting. The thing that seemed to bring everybody down to earth was John's voice in an audio pastiche of snippets from his various programmes, plus the Liverpool F.C. anthem, as he and his family returned to the waiting cars. I guess it's not very often that the word 'bugger', as spoken by him in the transcript, is approvingly relayed in any church, let alone, a cathedral! The final climax to all of this though was, as expected, his song - Teenage Kicks which, I freely admit, completely demolished me yet drew the loudest cheers from his 'supporters'.
What a spectacle as the official parties filed out - the list of names and personalities that I did have chance to recognise was truly incredible. The flamboyance - especially at a time such as this; the men - yes - but it's an acknowledged fact, isn't it, that women look their sexiest and most alluring in hats, mourning-black, and heels
If, as we would wish, there is a 'great beyond' then, bet your life, Peel's already got himself a late night slot on "Radio Hereafter".
"Are teenage dreams so hard to beat
So long, Mate.
Article written and kindly donated to Radio Rewind by Mick Peters.