From JB Priestley to Chris Evans: radio audiences love a northerner | Ian Jack

Evans’ departure from Radio 2 made headlines. But it was northern broadcasters of the 1940s who ended the reign of RP

What happens when a newspaper’s star writer – today that tends to mean a columnist – decides to jump ship for more money or more interesting work? So far as the newspaper he or she leaves behind is concerned, almost nothing at all. Even in the days when big circulations made print journalists more consequential figures, the most that could be expected was a farewell party in a pub a speech by a colleague naming the 10 things the departing writer was never heard to say (“Just a small lemonade for me please” – laughter), and, if he or she were especially liked in the composing room, a ritual “banging out”, in which typesetters and page makeup men made a racket with their tools.

But all this was in private. In public, a writer’s name would vanish in one paper to reappear in another; the waters, as it were, would close over their head in one place and part again when they bobbed up elsewhere. It would have been considered unbusinesslike – commercial folly – for a newspaper to draw attention to a writer’s departure when that writer could now be read in a rival.

The BBC does things differently. On Monday, the presenter Chris Evans announced he was leaving his Radio 2 breakfast show to host a rival breakfast show for Virgin Radio. That day’s BBC bulletins featured the news prominently, together with archive recordings that illustrated his anarchic broadcasting style. He told his morning audience he was leaving because “some of us are mountain climbers, and if you get to the top of your favourite mountain, you become a mountain observer, so I’ve got to keep climbing … I’m gonna go and go and go again, and start off on a brand new adventure”.

Money wasn’t mentioned, but the facts are roughly these. In the tax year ending April 2017, the BBC paid him at least £2.2m, but that sum included part of his fee as the short-lived replacement for Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear; in the most recent tax year, his BBC earnings dropped to £1.66m, which still made him the second highest BBC earner after Gary Lineker. Newspapers suggested that Virgin may be paying him £2m. would certainly be a worthwhile reason for a 52-year-old to set off up another mountain.

The BBC’s fulsomeness towards its departing star was puzzling. On a good day, his show can attract more than 9 million listeners: no radio show in Europe has as large an audience. The whole of Virgin Radio’s output, on the other hand, draws only 413,000 listeners a week. If Evans is to be Virgin’s saviour, therefore, he’ll need to bring a good part of his old audience with him. BBC executives had warned the government that publishing the earnings of its highest-paid employees was a “poacher’s charter” that would help rival broadcasters woo its most attractive performers. Was the BBC’s celebration of Evans’s qualities just a way of saying “We told you so”? Or was it recognition that Evans’s popularity puts him in a special category, beyond mere commercial concerns, as the most popular radio personality of our day?

Born in Warrington and trained in Manchester local radio, Evans comes from the right background, geographically. The demotic radio personality as a type – the man o’ the people – came out of northern England in the early years of the second world war. Until that point, the BBC had spoken in the voice of the southern ruling classes – newsreaders togged up in evening dress to read the evening bulletins is not just a fiction – while popular culture was served by dance bands and the politer kind of comedian.

The novelist JB Priestley attacked British broadcasting for its complacency in the face of effective Nazi propagandists such as Lord Haw-Haw. What was needed, he wrote, was “a little less Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a little more Gracie Fields”. His own broadcasts moved the BBC in that direction, both in what he said and the Yorkshire voice he said it in, though his influence on other broadcasters may have been his greater legacy. According to Edward Stourton, a historian of the wartime BBC, he made a crucial contribution to the BBC’s new understanding of the medium in a corporation document called Hints for Broadcast Speakers. The microphone, Priestley wrote, “immensely magnifies insincerity or the least suggestion of condescension. Therefore the speaker should try to say what he really thinks and feels, and also give the impression that he is earnestly addressing his equals.”

Pompous opening should also be avoided: there was pleasure for the listener “in turning a knob”.

But it was another Yorkshire broadcaster, Wilfred Pickles, who performed the single most revolutionary act, by saying at the end of his first midnight news bulletin: “Good night to you all – and to all northerners wherever you may be, good neet!” Pickles was the first national newsreader to speak with a northern accent, and his performance caused a sensation in the press.

In 1941, it turned Pickles into a national name, though more lasting celebrity came later with his weekly programme Have a Go, which began in 1946 and was a feature – sometimes divisive – of British family life for the next two decades. In its celebration of “ordinary people”, there was something of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal about it, and its quiz format (it was the first British show to give away prizes) had American roots. Anyone who was sentient in the 1950s will remember the questions Pickles always put to selected members of his audiences in village halls and factory canteens (“Are yer coortin?” “What was yer most embarrassing moment?”), as well as that to his wife (“What’s on the table, Mabel?”). Over the course of the show’s life, Pickles and his team travelled 250,000 miles through Britain, presenting (as the show’s slogan had it) the people to the people.

He was a much bigger phenomenon than Chris Evans – Pickles could command more than double the audience – and he worked harder, for smaller rewards, though they eventually included a flat in London’s West End and a Rolls-Royce. Pickles’ wealth at his death, in 1978, came to £40,031; Evans’ net worth is currently estimated at £55m. But they do share something, in their harmless impertinence – Are yer coortin’? – and in their affirmation of the ordinary while not being so ordinary themselves.

Of course, the audience is different. A scrap of film of a Have a Go concert shows rows of smiling men and women in hats, and you know that outside the hall there will be mill chimneys and maybe the last of the town’s trams waiting to take people home to a cup of tea drunk from a saucer. Pickles was a great believer in the accents and what he saw as the plain-speaking comradeship of the north. “The north-country dialects are forever being ridiculed,” he wrote in 1949, “but if they go, much of our character goes, too.”

Perhaps a certain kind of broadcaster and entertainer will embody the last evidence of that distinctive way of life. From Tommy Handley through Ken Dodd to Peter Kay; from Priestley through Pickles to Evans. Who next? The favourite to replace Evans on Radio 2 is a woman, Sara Cox, born in Bolton.

• Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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