Simon Mayo: ‘You can’t launch a show and not have the two presenters on the same money’

The veteran radio presenter on pay, podcasts and being told that his new book, about a forgotten 19th-century conflict, is Hollywood gold

Simon Mayo’s calm, classless voice has been on our airwaves pretty much every weekday for 30 years: first on Radio 1, which he joined in 1986, then 5 Live, and since 2010 on Radio 2. His Drivetime programme has almost 6 million listeners, a record audience for that slot; he also presents the beloved Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on 5 Live with Mark Kermode. In addition, the 59-year-old Mayo somehow finds the time to write books: his first adult novel, Mad Blood Stirring, which is definitely stirring and perhaps a little mad, is out this month.

Mad Blood Stirring is set in 1815, at the end of the war of 1812 between Britain and the US. That’s a curiously under-the-radar conflict, isn’t it?
No one knows anything about it, even the Americans – and you’d imagine it would be a lot more significant for them, with the burning down of the White House and the writing of The Star-Spangled Banner. For the British it was a trade war really, an extension of the Napoleonic wars, so it’s just been tucked away.

The novel has a cracking – and apparently historically faithful – conceit: it tells the story of a group of American POWs (mostly white, but with a large black minority) housed in the brutal, smallpox-ridden Dartmoor prison. There are illicit affairs, racial tensions, gospel singing and an all-black production of Romeo and Juliet
When I came across the story, my first instinct was: if only I knew someone in period drama in telly… This was an idea for them. And I was going to give it away. I know Amma Asante, the British film director, and I thought: Amma would be interested in this. And my wife said: “You’re an idiot, you don’t give stuff like this away.”

And the film rights have already been optioned to Tessa Ross, executive producer on Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave, haven’t they?
Yes, the film rights were sold before I’d written a word. They were sold on a four-page synopsis. The agent said it was the easiest sale she’d ever had. I had breakfast with Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, and she said: “Simon, you have to understand, there isn’t a Hollywood studio that would say no to this idea.”

There’s a memorable character called King Dick. Have you daydreamed who would play him in a film?
My hunch is that King Dick should be someone we’ve never seen before. That’s going to be quite tough, because he’s black and he’s 6ft 7in, so that narrows it down. But he’s such an extraordinary character, my concern was to not make him cartoony. Because the facts are: we know his height, we know he wore a bearskin and carried a club, we know that he ran the place, we know that he was a gangster, we know that he was a theatre impresario and we know that he went everywhere with two white boys. So there you go! I wouldn’t have had the guts to create that character. Who would?

Do you wish you’d started writing earlier?
Yes, it would be great for this to be my 15th book rather than my fifth, but I’m absolutely not complaining. To be in your 50s and to be doing something you’ve never done before, that’s thrilling. I heartily recommend it.

From May, you are going to be joined on Drivetime by Jo Whiley as part of a shake-up at Radio 2. How do you feel about the change?
I think I’ve been doing this job every day since 1986, and that’s a long time to be a daily show on a national network. So most of me thinks it’s fairly extraordinary that I’m being given a chance to keep on going. I mean, I don’t think anyone else has been on for that amount of time unbroken. And Jo does a fantastic show and she’s way cooler than me, so how bad can that be?

You are one of the best-paid presenters at the BBC, earning £350,000 last year; she earns much less, around £150,000. Will there be parity now?
I’m sure that’s been discussed, because you can’t launch a show and have two presenters starting if they are not on the same money. I’m sure that we’ll be on the same otherwise there would be a lot of embarrassment for a lot of people.

Jane Garvey, host of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, described Radio 2 as “extraordinarily male, entirely pale and big salaries”. Do you think the station has been guilty of not being diverse enough?
I’ve never thought that particularly. Radio 2 has been and still is an extraordinary success story. The share [of listeners] that our shows get is unbelievable. Over the next few years there will be a lot of changes, and it might be that it’s lagged behind a bit, but when you look at the success of Chris Evans, Ken Bruce, Jeremy Vine, Steve Wright, Drivetime… Astonishing.

Does the BBC feel like an embattled organisation?
It feels like a difficult time to have a book out. I understand all the reasons for the questions – because if I was you I’d be asking the same questions – but that doesn’t mean I can speak on behalf of the BBC. I can say I’m very proud of the show I do, I can say I’m very proud of the traditions of the BBC, and that it’s been a difficult period for everybody. But I think a period of silence from radio presenters might be a useful thing for everybody.

With the rise of streamed music and podcasts, does it feel that the golden age of radio is over?
The podcast revolution is amazing, because it’s old-fashioned radio, it’s like a concentrated form of radio. It’s people discovering radio but just delivered by a different format. I grew up recording the top 40 with a microphone into a cassette recorder, so the idea of just having all this at the press of a button is like nirvana. So it seems to me like this is a golden age for broadcasters.

• Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (Doubleday, £12.99) is out on 19 April. To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Simon Mayo will be presenting a new Radio 2 show with Jo Whiley from Monday 14 May (5-8pm)

Contributor

Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in audio: Boom Radio; The Simon Mayo Drivetime Show; Penny Smith
There’s hot competition among stations moving in to capture middle-aged listeners left cold by modernisation at Radio 2

Miranda Sawyer

20, Mar, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
James O’Brien: ‘A former EDL member said my show saved his life’
The combative LBC presenter on why he’s not smug and tackling prejudice

Nosheen Iqbal

09, Jun, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
John Simpson: ‘Like most men, I’m amazingly good at forgiving myself’
The BBC stalwart on breaking down over the plight of an Afghan family, his new current affairs show – and failing to be enthused by Emily in Paris

Tim Lewis

16, Jan, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
On my radar: Doc Brown’s cultural highlights
The rapper, comedian, actor and screenwriter on Slow West, Ray Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz, The Waters by Mick Jenkins and the magic of Wittertainment

Jessica Murray

30, Aug, 2015 @6:59 AM

Article image
Rewind radio: World at One; Simon Mayo – review
Celebrations of the 90th anniversary of BBC radio were necessarily muted as the Savile and Newsnight scandals rumbled on, writes Miranda Sawyer

Miranda Sawyer

18, Nov, 2012 @12:01 AM

Article image
Ashley 'Dotty' Charles: 'Few moments compare to meeting Oprah!'
The rapper and radio presenter on the problem with online activism, the power of protest, and the moment Oprah squeezed her hand

Nosheen Iqbal

28, Jun, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
On my radar: Shaun Keaveny’s cultural highlights
The 6 Music presenter on Schitt’s Creek, Douglas Stuart’s extraordinary Shuggie Bain and the canal-side pub he longs to visit

Kathryn Bromwich

14, Aug, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Dawn French: 'I feel genuine grief about what is going on in the arts'
The comedian on working under Covid restrictions, exploring the nature-nurture debate in her new novel, and debating politics with her uncle

Miranda Sawyer

25, Oct, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
A History of the World in 100 Objects; Gabby Logan; Simon Mayo Drivetime | Radio review

The BBC's landmark series A History of the World closed with an object that was illuminating but dull, writes Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day

16, Oct, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
David Thewlis: ‘It does get to you, spending more waking hours as a character than oneself’
The actor on his new novel about an irascible director, his faux-feud with Christopher Eccleston and his ‘secret’ marriage

Michael Hogan

25, Jul, 2021 @8:30 AM