James O’Brien: Angela Rayner, Matt Hancock, Chris Bryant Sit In (LBC)
Lauren Laverne: Annie Macmanus Sits In (BBC 6 Music) | BBC Sounds
Chris Hawkins: Deb Grant Sits In (BBC 6 Music) | BBC Sounds
It’s always tricky being an understudy. Stepping into a star’s regular role means necessarily disappointing an audience (“Who’s that, then?”); plus, the big stage isn’t the stand-in’s everyday habitat, which can’t be good for the nerves. Still, there are those who rise to the occasion. Yes, I’m thinking of Ed Miliband, covering for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 in 2017. If you don’t recall this seminal radio moment, Miliband sang along to death metal, earnestly discussed toilet flushes and generally got on with whatever the producers chucked at him. He was brilliant.
Which brings me to LBC. The station has long looked to politicians to add spice, inviting variously sized beasts to do regular phone-ins. Call Clegg, Call Keir, Speak to Sadiq, Ask Boris … the list goes on. Giving politicians a full show hasn’t always proved successful – both Nigel Farage and Ken Livingstone had to be dropped – but the on-air interaction between politician and listeners is often revelatory. Some MPs seem authentically human; others, less so.
Last week, in James O’Brien’s big-hitting 10am-1pm weekday slot, we were given a plethora of politicos (O’Brien is on holiday). Monday: Angela Rayner. Tuesday: Matt Hancock. Jeremy Hunt hosted on Thursday, Wes Streeting on Friday, both too late for my deadline. On Wednesday, we were promised Tom Tugendhat – but he pulled out, perhaps because call-in radio didn’t seem appealing after being dumped from the Conservative leadership race. Chris Bryant stepped into the breach. Labour 3 Tories 2, then.
First up: Rayner. Labour’s deputy leader proved an excellent choice, mostly because – like many of us Mancunian women – she knows how to rattle on. The best talk radio hosts can fill dead air for ages, nattering to an invisible audience about anything; personal, political and all in between. Although she occasionally searched for a word, Rayner’s cheery mono-chatting was almost up to Vanessa Feltz’s peerless standards. Plus she dealt very well with callers, even when they were hostile, such as the man who said he couldn’t forgive the Labour party for not supporting Brexit: “You went against what we voted for,” he said. Rayner listened hard, argued her point and the result was excellent radio.
Bryant was also on top form. He has the right upbeat cadence for broadcast and his opening piece, about the myriad ways that Britain isn’t functioning, hit home. He, too, was good with listeners – paying attention and responding honestly – and both he and Rayner will be on speed dial for LBC producers in the future.
What about Hancock? Hmm. One doesn’t like to be cruel, but when even LBC presenters are tweeting criticism, you’ve got to acknowledge that things aren’t going well (Iain Dale: “Anyone listening to the Matt Hancock on LBC? Otherwise known as the Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of Rishi Sunak”).
Hancock, who has the vim of a well-pummelled sofa cushion, only vaguely engaged with those who phoned in, often just giving a quick “Thanks” and moving on. He did offer the occasional “Yeah, great”, which sounded odd when the caller was slating the Tories’ record. One listener phoned in to suggest that profits from fuel companies could be used to help sort out the climate crisis. “Yeah,” said Hancock, “great”, before wondering: “With these energy specialists, how can we make sure that they play their part?” How, indeed, actual ex-cabinet minister of the actual government?
Speaking of new voices, which we kind of are, Radio 1 has been busily refreshing its presenter roster through the unconventional idea of trying out new talent, rather than just approaching celebrities/pop stars and training them up. Its regular “new presenter” weeks and early breakfast tryouts have brought the station several new hosts, including those of the upcoming weekday afternoon show, Dean McCullough and Vicky Hawkesworth, both due to start in September when Scott Mills moves to Radio 2. This, as well as Nat O’Leary, who’ll host 11am-1pm on Sundays from the autumn. Heavyweight talents such as Mills, Nick Grimshaw and Annie Mac may have left, but Radio 1 has evolved into a new era, simply by casting its talent-search wide and giving young presenters time to develop.
Speaking of the brilliant Annie Macmanus, she was in for 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne from Tuesday to Friday last week, with Deb Grant taking over Chris Hawkins’s early breakfast show. Two lovely Dublin women, with great music knowledge, to encourage you to get your day together. And both were excellent, with Macmanus pulling off her usual trick of being cool and warm, relaxed and peppy, all at the same time.
Grant’s chat was less slick, perhaps, but she was as welcoming as ever, bossing the slot where she often pops up. Ah, we love it when the spotlight makes the understudies shine.