“It’s time to get up and get on your way
The breakfast show’s here to start your day
Get your motor spinning, there’s so much to do
With Simon Mayo and the breakfast crew
Good morning from national Radio 1!”
When Simon Mayo took over the Radio 1 breakfast show in 1988, it felt like a warm blanket had been wrapped around the nation’s favourite. There was something quite touching, generous even, about handing the biggest gig in UK radio to someone who wasn’t especially well known, but evidently had an extra sparkle that Radio 1’s flagship programme required all over again.
The 1980s had been dominated of a morn by Mikes Read and Smith, and while both were communicators of expertise, there was always a nagging doubt they were yearning for something else. Read’s wish to be playing on the records rather than just playing them was no secret; but Smith was really enigmatic, something you can’t be at breakfast. He never became a household name via the spoken word and upon his elevation in 1986, was the first example of something that has become an epidemic of the BBC in recent years; the TV star shoehorned into a radio slot in the hope it would fit.
It wasn’t imperfect entirely, but it felt a bit like he was phoning it in, coincidentally at a stage when he reintroduced the funny phone call shtick that his telly chum Noel Edmonds had been doing more methodically a decade before. When he decided to concentrate on telly, again, after a meagre two years, Radio 1 needed, well, a radio one. And they turned, perhaps surprisingly, to Mayo.
The history graduate with the blond spikes and sardonic tone had only been on the network for two years and had just weekend earlies and weekday evenings on his CV by the time he was offered the job. It’s impossible not to become a known face when you’re doing the most important show coming out of the nation’s speakers, but Mayo’s profile was kept admirably high while still not doing stacks of promotional stuff onscreen and in the press. Ultimately, he was all about being on the radio, and it showed.
The obsession with what London was up to on a local level remained, and so Chris Tarrant’s zoo format was adapted by Mayo and his brilliant producer Ric Blaxill. Further voices were required to become part of a team; a crew, indeed, as the late 1980s would insist. Carol Dooley was assigned weather and travel and knockabout girly views on things, while Rod McKenzie was, as he would always insist, a news man whose job was first and foremost to keep the bulletins up to date and fresh, yet he too found himself roped in as a personality.
Mayo’s use of jingles was immaculate. Always two out of the top of the hour; one generic station jingle, followed by whichever one of his personal IDs he’d picked out. At the time, Radio 1 was flogging its newly-acquired FM band to death, and so gradually the older sung jingles for presenters that didn’t include the letters ‘FM’ were phased out. Mayo’s were the exception. Everything chugged along without a rush, but with few pauses for asides to the studio window. The music was varied; Mayo’s tastes were catered for (even World Of Twist got on for a bit) but in the last phase of all Radio 1’s musical history being fair game prior to the Bannister years, we were still getting Amen Corner followed by S Express and the whole family gathered round.
The best part of Mayo’s breakfast renaissance was knowing how to treat an audience. A natural broadcaster with wit and genuine articulacy, he was never cruel, never talked down to anyone, never sanctimonious, never mocked an accent or patronised a child while always remaining droll. If there was any japery, it was because someone had contacted the show who clearly didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Two examples leap to mind: Mrs Day being the most obvious one. You had to hear Mrs Day to believe her. The fact that she introduced herself on air as “Mrs Day” and entirely ignored the host’s polite request for her first name said everything. This was a lady with elocution who evidently wasn’t the target audience for Black Box and Jive Bunny, and had rung up to answer the Identik-Hit Quiz.
The quiz, for the uninitiated, was a brief clip of a series of sound effects and ad libs by the crew that would, sometimes super-cryptically, lead to the title of a hit song, and one of any era at that. “Record tokens” were up for grabs, and in the early days when it was on once per show (it went to twice, later), the number of tokens would increase with each unsolved round.
The clip was of some rodent-like squeaking and wailing over a stab of the Blue Danube by Strauss. Mrs Day rang up to say, confidently and not ironically, “it’s the Blue Danube by Strauss”. Maybe she was on 1053 or 1089 MW and therefore the rodent effect could have been mistaken for interference, or maybe she’d just tuned in by accident. Mayo expertly ribbed her for the benefit of the audience, while never once being malicious as he subtly told her she was wrong and tried, perhaps unnecessarily, to explain the rules. Mrs Day, remaining in her own world, just said, “Oh, right, thank you” and put the phone down. Great radio, but it was made great by an unwitting caller and a host who hit the right tone and rolled through the link without ever losing his humanity. And there are stacks of breakfast jocks who literally cannot do that when faced with it.
(And the answer, we soon found out, was Batdance).
The other example came, again, with the Identik-Hit. It was a couple of years on, Mayo had just returned from paternity leave, and a stupidly long clip had endured since before his son had been born (“Oh, are we still on this one?”). The effect was of McKenzie apparently jumping or falling off a cliff, screeching as he did so, and landing in water with a resounding splash. We were up to dozens and dozens of what were now “CD tokens”.
When someone got anything right on the breakfast show, Mayo would play a stab of some circus ringmaster type yelling, “You are a winner!” prior to some mock crowd-cheering. This Identik-Hit clip had been going on for so long, however, that Mayo was evidently running out of fresh ways to tell game punters that they were wrong. So, when one very polite, excitable lady made her suggestion, Mayo responded with a dramatic “You! Are! A! ……. Loser…” in a way that suggested she’d genuinely got it right. There was a pause, and the caller blurted out, “Oh, you rotten sod.” The s-word was still mildly taboo for breakfast radio, and Mayo himself seemed taken aback, but had no time to chasten the caller because a sympathetic Dianne Oxberry boldly said to him: “You deserved that.”
(And the answer, we eventually found out after many months, was Islands In The Stream. The winner was able to buy an entire branch of Our Price).
And yes, Dianne Oxberry. Having been on Steve Wright’s posse for a bit, she got the depping gig as the female sidekick on breakfast whenever Jakki Brambles (who, also as early show presenter, was actually on air four hours a day) had some time off. Others, such as the TV-am bound Dooley with the big specs, and serious hack Sybil Ruscoe, had done their bit on weather, travel and giggling duties. But when Oxberry came in, the stakes were raised. Five days of knockabout romantic tension with Mayo and McKenzie were then topped by her co-presenting role on Saturday kids telly show The 8:15 From Manchester, and suddenly the external sexual attention began. She became a tabloid favourite and Mayo memorably read out one letter referring to a “steamy sex siren” sitting next to him in the studio (naturally paying off that it was written about McKenzie). But for the sudden end of Mayo’s stint in 1993 thanks to illness, fatherhood and regime change, Oxberry looked set to become a major star, yet somehow her impact was devalued by a still-patriarchal Radio 1 and when breakfast changed, she wasn’t asked to stay.
Mayo proved that DJs could have an impact on the charts too, promoting novelty records like Donald Where’s Your Troosers?, which ended up in the Top 10 at the end of 1989. Kinky Boots, from the same compilation album that had caught Mayo’s attention, followed in 1990 and, later, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life (with audience-friendly “life’s a piece of spit” edit) by Eric Idle, who recorded an exclusive “come on Simon, play something else now, why not put on a nice Cliff Richard record?” version for breakfast consumption only. More subtly, the Chartbeater allowed the audience to pick a new single to be played every day the following week (one week Bill Tarmey was on there, with Mayo essentially threatening to resign if it got enough votes). He had a self-picked Record Of The Week too (think The Breakfast Show Biggie, but for a more reserved listenership) and diligently counted down the Top 40 every Monday morning, playing the highest climber, highest new entry and, to 8am, the number one single. Nothing Compares 2 U and Unchained Melody just before 8am were tough breakfast sells, but he did them. On Monday 4th November 1991 at 8am, he simply said: “This is for Freddie” and played Bohemian Rhapsody as the world reeled from the news (broken three hours earlier on Radio 1 by early show jock Gary King) that the iconic Queen singer had died. Through the day, Radio 1 presenters shared their own memories and favourite songs of Freddie Mercury, yet by saying so little, Mayo managed to say the most.
Other features on the breakfast show:
- The Crew Of Two (“On the breakfast show, Radio One Efff Emmm!”) – 8.15am, a sort of day-to-day challenge where the same pair of workmates or family members quizzed off against each other. After a year it was binned off to make way for Identik-Hit Quiz round two.
- School Report (“Mayo, Mayo, it’s off to school we go, la la la la la…” etc) – 7.45am and Simon and company read out missives from school kids wanting a mention for their institution, usually based around amusing capers with Bunsen burners and from the back seat of the bus.
- On This Day In History – 8.45am, no jingle, but the long instrumental loop from I Want Your Sex Part II became forever associated with history obsessive Mayo doing anniversary stuff from both ancient and modern history, while getting the rest to guess the ages of anyone semi-famous celebrating a birthday. Then, excitingly, a quiz question about the date would lead to someone winning an On This Day In History book.
- In Bob’s Bin – again, no jingle, and this was an occasional feature, shortlived each time, possibly timed with the ratings coming out, whereby listeners could send in merchandise from rival stations to be thrown in the bin – Bob referred to Bob Harris, and the bin (possibly) was the one he would empty his fag ash into after each “midnight to morning” show, with Mayo and crew the next ones due to use the studio each day. Naturally, other radio station names couldn’t be mentioned, so unflattering rhymes or malapropisms would be used instead.
- Special Guest Producer – the only feature-at-large, really. Blaxill was always in the studio and just after 7am, Mayo would assign him the role of some celebrity or topical figure as the special guest producer, with Blaxill deliberately not trying to alter his voice in anyway. Crucial roles for the special guest producer would be to introduce On This Day In History and play the role of Bob for In Bob’s Bin. Naturally, subversion took over, and Blaxill’s only effort at impersonation was when doing Bob, whom he depicted as having a high-pitched, Alan Ball-esque “real” voice.
And then there were the Confessions.
The most impactful part of Mayo’s five year stint, introduced comparatively late to the show but instantly addictive listening. 8.35am, sombre church organ music and Mayo, whose religious faith was now part of his public image (more than he ever cared for it to be), hammed up his role as the priest as listeners wrote in with tales of public embarrassment, private anguish and general tomfoolery gone wrong (or right). The rest of the breakfast crew would be asked if they “forgave” the miscreant afterwards (they almost always did) and a huge-selling book of the Confessions would later be released. Such was its instant association with Mayo, and its lack of facility to date as radio evolved, that he continued doing it after exiting breakfast, and it remains a staple of his current fare on Radio 2.
The show finished at 9am for most of its run and Mayo and namesake Bates would always do the 30-second handover thing, which were often excruciating, depending on Bates’ mood. Nonetheless, Bates’ laughter when, in reference to something Gary King wasn’t happy about, he said: “He’s upstairs now, having a word” and Mayo responded with: “I thought you were going to say something else then” meant that the Golden Hour was three songs in before Simes had regained his composure enough to ask the audience to guess the year. In later days, when Bruno Brookes had been given weekday earlies, the handover into breakfast would sometimes go on forever, with Brookes’ timing issues often the actual subject of the discussion.
Mayo’s holiday relief was mainly Brookes, host of the weekend breakfast show during much of this era. Other deps included Mark Goodier, Nicky Campbell and, more unusually, Phillip Schofield. Eventually it was Goodier who took over in 1993 when Mayo left the show due to a weird trilogy of concurrent events – pneumonia, paternity leave and Johnny Beerling, with whom he’d had a verbal agreement that one would give the other six months notice, leaving the station. He moved on to mid-mornings where he stayed for eight years. The 90s were, after a long period of solidity, a disorganised period for breakfast on Radio 1, with the slick and affable but unsuitable Goodier followed by Steve Wright’s ill-fated spell on the show, the monstrous ego of Chris Evans, the niche humour of Mark and Lard (that nobody understood outside of the north west) and the hasty shoving together of the undervalued Kevin Greening and tokenistic Zoe Ball. Only when Chris “Something you want to say?” Moyles got the gig did anyone overtake Mayo’s spell of longevity and stability.
Perhaps congratulating Mayo solely for longevity and stability does him an injustice, even though breakfast radio is far too important to experiment with, and someone with a natural instinct for the gig is always welcome. Mayo was never the trendiest presence on the station, which meant he lasted longer than any jock whose shtick represented a fad of an era. And there was rarely controversy surrounding the output when Mayo was on breakfast, though on the days of the odd colourful double entendre or near-the-knuckle confession, his personal integrity nullified any protest, and his show was always successful in terms of both listening figures and written media approval.
Mayo has always been a private individual, not one for nostalgic recollection or a desperation to do loads of television, and his appearance on the BBC’s Radio 1 Vintage ‘pop-up’ station will excite him less than others for whom Radio 1 represents a peak, a singular moment of high profile in otherwise middling careers. Since leaving the network in 2001, Mayo has become one of the most insightful speech broadcasters in the country, a best-selling author and still holds up a huge audience while playing Dexys Midnight Runners and Ed Sheeran on Radio 2 and keeping Mark Kermode’s words-per-minute down to a manageable level each Friday on Radio 5 Live. He has worked non-stop for national BBC radio stations for 31 years now but, for many, that late 80s to early 90s period on breakfast will define him.
He would never let it define himself – he was 30 when he took over and will turn a boyish 60 next year, and his life is wholly different – but maybe 50 years of Radio 1 will allow him on a personal level to finally realise just how much his breakfast show meant to people.