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London calling - Duncan Campbell was an original presenter for LBC

Blog | Nov 06, 2023

Sound check: Janet Street-Porter and Paul Callan present their mid-morning show on LBC’s first day, October 1973

Fifty years ago this October, Londoners were woken at 6am by the amiable tones of the journalist David Jessel welcoming them to Britain’s first commercial news station, LBC.

These days, of course, it has a roster of well-known names and claims more than three million weekly listeners. But, in those early weeks and months in 1973, the London Broadcasting Company was wonderfully odd and chaotic.

Jessel was followed on air by Janet Street-Porter and Paul Callan who hosted a chat show called Two in the Morning! – the exclamation mark was included in its title.

Other presenters of the 24-hour operation would include Bel Mooney, Jeremy Beadle, Peter Allen and Carol Barnes. One of the new recruits was a long-haired young chap called Jon Snow.

Panic reigned. Tears flowed. During one broadcast, a cleaner started up the Hoover behind the newsreader.

Phone-ins were a new phenomenon in Britain and since many programmes attracted scarcely any callers, staff were recruited to pose as enthralled listeners. Geoffrey Wansell, now an established true-crime author, was the station’s features editor.

‘It was chaos,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t even call it organised chaos; it was just chaos.’

It was impossible to re-interview him, but I was told firmly that I still had to fill the hour.

But how? I re-recorded my questions which were ex-pand-ed and pad-ded out with much geographical waffle.

A sympathetic soul in the studio then pointed out that there was an LP of sea shanties in the library. So, after each lengthy question and a brief snatch of our hero’s answer, there would be a cheery little ditty about life on the ocean wave.

I hoped that our celebrity was far, far away at sea that night or, if he was on dry land, his thoughts would be for those in peril in the studio.

I had a weekly show called This Is London, described by someone at the time as ‘the poor man’s Down Your Way’ – the round-Britain programme that had run on the Home Service since 1946. It involved going to a different part of London every week and interviewing someone from the local paper, a councillor, a publican, a vicar and passers-by.

The first episode had to be about Fleet Street itself as LBC’s offices were close by in Gough Square. I arranged an interview with Milton Shulman, the Evening Standard theatre critic, and Philip Hope-Wallace, the Guardian’s opera critic, to take place in El Vino.

More technology issues. I only had an hour’s worth of tape, and it soon became clear that Philip and Milton had many hours, not to mention days, of great Fleet Street yarns. It was too embarrassing tosayIhadrunoutoftape.Iendedup having to record on top of the original one, not once but twice, losing many of their magical memories.

There was also a short-lived comedy programme called Punchline, which I presented with the late and much missed Andy Nickolds – who, with Christopher Douglas, would later give us Ed Reardon’s Week on Radio 4.

The LBC-identifying slogan at the time was ‘LBC – Where News Comes First!’, to which Andy would add ‘subject to a stewards’ inquiry’, to our boss’s fury.

I replayed some episodes recently. Amid such items as Brian Clough on the phone to Henry Kissinger, jokes about Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, making him roast lamb with an ‘unimpeachable sauce’ for supper, there was one remarkably prescient sketch.

It was a time of football hooliganism. So what could have been funnier than to imagine cricket hooligans and have interviews with the ‘Middlesex Boot Boys’ – half a century before chaps in egg-and-bacon ties roughed up the Aussies at Lords this summer. Other items included a song to the tune of Eleanor Rigby – ‘Reginald Maudling / Writing the words of a speech that no one will hear / Let’s make him a peer.’

We also had a ‘Nonentity Interview’ – thankfully, it was only two minutes long.

By 1975, some presenters had departed, ads had dried up and the station was in dire financial trouble. A third of the staff, including me, were given their notice.

Our pay-off was a week’s money. I suppose they reckoned it would be just enough to recharge our batteries.

Duncan Campbell was the Guardian’s LA correspondent and crime correspondent