theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs | New music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs
Radio 1's queen of the small hours on life, the universe and bootleg Maltesers
I remember this brilliant incident when I had just begun at the BBC. I'd come from the NME and from five years broadcasting on XFM where my interviews were notorious for being incredibly confrontational... and that's how I got the job at Radio 1. Do you know this story?
OK: when I was at XFM we did trial broadcasts for five years, in Camden for one month a year. There was no alternative radio in the UK whatsoever and we felt it was the revolution. For instance we'd do this thing called Bushell & Bragg, obviously Garry Bushell in one corner and Billy Bragg in the other and they'd pick the topic of the week, we'd open the phone lines and they'd just go at each other like rottweilers, just one of the most fantastic pieces of broadcasting.
Now, I remember being incredibly excited because we'd got Mudhoney [contemporaries of Nirvana and rock connoisseurs' favourites] confirmed for this particular day to come in and do an interview and do a live session and I was over the moon. Then the controller of XFM came into me, Sammy Jacob, and saying “Ermm... yeah, actually tomorrow on your show, you're going to have Trevor Dann on the programme, he's head of production at Radio 1 and he's coming in to play an hour of his favourite records” - and I went absolutely ballistic. I went, “I've got Mudhoney on the show, there's no fucking way – and who the fuck is this guy? Tell him to find a window of opportunity on his own fucking station!” To be fair, on Trevor's part it was a really shrewd move – I had no idea who he was, but unbeknown to me, he and Matthew Bannister had just come to Radio 1 to begin the process, the...
The big pogrom! [Bannister famously wiped out the “Smashy & Nicey” school of Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Gary Davies and Steve Wright that had dominated throughout the 1980s]
Yeah, basically, they were swinging the guillotine over all the old school DJs. But yes, I had to concede that it was [Jacob's] network and Mudhoney got shifted to the next show – OOF! [she looks as if she is genuinely still peeved by this fact] – and I got Trevor. So I said, “At least you've got to allow me to interview him first, that's my condition of agreeing to this.” So me being this jumped-up little upstart from NME, I dragged him by the hair over hot coals in this interview, I mean I was ferocious because I was still seething about this Mudhoney thing. I put together the most hostile and confrontational interview you could possibly imagine.
Again, unbeknown to me, everybody at Radio 1 were really interested to know what would go on. From [Dann's] perspective, also, it was a smart way to reach the audience that he wanted to bring in to Radio 1. But I didn't know that he was a ferociously intelligent and extraordinarily powerful man at the BBC; but I was just mortified about Mudhoney and smarting about this. So what happened was, somebody at Radio 1 taped this interview, and people thought it was so funny that this jumped-up little child was giving hell to the grim reaper basically, that this tape ended up being bootlegged and circulated around Radio 1 and eventually ended up on Matthew Bannister's desk – the new controller. He thought he was going to be listening to demos for new shows, and inadvertently popped this tape in his tape recorder, pressed play, and was like “Fucking hell, who's this girl?” and he rang Trevor and said, “We've got to give this girl a job.” They rang me the very next day and offered me a job, and of course I just couldn't believe it – but these were the days in which Matthew Bannister had very much a more journalistic agenda and speech-based agenda for Radio 1. But he must have just laughed and thought, “Who has got the balls to do this kind of interview?”
It's hard to imagine an NME journalist nowadays not being so briefed in brand relationships and who they should kowtow to at Radio 1 that they would do that, let alone be allowed to.
Well, maybe, but also there are more programmes that overlap [between Radio 1 and NME/XFM demographic] now. Back then it was Peel at Radio 1 who was on my radar and literally nobody else, nothing else there had any relevance to me.
So, yeah, that's the story. Anyway, I'd come out of that culture, so I was very feisty when I first came to Radio 1, also because I'd come from this very male-dominated culture at the NME where everyone was so well-educated and I had left school at 16 and gone to work at an egg-packing factory with no A-levels or qualifications of any sort. This was the era of Stuart Maconie, David Quantick, Danny Kelly, James Brown, Andrew Collins, Steve Lamacque, the list goes on: a tough environment for women to operate in without a doubt. And it was that era where everything was just that much more confrontational – so when I came to Radio 1 that was the culture I'd come out of.
So anyway, this one time [giggles] with Peel... [again, drifts off for a second] I remember this one time that John Birt was having this dinner for all the really top, high-ranking presenters in the BBC, and Zoe Ball was meant to be going to it as she was the breakfast show presenter of the day, and Peel was too. But then Zoe got really ill, so Matthew Bannister said, “Oh, let's send Mary Anne instead, that'll be a really good idea” - I couldn't fucking believe it, to be honest. I was sat between Peter Sissons and Jeremy Paxman – who is my total idol, and I spent the whole lunch speaking to him about angling and stuff like that [she confesses after the interview that she had spent ages reading up on angling, knowing that it was Paxman's main leisure activity]. But all the big guns were there – Jeremy Clarkson, Anne Robinson, Nick Ross, Terry Wogan was there, Peter Sissons, Paxman, John Birt, all the biggest BBC guns.
And I remember as we walked up to this dinner Peel fixed me with a look, and said, “Mary Anne.” He said, “I know you have some incredibly interesting opinions about things and you love to express them at high volume on a frequent basis.” [laughs] He said to me, “If you never again listen to a single thing that I say to you once in your entire life, will you just please listen to me today.” He said, “Whatever you do, please just don't open your mouth at this dinner. Your job will be to smile sweetly.” And he said, “When the cheese course comes around, I will be about to fall asleep and drop off into my plate. You will see me nod and begin to fall forward. Your job will be to kick me sharply under the table until I wake up again.” And he said, "And THAT. IS. IT.” and gave me that look [she mimics a Paddington-like, brook-no-argument stare]. And he was, of course, absolutely right, because I was just this grimy little rookie at Radio 1, I didn't know anything, I was just some jumped-up little NME upstart at that point. And I was like a little Rotten incarnate, because that's what you had to be – and his advice couldn't have been more absolute, because you have to give the floor to the likes of Paxman and Clarkson and Wogan and you have to allow the big guns to just do their thing, you know the public schoolboys and all that, to just roll it out, and it was fascinating to just watch it play out. But I remember sure as shot, Peel was drinking some really fabulous red wine, and sure as shot I could see his eyes starting to become really heavy as dessert came, and sure as shot just as the cheese came I could see a little tilt of the body and see his head nod and so I was just booting him under the table to keep him awake, and, yeah, it was completely brilliant.
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