DJ Simon Bates still in tune with Wolverhampton

West Midlands radio legend Simon Bates is bringing back his famed Our Tune slot when he launches his new breakfast show tomorrow. He talks to Mark Andrews.

Simon Bates

West Midlands radio legend Simon Bates is bringing back his famed Our Tune slot when he launches his new breakfast show tomorrow. He talks to Mark Andrews.

It was an ordinary day in 1964, but it was one Simon Bates will never forget.

After an afternoon at Wolverhampton's Gaumont Cinema, the teenager stopped off at a record shop in the town.

"It was in the old arcade, where the Mander Centre is now," he says, recalling the day he bought his first record.

"It was I Feel Fine by the Beatles. I remember being quite worried about taking it home. It would have cost something like seven shillings, and I remember guarding it very closely on the bus back."

It was this record which started his lifelong love of music, a passion which has seen him become one of the most instantly recognisable voices in radio. In a career spanning more than 40 years, the farm boy from Tong, near Albrighton, has achieved the unique feat of broadcasting on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well spending the last 13 years on Classic FM.

But it was Our Tune, the melancholy slot on Radio 1 where he would tell a listener's moving personal story, which he will always be associated with. And the slot, which dealt with tales of tragedy and joy during its 13-year run from 1980 to 1993, will be making a comeback when Simon launches his new breakfast show on Smooth Radio tomorrow.

Simon, now 63, was born in Birmingham, and after a few years in Suffolk, he and his mother went to live with his grandparents on the family farm in Tong.

Simon, who was seven at the time of moving, remembers music being an important part of the household from an early age, with the radiogram taking centre stage in the lounge.

"We were very sophisticated, we had a record player combined with a VHF radio," he says. "I think my grandmother got it from Beatties, it was in a walnut case, which she used to polish a lot. It had all the family photographs on top of it, it was that important."

He found life difficult at preparatory school, and says he grew into a nervous, bashful teenager with a love of the radio and theatre.

"I think most people in radio or television are very shy," he says. "That's why they go on there, it is their way of overcoming it."

Saturdays were always special for the young Simon, with the theatre and cinemas of Wolverhampton opening up an exciting new world to the quiet, retiring schoolboy.

"In those days there used to be the Clifton, the ABC and the Gaumont cinema, and I used to go to the Grand to see the Saturday matinees in the days of the Derek Salberg Repertory Company. I used to go with my grandmother, she loved the theatre."

His first taste of working in the media actually came at the Express & Star offices in Queen Street, where he did a spot of work experience.

"In those days you didn't go on a week's placement, but I was invited to come in and write a few short stories - which most probably ended up on the spike," he remembers.

"I've always been a pedant about language, I hate it when people talk about the 'train station' - of course it should be the 'railway station', how can it be the 'train station' when the trains are not there all the time? Another one is 'meanwhile', don't get me started on that."

"But in all honesty, I didn't have any idea about what I wanted to do. I've just been lucky, I just stumbled into it."

He moved to New Zealand after finishing his A-levels - "I saw myself as a bit of a hippy, and that was what hippies did" - and it was a chance meeting with a radio executive Down Under that saw him take his first tentative steps into broadcasting.

He returned to Britain in 1971 to join Radio 4, where he spent three years before switching to Radio 2.

He joined Radio 1 in 1976, and there were plenty of adventures along the way. There was the time he had to deal with a fire which broke out in a bin live on the air, there was the show he presented while suffering from concussion following a car crash. On another show he was heard screaming in agony during an accident on a charity ski race.

He says his most embarrassing moment was not the time when Clint Eastwood had to fix his tape recorder before he could do an interview, but rather the time he collapsed on the floor following an interview with Robert de Niro.

"I was just lying there, writhing at his feet, unable to get up and saying 'No, no, no, don't worry about it, happens all the time guv'nor.'

"I felt like an idiot with Eastwood, but he went to enormous trouble to relax me. Robert de Niro must have thought he was dealing with an absolute maniac."

He still regularly returns to the West Midlands to visit his mother who still lives in the area, although he was a little surprised to find the bus station had gone during his last trip to Wolverhampton.

"The last time, nobody told me the bus station had all changed. I got off at the railway station, and it had all gone. I didn't know where to go."

* The Simon Bates Breakfast Show will be on from 6am until 10am on Smooth Radio, starting tomorrow.

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