Driving towards Tring on a drizzly morning with the radio tuned to 828 Medium Wave is like travelling back in time. On the M25 the signal is still too faint and crackly to make out that sonorous, diluted Mancunian voice once so familiar. Then, as you turn off at Junction 20, it really starts comin’ atcha through the windscreen wipers: ‘But just to get serious for a moment, folks. Let’s not forget that the police do a really great job…’ It ebbs again, lost to the atmospheric hiss as the four-wheeled time-machine enters a cleavage hewn through what must be the only hill in Hertfordshire. On the other side, the signal surges back across the ether, down the years, and washes over you like a warm, runny, Medium Wave of nostalgia.
Dave Lee Travis is taking a call from a woman who has a dog that can talk, or at least growl the sort of ‘hello’ sound made by tracheostomy patients with voice boxes. ‘You must be mad!’ Lee Travis splutters. ‘What’s the dog called?’ The woman who must be mad is also laughing now. ‘Buddy,’ she says. ‘I’ve got two. Buddy and Olly.’ The old pro, now giggling, pauses just long enough to wipe away a tear. ‘That’s okay. I have two cats called Flap and Mandu! Oh dear. I’d better play the next track. This is Fleetwood Mac.’
Of course it is. The track is a paradigm of the sort of mouldie oldie that the 52-year-old Lee Travis plays every morning on his Classic Gold show. This programme, in DLT-speak, ‘comes atcha through the cornflakes’ if you live in the Reading area (or Bristol or Carlisle or any of the dozen or so other regions to which the show is networked). He wasn’t always a ‘Radio Mould’ man, though. In the halcyon days of Radio 1 – the Seventies and early Eighties – Lee Travis bestrode the airwaves like a bell-bottomed colossus, pumping out a billion megawatts of p-p-p-power! to his nine million ‘completely bonkers’ listeners.
As I wait round the back of the Rose and Crown in Tring, chewing over the significance of this fall from grace, I don’t notice immediately the dark blue Ford Scorpio that has pulled up a few yards away. Then I see the door swing open and a fleshy, hairless hand, framed by a chunky gold bracelet, emerge to beckon me over.
Once inside the Ford, I can’t help noticing the air: a robust brand of freshener is at work on it. The second thing I notice is that the generous size of the driver’s pale, moon face is exaggerated by a chiaroscuro of salt-and-pepper whiskers and that famous mane of hair which, in 1980, moved the National Hairdressers’ Federation to name Dave Lee Travis Head of the Year. As we stop at some traffic lights five minutes later, Lee Travis turns and eyes me suspiciously through the tinted lenses of his glasses. ‘So what’s this interview about, then?’ he says. It’s a fair question. It’s partly, I suppose, about that lost generation of ‘completely bonkers’ DLT listeners out there in radioland.
The listeners were the sorts of people who had those bonkers dayglo cards which said ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!’ pinned above their bonkers desks. People who want everyone to think them endearingly bonkers usually do so because they fear they will be otherwise thought dull, something which they suspect they probably are. Pinning the card above the desk was like buying an off-the-peg personality. So was listening to DLT.
For DLT was bonkers, too. Or rather he was ‘zany’, an altogether more self-conscious proposition best summed up by his choice of car – a Pontiac Trans-Am called the Flying Banana – and by his gravelly voiced jingle offering ‘close encounters of the hairy kind’. But there was more to it than zaniness. Like those other Radio 1 jocks whose names – Batesie, Noelie, Readie, Wrightie – always ended in a chummy vowel, DLT-ie was an egomaniac. Treated like a rock star by his fans, he felt obliged to behave like one. Until things turned sour.
It’s now four years since Lee Travis made his melodramatic resignation from Radio 1. ‘There are changes being made here which go against my principles,’ he had intoned gravely, live on air. And not since Geoffrey Howe stood up in the House of Commons in 1990 to declare that ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for too long’ had a resignation speech resonated across the land, caused jitters on the stock market, made everyone chuckle.
The comparisons with political life do not end there. Enoch Powell once observed that all parliamentary careers end in failure. The same can be said of a DJ’s working life. Indeed, theirs is one of the few professions where long years of faithful service – 26 in Lee Travis’s case – more or less guarantee the sack. But if, as the saying ought to go, old DJs never die, they only change format, what becomes of their bouncy-castle-sized egos? Do they die of malnutrition?
‘So what’s this interview about, then?’ Lee Travis has asked. The ‘what happens to giant inflatable egos?’ answer seems too rude – so reassuring things about the nation’s interest in him being sempiternal are muttered instead. Satisfied with this, Lee Travis starts talking in general terms about how the country is going to the dogs – but you just know he is thinking about Radio 1. ‘I feel strongly about the fact that people are paring everything down to the bone,’ he says. ‘In every walk of life. It’s sad that good people who have a feel for a job are replaced by youngsters because they’re cheaper.’
Lee Travis often starts his sentences with ‘I feel strongly about’; and years of having people in radioland listen to his opinions has left him assuming that if he feels strongly about something everyone else will, too.
It also means that he now no longer needs a second person present when having a conversation. His monologue about good people being replaced by youngsters lasts until we reach the 250-year-old farmhouse in Hertfordshire where he lives with Marianne, the Swedish blonde he married 26 years ago.
The outside of the house is painted ochre which complements the black leaded windows. A couple of sheep are grazing in a paddock and, in the garden, waddling around a rusting seed drill, are a dozen Indian runner ducks. Because Lee Travis feels he is too old to look after them properly, he no longer keeps the pot-bellied pigs he was wont to talk about on air. ‘I remember one listener writing in to say that no one wanted to hear about my stupid farm and that I should remember that not everyone could afford one,’ Lee Travis recalls as he brings the car to a halt and opens the door only to have it whipped from his hand by a gust of wind. There is a loud crunch as the metal on the door axis buckles and this is followed by an equally loud ‘Bollocks!’ from DLT.
‘Where was I?’ he says, running a finger over the paintwork. ‘That’s right. This letter. It was venomous. And I was really annoyed because it wasn’t signed. So I went on air and said, ‘To the man who wrote this letter, you didn’t give me a chance to reply. Will you phone in?’ He did and we had a long conversation. He went away happy.’
You can see why. Lee Travis has an earthy, engaging manner and a quality – decency? lack of pretension? – which can probably be best defined as blokishness. Perhaps it is something to do with his being called Dave. (Try and imagine him being called David. It just doesn’t work.) Or maybe it’s the quaint words and phrases he uses. He’ll say things like ‘not firing on all cylinders’, ‘you pilchard’, ‘hitherto’, and ‘the old grey matter’. Possibly the best illustration of this Factor X comes when the burglar alarm goes off with a nerve-jangling whoop (there is a maintenance man testing it). It prompts Lee Travis to say how paranoid he is about anything happening to his wife. ‘It’s not your professional thief that worries me,’ he says, every inch the bloke in the pub. ‘It’s the amateur because he might be armed with a knife and might use it on Marianne. If any thief comes in while I’m here, I’ll do anything to put him on the ground. I get annoyed very easily and when I do I get strength from somewhere.’
It reveals the bluffness that always set Lee Travis apart from the other Radio 1 jocks. Not for him the mawkish sentimentality of a Simon Bates or the relentless, smirking fatuity of a Noel Edmonds. And, unlike other jocks, he never spoke with an exclamation mark after every word, that grammatical equivalent to canned laughter. Instead there was always something excitingly dark, bullying and edgy bubbling underneath his warm affability. Here, you felt, was a DJ who’d give you a good kicking if you crossed him. And, indeed, he was prone to losing his temper or, if he got worked up about a subject, launching into a long tirade about it. On one occasion, when he felt compelled to put the nation off its breakfast by delivering an impromptu lecture, in gory detail, about the evils of seal culling, it nearly cost him his job.
‘I have a reputation for diving in feet first when I feel strongly about things,’ he now says with a shrug. ‘Being outspoken. But as far as I’m concerned the boss of the station always has the last word. Nowadays, if someone says something really outrageous people say, “This will be good for ratings.” There is a very obvious example of this, and I think that was probably plotted from day one.’ He is referring to Chris Evans, the DJ who briefly staunched the haemorrhage of Radio 1 listeners before leaving the BBC under a cloud in January.
‘I think Chris Evans is a very talented guy on television,’ Lee Travis says. ‘I just never felt he was right on the radio. He did what was expected of Channel 4 late at night on a national radio breakfast show at seven in the morning. I mean two guys in the toilet peeing and telling dirty jokes, followed by a quiz in which nine-year-old kids win prizes for getting the wrong answers, just isn’t on.’
Lee Travis adds that when he meets people who haven’t heard him since he left Radio 1 they always say, ‘Oh it all went wrong when they fired you, you know.’ This makes him wince because, he says, he wasn’t fired. That came later when he broke his contract – which he intended to honour for the few months it had left to run – by talking to the press. Lee Travis decided to sever his connection because he thought it was a mistake to replace old DJs with young ones, because it would mean abandoning listeners aged 25 to 45. The station’s version of events is different: Lee Travis had become a dinosaur and a Luddite who wanted to play album tracks all the time instead of chart music, and he would have been pushed anyway if he hadn’t jumped. Either way he claims he’s not bitter: ‘It’s just that I knew Radio 1 was going to collapse and it did. [Today Radio 1 has half as many listeners as in Lee Travis’s heyday.] The same way I know that, in five years’ time, we’re going to come full circle and want real broadcasters again, instead of kids who save you money in the short term. Radio 1 will have to get back the people who know how far they can and should go. People who can go into a studio, which has a live microphone and, when all the other equipment stops working, talk for two hours and entertain people without having to resort to swearing.’
Lee Travis’s two labradors, Spike and Sam, wander in to the room for a pat and, as he obliges, he warms to his theme. ‘Knowing how far you can push things, what things you cannot say on air, takes experience. Barriers of decency are coming down. Anything sexual or involving bad language will make the press nowadays.’ This moral indignation does not sit comfortably with the Lee Travis sense of humour – he keeps a collection of books on the theme of farting in his downstairs loo – nor with the series of photographs he once took of Page Three Stunnas for the Sun. But this does not necessarily make him a hypocrite. Though he swears freely in private, he never does on air. And though he is probably a long way from being a feminist, this seems more to do with his passive conservatism than any sense of active political antagonism.
Lee Travis seems instead to be a victim of his emotions. When he says, for instance, that he doesn’t have children himself but if he did he’d want to be able to walk with them in the park without worrying, he almost shakes with passion. ‘I feel strongly about the law and the way criminals are given better treatment than their victims,’ he says. ‘I want someone to stand in front of me and explain why we can’t list the names and addresses of all the paedophiles that they’ve got.’
This tendency to break off from the usual stream of inane DJ chat ‘just to get serious for a moment folks’, was so savagely and wittily satirised by Harry Enfield, it seems mean to dwell on it. Equally, though, you get the feeling that Dave Lee Travis will not feel comfortable until the subject of Dave ‘Nicey’ Nice is out of the way. ‘Was it hurtful?’ Lee Travis repeats. ‘Well, that question had to be in there, didn’t it? No. You’re fair game. You have to see the funny side. It was a funny period. Not arf! We were all there wearing medallions and flared trousers. I never want anyone to think I take myself seriously. I’m not a brain surgeon, after all. I’m a bloody disc-jockey. But it didn’t matter to me as Smashie and Nicey were based on Alan Freeman and Tony Blackburn.’
There is some evidence to the contrary. What about that one-off ‘popumentary’ in which a bitter Dave ‘Nicey’ Nice reflected upon his career as he walked about his farm? In it, Nicey recalled his first break on pirate radio (Lee Travis, too, began on Radio Caroline); his hitmungous single ‘I’m a Rocking Crackers Pilchard’ (Lee Travis’s novelty band, Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks, had a hit with a song called ‘Convoy’); his tobacco industry award for Pipeman of the Year (Lee Travis won it in 1982); and, finally, the hatred Dave Nice has felt for young people ever since being ousted from FAB FM.
And then there is the way Nice jokes constantly about the fragile state of his own interlobular region. Lee Travis, too, will say: ‘What has kept me semi-sane – I’m not sure that I am – is that everyone deals with me as a friend in the home. There is an ego trip. I love people to come up and greet me with a ‘Hiya, Dave, how y’doin’?’ but it’s not a fame trip like a pop star. I’ve never had that hot and cold of being in and out of favour. I’ve always just been warm. Although there was a period in the Seventies when DJs were almost pop stars, that was just a silly phase we were going through. Sounds like a pop song, doesn’t it?’ He sings a bar and then adds: ’10CC: “I’m Not In Love”.’
By any standards, though, Lee Travis is pretty much a popular cultural icon; and not just in Britain. For 20 years he has presented A Jolly Good Show for the World Service. It gets the biggest mailbag in Bush House, including one letter that arrived on Lee Travis’s desk from India, simply addressed to ‘DLT, England’.
Marianne breezes in, wearing jeans and big green pully, and places a tray of cheese sandwiches on the table. Speaking in a Swedish accent which, fascinatingly, incorporates flattened Northern vowels she has picked up from her husband, Marianne explains that she turned DLT into a vegetarian, persuaded him to give up his pipe, and is now lobbying him to have a wind turbine installed on the farm. ‘I’ve given up watching Top of the Pops, too,’ Lee Travis chips in. ‘It drives me potty. I prefer to listen to Radio 4 these days.