Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘John Peel’s Shed’ and ‘Circled in The Radio Times’, which he saw on tour at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn.
John Osborne has a cosily laconic approach to the microphone … shy and diffident … precise and pronounced. He also has the wonderful knack of constructing a riveting evening out of very little material at all. And, like John Peel, he’s perfectly in tune with his audience. So, in the end, what little he does do is memorising. And whilst his narrative may initially appear, like popular radio itself, random and rambling; he ties up every loose end and nails every joke. In short, an evening with John Osborne is a master class in how to be a subtle, drawing room raconteur.
In ‘John Peel’s Shed’, his story starts in 2002. Osborne is one of hundreds of thousands of Peel disciples who always felt something special when they tuned in at 10pm, three nights a week, to hear the last remnant of the great days of Radio 1 still at work. In so doing, he joined a secret sub-culture spread across the nation.
One particular night, in what must have been one of millions of off-the-cuff remarks, Peel ran a competition inviting good one-liners for his annual Sony Award application. Osborne was already a budding writer and sent in the following affidavit : “Records you want to hear, played by a man who wants to play them”. He won. And his prize was a box of 150 odd records from the delivery room of all new music, John Peel’s Shed.
There were LPs by Screaming Lord Sutch, Oizone (a punk version of Boyzone, from Reading) and a rather startling one-man outfit called ‘Atom and His Package’. The timeless joke is that the penniless Osborne didn’t actually own a record player.
The gramophone player set up on stage was barely better than none at all. It was tinny and scratchy, didn’t always play at the right speed, and might easily have come from a charity shop. But in this show, it was the stories that matter as Osborne recalls magical moments from his listening life…ranging from a listener’s love story on Virgin Radio to a half hour programme call ‘Me and My Floor’ (on a London Art Station) which was literally the sound of floor, doing what floors do, for 30 minutes.
But what emerges is how radio has helped John Osborne through the awkwardnesses of his life…amounting almost to the salvation of his soul.
We all love radio, so his connection with his audience runs deep. We too had despaired at the increasing mindlessness of Radio 1 – where, he reckoned, the presenters can barely muster a single entendre, and certainly not a double one. Rows of heads nodded in unison and agreement.
The tragedy is that when Peel suddenly died, trekking in Peru, Osborne was teaching in Vienna and missed the moment. His dad dutifully recorded the first Radio 1 John Peel Tribute Night and posted a pile of cassettes. But his son didn’t have a cassette player.
Just as John Peel cultivated his audience, so does John Osborne. He could have gone on for hours. In fact, after the interval he turned his attention to television and wittered on for another 35 minutes with more recent – but equally charming – material. Like so many of us in the early days of tv when, if you missed it, it was gone, his granddad would buy a copy of The Radio Times every week and, with a variety of coloured felt tip pens, circle the programmes he planned to watch. His magazine collection survived him and has acquired a reverence. They are a testament to his taste … and his turmoils.
According to the red heart-shaped circles, grandad loved ‘Morse’ so much he would even watch John Thaw in the dreadful ‘A Year in Provence’. His choices cheapen when he is bereaved … and then broaden to include David Attenborough with the arrival of a new love in his life. And it is perfectly clear when he just couldn’t be bothered with EastEnders any longer.
Osborne goes meticulously through the back editions like an archaeologist piecing together the history of a lost tribe. And we gladly make that special journey with him … simply because it is told so lovingly well.