Interview with Sussex’s former shock jock Tommy Boyd
PUBLISHED: 09:57 20 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:06 23 October 2020
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Tommy Boyd discusses radio rants, TV history and living in Chichester
There was always a hint of danger with Tommy Boyd. Even when he was operating in the relatively safe waters of children's television, you never quite knew what he would say or do next. Watch old clips of Magpie and you'll see that while his co-presenters, Jenny Hanley and Mick Robertson, smile brightly at their young viewers while dutifully following the autocue, Tommy delivers his lines to camera with an anarchic energy that would have given Kenny Everett a run for his money.
Perhaps it wasn't such a leap to talkRADIO after all. In the 1990s, he became the UK's answer to the American shock jock, where, as a DJ on the controversial phone-in station, he employed his rapier-like wit and verbal dexterity to devastating effect, skewering his outraged callers with a few well-chosen put-downs.
Thankfully, off air, Tommy, 66, is softer, kinder and more amiable, but does he recognise the maverick quality I've described? "Yes, it's slightly genetic," he says. "My father was a hard-line communist and always had this sense that the establishment needed to be challenged."
Tommy learnt his comedic skills as a Butlin's Redcoat at Bognor Regis where, as a 19-year-old fledgling performer, he watched the likes of Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and Bob Monkhouse from the wings. "I drank it all in, seeing what they did and how they did it," he says. "The resident comedian was the old-time Music Hall superstar Tommy Trinder, and he gave me a few tips which were gold dust. On my birth certificate, it still says Timmy, but he told me, 'You've got to be really funny if you're a Tim. Tims are nice guys, but you're a cheeky chappie like me. You're a Tommy.' So I changed one vowel."
Tommy has lived in Sussex, on and off, for nearly 50 years, but grew up in west London. When he was seven, his younger sister, Sally, died after a two-year illness and his parents went to pieces. "I never saw them laugh again," he says. "What effect it had on me, I'm not sure, because my parents, who were typical of that wartime generation, tried to pretend it hadn't happened. There was this curious silence. I'm only piecing the impact together now."
When he was 14, he overheard his mother telling a relative that a neurological condition had been detected in his father's family which had already claimed two of his dad's siblings. "She said there was a good chance it had killed my sister and there was a 50 per cent possibility I'd develop it, too, and, if I did, I'd have 18 months to live. For the next seven years I was saddled with the possibility that I could die quite young. It made me realise, in the words of Jim Morrison, that no one gets out of this alive, so I decided I'd get on with my life."
His ambition crystallised while watching Blue Peter with his mum. He'd always been a fan of its best-known presenter, John Noakes. The way he rebelled against the conventional presenter norms and pretended to lose his oven gloves when, in truth, he'd hidden them all along - just for comic effect. One afternoon Tommy's mum said, "You could do that", and he found himself agreeing.
After stints at Radio Brighton and LBC Radio, he heard that one of the presenters of Magpie, the ITV equivalent of Blue Peter, was about to leave. He secured an audition, deliberately botched a pancake-making demo in true Noakesian style, which provoked a round of applause from the usually jaundiced camera crew, and landed the job.
Magpie, he says, was Blue Peter's younger, edgier sibling. "It was more youth club, Coca Cola and chips, whereas Blue Peter was more boy scouts, girl guides and muffins for tea. We also had more pop music than they did, and some good acts. I was responsible for giving Kate Bush her first television performance after hearing her perform Wuthering Heights on the radio. We built a set that looked like the Yorkshire Dales and to save money I dressed up as Heathcliff, with my back to the camera. Kate, with all her exotic witchcraft, performed that song at me ten times, an experience that warms my heart to this day."
Tommy became a household name overnight, but, despite the dodgy sets, Magpie cost too much to make - and in 1980 it was axed. Tommy was immediately poached by LBC Radio which offered him Jeremy Beadle's old Sunday night slot, and within three months the Royal Variety Club had voted him independent radio personality of the year. But he continued to present children's television until the mid-1990s, until, as has so often happened in Tommy's career, the phone rang and an old mate, now the programme controller of a soon-to-be launched radio station called talkRADIO, signed him up as their first ever host.
Tommy was one of the first exponents of what's known in the broadcasting business as monologue debate - where a DJ presents an outrageous point of view for seven minutes, just to get the phone lines buzzing with irate callers. "The job was to get as close to the line as possible. I'd say, 'I've bought myself a jet ski,' knowing that everybody hates jet skis. Or, 'Elvis Presley was a fantastic actor. It's a shame he couldn't sing.' But it wasn't exploitative because most listeners were in on the joke."
Tommy attracted high listening figures, but was such a controversialist that he never went home without fearing he might be fired the next day. He was right to worry: when Kelvin McKenzie, the former Sun editor, bought talkRADIO in 1995, Tommy, like many others, did indeed get the axe, only to return a few months later, by which time the station had been relaunched as talkSPORT. But in 2002 he was fired again after failing to block on-air remarks from a caller who said he would like to shoot the royal family, just hours after the death of the Queen Mother.
These days, Tommy has stepped aside from radio to devote more time to his wife of 50 years, Jayne, and their children. Home is a large townhouse in Chichester. "I like Chichester because it's not in the least impressed with me," he says. "Brighton was, but I don't think anybody has ever come up to me here and said, 'Are you Tommy Boyd?'"
On a typical day, he walks into town, drinks a leisurely coffee in his favourite coffee bar, and potters round the shops. "I also play golf... badly. And I go to the races. Fontwell Racecourse is the best place on earth on a really cold, mid-week afternoon in November."
He's also the patron of the Sussex Snowdrop Trust, a West Sussex-based charity which provides nursing care at home for children who have had a life-threatening illness or may be terminally ill. "In the entire two-and-a-half years of my sister Sally's life, no one visited the house," he says. "My mum had to take her to hospital regularly so they could chart her decline and that meant she had to take two buses, and this with a dying child in her arms. Snowdrop not only provides nursing aid for each individual child and their parents, but also offers sibling support. They also have a wonderful counsellor who visits families and provides whatever support may be needed.
"My mum once saw a child in a wheelchair at a panto, and her heart went out to the mother of that child because she was surrounded by healthy children. When Snowdrop families get together, they're all in the same boat and don't feel quite so isolated."
Tommy still listens to the radio, usually in the bath, and finds himself fulminating against presenters who don't know their job. Does he wish he was back in the fray? "I'm twiddling my thumbs quite happily," he says, not entirely convincingly, before hinting that he might be ready for a comeback. "I'm 67 in December, which is still quite young in broadcasting terms. I'm actually waiting to be old because then I'll be in a minority group. I'm hoping to follow Angela Rippon into the world of being employed largely because you've managed to hang on for 75 years."
For more details about the Sussex Snowdrop Trust, visit thesussexsnowdroptrust.com or ring 01243 572433