RT Party

Steve Williams interviews Tony Currie

First published September 2001

Tuesday – the best day of the week. Always has been, always will be, as that’s the day the Radio Times is published.

The amount of affection and loyalty that this magazine receives continues to this day, and one suspects that most OTT writers have fond memories of using the magazine when they were young – cutting it up and making up their own schedules, ringing the programmes they wanted to watch over the week, or getting fed up that it had started announcing pages from Ceefax being broadcast on a Saturday morning which previously they considered a secret only known by them and some BBC engineers. For me, I can remember looking in it every morning and telling my nursery teacher when Play School was going to be on – hence being known as “The Walking Radio Times” – and pouring over every detail about my favourite programmes.

Recently, a book celebrating the history of the magazine from its creation in 1923 until the present day has been published. The Radio Times Story is an excellent tribute to an excellent publication, featuring hundreds of evocative covers, illustrations and extracts from the archives. The author is Tony Currie, a broadcasting enthusiast whose interest in the RT began when he found a scrap from a four-year old edition underneath his gran’s carpet. Since then, he’s been the first voice on Radio Clyde, an announcer on Scottish Television, a director of programmes at the Cable Authority and helped to set up TARA TV, as well as contributing to various publications and programmes on broadcasting topics. Currently he works for the BBC, and later in 2001 he’ll be hosting a convention organized by the classic TV organization Kaleidoscope. Now he can add OTT to this bulging CV, as in August 2001 we interviewed him.

OTT: You’ve clearly been involved in many broadcasting projects. What’s the bit you’ve most enjoyed?

TONY CURRIE: Probably putting together the first Secondary School radio station in Britain – Radio Hillpark, which broadcast for just one day in Glasgow on AM Stereo. We had everything – Alan Freeman presenting the Teachers’ Pick of the Pops; live sport with runners in the school marathon on radio mics; comedy, music sessions, a quiz game with an audience – the works! At the end of the evening one of the kids – a girl of 12 – says, “Mr Currie, this has been the best day of my life!”. It doesn’t get any better.

Mind you, hosting the opening night of Radio Clyde was pretty cool, and I did rather enjoy pontificating about the nature of British television as a guest on the Parliamentary channel C-SPAN in Washington. Actually, I have loved all of it really …

OTT: As you’re obviously a TV enthusiast, we wonder if the TV industry has lived up to your hopes, and also if you think you’ve ever had to hide your enthusiasm from others.

TONY CURRIE: I’ve never hidden anything. I believe enthusiasm rubs off on others. I’m not just an anorak, I’m the full duffel-coat. It’s true that my colleagues are sometimes mystified by my propensity to hum cheerful songs when I come in to Broadcasting House at five in the morning, but that’s got more to do with their inability to wake up in the morning. Me – I get up an hour early and watch News 24!

OTT: How did the Radio Times book come about?

TONY CURRIE: I presented BBC Worldwide with the outline of the book about 10 years ago, but although [former RT editor] Nick Brett was keen for it to be a BBC project, there were some problems with books at the time and he had to turn me down. After I had brokered a deal for second-hand bookseller Len Kelly to acquire the back numbers of Radio Times, it was entirely logical for Len to publish the book himself.

OTT: I have a particular favourite Radio Times cover – the Tony Hancock cover from 1985 that was partly a facsimile of an original cover from 1960, if only as I remember studying that cover for ages when I was young. What are your favourites?

TONY CURRIE: I love the cover for the Television Number in October 1936, and all those covers with TV and radio masts on them. And the yellow daffodils at Easter. But my all-time favourite is the Bugs Bunny cover (1980), with Bugs uttering the words of what was then the TV Times’ advertising slogan – “I never knew there was so much in it”.

OTT: Of course, Channel 4′s Michael Jackson famously used to cut up the Radio Times to make up his own schedules. I did something similar, but could never bear to cut the magazine up. How about you?

TONY CURRIE: When I was quite small I used to write my own TV Times every week with the schedules for my imaginary television channel. It was good practice for later years. I vividly remember those issues during assorted industrial disputes when only a single edition was published combining all the regional programmes in one issue. This meant that I had the rare chance to read the billings for the London Home Service instead of the Scottish one. Much excitement at the tender age of seven!

OTT: What sort of future do you think the magazine has? How do you think it will cover TV in a decade or two?

TONY CURRIE: I suspect its days as a printed publication may be numbered. I tend to use some form of EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) to find out what’s on nowadays, and these tend to be much more accurate than something printed three weeks in advance. The website will become the primary means of distribution, I fear.

OTT: Can you tell us a bit more about the other book you’ve written, A Concise History of British Television 1930 – 2000? And what are you planning to do next?

TONY CURRIE: The Concise History was originally commissioned by the Royal Television Society as a series of articles for their magazine. The editor, Peter Fiddick, was worried that youngsters coming into TV knew nothing of its past and asked me to put together a very very brief and readable history. After the articles appeared, it seemed worthwhile to expand on them a bit, add more pictures and publish them as a small volume. I’ve completed a third book about the early days of Radio Clyde and am currently working on a history of “Ally Pally” and a book about ITV’s pioneering lunchtime shows of the 1950s.

OTT: Can you also tell us a bit more about the Kaleidoscope event you’re introducing?

TONY CURRIE: This year’s event will include panellists Leonard White (producer of The Avengers and Out of This World) and Irene Shubok (his story editor on Out of This World before she became a distinguished producer in her own right). Tony Hatch will be there, and we’ll be doing our two-man show “The Two Tones” – he plays his way through all the TV themes he’s written (from Tingha & Tucker to Neighbours) and I talk about the programmes they came from. Oh, and we both sing a bit, too …