Thursday, August 30, 2007

Radio One More Time: First Love

You were my first love
and first love never, ever dies

Much has been written about Simon Bates' Our Tune, the daily feature in which Bates would read out a letter about a love story which - normally - ended in tragedy and then, after a spin of the doomed couple's song (quite often something by Dire Straits of Will You, by Hazel O'Connor), the redemption:

So, you're looking at the radio now, saying 'what happened, Simes?' Well... Tony's leg never grew back, but his heart did...

The lack of any serious radio audience research allowed Bates to make grandiose claims for this daily spot of mawkishness. Sometimes, this would take the form of tales of hardened lorry drivers being forced to pull over to the hard shoulder of the M1 lest their floods of tears lead to multi-car pile-ups (although that would, at least, provide a fresh supply of "Julie was trying on the wedding dress when a policeman called at the door - it was Jack, he'd been killed in an accident" stories to keep the feature going.) Always, though, there was Bates' boast at the end:

Tell me your story, and I'll tell eight million other people

It's interesting that, despite these enormous audiences hanging on every twist and turn, nobody has seemed much interested in attempts to resurrect the feature in Bates' post-Radio One life. He's popped up doing it on Sky One, TalkRadio and Classic FM but (adopts gravelly voice, fades up Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet by Henry Salomon & His Orchestra) the spark had gone and, although Simon was keen to try again, the audience... well, the audience had moved on, found other obsessions. And so the tantalising question remained: had Our Tune been popular because it was on during the day on the biggest radio station in the country... or could, as Simon seemed to believe, have Radio One been so popular because of Our Tune?

To be fair to Bates, as Out On Air in Radio 4's Archive Hour pointed out a few weeks back, he was open to all-comers for Our Tune, and did feature gay relationships, something still fairly unusual to hear about on Radio One out of the context of "this is a youth issue with a telephone helpline attached". On the other hand, the way he'd build up to these stories - building a protective zone of repeated warnings ("some of you might be shocked, there might even be complaints") rather than slipping them in in a matter-of-fact fashion - suggested that he wasn't entirely comfortable featuring tales of man-on-man heartbreak and was probably only doing the queer ones because he'd run out of "normal" letters.

So, yes, Our Tune is well known. Less well recorded, though, is Mike Read's similar - some might even say copycat - feature which ran in the Breakfast Show. While Bates appealed for stories of the biggest romances and largest disasters, Read slowly carved out a niche for himself which sought out tales of First Love. In place of the Love Theme from Romeo And Juliet, there were the Walker Brothers, and - by the nature of the stories - much was played out in classrooms, common rooms and playing fields, which sat well with Read's other big feature, Schooldesk. (This was little more than hoping Mike Read would read out the name of your school - simple pleasures in those days, kids.)

In those days, Read provided the only public outlet for people, looking back fondly on a love which had been strong, burned with passion, and - usually - had been ended by circumstance or puberty, never to be regained. These days, of course, Friends Reunited performs a similar function, but in place of a TeaHee mug and a chance to hear a song you once snogged to, you get a messy divorce and the chance of a disastrous old-time's sake bunk-up.

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