Tony Blackburn tells Piers all:
- His marriage breakdown and going through heartbreak live on air
- His addiction to Valium
- His opinion on Jimmy Savile, having worked with him for 17 years
- He saved Kenny Everett’s life
- He was suspended from Classic Gold…for playing Cliff Richard’s songs
- Putting the phone down on Frank Sinatra
- Being mobbed by fans
- Being kidnapped by students
- Being called ‘Brian’ by Nicholas Parsons
Tony Blackburn has had a successful radio career spanning 50 years. Whilst talking to Piers Morgan, for Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, which will be screened on ITV tomorrow (Friday) at 9pm, Tony told Piers about his pride at what he has achieved.
Tony said: “It feels like a long time. I’m very proud of it. I’ve never been out of work in 50 years. That’s quite something. I don’t know quite how I’ve managed to get away with it, to be honest with you, and I don’t think the British public probably deserve that amount, because I’ve done an amazing amount of programmes, it’s incredible.”
Tony has worked on 13,200 programmes and when he worked on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show he was listened to by 20 million people – a third of the population at the time. Tony therefore has one of the most recognisable voices in show business.
Piers asked: “Did you always have this voice?”
Tony said: “I certainly did. If you talked in a monotone (on the radio) it would be really boring, so it’s the ups and downs a little bit, but I’ve always had this voice.”
Tony was just 24 when he made broadcasting history by launching Radio 1, Britain’s first official pop station. He soon went on to work in TV and in the 70s and 80s he presented Top of The Pops to audiences of 18 million viewers. Everywhere Tony went he was mobbed by fans and chased by autograph hunters.
Piers asked: “Did you like the mania that came with that sort of fame that you had?”
Tony said: “It was incredible. I don’t think people nowadays realise how big the… not just me, but the Radio 1 disc jockeys were. I remember up in Glasgow or Edinburgh I was opening a menswear shop. They dropped me the wrong side of the road and there was such a big crowd there and they ripped this jacket off. It was a menswear shop and I came out of the shop with a better jacket than I’d gone in with.”
Piers asked Tony how it felt being a heartthrob.
Tony said: “It was very nice but I never really saw myself like that at all. I didn’t have a lot of confidence.”
Tony was once kidnapped by a bunch of students and they demanded the BBC read out a message for them on air.
Tony explained: “I came out to do the Breakfast Show at 5.00 in the morning and suddenly these kids came over, bundled me into the car and drove me out to Heathrow. When they realised that the BBC didn’t value me that much (they didn’t read the message out) they just dropped me off.”
Piers said: “Who did the show that morning?”
Tony said: “I can’t remember because I was in the back of a van.”
Tony told Piers that he once put the phone down on Frank Sinatra.
Tony explained: “We had a red phone in the studio and I picked up the phone and Pete Murray used to do a lot of funny voices and sometimes it would be Pete Murray messing around. So I picked up the phone and said, ‘Hello, who’s that?’ He said, ‘Frank.’ I said, ‘Frank who?’ He said, ‘Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Very funny’ and put the phone down. About a minute later the phone went again and it was Harold Davidson (Tony’s agent) and he said, ‘There aren’t many people who put the phone down on Frank Sinatra.’”
Tony continued: “He’d (Sinatra) rang up because he wanted somebody to play a record for him. Not his own record. He said everybody plays my records but nobody’s ever played a record for me. And I did, I played a record for him.”
Tony also told Piers that Nicholas Parsons always called him Brian!
Tony said: “For years and years he (Nicholas Parsons) always called me Brian. I met him in the 60s and he called me Brian. It was in the BBC canteen. I just went along with it and it just…”
Piers asked: “Did you not ask him why he was calling you Brian?”
Tony said: “No, I just went a along with it.”
Tony worked with Jimmy Savile for 17 years. Piers asked Tony what he thought of him.
Tony said: “I don’t think any of us liked him particularly. He was an oddball. I didn’t like him as a person. It was always this silly Jimmy Savile. He never talked to you in a normal way. There were always rumours about him but I never saw him do anything wrong. I didn’t realise how bad he was. You were a newspaper editor, you must have heard the rumours yourself?”
Piers said: “No, funnily enough, people have asked that many times. No, not really. The rumours we used to hear were that he was just a bit odd, but nothing like the stuff that came out after he died. Truly shocking I think for absolutely everybody.”
Tony said: “It’s an absolute tragedy and I think the sin is that he’s not around to answer for it.”
In 1972 Tony married TV and film actress Tessa Wyatt after a whirlwind romance. A year later they had a son, Simon. However, after four years together their marriage collapsed, amid rumours of affairs. Tessa moved out, taking Simon with her, and a devastated Tony bared all on his Radio 1 show. He played songs about broken hearts and he regularly played a record by R and J Stone called Thrown it All Away, telling listeners, ‘This is the story of my life at the moment.’
As Tony became more depressed he became reliant on Valium. He even deceived his dad, a GP, to get hold of medication.
Piers said: “It was obviously a heart aching time for you. Did you ever get that depressed that you considered taking your own life?”
Tony said: “No. I’d never dream of doing anything like that. I was depressed because it was the first failure (in my life). I don’t know anybody who goes through a divorce who’s happy about it. I had to live it whilst I was doing my radio shows. To be honest, I was boring the nation stupid with my marriage breakup. Somebody should’ve told me to shut up. I wasn’t getting any guidance.”
He continued: “It was like a soap opera going on and it went on for just too long. I wasn’t particularly happy at the time. I was prescribed Valium, just to calm me down a bit, and I was taking a little bit too much of it because I began to rather enjoy it. I found that Valium was addictive and I remember once I’d forgotten to take the Valium and I got the shakes. I rang my father and said, ‘I’m shaking like mad, am I having a heart attack?’ He said, ‘Have you taken your Valium? I said, ‘No, is it that important?’ He said, ‘Oh yes, you must take it.’ I thought, ‘I’m addicted to this stuff.’ So immediately I came off it. It took me about three weeks to come off it and I did. That was it.”
Piers asked: “What caused the breakdown (of your marriage)?”
Tony said: “It was just one of those things. We obviously weren’t made for one another. She was a lovely lady and still is but I had an affair and that was it. I fell for somebody else.”
Piers intercepted: “Your neighbour?”
Tony said: “Yes.”
Piers said: In your autobiography you said, ‘This country is very uptight about sex, I just get on with it.’ How much getting on with it did you do, exactly?”
Tony joked: “A couple.”
Piers asked: “Did you have a particular chat up routine?”
Tony said: “I used to go to a restaurant in Notting Hill where I used to have the same table and the lights would dim at a particular time."
Piers asked: “When the lights came down, what was the killer line?”
Tony said: “Would you like to come home and see my satellite dish? I had one of the first satellite dishes in this country that rotated.”
Tony landed a job with Radio Caroline and worked on boat. Whilst on the ship, Tony saved Kenny Everett’s life.
Tony said: “When I was on Big L Radio London I came up to do the breakfast show and it had a gangway where the tender boat would go and we would cross from one boat to the other. Kenny was there with a slight dazed look – he was obviously on something. He was just about to step over and I quickly went up to him, took him by the arm and said, ‘What are you doing Kenny?’ He said, ‘I’m going to walk to Frinton. I said, ‘No you’re not.’ I took him to one side and put him in his cabin, and told somebody he was in there. (If I hadn’t done that) he’d have died, because the currents out in the North Sea, he’d have been swept away.”
Tony was the winner of the very first series of reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! in 2002.
“I loved doing the programme. I thought it was terrific,” said Tony. “I really wanted to do it. I didn’t go out there in the jungle to re-establish myself. That wasn’t the point. It was a television programme I found quite fascinating. The fact I won it obviously was a plus.”
In 1992 Tony married his wife Debbie Thomson.
Tony said: “She’s made a terrific difference to my life. We’ve been married for 21 years – the happiest years of my life. I absolutely adore her.”
He continued: “There’s been no affairs. I’ve never been unfaithful. I wouldn’t because she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
In 2004 Tony made headline news by playing a Cliff Richard song on the radio. He was hosting a radio show with Classic Gold and the station had banned Cliff Richard songs from their playlist. Tony rebelled and played Cliff’s songs regardless. Tony was suspended and it was even discussed in parliament.
Tony said: “It stuck me as being rather stupid, being on a 60s, 70s and 80s station. Cliff Richard has had over 100 hit records, not to be playing Cliff Richard.”
Piers said: “Cliff must have been incredibly grateful. Did he send you anything?”
Tony said: “He sent me a thank you card and half a bottle of champagne.”