Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Looking back: Some thoughts on the end of Morton Through Midnight

I’ve been broadcasting on BBC Radio Scotland for over 20 years. It’s time to give folk a break. 

Did I say ‘folk’? I meant rock, pop, blues, jazz and all the glorious panoply of  music we broadcast on Morton Through Midnight, 10.00pm  to 1.00am, Friday through Sunday (11-1 on the Sabbath). My last show will be Sunday 31st May. And then, after more than 20 years, that will be it.

I started on a mid-morning slot as vacation stand-in for Nancy Nicholson, learning my first and most important lesson as a freelance presenter: never go on holiday. Nancy did, I was asked to stay. Together with my producer, a young man called Jeff Zycinski, and the team in Inverness, we moved after a year or so to the early morning strand, five days a week, then four. Who can forget the interviews with Russian acrobats who couldn’t speak English? Being so hungover I had to broadcast flat on my back, being periodically sick into a handy bucket? Ivor Cutler talking live on air about his beloved penis, Britt Ekland thinking she was going to be on television and dressing accordingly and making her considerable displeasure more than felt? And that amazing  week of shows in Los Angeles, broadcasting from the middle of Compton at its most gangbanging? Jay Leno’s Scottish accent, meeting Ed Asner and Gregory Peck. Back in Inverness, there was the drinking, the long lunches, the food poisoning from on-air fish cookery, sleeping in a camper van in the BBC car park, destroying Chris Evans’ Radio One career, the midnight golf…

I left, chased by a wee touch of skin cancer, and after the weekly sarcasm of Man Bites Dog (early-to-mid-morning, came back in 2002 after five years to take over from Ian Anderson in the afternoons. The music started off as trad Scottish folk and a bit of country, moved on through to rootsy rock and finally centred on mainstream pop and rock with the occasional piece of Scottishness chucked in. TMS was produced in Aberdeen. See that BBC? They’re all over the place…even in Shetland.

From the start, I was living in the Shetland Isles and all the shows came from either the local BBC Shetland studios in Lerwick or from my house, in the remote parish of Northmavine. We pioneered the use of (now old fashioned) ISDN telecoms to broadcast, and MTM was the only long-form music show in the UK broadcast using an iPad and wi-fi. I’m proud of that. Remote, rural and worldwide.

In 2013 I was told that the afternoon show would end and was asked to work with my old pal Nick Low and his company Demus Productions on a three-hour Friday-through-Sunday late night music show. From early mornings to the late shift in 18 years. And who could complain? Demus and I had a two year contract. Let’s face it, it had to be better than working. 

And it was. A coterie of regular listeners from across the globe. Some great music and a fine production team.  We played some decent tunes, and talked nonsense into the wee sma’ hours. Some my favourite artists were happy to come in for a chat, from brand new Scottish singers like Fraser Anderson to American country superstar Eric Church, number one in the US album charts the day he recorded our session. Listeners became regulars, and then friends. I’ll miss them.
But it was hard. I know, that sounds like bleating self-pity from someone whose only job was to play records on the radio and talk. But after each three-hour (of late two on a Sunday) stint I felt very, very tired. Blood pressure crept up. So did cholesterol levels. The lack of actual human contact took its toll. A dangerous addiction to daytime telly began. I actually resigned two months ago, then changed my mind. Could I survive without eight hours a week of performing, of talking about myself? Of parading my vanity?

I took on a new part-time, temporary tourism development job which has proved hugely enjoyable. I thought the extra work was better for me, as I didn’t have time to be tired…at least I wasn’t watching Homes Under the Hammer repeats. There was a bit of PR work, copywriting, filmmaking, journalism, voluntary trusteeships…
And then. Chest pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Three increasingly serious episodes over 36 hours. Full ambulance trip to hospital, a week of tests, a trip to Aberdeen by air ambulance, an operation…

Not being on the radio. And being relieved. Cancelling one weekend’s shows. Then another. And then thinking: I really don’t want to do this anymore. I’m nearly 60. Maybe it’s time to stop this gob-on-a-stick existence, as one of my former producers called it.

Then thoughts of maybe one show a week. Yeah, why not? Four days out of hospital, though, another, worse bout of chest pain. Back to the Gilbert Bain, loads more tests, a CT scan…it became evident that I’d pushed things too fast and far. I talked it over with the family and decided it was time to call it a night. The BBC and I agreed I’d do one final two-hour farewell show, and  that would be it.

I have to thank so many radio people. Maggie Cunningham, Jeff Zycinski. Nick, Ravi and Gregor at Demus. My many producers over the years, especially Anne Bates and Fiona Aitken. And everyone who ever listened. It’s been a blast. I wish my successor all the very best. 

Do I have any advice for them? 

Know when it’s time to stop. And stop before that.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Waiting for the Russians

I had no idea just how big the old MOD/RAF installations on top of Saxa Vord, Unst, actually are. And how spine-tinglingly Edge of Darkness the whole bomb-proof business is. And I didn't even get to explore the tunnels!





But what views from the road that leads to what was the UK's first line of defence against Russian nuclear attack. And, rumour has it, may once again have a dome built there to house....who knows what?

Anyway, it's beautiful, historic and slightly scary. A must-see for any Unst tourist, in my opinion. Tricky road, though, be careful. Don't be distracted by Muckle Flugga!