One day - who knows when? - someone might ask: Who was Ged Clapson?
I have come to realise, as I've faced terminal cancer, that my life has been rather compartmentalised, a series of chapters, some bearing little or no relation to others. So, here is my own version of my life, as I have recalled it in 2017/18. I am not pretending it is complete: others may have completely different recollections. It is also inevitably selective: there are episodes which I have either deliberately forgotten or would prefer not to recall. Feel free to add in any blanks. But here, for what it's worth, is my personal account of my life.
The child who is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonnie and blithe and good and gay.
20 March 1955 was a Sunday: Mothering Sunday. It was also the day that Charles (named after my father) Gerard Clapson made his first appearance in the world. Apparently, my mother – a staunch Catholic – had no idea when they chose my middle name that St Gerard Majella was the patron saint of expectant mothers. But it was the one I came to be identified by, to differentiate between my father and me. Besides, I always tried to avoid the name Charles (it sounded so snooty when I was growing up), but in my later years, I have resigned myself to the fact that my birth certificate clearly states that I am Charles Gerard.
From an early age though – before I was one year old – I started being called Ged or Geddy. For a short time in the mid-1970s, I was known as Gerry; but when I began broadcasting with BBC Radio in Bristol, I was asked whether I had an alternative, since they already had one Gerry (Parker). Ged seemed a natural choice.
I came on stage in 1955 at 28 Ravenswood Road in Redland (below), a suburb of Bristol, adjacent to Clifton. The fourth of five children, I was the first and only son of Charles and Kathleen (née Harrison); indeed, I was (and still am) the only remaining male Clapson in this branch of the family. So, although there might be distant relatives in some far-flung corners of the world, and since I have no children, the family name will die out with me.
Home was a semi-detached house (probably built in the Edwardian period), set over three storeys with a large sloping garden to the rear. Foremost among my memories of Number 28 is that it was cold: physically and emotionally. These were the days before central heating; occasional two-bar electric or New World gas fires were turned on only when needed, and the gas cooker provided welcome warmth in the kitchen. I well remember waking up in the morning to find a sheet of ice on the inside of my bedroom window.
The emotional environment was often bitter too. It is hard to recall the warmth created by love or laughter. It was tense, rather than aggressive; impatient, rather than affirming; critical, rather than embracing. Rows and traumas were regular occurrences, and I reacted as many children do in such circumstances, with nocturnal bed-wetting, that went on well into my teens (and, occasionally, beyond). When voices were raised downstairs, I was invariably sent to my room, so I rarely knew what the arguments were about. Infact, it wasn't until I was in my 40s or even 50s before I discovered what some of these family issues were that caused such dissent; and - to be honest - there may well be further skeletons in the closet which have still to be revealled. But that is purely conjecture.
These days, such an environment would be classified as abusive – emotionally, if not physically. But at that time, we simply learnt to accept – and expect – it. Gradually, the family unit shrunk, as first one, then a second sister left home - both under a cloud of silence and, for me, of ignorance as to the reasons for their departure. Only Anne remained of the elder three, with Lucy (five years my junior and known as Boo) and myself.
Home life was dominated by my mother (a native Yorkshire-woman). She and my father (a Londoner) had moved to Bristol from Sutton in Surrey and bought the house in Ravenswood Road after living for a time in Clifton. And it was from here that I set off for the walk to Clifton to primary school in September 1960 (left).
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …”
Jaques in As You Like It (William Shakespeare)
The Pro-Cathedral School sat in the shadow of the Pro-Cathedral itself, both institutions perched precariously on a cliff-side on Park Place. The church opened as a place of worship in the mid-19th century and served as the mother church for the Catholic population of the Diocese of Clifton until a fully consecrated Cathedral could be completed: that wasn’t to be for more than 120 years, when the Cathedral Church of SS Peter and Paul was opened. In the meantime, the Pro-Cathedral Church of the Holy Apostles sufficed, with its adjacent primary school providing an education for youngsters such as me and facing a triangular garden that was rich with cherry blossom each May that coincided wonderfully with First Holy Communions.
The picture above shows the Pro-Cathedral Church in the foreground, with the ruined presbytery to its rear. The junior school playground ran the entire length of the nave. Visible over the houses is the 'new' Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.
With two infants’ classes and four for the juniors, the primary school’s staff seemed to be predominantly middle-aged spinsters, supplemented by the headmaster's wife, Doreen Vassalli, and two teaching sisters from nearby St Mary’s Hospital – Sister Maria Carmel who taught Junior 4, and Sister Maria Gertrude who taught the younger children. Both were members of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God (PSMG), and I had a particular affection for Sr Gertrude, a kind and gentle nun with whom I kept in touch for many years after leaving ‘the Pro’. Sr Carmel, on the other hand, had a reputation for being more tyrannical and I always resented the way she insisted on addressing me as Charles, because there was another (older) Gerard in the class.
The ritual of getting to and from primary school back in the 1960s involved my elder sister, Anne, and our maternal grandmother, known as Nana. Since Anne was working in an administrative role at Midland Assurance on nearby Queen’s Road at that time, she would take me to school in the morning and walk me home in the evening. But there was a time lapse between the end of the school day and the end of her working day in the office; so that time was spent around the corner at Nana’s, a basement flat in Meridian Place, where the daily ritual included an episode of the 1960s ITV soap opera ‘Crossroads’.
The Pro provided me with a solid Catholic education and even gave me my first opportunity to tread the boards, on the school stage that was sited beneath the church: I danced a Scottish jig to Andy Stewart’s Donald, Where’s Your Troosers? The theatrical seed had obviously been sown, because I then went on to perform occasional plays for relatives and friends with my younger sister, Lucy, and the Kissane sisters from another parish family. One of the most memorable was our version of All Gas and Gaiters, a television sitcom of the late 1960s, in which I played the bishop!
This period also gave me my introduction to several different genres of music which, in one way or another, have remained with me throughout my life. With little or no interest in the ‘pop’ culture of my contemporaries, I found myself uplifted by my father’s Classical LPs, especially Rimsky-Korsavok’s Scheherazade and the Readers Digest collection of piano works performed by Artur Rubenstein. But no composition affected me more powerfully than the sensual strings and bombastic brass of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony (The Pathétique): this gay Russian composer's passion and pain - as represented in his glorious music - seared itself on my musical DNA.
But there was another vinyl collection at Ravenswood Road as well, that made an impression upon me: the musical. From Oliver! to The Sound of Music, West Side Story to Guys and Dolls, I was captivated by the ability of composers and lyricists to tell stories and explore emotions through their music. And nowhere more so than in Carmen Jones (above), which (unbeknown to me at the time) has going to play such a significant part in my later life and which gave me my first taste of opera.
The Pro-Cathedral (church) provided me with a community in which I immersed myself – not least as an altar-server from the age of seven. The dusty, musty building was full of shadows and mystique, with ethereal light shining through stained glass windows, the smell of candle wax and incense, the sound of majestic organ, choristers and a massive ticking clock at the back of the church which I volunteered to wind regularly.
The rituals were theatrical and rich with characters and symbolism; and I became absorbed by the splendour of the Catholic faith immediately before, during and after the Second Vatican Council. Sometimes it felt like I was spending more time in church than at home: serving at the early morning weekday Masses, as well as on Sundays; taking part in the Holy Week and Easter liturgies, not only at the Pro itself but also at La Retraite Convent and St Joseph’s Home for the Elderly; and even traipsing over the Clifton Suspension Bridge to Leigh Woods at the crack of dawn to serve at Mass for Bishop Joseph Rudderham.
When the doors of the Pro-Cathedral finally closed at Park Place and the splendid (though architecturally very different) Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul was consecrated on 29 June 1973, there was I, leading in the procession as acolyte - pictured here to the right of the cross-bearer. Among the dignatories following us are the Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain; Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, who preached at the ceremony; and Bishop Joseph Rudderham of Clifton, who presided at the consecration.
All things considered, then, it is little wonder that, from the age of seven, I had only one ambition: to join the ranks of the priesthood, an ambition that remained strong as I entered puberty and moved from the Pro-Cathedral primary school to St Brendan’s College in Brislington.
“People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.”
Mr Badger, Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
St Brendan’s College (right) was the domain of the (Irish) Christian Brothers, an almost totally male environment, and the ethos was a combination of academic industry (with all eyes on university) and sporting prowess. Unfortunately, I shone in neither area. I was not one of the brainiest boys in class; neither did rugby or cricket appeal to me. But I attempted Latin (because I thought I might need it as a Catholic priest) and even Ancient Greek, though I failed both subjects at O-level. I coped adequately but not spectacularly with the other core subjects, especially English Literature, which I later took to A-level (and passed) in 6th form. I chose athletics instead of cricket at the first opportunity and even made the school team, briefly, in the high jump; and I opted out of rugby to run miles across muddy fields and windswept lanes in cross-country. I found myself actually enjoying being a member of the Air Force branch of the Combined Cadet Force, though, an activity that gave me my first experience of flying – in a Chipmunk – at an RAF camp in East Anglia.
But sports and studies aside, St Brendan’s was significant because it introduced me to the theatre. Our English teacher, Peter Allen, organised regular excursions to plays at the Bristol Old Vic and it was often left to me to review the productions for the school magazine. And when the opportunity arose to audition for the school’s production of ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, there was no holding me back. Under the watchful eye of drama teacher Hedley Goodall and his assistant, Alan Lawrence, I had already been enraptured by the previous year’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’; and I was determined to get involved in A.A. Milne’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Enter Mr Badger – centre-stage beneath a pile of leaves – awakened from his slumbers by an energetic Mole who sat down on him! The make-up; the costumes; the lights; the script; the scenery … I was transported to another world in which people paid to watch me perform, clapped and cheered, and made me feel like a success. I could be an animal, a character, a grumpy old badger, and all at the tender age of 15. I loved it! Ged the Thespian had arrived!
Pictured below are the staff of St Brendan's College in 1966. They include three of my form masters during my time there - Peter Allen, Tony Patten and Dan Kelly - as well as John Savage (woodwork), 'Chalky' White (chemistry), Maurice Kerby (geography), Lionel Davies (art), Peter Pullen (music) and Elwyn Price (sport - especially rugby!). Also in the front row is Hedley Goodall who had such an influence on me as a performer.
I realised in later years that I never had the looks to play the handsome romantic lead – or the tenor voice for it in musicals; but the older, character roles were far more interesting. And it wasn’t until much later – in 2014, in fact, at the age of 59 – that I was to finally play a role which was appropriate for my real age: Thomas Oakley in ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.
One Saturday in the summer of 1971, my parents informed that the latest increase in fees at St Brendan’s College was beyond their means, so I would be re-enrolling at St Bernadette School (above) from the autumn term. Having spent the first five years of my secondary education at a direct grant all-boys grammar school, the move to a Catholic comprehensive in Whitchurch for the 6th form was something of a culture shock. Besides, I didn’t have the chance to bid farewell to my friends in Brislington. But the educational environment for A-level studies was pleasant enough, even if it seemed strange to be studying alongside girls again.
Inevitably, throughout these teenage years, I had been developing sexually; although, to be honest, since my mind was still firmly fixed on the priesthood and the consequent demand of celibacy, it didn’t feel like more than an interesting distraction most of the time. Indeed, my planned vocation provided the perfect excuse for fending off any female attention. It was about this time that I started to attend the First Friday Masses in the crypt of St Mary-on-the-Quay (pictured here) – the neighbouring parish to the (Pro) Cathedral that was administered by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Mass was followed by a disco and my intention to study to be a Catholic priest was the ideal defence to deal with the amorous advances of Margaret O’Neill, who insisted on singling me out for the slow final dance!
At St Bernadette School, however, it was my male peers whom I found sexually attractive – especially Paul Gill. Looking back on it now, it was immature and offensive, but at the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to bombard him with anonymous romantic poetry. As far as I know, he never suspected the source; and, at the time, there felt nothing wrong with it: I was simply expressing my affection and admiration for another human being. Poor Paul!
I successfully got two A-levels at St Bernadette’s, in English and Geography, which was a bit of a surprise since I expected to get French as well (and probably fail Geography). But romance and studies aside, my two years at the Whitchurch school were memorable in other ways as well. Continuing my interest in theatre, I landed the role of Major-General Stanley in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. This was another new experience: not only musical theatre, but also patter songs. Furthermore, it engendered in me a fascination with Gilbert & Sullivan. I was in my element!
The Jesuit chaplain at St Bernadette School, Paul Edwards SJ, was another major influence at this time – not only in supporting my ambition to become a priest but also in encouraging me with public speaking. He was an eccentric character (to put it mildly), flamboyant and affected; and he selected me to enter the Bristol Catenians’ Public Speaking Competition, which I duly won (as reported in the Bristol Evening Post - above).
My two years in the 6th Form also gave me my first opportunity for international travel. Easter 1972 saw me jetting off with my contemporaries to Rome, where we received the papal blessing from Pope Paul VI in St Peter’s Square (right), followed by a further four days based at Massa Lubrensa near Sorrento. This part of the school trip included the Isle of Capri and the ruins of Pompeii in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and undoubtedly contributed to my love of ancient cultures and foreign climes in later life.
“But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”
From To a Mouse (modern English version), Robert Burns
After a brief summer holiday stint in the Food Hall of Lewis’s (now Primark) on Bristol’s Haymarket, where I worked on the delicatessen and butchery counters, it was time to fulfil my vocation by commencing my formal studies for the Catholic priesthood. Or so I believed.
My first time away from home, I began to discover my true self, my emotional needs and my sexuality, at St Mary's College, Oscott, in Sutton Coldfield (pictured above and left). Undoubtedly, I encountered many committed and pious young students there, who would go on to lives of dedication within the priesthood. But I also found myself among a group who, like me, felt a sense of liberation socially and sexually. When three of us first-year students decided to drag up to perform ‘Hey Big Spender’ at the Freshers’ Concert, no one batted an eyelid; or, if they did, it didn’t show.
Liturgies, studies and socialising went hand in hand with each other. But I also spent hours alone, usually dressed in my (second hand) cassock, climbing the main tower to meditate, looking across the West Midlands landscape, or walking around the graveyard, contemplating life - and its inevitable end.
By Christmas, I had lost my virginity and had also ventured out into Birmingham and my first gay pub: the Victoria, in the shadow of the Alexandra Theatre. It was here that I also met my first love: Chris Cooksey, a drama student from Cradley Heath. The sexual awakening that accompanied my studies at Oscott meant that difficult decisions had to be made. I had been indiscreet and, within six months or so, I found myself summonsed to the Rector’s office to be informed that neither he nor the Diocese of Clifton felt they could continue to support my candidacy for the priesthood: some time away from the seminary would give me longer “to discern my vocation”.
Though this turn of events was initially devastating – made worse by Chris telling me he wanted us to break up – I quickly decided that it provided me with an opportunity. If not a priest, maybe I could be an actor instead! But that profession was decisively vetoed by my parents and, by the time I returned to Bristol in May 1974, I was informed that my mother had already organised a job interview for me. She’d heard on BBC Radio Bristol that they were advertising for a Gram Librarian and had put my name forward.
So began my life as a radio broadcaster – a career which has always been closest to my heart. Although I started on the bottom rung of the ladder (a Gram Librarian was responsible for administering and cataloguing a Local Radio station’s music and for reclaiming audiotape), I soon found myself called upon to provide an occasional voice on air when needed. This progressed to the role of Station or Programme Assistant – a sort of junior producer position, with more presentation responsibilities. My first designated programme was ‘Bedside Manner’, a request show for people in hospital; but broadly, an SA (or PA) could be called on to present (or assist the production of) any genre of programme – from current affairs to light entertainment. So, I worked with Kate Adie on the Arts programme, Eric Hancock on his Classical Music Show and Tony Gibson on Farming. I was appointed producer of ‘Guidelines’, Radio Bristol’s magazine programme for blind and disabled listeners and even the weekly show for the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities.
In my capacity as producer of ‘Guidelines’, I was approached by a talented and creative colleague, Louis Robinson, who had an idea for a Good Friday documentary. Bristol had been devastated by a wartime blitz in April 1941. As the anniversary approached in 1977, Louis wondered: what would it have been like for those who had not been able to see the carnage, the city’s blind population who could only hear the bombs falling around them and homes, factories, churches and other buildings being destroyed, with the loss of hundreds of civilian lives? The result was a powerful testimony of people’s pain and resilience – narrated by wartime news reader Alvar Liddell (whose commentary we recorded at Broadcasting House in London) – entitled ‘The Sound of War’. It was submitted to the BBC’s London Archives and is a programme of which I am still immensely proud.
I had the good fortune to start my broadcasting life under a wonderful Station Manager, David Waine who, after Bristol, went on to Pebble Mill in Birmingham. David was a quiet man – but inspirational, who always saw potential in people (even green, novice broadcasters like me) and did his best to encourage them. Rather than planning formal post mortems on programmes or interviews, he tended to see you on the stairs and say, ‘Have you got a minute?’ He’d then spend several minutes praising you for a job well done, accentuating the good points about your contribution to the station’s output. Then – ever so subtly – he’d interject ways in which it could possibly have been improved. By the time you left his office, you felt on a high, elated at the affirmation you’d received from the boss, before realising that it had been a serious critique. You could have done better! And it made me even more determined to improve next time. I had tremendous admiration for David Waine, whose style of management I always tried to imitate and who taught me (I hope) how to deal with people and bring out the best in them.
For two years, I rose early to present the 6-7am show, which meant assisting Roger Bennett for the following two hours on the station’s flagship breakfast news programme, ‘Morning West’. This shift also meant being assigned interviews to pre-record during the morning for the following day, so I was given a solid grounding not only in interview technique but also in news gathering.
Although I was rarely assigned the big or ‘heavy’ news stories (and almost never sports stories!), the method was constant: identify what was newsworthy, do the research, contact a spokesperson, record an interview with them (or book them to come into the studio to do it live), then edit it ready for broadcast. It was a good, broad introduction to radio technique, demanding empathy (to get the best out of one’s interviewees) and an analytical approach, but also with a certain degree of theatrical artistry – being able to paint pictures with sound and words. It also created in me a certain discipline, both for time (if you were allotted a three-minute interview, it was non-negotiable) and for priorities: editing required selecting the best bits for broadcast and sacrificing what was less good. Sometimes it hurt to see what ended up on the editing room floor; but the aim was always to present something on air that was informative, educational and entertaining. These disciplines served me well in subsequent years.
“It's one life and there's no return and no deposit;
One life, so it's time to open up your closet.
Life's not worth a damn till you can shout out
I am what I am!”
From La Cage Aux Folles (Jerry Herman)
Above: The Moulin Rouge, Bristol, "a club now run exclusively for the use of Homosexuals", according to a letter from the Worrall Road Residents Association in March 1971. At its peak, it had 1400 members, regularly attracting 500 people on Saturday nights for an entrance fee of 50p. Dave Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars, worked as a bouncer at the Moulin Rouge in its early days.
This was an interesting time socially, as well. Homosexuality had only been legalised in the UK in 1967, but already by the mid-70s, there were numerous venues for meeting and drinking with like-minded people. The Ship on Lower Park Row (right) was my regular watering-hole, followed by the nearby late night Oasis and 49 Club on Bristol’s famous Christmas Steps, which was run by Wilf (of The Ship) from 1977. And for weekend disco dancing (never my forte!), a trek up Whiteladies Road to Blackboy Hill took you to the Moulin Rouge, Bristol’s premier gay venue build on a former quarry and swimming pool. Interestingly, I recently discovered that it closed in 1976, so I clearly wasted no time in immersing myself in the city’s nightlife once I returned there in 1974!
I still pined for Chris, my first love. And when he saw a photo of him on a shelf in my bedroom, my father informed me – in no uncertain terms – that if he felt that a son of his was a homosexual, it would be equivalent to a daughter of his being a prostitute. Fortunately, my parents’ attitude mellowed over the years, so that, by the time I met my one true love and soul-mate in 1992, they treated him almost like an additional son. But, needless to say, during the 1970s, my excursions onto Bristol’s gay scene continued clandestinely.
My interest in the theatre continued and I started working part-time as Box Office Assistant at the Bristol Hippodrome (left). How vividly I recall sneaking in to watch shows at the back of the stalls or hang out with stars of the time – most memorably the lovely John Inman, who played Mother Goose in panto there (1977/78) and Barry Evans, on whom I had a ridiculous crush when he starred with Harry Worth in ‘Cinderella’ (78/79). Visits of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company were times of particular pleasure – not only because I always enjoyed the exceptional standard of their Gilbert and Sullivan productions, but also because I developed a friendship with several members of the cast, in particular Alan Spencer, a chorus-member at the time, who went on to choreograph and direct.
Unfortunately, this infatuation with the theatre resulted in me making a foolish decision in the late ‘70s. The manager of the Empire Theatre in Liverpool (below) was looking for an assistant and, being on the same circuit as the Bristol Hippodrome (Stoll Moss Empires), word had somehow reached him that there was this young, enthusiastic chap called Clapson with potential, working in the box office. I felt flattered to have been headhunted and, as a result, handed in my notice at the BBC and decanted to Liverpool.
It was at this time that I should have learnt a lesson – but I didn’t. Quite simply, I had neither the skills nor the temperament to be management. Some people are natural visionaries, leaders, innovators; others are more suited to the shop floor, grafters, foot soldiers. I was a fish out of water at the Empire; and I was acutely miserable. I was in a relationship at the time with a guy called Melvyn and we had a flat in the really rough area of Kirkby. He managed to get a job as barman in the theatre, while I attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive what had become a lack lustre box office team. Within a year, it was clear – both to me and the management – that this appointment had been a failure. I upped and left, returning to the BBC in Bristol with my tail between my legs.
To my surprise – and delight – I was welcomed back with open arms. But David Waine had been succeeded as Station Manager by Derek Woodcock (who didn’t know me) and there were no full-time vacancies, so I decided to freelance. That was another lesson I learned the hard way: I am not the sort of self-motivating, self-sufficient person who can manage budgets or time-keeping. I needed a structure and an administrative framework that took my income tax (for instance) at source, rather than being expected to become my own personal accountant.
Nevertheless, this period in my professional life was probably one of the most satisfying of all, as I became a full-time freelance producer/presenter at BBC Radio Bristol. I got to interview some of the household names of the day and some of the most memorable are pictured below. People like the outrageous but delightfully warm comedian Jasper Carrott and the raconteur and thoroughly nice guy, Rabbi Lionel Blue; Tony Benn MP was a challenge, but he taught me how a skilled interviewee takes control of an on-air conversation; Warren Mitchell was even ruder and more uncouth in real life than his TV persona Alf Garnett; Roger Moore’s ex-wife, Rosemary Squires, was pure hell to interview (she had her own agenda and no amount of questioning would prompt her to deviate from it); and Barry Humphries insisted on remaining in character when he was interviewed, so it was always Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson at the microphone, never Humphries himself. Yes, these were indeed interesting times, during which my conversations with the celebrities of the day were broadcast to thousands of homes throughout Radio Bristol's editorial area of Avon, Somerset, South Gloucestershire and West Wiltshire, as well as the City of Bristol itself.
I I During this period, I also had my own Saturday shows – 'Weekend West' (see above), in which I was able to explore in more detail the many and varied events going on in the area, and ‘And So To Ged’. This was an engaging interaction with listeners, three hours on air peppered with anecdotes, music, guests and competitions. The phone-ins were a particular delight and provided many hours during which faithful listeners reminisced about old West Country characters and traditions. The skill of the interviewer, I realise then, was ultimately to ask the questions that made people want to open up to you. History was beginning to come back to haunt me: I was assuming the role of confessor and confidant!
This came to a head during a period when I was a contributor to the station’s religious affairs programme, ‘Genesis’. My own background as a cradle Catholic and former seminarian seemed to qualify me for providing features in the eyes of the producer, Andy Radford, who went on (eventually) to be the Anglican Bishop of Taunton. He was succeeded as religious producer by Diane Shelley. But it was now 1980 and there was a bogeyman on the broadcasting horizon: Radio West, the commercial radio rival to Radio Bristol was due to go on air in October. And Di announced that she intended to join them.
BBC Local Radio felt threatened – almost to the point of paranoia – and nowhere more so than in Bristol under Derek Woodcock. Overnight (literally), the station had a vacancy for a religious affairs producer and I was asked whether I would be prepared to fill it … just for a couple of weeks. That ‘temporary’ assignment lasted for eight years, in which ‘Genesis’ (a half-hour pre-recorded programme comprised totally of talk and hidden away in the schedules) was replaced by ‘Sunday Starts’ – two hours of breakfast-time listening on Sunday morning with music, features and guests with a faith focus.
It was no small challenge to produce and present a weekly show of this nature. But it was both humbling and immensely satisfying to get messages from many listeners who had, for one reason or another, been alienated from a denominational church, who said that ‘Sunday Starts’ made them feel part of a broader faith community. As one put it, the programme helped her to keep God alive in her heart; and, week after week, I began to realise that religion on radio was a vital ministry and that I, though un-ordained, was a minister in it. I am proud to say too that religious affairs also gained a certain degree of respectability among other members of staff at this time, helped no doubt by events like the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain in 1982 (above), for which I accompanied a party from a Catholic parish in north Bristol to Cardiff and made a documentary with them about their experience.
From Tosca - Giacomo Puccini:
della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri,
che ne ridean più belli.
I lived for art, I lived for love ...
I gave jewels
for the Madonna's mantle,
And songs for the stars,
That shone forth with greater radiance.