“Extraordinarily male and entirely pale.” If you were the Silver Surfer, the Marvel Comics superhero, you might take that as a compliment. But for the Controller of Radio 2, as a critique of your programmes, it’s just embarrassing.
Jane Garvey, the Women’s Hour presenter, said these words and they were true right up until 6.30am yesterday morning. Then Britain was woken by a female voice: “Hello, my name’s Zoe.” The breakfast show, the most popular programme on the UK’s most popular station, had a woman at the mic for the first time. Another citadel, another private gentleman’s club, had just been stormed.
Zoe Ball spearheading a new female-led R2 schedule – Sarah Cox took over drivetime later – followed Fiona Bruce’s debut as presenter of BBC1’s Question Time. Meanwhile, as women breathe in the rarefied air of the top jobs in broadcasting, male actors are spluttering in sweaty gyms, frantically trying to buff themselves into Adonises. A story sandwiched between the historic initiations of Bruce and Ball described how male actors are being pressurised into honing bulbous biceps and six-packs for gratuitous shirt-doffing scenes, even when the role they’re playing is that of a brainy boffin. Truly, these are strange and remarkable times.
So how did the new girls perform? Ball’s first record was Respect. “All I’m askin’,” sang Aretha Franklin, “is for a little respect”, which made the point about under-representation subtly without the presenter having to mention that her predecessor Chris Evans had fronted the breakfast show for nine years and that before him Terry Wogan had kept it men-only all the way back to 1993 in his second stint in the job. And Radio 2 really was a club. Twenty years ago I interviewed Johnnie Walker. “Come on, you’ll love this place,” he said, leading me across the road from Broadcasting House to a basement trattoria, and I did. Liquid-lunching in one darkened corner was Wogan; in another David Jacobs and Brian Matthew. It was fun spotting the guys who’d become too square for Radio 1, which was happening to us all back then, and at the time it didn’t strike me as odd or wrong that they were all men.
Also there that day was Jim Moir who’d just taken over as R2 Controller and, rather than run it as a snoozy retirement home for frazzled disc jockeys, he transformed the station to the extent Radio 1 was usurped as the “nation’s favourite”. R2 grew and grew, along with the salaries of its big beasts, Evans earning £1.6 million before quitting. All of this ramped up the anticipation for Ball. Such was the hype beforehand, you might have thought she was about the reinvent the turntable (Do jocks still use them? Are they even still called jocks?). If so, you would have been disappointed.
Radio 2, in common with much of broadcasting, hadn’t given talented women much of a look-in before now. In the past, women had not been given enough airtime so when suddenly high-profile posts are offered to them that lack of airtime becomes a problem. The breakfast show is the plum job – the prune if you like. It requires the host to be big, quick and funny. He, and now she, must be in tune with the national mood, possibly believing they actually dictate and control it. Ball wasn’t any of these things, although this was only day one. She was nervous and will surely improve.
We mustn’t forget, though, that this is only popular radio. We mustn’t forget Smashie and we mustn’t forget Nicey. There will probably always be a certain amount of drivel, bilge, glibness, forced jollity and the imbecilic linking of jarring items. It was men who created this world; women are only being allowed into it now. The breakfast show is not Question Time, after all.
The breakfast show and Question Time, though, are equally prestigious in their realms, newsreaders and current affairs presenters regarding the latter as the ultimate destination.
Both programmes had shortlists this time which were dominated by women with, for a change, a token male who seemed every bit as self-conscious as the bloke out of The Corrs (Nick Robinson, Simon Mayo). And in each case the successful applicant was not the original favourite. Possibly surprised that Bruce won the race for Question Time, I was as impressed by her first show as I was underwhelmed by Ball’s. What was my assumption? That having spent so long fronting Antiques Roadshow, that most ambling and sedate of programmes, she wouldn’t be up to the cut and thrust of political discourse? In fact, as one approving viewer tweeted, it had been ideal preparation: “Fiona Bruce has spent the last 15 years talking to greedy vase owners and now she’s off the f****** leash!” Anticipating fierce scrutiny of their debuts, both she and Ball had declared they would be avoiding social media but I hope someone has informed Bruce about this glowing testimony. In her first outing, in London’s Islington, she was so poised she was almost purring. Indeed, I half-expected her to announce: “I’m Fiona Bruce: breaking news, breaking hearts” or “I’m Fiona Bruce, and I’m sat on the luckiest chair in Britain” or even “I’m Fiona Bruce – there’s never a hosepipe ban when I’m around”. While newsreading, she never said such things, of course, but that Dead Ringers take-off was terrific.
In any case she produced some laughs of her own, such as when she decided she’d had enough of Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly’s waffle: “So this is the government being in control of the Brexit process. What does not being in control of it look like?”
Considering the breakfast show is more dependent on jokes, maybe Bruce and Ball should swap jobs. But one thing’s for sure. These famous old shows are not extraordinarily male anymore.