‘Keep Jannie on the Trannie” sounds like the pitch for a 50 Shades-style kinkfest, but many Scots know it was actually the anguished plea from fans, including some of the biggest names in the arts community, in response to last year’s announcement that The Janice Forsyth Show, a staple of BBC Radio Scotland’s Saturday schedule, faced the chop after 18 years. A petition circulated, and Twitter exploded with outraged messages posted by everyone from Edwyn Collins and Alex Kapranos to MSP Nicola Sturgeon and Val McDermid. Ian Rankin was even inspired to write a poem, the closing lines of which read: “Saturday mornings without her will leave a hole in her fans’ trannies,/So my plea to Radio Scotland is: DON’T DO THIS, YA BUNCH OF FANNIES!”
Throughout the stooshie Forsyth kept a dignified public silence, saying only: “I’m disappointed, but we’ve had a great run. We know these things don’t last forever.”
A year on, she’s about to debut a live, daily programme that, BBC Scotland says, will increase their arts and music transmissions to ten hours per week – though the trade-off, it’s worth noting, means saying goodbye to the Book, Movie, and Culture Cafés. Fittingly, I caught up with Janice – petite, lively, with white-blonde hair that’s straight as a waterfall and shiny as a sequin – at Summerhall, arguably Edinburgh’s most ambitious arts venue. After a quick tour of the old dissecting room – it used to be a school for vets – we settled in for coffee and a natter in the Royal Dick bar.
Did she know all along that this was in the pipeline? “I knew the Saturday show was coming to an end before it hit the papers. What was astonishing was the response, and at that point there was talk of doing something else. It wasn’t just ‘that’s over and that’s it’. [But] how I felt about it was that you can’t keep doing something forever. It’s inevitable that something will stop, although it’s sad. At the same time, I never could have predicted, never in a million years, how people felt about the programme.”
And about you, I insist, causing her to scrutinise the tabletop, before saying: “And me, OK. I tended to think of it as me interviewing a couple of folk per show, and just chatting, but people saw that Saturday programme as some sort of cultural thing in itself. That’s a good link to this new programme.”
What can we expect? “It’s two hours live, Monday to Friday, in what was the Tom Morton slot. This is primarily an arts and culture show, and we play records as well. We really use the music to complement what we’re talking about. I think everyone’s genuinely as excited about it as I am, because it is a chance to cover anything you like, whereas before, if Monday was only books, it meant if something came up, or there was a fantastic person in town, you would have to pre-record that and put it out another day, and it might lose the topicality.”
Forsyth and I had been discussing obscure film books on Twitter, so I know she’s keen on the written word, and it’s a matter of record that she’s well informed about film and music. This thorough immersion in culture is nothing new, I discover, when I ask about Forsyth’s childhood, growing up in Knightswood, Glasgow. Hers was a house full of books – and televisions.
“My father was a television engineer, by that I mean he fixed televisions. He’d been the dux at his school, but had to leave at 14. I seem to remember a story about the headteacher trying to persuade him to stay on and maybe go all the way to university, but I don’t think it was an option for working-class families. But there was that working-class ethos, do your best, polish your shoes, don’t stay off school unless you’re at death’s door. I have strong memories of going to the library with my dad on a Saturday morning and picking out lots of books.
“Another of my favourite things was watching films with my mum on a Friday night, Vivien Leigh films and all that. And my mum and dad had a big spare television in their bedroom. It was freezing cold, and I used to go in and watch The Old Grey Whistle Test. And then going to the Glasgow Film Theatre, which was a real education. And there was, for a period – it used to be one of the dodgy, guy’s cinemas – the Classic Grand, I think. It used to show weird porno films but also things like Derek Jarman and the odd David Lynch film thrown into the mix. We used to go to those as well.”
Forsyth has been a journalist, done public relations and TV, but it’s clear that she thrives on the adrenalin rush of live radio. She’s hoping the longer time slot will allow people to hang about and get involved in subsequent segments.
“So if I’ve got somebody with me, a writer or musician, whoever it might be, and they’ve got time to spend, I can come back to them, and maybe they can comment on another item. The music [we’ll play] can be a way of opening up all sorts of stuff, as well, so I think it’ll be a lot more flexible and fun and interesting. I would like to think we’ll be able to have a variety of tone, too. If there’s going to be a debate about an issue, we can handle that as well.”
Hmm, I say, feeling mischievous, such as the rows over Creative Scotland? “Exactly. But without getting too much up our own fundaments. I have got to remember that probably a large proportion of our audience are not too interested in that. It’s getting the right balance.” Was she tempted to apply for the top job running Creative Scotland? Her laugh says it all. “Could you imagine? Definitely not. You have to be such a diplomat and a public face and be careful about what you say – obviously that’s a part of my job, too, but I can have a little bit more fun than the CEO of Creative Scotland.”
Monday’s show will feature a pre-recorded interview with Annie Lennox. “We walked round the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery together. She is a dream guest. It was a good insight into her career and the choices she’s made and how collaborative she is, and into her creative process as a writer. The exhibition is called The House of Annie Lennox, and one of the first things you come across is a miniature house, and inside, a recreation of her desk. We opened the drawers and there’s sheet music that she has written herself. It was lovely to see that.”
If Lennox is a dream made real, who is the elusive dream guest she’s never enticed into the studio? “It’s not going to happen – and it’s become a joke for people who know me – but Leonard Cohen. The older Cohen’s become, although he’s not less prolific as an artist, he’s doing less of the actual talking. I think he’s fascinating and would love to interview him.”
Are most of her heroes and heroines musicians? “I don’t think in terms of heroes/heroines. I do like filmmakers.” That’s interesting, film makers not film stars? “Directors, like Stanley Kubrick. That’s why I’m fascinated by those books I was showing you, taking it back to the early days of Hollywood: these women who were absolutely key, who were screenwriters and designers, and who had the dirty done on them over and over again.
“So, Stanley Kubrick, I’m fascinated by him. Terrence Malik, though I think he’s gone off the boil a little bit. I find it fascinating to watch films and then go back and read about the whole world of filmmaking. Film is such a paradox, because it’s such a collaborative medium, so if you’re able to deliver your vision despite how collaborative it is, and what a cut-throat business it is, and all the financial shenanigans that go on – to deliver that is just remarkable.”
But it always comes back to radio. “As well as being on the radio, I listen to the radio, and the one thing you must value is the relationship you have with an audience. It is much more immediate and intimate than it is on telly. When you’re actually on the radio, if you were to think about who’s actually out there, you’d probably freeze. But it’s that golden rule: think about that one person you’re talking to. I use the singular. I don’t go, ‘Hi folks!’
“As a listener I’ve had those moments where you’re in the car and you get to your destination and you don’t get out, because you want to hear the end of the thing. And sometimes I get that feedback. There was one episode with Lou Reed that got an incredible response, with one woman saying, ‘I couldn’t get out of the bath! I was freezing, but I was like, what the hell’s going to happen next?’”
There must have been a disaster or two along the way, surely? “Not a disaster, but my worst interview was David Copperfield, the magician. He was so bored – he was down the line, and I could hear him doing his paperwork at the same time, answering ‘Yes. No. Yes. No.’ Until eventually I said some question like, ‘So you now – with your image, and your hair, and your fake tan – ’ and that was it, he kind of woke up and said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t have a fake tan.’ The ego had landed. Apart from him, not really. Definitely people can dry up, but you just keep going. That’s the great thing about this programme – I’ll be able to play a record!”
• The Culture Studio with Janice Forsyth begins on Monday on BBC Radio Scotland, and runs from 2:05 to 4pm, Monday through Friday.