12 March 2010

Simon Bates: Our Tune

From the Radio 1 On Show magazine, summer 1980.

Simon Bates, 1980 - in his own words:

"A farmers boy was I, raised in Shropshire but when it came to secondary education at University the wanderlust took over and I took off, to the States - I think I had just discovered Bob Dylan at the time! In America I became fascinated by radio - there was so much of it and my British accent made it easy for me to get work. Wanderlust soon struck again though and I returned to farming - this time in New Zealand but I soon found that one of my other loves was still broadcasting. The other one? She was a lady journalist who worked in TV. Eventually she gave me £50 for my fare to Australia - a somewhat unsubtle hint. So I joined a TV station in Sydney where I spent two years making films that no one ever watched.

"By 1971 the old wanderlust overcame me again and I sneaked back to Britain, where I got a job in London's throbbing West End. Couldn't stand the throbbing though, met a friend who knew someone at the BBC and it wasn't long before they let me make the occasional formal announcement. Still doing it too - just a minute, 'Ladies and Gentlemen The Golden Hour'."

In 1990, the 10th anniversary of the popular BBC Radio 1 feature Our Tune was celebrated with the publication of an Arrow paperback by Simon Bates. Our Tune began in the summer of 1980, and I'll let Simon himself tell the story with some extracts from the Foreword to his book:

In the summer of 1980, I was looking through the postbag I received each day for my Radio One show. I sifted through the usual requests for records for mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews, dedications for workmates and colleagues, jokes, and snippets from local newspapers, and as I read through the pile of letters, I came across a simple request from a girl called Susan.

It was not a long or elaborate letter, but something about it caught my attention. Susan, who had recently left school to become a secretary near her home in Manchester, had just returned from a two-week holiday in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. She had been lucky. It had been one of those occasions where the weather had been beautiful for a fortnight - long hot days, warm nights.

During her holiday, she had met a man in a wine bar - Stephen, who came from just outside Twickenham, and was charming, polite, considerate, and just on the right side of good looking.

In her letter, Susan explained that she had fallen for Stephen, virtually from the moment he had introduced himself. From then on, her holiday had been filled with the sort of things she had always dreamed of… walks on the beach, sunbathing and trips to the New Forest in Stephen’s car.

For two weeks life had been absolute bliss for Susan, until that inevitable moment when she had to return home. It had broken her heart when he drove her to the railway station for the long journey home. While Susan’s friend carried on her luggage, they hugged on the platform, holding each other for so long she almost missed the train.

For weeks, they had telephoned and written to one another, promising that soon they would get together. But, sadly, it was never to be. Afraid of hurting her, Stephen hadn’t told Susan that he had been accepted as a non-commissioned officer in the Army, and was being posted to Germany. And in his final letter, he said that it would be the last time he would write.
Susan was absolutely distraught; but instead of just moping round her parents’ house, she decided to tell me her story. She asked me to play the song to which she and Stephen had listened during that holiday: “Summer The First Time”, by Bobby Goldsboro.

And to me it was more than just another request.

I was touched by the simplicity of the request. The story was honest, straightforward, and full of emotion. And once I began reading, I found I just couldn’t stop. It was unlike most letters I had been receiving. I enjoy playing requests for people, but Susan asked me to read out exactly what she had felt. I read it out, just before eleven o’clock, and suggested afterwards that if anyone else had any summer-romance stories, they should send them in.

It was the start of a phenomenon.

Within days, I received more than 2000 letters from listeners with stories to tell. They came from all over Britain. They were happy, sad and, in some cases, completely off the wall.

Some of them were almost unbelievable. One woman had gone on holiday with a friend, fallen for a man she met in her hotel in Tenerife, only to walk into a restaurant and find her boyfriend from home sitting at a table with another girl. They had a furious row, a tearful reunion, and ended up getting married…

Whilst the stories themselves were remarkable, it was the response that was so overwhelming. And it was the listeners who decided on the name “Our Tune” - simply because that’s how so many of them described their records. I had more than enough material to run the slot for six weeks; but pretty soon, it became apparent that people really enjoyed it.

The letters became more wide ranging, dealing not only with romances, but also with problems that had cropped up on holiday. I started reading these out as well, and I received more and more letters.

At the end of our six week run, I told the listeners that “Our Tune” would be ending - or so I thought!

The switchboard immediately jammed, and within a week the postbag almost doubled. People told me how they stopped work in office and factories, just to listen to “Our Tune”. I had to keep it going…

Our Tune is now firmly associated with a certain piece of music, but it wasn’t so in the early days. Back to Simon Bates:

At first I read out the recording with any sentimental music I could find. Then, one day, I picked the love theme from the soundtrack of Franco Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”. It seemed to fit the mood of “Our Tune” so brilliantly that I have kept it going ever since…

Radio listings as they were on 17 July 1980 - around the time that "Our Tune" was coming into being

Looking back on ten years of Our Tune in the 1990 10th anniversary book, Simon Bates makes a few fascinating observations on some of the changing trends, attitudes, issues and fortunes of the 1980s:

During the past decade, the emphasis of “Our Tune” has changed dramatically. During the early part of the decade, I was reading out a lot of letters to do with marriage break-ups. With the economy struggling to turn around, many of them centred on financial problems, and quite a few people who just simply couldn’t cope with life. They told me how they had, perhaps, contemplated suicide - but at the last minute had decided to battle on.

Then, with a widening of people’s attitudes on all sorts of issues, the range of “Our Tune” letters has grown. For example, I started getting letters from the homosexual community - from people who couldn’t cope with their gay feelings; and, over the last few years, the AIDS issue has become more and more prevalent.

People blubbed over tragic tales on Our Tune many times, but there were also lots of stories with happy endings.

Here is a favourite of mine from the book (which is out of print, but still crops up on eBay at times). Cue music:

Patsy and Graham

Simon Bates: “Patsy and Graham’s story, from Solihull in the West Midlands, was one of the most stirring love stories I have ever read out. It also brought dozens of letters of support from other listeners.”

(Broadcast: May 1987)

I can see a new horizon

Underneath a blazing sky

I’ll be where the eagles are flying

Higher and higher

"St Elmo’s Fire" - John Parr

This is honestly a love story which I should never really be writing. When I first set eyes on Graham, there seemed no chance at all that we would ever be together.

But, after three years, we are not only the happiest couple alive, but we are planning to marry in the next six months. Hopefully, we will be starting a family to complete everything I ever dreamed of.

It all started so differently though, Simon. When I first saw Graham, it was an instant attraction - me to him. He was tall, very handsome, quite dark skinned, and one of the most well-dressed men I had ever seen. His suits were always well cut, his shirt neatly ironed and his shoes were always well shined.

In short, he was the sort of man most girls would give a fortune to be seen with. And I was one of them. The trouble is, when he came to work as the boss of the used-car department of the garage where I worked, there was no way I was of any interest to him whatsoever.

To put it mildly, I was a bit of a mess at that time. I had broken up with my only boyfriend two years before, and I hadn’t gone out with anyone else. I had let myself go to pot a little. When I had broken up with Jeff, I had taken refuge in eating. I would eat anything and everything I could get my hands on to cheer myself up.

They weren’t big meals, just snacks. But I would have lots and lots of them. Bars of chocolate, bags of crisps, sandwiches - you name it, I would eat it.

I paid absolutely no interest to my clothes, and I never went anywhere, apart from the local wine bar. It was a fairly ordinary existence, but I honestly had no encouragement to break out of it.

I had always been reasonably intelligent, doing well at school, but even though people said how pretty I had been, it is very hard to feel pretty when you have ballooned up to thirteen and a half stones, and have trouble squeezing into a size sixteen.

Graham was completely out of range, as far as any sort of relationship was concerned. I told my only true friend, Karen - the only person I could really confide in - what a fantastic guy had started to work at the garage.

She told me that if I thought he was that fantastic, why didn’t I try to make some sort of contact with him? I told her not to be stupid - why would he be interested in someone like me? Karen asked me if he had a regular girlfriend. As far as I knew he hadn’t, but I couldn’t see why he would be on the shelf.

But, she did plant the seed of an idea in my mind. Over the course of the next few weeks, work brought Graham and I into a reasonable amount of contact. We got on well. He had a sense of humour that I enjoyed, and I think he knew I wasn’t an idiot.

On several occasions, we had to organise promotions - like cheese and wine parties - for the garage, and had to stay behind when it was all over. I found out that he was single, and, although he dated a few girls, there was no one serious in his life.

The night I found all this out, I made a decision that was going to change my life. I never really believed that people’s appearances were more important than their characters, but if ever I was going to appeal to a man like Graham, then I would have to put some pride back into my life.

From that point on, I became a different person. I can honestly say that from that moment on, I never touched another bar of chocolate, or a sandwich outside meal times.

I began swimming virtually every day. The first few weeks were really painful. I felt like a whale squeezing into a swimsuit at the local baths. But I did it. When I came out of the changing rooms I sometimes felt the whole place was staring at me, especially the little children.

I managed to get through a few lengths for the first visits, but slowly and surely, my fitness and my strength built up and I was doing more and more distance. It exhausted me to start with but, gradually, I could cope more and more comfortably.

At the time, I put myself on a diet. I cut out all the junk food I had been eating and I stuck to salads and vegetables.

You know, the hardest part about trying to change yourself is finding a motive, and, to be honest, Graham was my motive. At first I lived in fear that I would turn up at work and find out he had got married, or engaged. But, after a while, that didn’t become the thing that was driving me. I got on the scales at home, and would see the needle moving slowly down. All of a sudden, that became my aim.

I couldn’t believe the change coming over me. I started to take an interest in my clothes again. I didn’t earn a lot of money, so I picked things that were really smart. And, as my sizes went down - a twelve at first - I felt better and better about myself.

I can’t begin to tell you how happy I was the night I went to the baths and plucked up the courage to wear a bikini for the first time. I thought everyone would still laugh and point, but nobody did.

At work, I had energy. I felt confident and happy, and a whole change was coming over me. I went away for two weeks to Tenerife. When I got back, everyone said how well I looked. Perhaps it was the fact that I had been away - and people saw me in a new light - but everyone seemed to be paying me compliments.

But, of course, there was one I really wanted. And that wasn’t long coming. Graham came over to me as soon as I walked through the door of the showroom, and paid me the greatest compliment!

Well, Simon, it didn’t take long for that compliment to be an invitation to dinner. And then it didn’t take long until we were going out together virtually every night of the week.

As I said, I know physical attraction isn’t everything, but if you don’t have pride and confidence in yourself, how can you expect other people to have any either?

I put all that back in myself, hoping to win over one man. It worked for me, and I can’t begin to tell you how much inspiration it has given me. Please play “St Elmo’s Fire” for me. It is a song I used to listen to all the way to the swimming baths and back. It really used to drive me on, and it still means an awful lot to me today.

1986 - a rare "Our Tune" compact disc (most surviving copies of this compilation are on vinyl - compact discs were still an expensive novelty in 1986, having only arrived in 1983). Featured tracks included ABC - "The Look of Love" and the Moody Blues - "Nights In White Satin". And the most requested "our tune" up to that point? The dreamy "I'm Not In Love" by 10CC.
From its humble beginnings in 1980, Our Tune grew to become a daily "must listen" for millions. Including me. When I was on morning duty at the home for the elderly where I worked in the mid-to-late '80s, I always contrived to arrange my tasks so that my tea break could coincide with Our Tune. Soppy devil? What a dated concept. I was, quite simply, every inch an 80s man!


Yvonne said...

Simply legendary!

Adrian said...

Legendary it certainly was. It became the focus of the day. I can still remember listening to one particular heartbreaking story, sitting in roadworks on the old A66 when they were upgrading it, driving back to Glasgow, it would have been around '88 or '89, and every time now that I pass that spot it reminds me of that story, all these years later.

Anonymous said...

Someone came on saying about a boy she had met -his name was read out on national radio- it was the man i was living with! Luck would have it -I had finished with him the month before!!

David said...

I used to love this spot. As "hard-hearted" shipyard workers in Glasgow, we would spend our teabreak huddled in an unfinished cabin listening to this and we even had a chart on the switchgear which gave details of our favourite.

Anonymous said...

It was a national institution, and I used to cry over some of the stories!

Anonymous said...

Every thursday I would be taking cattle to a local mart, the que going in tended to coincide with our tune.
I had my heart broken and I use to find comfort in the stories and the way they we're told.

Anonymous said...

Wish I could remember the stories...I know I cried a lot listening to the heartbreak at a loss of a loved one. The songs followed the story and the meaning described the sorrow. Timeless.

AntonyM said...

I listened to this show when I was a student in the early 1980s. I remember listening to the start of one of the Our Tune stories and thinking "Wow, that sounds just like my friend John (or Johann)". And the longer the story went on, the more definitely it was about him. Including mentions that he thought he was the reincarnation of Napoleon! It would be great if anyone had a recording or even a transcript of this episode, as my friend has sadly died.