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Richard Bacon, A Series of Unrelated Events

28 May

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Now this is my kind of book. Not only is it short and set in nice big type, it’s written by a Midlander.

Richard Bacon is a broadcaster with a knack for getting into scrapes. His career as a children’s presenter came to a premature end (he was forced to hand back his Blue Peter Badge) after the News of the World gave generous coverage to his drug-taking, and then there was the time he used the word ‘fat’ in relation to the definitely-not-slender members of the Magic Numbers in a Top of the Pops rehearsal – cue another minor media storm. Picking up on this tendency to make career-threatening gaffes, the premise of this modest but endearing and often very funny collection of anecdotes is ‘I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to’.

The book is much less salacious than the chapter titles suggest. Headings like ‘Cocaine, and Lots of It’ and ‘Squalid Sex under a Table’ might lead you to expect tales of debaunch to rival Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. In the event, no one snorts a line of ants or dies of a heroin overdose then comes back to life. No one even inserts a telephone receiver up their fanny. But perhaps that’s for the best.

As befits a talented current-affairs broadcaster (David Frost recently mentioned Bacon as a natural successor to himself), the author demonstrates a good eye for social trends and intriguing factoids. I enjoyed learning about the surprisingly high number of women who tweet as their dogs, for instance. There’s only one genuinely ‘serious’ chapter here, which is about trolling. In truth, it feels a bit out of place among all the tales of failing to pull because you’ve left an ineradicable stench in the loo. Even so, I admired this evocative word-picture: ‘In perfectly respectable detached houses, middle-aged ladies, members of Inner Wheel, just back from taking their Airedale for a bracing walk across the Fens, pour their husbands a pre-dinner sherry and settle down in front of the computer for an evening of posting on how Jennifer Ellison should have her hands cut off.’

Bacon is a celebrity, so the text inevitably circles the subject of how well known he is. Cue self-deprecating stories about being politely ejected from a VIP suite containing Chris Tarrant and top-notch nibbles and forced to party next door with Kerry Katona instead (presumably accompanied by a selection of Iceland hors d’oeuvres), etc.

One of my principal motivations for reading A Series of Unrelated Events was to see what it had to say about Mansfield, the ex-mining town where Bacon grew up; I grew up there too. One thing I really like about Richard Bacon generally is how readily he talks about his home town. It reflects very well on him that he alludes to it so often on his 5 Live show – after all, there’s no major kudos in dropping the name of Mansfield on air at the BBC. It’s not like saying ‘I’m from Manchester’, which appears to entitle the speaker to an automatic presenting spot on 6 Music at the very least. Here the first reference to the former colliery town, famous for its pugnacity if for anything, comes via a description of his parents as ‘deeply middle-class and [who] live in a relatively small town’. The image of provincial olde-worlde quaintness that this conjures doesn’t quite capture the essence of Mansfield. When Bacon then goes on to talk about his time working at McDonald’s – ‘It was a quiet Friday evening in Mansfield town centre (by “quiet” I mean there had only been two affrays and three common assaults)’ – he gets much closer to the spirit of the place.

You’re keen to know how well edited the book is, I know. The good news is there aren’t many typos, but someone’s clearly got a bit anxious about the way the author assumes his readers will be as familiar with the topography of the capital as he is: hence Chiswick becomes ‘London’s Chiswick’ and Mayfair becomes ‘London’s Mayfair’. Seriously, who doesn’t know that Mayfair is in London? Next thing you know, we’ll have ‘China’s Beijing’, ‘America’s New York’, etc.

Then there’s the questionable placement of the final chapter, ‘Goodbye Denim’ (there should really be a comma between those two words). This begins: ‘As I write, I am in the final month of the 16–34 demographic.’ The problem with that statement is that, if a footnote on page 181 is to be trusted, the author is already at least 36 years old eight chapters earlier. Is he getting younger as the book progresses? If so, he must be leaving the 16–34 demographic in the opposite direction to the rest of us, and therefore be about to turn 15. Still, it’s nice to end with a chapter about ending – to part with a word about parting, as it were – and Bacon does it very sweetly, coming to rest on an admirable (and very Mansfield) final sentiment: ‘Fuck you.’ 

Great Midlanders: Richard Bacon

3 May

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I’m a big fan of Radio 5Live’s Richard Bacon. Apart from admiring his skills as a broadcaster – the affable and relaxed presenting technique masking rigorous research and a genuinely inquisitive mind – we have much in common. He’s from Mansfield; I’m from Mansfield. He’s young, good-looking and highly successful; I’m… well okay, all we really have in common is that we’re from Mansfield.

Bacon has tremendous range, as the following brief study of a week’s worth of his show indicates. (I also very much admire that he only works a four-day week.)

MONDAY Our man in the sharp-but-casual combo of T-shirt and blazer (check out the photo on the Radio 5Live home page) is sounding ultra-relaxed today, to the point where he talks over other bits of audio (news etc) twice. Great topics and guests – he talks fashion with Patrick Grant, satire with Rory Bremner and the Luis Suárez biting incident with a psychologist. He mentions Mansfield many times as Mansfield Town Football Club have won promotion back to Division 2, and speaks to a member of the club’s hierarchy: his loyalty to his home town is genuinely touching, not least because it’s one of the least trendy places on the face of the earth, and in the Midlands. (Northerners banging on about their roots are ten-a-penny.) He also manages to use the words ‘amygdala’ and ‘hypothetically gay’. Now that’s range.

TUESDAY He sounds a bit tired today. About 15 minutes in, he says that he forgot to mention at the top of the programme that writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is going to be a guest. In fact, he didn’t forget at all – he’s far too pro for that. Again the subjects up for discussion demonstrate Bacon’s famous range: for instance, can an independent Scotland keep the pound? He shows himself to be genuinely genned-up about the financial complexities of the situation as he engages in feisty debate with Scottish cabinet minister John Swinney (boo). I like his passion; that’s very Mansfield. And it’s great that he can express that passion without getting into a fist fight, which is less Mansfield. In another segment he argues for car parks over youth centres: he’s clearly not afraid to say the unsayable. Afterwards there’s a regular slot about TV programmes: Broadchurch (having concluded the night before) is the main topic of conversation today. Our host offers an innovative, art-housey way forward for the writers should they get the go-ahead for a second series.

WEDNESDAY The Wednesday show includes a regular feature known as the ‘Moan-In’. ‘Don’t make it about language. They’re boring,’ warns our man as he encourages listeners to get in touch to air their gripes and be crowned the ‘Moaner Lisa’. Before that he interviews someone about a report that the UK is becoming more peaceful – the absence of lead in petrol is making us less aggressive: FACT (possibly). He reacts to other big breaking news stories too: JLS are splitting up, he tells us, and laughs as he does so – nice touch. Then he chats to the author of a book entitled Men Love Pies, Girls Like Houmous and admits to liking the Gwyneth Paltrow food book. Apparently the guest has brought beer into the studio and our man says he’s going to try it during the show ‘because that’s how I roll’. He mentions Mansfield Town FC again (hurrah) and the fact that he goes to a gym, where he apparently does research (I think he asked exercising Liverpool fans whether they wanted to keep Luis Suárez at the club). Is this man never off duty?

THURSDAY Today his principal guest is Jay Hunt, head of Channel 4. They discuss music shows and Bacon mentions that he listens a lot to Classic FM before trying to get his guest to say that she wouldn’t mind being BBC director general one day. She refuses but it’s clear that she wouldn’t mind. That’s good interviewing, and he’s not thrown when he then he has to talk to some bloke about the dangers of fracking immediately afterwards, which he does without descending to giggly innuendo or smut: class. The show ends with Chart the Week, which revisits the weeks’ most talked-about news stories, including that TV drama Broadchurch again. In the process he gives away the identity of the killer (it was the husband of Olivia Coleman’s character wot dun it), but who cares? It’s the weekend. It is for Richard anyway – he doesn’t broadcast on Fridays.

FRIDAY Not only did he not take to the microphone today, he didn’t manage a Tweet either, although a message to his followers on Saturday reveals what he was up to: ‘Went to the Sportsman in Whitstable for lunch yesterday. Dinner at Street Feast in Dalston.’ I’m sure he fitted in some research in between indulgent troughing sessions, mind.