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​Toast and jams: the Radio 1 breakfast​ ​show through the ages

The Guardian logo The Guardian 01/06/2018 Fraser McAlpine
Nick Grimshaw and Chris Moyles in the breakfast show studio © Press Association Nick Grimshaw and Chris Moyles in the breakfast show studio

Nick Grimshaw, BBC Radio 1’s second-longest-serving breakfast show presenter, has announced his retirement from the role with a suitable sense of relief: “It’s time for a change, time for a new show and, most importantly, it’s going to be time for a new wake-up time … preferably about 11.30am.” Greg James will take over the show, with Grimmy back to presenting his old afternoon slot. One thing both men appreciate is that the job of the station’s breakfast show presenter is a complex tightrope tread between fans and critics: “I’m not doing a show for critics,” said James. “I really love the listeners and doing a show for them.”

In many ways, Tony Blackburn had the toughest job of any breakfast show presenter. He had to launch Radio 1 as a pop station in 1967, transforming the image of the BBC from an objective, parental presence in the family home to something switched-on and youthful. Plus, he had to do it at the exact moment when the primary currency of pop music changed from short, radio-friendly hit singles (he opened the station with the Move’s paean to psychedelics, I Can Hear the Grass Grow) to long, hard-to-interrupt albums such as the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. He pulled it off by appearing perpetually delighted and entirely innocent, an approach that chimed with the giddier end of the Beat group era and the early bedazzled charm of hippy teenagers, but also helped draw a line between excitable pop and serious rock.

Tony Blackburn on the opening day of Radio 1, 30th September 1967.: The toughest job in radio? Tony Blackburn on the opening day of the station, 30th September 1967. © Getty Images The toughest job in radio? Tony Blackburn on the opening day of the station, 30th September 1967.

Once Blackburn moved on, others had to try to match that tone (Mike Smith, Mark Goodier) or find other ways to keep the ball in the air. Noel Edmonds and Simon Mayo took a cooler, puckish approach; Dave Lee Travis was avuncular and wacky; Mike Read came across as part fan, part parent (his objection to the lyrics of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax being a rare deviation from the breakfast show’s blanket appreciation of the hits). So, while pop culture was shifting from psychedelia to prog rock, glam rock to album-oriented rock, disco to punk, the breakfast show welcomed them all with open arms, rarely seeming to take sides in the changing times beyond the odd raised eyebrow. The only people who changed were the listeners.

The toughest job in radio? Tony Blackburn on the opening day of the station, 30th September 1967.Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

This is the backdrop to the then Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister’s revamp of the station in the early 90s. In the midst of a dance music explosion that changed the relationship between stardom and the Top 40, he moved Steve Wright from his highly successful afternoon slot to the breakfast show in 1993. While Wright, about to turn 40, could do little to reflect the tastes and interests of young ravers, his “zoo” formatted show felt like a gang of mates throwing funny ideas around, with sketches and recurring characters such as Mr Angry and Dave Double Decks spoofing radio cliches live on air. As a radio show, it nodded to Radio 1’s past – Kenny Everett had created similar comic grotesques by himself – and its future, in that it suggested that the audience was becoming bored with radio’s box of overfamiliar tricks.

‘Her breakfast show reflected the growing interest in celebrity’ ... Sara Cox © Press Association ‘Her breakfast show reflected the growing interest in celebrity’ ... Sara Cox

Chris Evans arrived in 1995, just as Britain was reaching an apex of creativity in music, fashion, film and art. The swagger of Britpop matched Evans’s tone. He picked up the zoo format from Wright, adding risque discussions about sex and socialising, and threw in stunts such as an early-morning race around central London in fast cars. An enormously popular presenter, he was a bellwether for post-rave culture, a merry prankster devoted to creating something exciting out of the most mundane of moments. Even his burnout – leaving after various arguments over controversial jokes and shows missed due to his hectic social life – felt of its time, an acknowledgment that every good party has a comedown.

Late-night presenters Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley (better known as Mark and Lard), replaced him in early 1997. A two-man zoo with a wry sense of humour, they spoke with strong Manchester accents (just like Oasis!) and made genuinely funny spoofs of hit songs as their joke band, the Shirehorses. But pop was busily regenerating itself in fun and female form, thanks to the success of the Spice Girls, while bullish indie rock – the fuel in the Britpop rocket – had taken a turn towards fear and introspection, thanks to Radiohead and the Verve. Mark and Lard were unable to match Evans’s compulsive energy and their daft breeziness failed to chime with the moment. “I have come in retrospect to see failure on that grand a scale as something noble,” said Radcliffe, “but it was pretty harrowing at the time.”

‘The swagger of Britpop matched his tone’ ... Chris Evans © Press Association ‘The swagger of Britpop matched his tone’ ... Chris Evans

Enter the ladettes. Zoë Ball was Radio 1’s first female breakfast show presenter (albeit initially with the guiding hand of Kevin Greening) and she brought back the matey ebullience the job requires. Always a breathlessly excited presence, she would relate tales of wild partying that introduced the radical idea that women were the agents of their own fun. Ball was also the first breakfast show DJ who talked about going clubbing, rather than drinking in the pub, a subtle – and long overdue – shift of emphasis.

When Ball left in 2000 to start a family, Sara Cox stepped up to the plate. Her breakfast show reflected the growing interest in celebrity, with Heat magazine (and the internet) taking over from Smash Hits as the bible of pop culture. Cox was close enough to the age of her core audience to shrug and get on with enjoying her moment of tabloid infamy in much the same way as the stars of Big Brother. There were limits – she successfully sued the People in 2003 for publishing naked pictures from her honeymoon. “I was fair game,” she said recently. “No one made me go to all those snazzy places where they gave us free champagne and we had a ball. I could have gone to a pub around the corner, but of course I didn’t because I was 21 [she was actually 25 when she started the job] and having fun.”

Nick Grimshaw Is Departing 'The Radio 1 Breakfast Show', Greg James Will Step In (Provided by: Wochit Entertainment)

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By 2004, when Chris Moyles arrived as the self-styled “saviour of Radio 1”, pop culture had been stripped of all mystique. Reality TV deconstructed fame into a popularity contest, with new faces arriving and departing with bewildering speed. Moyles took an abrasive stance, mocking the pretensions of his guests and taking pains to present himself as a working, drinking loudmouthed everyman, rather than a cheerleader. His show had the zoo format, the spoof songs, the 90s tales of excess, plus an inbuilt intolerance of showbiz fluff, but also – as Amy Winehouse and the Libertines delved into retro culture – an unspoken sadness that the Britpop boom was over.

As social media became pop culture’s dominant force, Moyles’s dismissive attitude and sharp tongue began to land him in serious trouble: there was his use of the word “gay” as an insult; calling some female listeners “dirty w****s”; and offering to divest a 16-year-old Charlotte Church of her virginity. In a period where the primary discussion around pop is not whether songs are good or bad, but whether performers and broadcasters are sufficiently woke, Grimshaw’s breakfast show has been fannish and inclusive.

Nick Grimshaw presenting Radio 1 Breakfast Show © Press Association Nick Grimshaw presenting Radio 1 Breakfast Show

Deliberately targeting a younger audience, Grimshaw was well aware that pop stars are now superbrands that can communicate directly with their audience and therefore tailor their public image without the mediators of the media. His job has been to gently prod at the humans beneath the facade, encouraging them to laugh at themselves and show their more endearing qualities. With pop stars arriving from any number of different destinations – Disney, YouTube, reality shows – Grimshaw’s approach represents fans at their most excited.

Of course, fandom is a partisan sport – and Grimshaw’s listening figures suggest he has struggled to build himself as broad a fanbase as the role demands. James is not the start of another revolt into irreverent hijinks, but a seasoned creator of the genre of prank and spoof content that has made some YouTubers rich. While he does not represent a new constituency of listener – nor pop star – he is a product of the same constant churn of content creation that drives all modern pop culture.

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