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Tony Blackburn: ‘The world we’re living in at the moment is the saddest time I’ve ever known’

From pirate radio to winning I’m a Celebrity…, it’s been a charmed life for the much-loved disc jockey, but he’s angry about partygate rule breakers, and increasingly sad about the state we’re in

Legendary DJ Tony Blackburn was the first voice heard on Radio 1 when it launched in 1967. He has worked for the BBC on and off ever since, and currently presents Sounds of the 60s on Radio 2.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, he talks about his early years at boarding school, the joy of being a natural on air, and all the things his sister taught him about gratitude.

My dad, a doctor in Dorset, went to a boarding school, so he sent me to one too. To be honest, I was having a lovely time with my mum and dad – I had a wonderful childhood living down in Poole – so I’d rather not have gone.

Later on in life I said to my father, the only thing I would have liked was not to have been sent away. And he said, we didn’t want to send you away, but I thought I was doing my best for you.

It’s not that I was unhappy at school, though I was a bit of a loner – I’ve never had many close friends. But I just wanted to leave and get into music.

I had a guitar at school, and I used to write songs, send them off and get them turned down. After three years at school, one weekend I got permission from the headmaster to see my parents – we were allowed to see our parents twice a term – and I got on a train, turned up at home and said to my mum and dad, would you mind if I just came back to live with you? And they said fine, lovely.

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So that’s what I did. I passed my exams and at the same time as studying for them I was singing and playing guitar with a dance band at the Bournemouth Pavilion. That’s the way it started. 

I used to love the idea of DJing as a child. I had a set-up at home – a loudspeaker linked up to a record player – and I used to do radio programmes for my mum and dad. When I got older I wanted to be a singer. I loved radio, DJs like Alan Freeman, when I was at school, but I didn’t have any thoughts of being a disc jockey. To break into anything like radio or television or anything like that was really difficult. 

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Then in 1964, when I was with the dance band, I saw a documentary on ITV about pirate radio. And I thought that might be a good way to get into the music business, by DJing. So I sent a tape off to Radio Caroline with me introducing a few records, and they replied saying would you come to do an audition?

So on July 25 1964, on Radio Caroline, I walked into the studio and found it a most relaxing, very, very natural thing to do. I left Bournemouth, went to the pirate ships and spent most of my time on the North Sea for the next three years. I just loved it, and 58 years later I’m still doing it and still loving it.

When I joined Caroline, just three weeks after it started, we were in territorial waters. So we flew under the Panamanian flag, which meant, of course, that nobody in authority from Great Britain could come out and go on the ship and we could do whatever we wanted. Then about two years later, another ship came along called Big L, Radio London, an American-owned ship. That’s the one I really loved. Kenny Everett was on board that one. I eventually left Caroline and went there.

They were all about American commercial radio and that’s what I’ve based my career on ever since. It was a wonderful radio station, the best we’ve ever had in this country.

Tony Blackburn on the first day of Radio 1
Launching BBC Radio 1 in 1967. The first song he played was Flowers in the Rain by The Move Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

The government was making it very difficult for the pirate ships, bringing in new offences, not allowing food to be supplied to them, really making it illegal to work there. I met an agent called Harold Davison, the biggest agent in the country. He handled people like Frank Sinatra and all the big names for America, and he told me the BBC were going to open up a popular music service. He said, if you sign with me, I can make you the top disc jockey in the country in three months. So I thought about it… for about two seconds. Harold and I got on like a house on fire; he became like my second father really. And I joined what became Radio 1 and it was a really, really happy time. 

I had a sister [Jackie] who was disabled, which was unfortunate. She was never able to walk. She had infantile paralysis, she was always in a wheelchair, but she was fine, and she was lovely. I was always aware that I had so much, and she didn’t have as much as I did. But she lived in a nice place and she had lots of friends. 

Having a disabled sister has always affected my outlook on life. I can’t stand people who are continually moaning about their life. My sister had a really tough time, but she never moaned once. I can’t understand all these wars and all the problems we have. Because people are so lucky really, just to have their health. 

My sister died last March [in 2021] due to Covid. I wasn’t able to see her when she died. We weren’t able to go to the funeral. So I can understand people’s anger about the government having parties through Covid. That was wrong. Totally wrong. I couldn’t say goodbye to my sister properly. The last time I saw her it was on a video call, and she had an oxygen mask on her face. It was horrible. It was tragic. I couldn’t be there for her and seeing that people were having parties while that was going on, like a lot of people in the same situation as me, I was angry. We played by the rules.

Tony Blackburn with his sister Jackie
At home with his sister Jackie in 1980 Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

When I was asked to do the very first I’m a Celebrity… [in 2002] my wife and my mother tried to talk me out of it. They said they didn’t think I’d be very good at it. I said, well, these opportunities come up once in a lifetime. I’d hate to watch this TV programme and think, god, I could have been a part of that. So I took a risk and thought, I’m going to be able to handle it all right. And I’d never been to Australia and I particularly wanted to go. It turned out to be the most wonderful experience. And when I came back, of course, having won it, my wife said, oh, we knew you’d do well.

I’m a very peace-loving person. The world we’re living in at the moment I think is probably the saddest time I’ve ever known. It is dreadful. I’m really glad I was brought up in the Sixties, it was wonderful.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve been very happily married and really enjoyed it. But it does sadden me to see the world the way it is now. The thing that upset me very much recently was the 87-year-old man who was stabbed to death in the street. How can people do that? It would never have happened in my early days. What’s wrong with society?

Tony Blackburn and Tara Palmer Tompkinson
With runner-up Tara Palmer-Tomkinson after winning the first I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! in 2002
Photo: Brian Cassey / Shutterstock

I’m not religious. I just think we’d probably be better without it. Be happy and don’t worry about what’s going to happen if you die, that’s my philosophy. I don’t feel as though I have to go to church and worship somebody I can’t see.

On the other hand, I don’t preach that – if people want to have religion and it gives them happiness, I think that’s terrific. But I would just like to ask God – if he’s an all-loving God, why hasn’t he come down and helped a little bit?

I just don’t quite understand it. My sister was disabled all her life. I’ve often asked people from the church, why is it that God doesn’t come down now and help out a little bit? Even if he doesn’t actually show himself. Nobody can give me the answer. 

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If I could go back to re-live just one moment, it would be the day I opened up Radio 1 [he presented the very first show on the station, at 7am on September 30, 1967]. I don’t suffer from nerves when I’m on air. I enjoyed every moment of it. I love studios, I love broadcasting. And that moment when I opened up Radio 1 was very special. Somebody said to me, it wasn’t just any other radio station, it was the start of a career. And it’s proved that way. I realised the history of it, and it felt magical.

Tony Blackburn presents from Radio 2 Live in Leeds on Saturday 17 and Sunday September 18 on BBC Radio 2, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds
Interview: Jane Graham

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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