'Red Light Zone: An Insider's "Laugh 'n' Tell" of BBC Radio' By Jeff Zycinski (The Lunicorn Press)
What good are radio producers? As sub-editors are (were) to print hacks, so BBC radio producers seem to presenters, the 'talent' as producers and almost no-one else calls them. 'Talent' is a word used in a weird combination of affection, contempt and often jealousy, as many producers long to be on-air, in front of the microphone, in the real red light zone. Where the big, temporary, freelance money is; the small-time, audio-only fame (unless you're an easy-fix, no brainer recruit from telly or previous rock 'n' roll stardom). Where the secure, pensioned, humanely resourced jobs most definitely aren't.
Well, two of the producers mentioned in this book, at least, proved their usefulness in at least one respect: they saved my career, reputation, and to be honest, their own, by preventing me from playing golf.
It had been my idea to haul the golf clubs from the rotten old campervan I was then sleeping in – parked behind BBC Highland in Culduthel Road, Inverness – and hit some practice shots. From the front lawn of the BBC, I was aiming for the River Ness below. The thing was, there were houses in between. Two roads. Quite a few cars, some of them moving, even at 2.00am. I didn't see this as a problem.
Drink had been taken. Quite a lot. Over quite a long time. The truth is, some of the folk who worked on BBC Radio Scotland's early morning 'Tom Morton Show' were in the habit of having long lunches. Still, noon until two o'clock in the morning was quite unusual. We were usually finishing up at closing time in the Heathmount around midnight.
Anyway, I poured a few Dunlop 65s and Titleists onto the nicely-shorn BBC grass, and began some practice swings, watched by said producers, both of them golfers and seemingly keen to have a go. First to reach the river paid the entry into Mr Gs, if that horrific nightclub was still open. I took a decent stance, swung, and hit a perfect shot, though perhaps a little short. There was a silence, and then a distant, tinkling crash – possibly a greenhouse.
Radio producers rarely move fast. Their's is a relaxed, sedate lifestyle, or was in those far-off 1990s. But these two were like Trevino in a thunderstorm. One picked me up and huckled me campervanwards, while the other scooped balls, clubs and bag into his arms – the evidence – and followed us to the car park. They had sobered up rather quickly too.
'This,' hissed one, 'never happened.'
Of course it didn't. If it had, my radio career wouldn't have continued for another 20-odd years, and those two wouldn't have gone on to become the extremely eminent executives they undoubtedly are. Who? Ah well, that would be telling. But neither one is Jeff Zycinski.
Jeff was senior producer of that early manifestation of the 'Tom Morton Show', and it was his opening into the management route which would take him to the heights of tartan Beebdom – head of radio, Scotland. And head of Radio Scotland too. 'Red Light Zone' is his story.
It is a tale told by a supreme anecdotalist, an excellent journalist, a very accomplished writer and a man who could, and did, drink me under various tables on many occasions. I am pleased to say that there is little in this book about me I can object to, other than unflattering comparisons with Edward Mair. The really terrible stories are not in this book, or are glossed over.
There are some very funny tales though – once Jeff had left Inverness and my dangerous golfing behind – including a gatecrashing of a Richard Branson party at the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow which could have cost Jeff his career. And some of the things we got up to in Hollywood are worth the price of admission alone. Well, they were to me, although I did get a free copy.
There is a sense of suppressed fury, I think, as Jeff journeys onwards and upwards from the Kazoo orchestras, Russian circus performers and crazed impersonations of the 'Tom Morton Show', to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and dallying with various directors general. The BBC's ludicrous 1950s civil service management arrangements lurch into the 21st century amid a plethora of W1A jargon and frankly astonishing team-building days, taking Jeff to the point where he is suddenly surplus to Donald McKinnon's requirements and shown, in the most obfuscatory Beeblicious way, the door after 25 years. He is no longer to be head of radio, Scotland. There will still be a Radio Scotland, but it will be headless. And, by the sound of it these days, heedless.
This book could have been a mere apologia for toes trodden on, egos inadequately massaged; it could have been – and sometimes is – a gleeful rejoicing in celebrity, socialising and playing with a box of toys that Jeff, a radio freak since childhood, had always wanted to get his very capable hands on. There are some excellent jokes and, as I've said, some revealing and rather wonderful tales out of school. Some revenge is served, nicely chilled, with subtle seasoning.
But the absolute core of the book is Jeff's family. There is his upbringing in Easterhouse, one of eight children, his father a Polish merchant seamen brought to Scotland by war. He describes an unexpectedly idyllic childhood, with most of his brothers in the army or police, in a place most of his future 'superiors' would dismiss as beyond the pale. His beloved wife and children are a source of pride and guilt, and then comes the slow death of Jeff's father which almost unravels everything he's achieved. Some of the most tragic moments, such as his father's funeral, are played for laughs, but we've already learned about that technique of turning tragedy into comedy, taught at a seminar in LA. It's no less powerful for knowing the mechanism being deployed. Therapy, fitness and a reduction in drink and fish suppers brings recovery.
At the end, there's a sense of what next? Jeff's still in his early 50s, and this book wraps up one chunk of an illustrious career with a long list of programmes commissioned. It's not just a self-aggrandising tale of unalloyed success though. There are some dismal failures admitted and moments of terror, humiliation and disappointment. If the book lacks anything, it's a decent title and a political viewpoint. Jeff was head of Radio Scotland through some of the biggest upheavals in Scottish politics, and his own political stance remains resolutely opaque. You can take the man out of the BBC... However, Jeff's portrayal of the mass picket of Pacific Quay during the referendum campaign is about as icily dismissive as the book gets.
More writing seems inevitable. He is a polished, terse stylist. There's an excellent, so far unpublished, novel about radio called 'The Good Listeners', and directorships and board memberships are open, so Jeff can mix, mingle, gossip and do charitable works. But I expect 'Johnny Sellotape' or the less comedic version of that stand-up alter ego may resurface. After all, the boy's got talent. Actually, I hear he's taken up golf.