The other day I fell into conversation with a colleague on the subject of radio presenters. ‘DJs’, we used to call them, in an era before Fatboy Slim and Judge Jules. My friend was in no doubt, the late Kenny Everett was the greatest ever; nobody would or could surpass him. I disagree.
Have you ever known a person who, through nervousness or shyness, always talks in a funny voice? Well, Cuddly Ken made a career out of that. But that’s not to say he wasn’t a pioneer. Before his shows began, comedy radio came in the form of sketch shows like ‘Round The Horne’ or the surreal antics of The Goons. Music radio tended to stick to the rigid format of link, record, link, record – and Everett deconstructed the format to mix sound effects, characters and gags with the discs. Because of their novelty and unpredictability, his broadcasts gathered quite a following, but that didn’t mean they were consistently hilarious and it certainly doesn’t make him the best DJ to ever appear on British radio.
Kenny Everett was born Maurice James Christopher Cole on Christmas Day 1944. A contemporary of The Beatles, he passed up an opportunity to join the BBC light programme in 1962 in favour of a job with the Radio London pirate ship. His rise to prominence had begun and with the scuppering of the pirates he joined the newborn Radio 1 in 1967. This rise wasn’t without turbulence; he was famously dismissed from both Capital and Radio 1 for jokes so tame by today’s standards they would now slip by without a mention. He was no Clarkson, that’s for sure. Less well-known is the fact he was already familiar with his P45, having been dismissed from Radio London for criticising their religious output.
So Everett was clearly a loose cannon. And that anarchic streak naturally endeared him to his listeners – and later his viewers, through his ‘Kenny Everett Video Show’ on LWT. But to my mind, he was never reliably funny. As the first TV performer to include the laughter of the crew, it could be suggested he was breaking barriers, but it is just as possible he was simply garnishing rather weak material. Sketches about breasts, about transvestites and nakedness – if anything, on telly, he was no more than the alternative Benny Hill.
Arguably Kenny’s nadir was his appearance at the 1983 Conservative Party Conference where he bounded onto the stage to suggest bombing Russia and kicking away Michael Foot’s stick would make good policy. Whether he genuinely held right-wing views – which he would be perfectly entitled to – or he was simply acting up, was a matter of some debate. But there was little doubt he had made a fool of himself.
Those who knew him well confirm that Everett could be a difficult, even tormented, man – and it seems his fluctuating religious beliefs conflicted with his homosexuality to produce periods of real unhappiness. It’s not unusual for comics to be depressive. Cleese, Milligan and Hancock all suffered this way, and Kenny would sit comfortably on this list. His broadcasts were always performances, and were surely an outlet for (and escape from) his frustrations.
So, with this popularity, rebellious adventurousness and undoubted skill with the most basic of studio equipment, why was Kenny Everett not the finest DJ the UK has ever heard?
Well, despite the fact he actually toured with the Beatles and produced two of their Christmas records, he was never about the music. Pop was merely the filler in his shows. As with many of the presenters who followed his style (Steve Wright being the most notable example), he was always itching for the disc to end to clear the air for more Kenny. For die-hard Everett admirers this posed no problem. They tuned in to hear the characters, noises and voices that were the stock-in-trade of his programming. But to be exalted as disc jockey, it is necessary to be passionate about the music you play. Think about the definition of radio ‘DJ’ – a presenter who is carried by the discs, rather than someone who spins the playlist minimum, to allow themselves the maximum exposure, no matter how entertaining that non-musical content might be. I wouldn’t deny his ability to entertain, but Everett rarely produced belly laughs. He would, however, happily shunt the music to one side to clear space for his schtick.
Sadly, Kenny Everett was one of the first stars to succumb to HIV/AIDS, and while it is clear Chris Evans, Johnny Vaughn and many others were there to take on his mantle, he was never truly replaced. As a pioneer, he died with his reputation intact, his place in radio history assured, but it would be wrong to accept him as the greatest DJ of all time. In fairness, it was a title he never claimed for himself and perhaps others shouldn’t try to glue it to his memory.
Magnus Shaw – March 2015