Fluff on the side

Radio - Louis Barfe on the inimitable style of Aussie expat DJ Alan Freeman

What does it take to get ahead in radio these days? Given that Radio 1 employs DJs called Emma B and Sarah HB, being named after a pencil must help. Stand by for the Top 40 with Caran d'Ache. More conventionally, a distinctive voice is the main thing, and a memorable catchphrase or two wouldn't do any harm. Since arriving in Britain 45 years ago, Alan "Fluff" Freeman has offered both, presenting the charts, championing progressive rock and, most recently, popularising opera and the classics on Radio 2. The Complete Fluff, Not 'Arf! (Radio 2) - mounted ostensibly to celebrate 40 years since he took over the original pre-Dale Winton Pick of the Pops from the perennially suave David Jacobs - explained the origins of the voice and the phrases.

Freeman had once wanted to be an operatic baritone, but realised he couldn't cut it at the level his youthful perfectionism desired, so he chose to find alternative employment for the pipes. "I cannot place my singing voice like I can place the voice when I'm talking, that's the difference." To illustrate this, listeners heard him crooning the jingle for the Oxford Floor Polish beautiful baby competition on 3KZ in Melbourne, as well as his recording of "You Make Me Feel So Young". It certainly wasn't Sinatra, but it was far from unpleasant.

As for the catchphrases, "All right? Right" is an Australianism; another old favourite was a reaction to the staid BBC presentation that Freeman heard upon landing in Britain in 1957. This he described in two withering phrases: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen" and "That was a lovely record". He decided that record-buyers were not ladies and gentlemen, but "pop pickers". It may sound hackneyed now, but in 1957 it was radical stuff. "This is rock'n'roll, man, it ain't Sing Something Simple," he said.

Noel Edmonds was nominally the presenter of this Fluff-fest, but he limited himself to topping and tailing affectionately. Even this proved that Edmonds, now an elder statesman of radio himself, should have stayed away from television, which diminished his considerable broadcasting talent - a mistake that Fluff never made. Archive recordings of old DJ programmes being in limited supply, the bulk of the show consisted of Freeman's reminiscences. Very interesting they were, too, although the initial chronological structure went to pot as Fluff went off at various tangents, not aided by the seemingly random peppering of tributes from Sir Paul McCartney, Chris Tarrant and John Peel.

There were other flaws. Not surprisingly for a BBC programme (albeit independently produced at Unique by Freeman's long-time associate Tim Blackmore), there was no reference to his long stay at Capital Radio in London in the 1970s and 1980s. Thankfully, however, his voice-over stint as "Mr Brentford Nylons" was mentioned, Freeman admitting that he worried it would spell credibility doom for the presenter of the Radio 1 Rock Show. It was in this fondly remembered programme that "pop pickers" gave way to "music lovers", while Fluff established a fast yet ornate style of presentation, splicing snatches of Beethoven with his beloved ELP and Yes. John Peel observed that, through sheer "brio and panache . . . he got away with something that would have been appalling if someone else had been doing it". Indeed. Long may he continue to get away with it.

As a distinctive voice, however, Fluff has new competition, namely Channel Africa's reporter James Shimayola. Appearing on A World in Your Ear (Radio 4), he was described by the presenter, Emily Buchanan, as a vocal cross between "Barry White and a bullfrog". Shimayola was reporting on the Zanzibari residents who had abandoned their homes for fear of being "sodomised by ghosts" as they slept, tales of which had been "spreading like savannah fire". Buchanan curtailed the report with the tongue-in-cheek announcement that the "detail became too much for even our hardened, unshockable producers".

A pity. Surely Radio 4 listeners are broad-minded enough, except where schedule changes are concerned? We need to hear more of both this story and Shimayola. Perhaps he could give Pick of the Pops a go?

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?