Happy birthday, mate

Smashie and Nicey have the last laugh as the Beeb network turns a ripe 40

<strong>Fortieth birthda

It was like awaking into a living nightmare. Radio 1 on Sunday morning (30 September) paired up Chris Moyles, the station's boorish breakfast DJ, with Tony Blackburn, its smarmy original voice. Without a posse to bully and, no doubt, with BBC executives and press officers hanging around, Moyles did not take long to submit to Blackburn, whose fluency, if nothing else, still leaves the younger DJ standing. Blackburn boasted about the short hours he worked - the original breakfast show lasted an arduous 90 minutes from 7am until 8.30 - and the flash car he drove. But, plucked out of the North Sea, he must have been on a minuscule salary next to Moyles, whose styling as the "saviour of Radio 1" seems, regrettably, to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lily Allen - at what cost to the licence-fee payer? - sang the Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong". Its purpose, like the other specially commissioned covers and the Moyles/Blackburn double act itself, seemed to be to demonstrate how far the Wonderful One had come in 40 years. I was not so sure. Over on Radio 2, a Kenny Everett Radio Show from 1981 was playing, complete with time checks and weather forecasts. Everett is out of fashion now, but the show was tighter and more intelligent than anything Moyles or Blackburn has ever mustered.

The kiss of death for Blackburn, Simon Bates et al, was, of course, being parodied by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse on television in the Nineties. They were back on Sunday afternoon on Radio 2, revoicing an Alan Freeman Pick of the Pops from 1967. It was a tour de force as Smashie and Nicey ("great mate") boasted of life after One on Radio Kettering or doing the Penge ice rink Sunday-afternoon slot and their assiduous charidee work. Right-wing views - "You come to our country, you accept our music" - repressed homosexuality and financial worries bubbled threateningly beneath the surface. Now I want Whitehouse and Enfield to take on Moyles and radio's other on-air thugs.

The reason for all the nostalgia and self-parody was to celebrate the kind of birthday the BBC likes above all others: one of its own. It is 40 years since Radio 1 launched, although its birth actually marked the death of pirate radio and one of the Wilson administration's most oppressive acts. It was ironic, too, as Terry Wogan pointed out, that though born in the shadow of Radio 1, Radio 2 now casts the greatest shadow of all, with some 13 million listeners.

The other stations marked the anniversary as you would expect them to. Radio 3, which had emerged out of the Third and Music Programme, loftily made no reference to the day at all. Radio 4, however, bedded itself down for 105 minutes of self-analysis on Sunday night in 4 at 40. There was a bit of backslapping, with Liz Forgan, a former head of radio, describing Broadcasting in the Seventies, the report out of which the new radio line-up emerged, as a work of incredible perspicacity such as to knock Einstein's theory of relativity into the shade. ("What about, and this is just a thought - renaming the Third Programme Radio 3?" "You're a genius, Carruthers!") The beating back of the lobby that wanted to turn Radio 4's long-wave frequency over to rolling news was presented in terms that might have befitted a historian of the Battle of Britain.

But you've got to love the BBC. There is no other institution in the country so willing to indulge its critics, led by the Observer's Miranda Sawyer but abetted by the journalist Sarfraz Manzoor. Radio 4, or parts of it, stood condemned as super-serving the middle-aged and the middle classes (though it was pointed out that Humphrey Lyttelton is neither, being ancient and Eton-educated). The Archers was much hated yet, along with the news sequences, "drove" the station. Some of the late-night comedy gave the right to fail a bad name. The station's listeners came across as obsessive, reactionary and, in some cases, psychologically incapable of switching the network off. This circle of self-congratulation and self-criticism was squared by the programme's gifted chairman and supreme ironist, Eddie Mair, who warned at the start of plenty of fun "and some bits of boring analysis". Forty years on, it remains the Radio 4 way.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Afternoon Play: Windscale – Accident and After
8 and 9 October, 2.15pm, Radio 4
Not quite explosive drama, set 1957.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Starts 10 October, 6.30pm, Radio 4
Serialisation of minor masterpiece by Douglas Adams.

Street Corner Soul
Starts 11 October, 11pm, Radio 2
Ronnie Spector on doowop’s legacy.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever