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Lunch With
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Lunch with Annie Nightingale at The Engineer, London

23 December 2015

Words: Gareth Rees / Images: Rebecca Rees

The Engineer is an attractive but unassuming gastropub situated on Gloucester Avenue, a leafy side street in the affluent Primrose Hill district in northwest London. Shortly after 1pm on a bright autumn day, the sunlight shoots through the large windows, throwing streaks of light across the floorboards, exposed red brick walls and leather-clad booths.

Right on time, at 1.30pm, Annie Nightingale shuffles through the door. Her small body enveloped in a long, black winter coat, an orange scarf decorated with purple stars wrapped around her neck and her face, framed by shoulder length white-blonde hair, is half hidden by a huge pair of sunglasses with a cyan blue frame.

To describe Nightingale as a well preserved but normal 75-year-old lady would be disingenuous, but her understated outfit, low-key demeanour and apparent apprehension about having her photograph taken (she nevertheless consents without complaint) are not what I expected.

Photographs done, we take our seats at a table in a cloistered nook, chosen, after some deliberation, because Nightingale is concerned about the background noise affecting the recording of our interview. BBC Radio 1’s longest serving DJ removes her trademark shades and picks up a menu.

“I’m quite nervous about this, because I hardly eat anything and I can’t talk and eat at the same time.”

After some very careful consideration and clarification of what she calls her culinary “idiosyncrasies”, Nightingale settles on the quinoa salad and I choose the kale, cauliflower and cheddar tart. “If only they would do a portion of mashed potatoes, but I don’t think they will,” she says as I get up to place our order at the bar.

“It’s got mustard or beer or something. It’s too complicated. I’m a nightmare in that way. They want it to look pretty, and I want it absolutely plain. No bits, no nothing.” I successfully order the salad, the tart, two mineral waters and the mashed potato, and return to the table to relay the good news: the kitchen can do the mash, unembellished. “They can? Fantastic. That might save me.”

The recorder goes on, the conversation begins, and Annie Nightingale is in her comfort zone: talking about music, as she has done on BBC radio for 45 years.

Her voice is husky but warm, its rougher edges softened by many, many hours of speaking into a microphone, as well as her fair share of late nights and early mornings spent on the dance floor.

On air, her calm late night tone is the antithesis of the “bass bangers” she plays between 1am and 4am every Wednesday morning. It’s almost conspiratorial, like she’s sharing a secret with a friend.

“I’m speaking into the microphone directly to the listener. It’s a connection with the listener, singular,” she explains.

Anne Nightingale was born in Twickenham, in southwest London, in 1940, part of the same post-war generation as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, bands she would later interview as a print journalist in the 1960s.

“Radio was always very romantic,” she says. “For us to listen to Radio Luxemburg or the American Forces Network, to find this new secret music. We didn’t realise there was an entire generation of us growing up and this was going to become a huge musical explosion. I loved that feeling, but we didn’t know it at the time. It was R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis. It was all very exciting.”

But, despite being “obsessed” with music, the young Nightingale couldn’t see how she could be “in it”.

“I had a job in a record shop when I was still at school. It was my passion,” she says. “But I couldn’t sing. We had a piano at home, and I had piano lessons, but I wasn’t really good at coordinating left and right.”

Straight out of school, she enrolled in a journalism course at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now the University Of Westminster.

“It was not a good course at the time. People would say, ‘Don’t tell anyone you went there, you’ll never get a job.’

“So I spent most of my time in Soho. I did a lot of growing up. I was the youngest on my course, and my parents were very worried about me running round that particular area, but I needed to grow up, I’d had a pretty sheltered background.”

This was the period just before The Beatles redefined pop music and changed youth culture forever.

“I think we were fearless – that whole thing about being a teenager, that you weren’t just small versions of your parents. We did feel special.”

While The Beatles went to Hamburg, Annie Nightingale went to Brighton, where, having passed her initiation – a pub-crawl with her sports-mad male colleagues – she started work on the local newspaper, The Brighton Argus.

“I was the only woman but there was no sexism, no ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’,” she recalls. She participated wholeheartedly into the Monday morning conversations about the previous weekend’s sporting results and became one of the team.

She was given her own music column – called, much to the aspiring music journalist’s embarrassment, Spin With Me – and was soon interviewing and befriending just about every seminal 1960s band you could name, including The Beatles.

It was also during this early period of her career that Nightingale had her first taste of radio broadcasting, a snippet for the BBC (“probably Woman’s Hour or something”) recorded down a telephone line from Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.

“As soon as I put these headphones on and spoke into the mic, I felt, ‘This feels right,’” she recalls.

Our food arrives. The tart, accompanied by a simple salad and half a dozen boiled potatoes, looks promising, while the quinoa salad is a vivid heap of moist green leaves, crunchy vegetables and generous handfuls of healthy grains lovingly combined and beautifully presented on a large white platter.

From the second it’s placed on the table, I know it’s not for Annie. “I’ll probably love this,” she says, picking up her fork and pricking a fist-sized dollop of mash. “But that…” she nods at the salad “…It’s too complicated for me.”

And sure enough, during the next hour or more of conversation, the salad remains intact, like a work of art, to be looked at but never touched.

I tuck in to my tart, which is delightfully cheesy, with as much restraint as I can muster, while Nightingale nibbles light helpings of mash and recollects the fortuitous meeting with Vicky Wickham, producer of pop music show Ready Steady Go!, backstage at a Dusty Springfield gig in Brighton, which led to her next foray into broadcasting as the presenter of That’s For Me, a new sister show to Ready Steady Go!

“That show was not the success that its sibling programme was, but I’d got the bug,” she says. “The music was just unbelievable in ’65, ’66 and ’67. If you look at the charts now, whatever age you are, you would know it all. I was very, very lucky to have been allowed in to that.”

So far, so good. But when Nightingale tried to secure an audition for BBC radio, things didn’t go so smoothly.

“That’s when I started experiencing this horrible sexism. They were quite open about it. They said a female DJ wouldn’t have authority.”

But, in 1970, after three years of attacking the BBC’s stance in “feminist” magazines such as Cosmopolitan, and a little bit of help from a friend, The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor, Nightingale was finally given her own slot on BBC Radio 1, becoming the station’s first ever female presenter.

“Day one I was playing the records I wanted to play,” says Nightingale, raking her mashed potato with her fork. “That was the point for me. I didn’t go into radio because I wanted to be a household name, a famous person, I did it because I loved the music and I thought playing it on the radio would be much better than writing about it. I loved the fact that it was live and whatever you said it couldn’t be edited.”

But the sexism continued. “I felt like they were waiting for me to make mistakes. John Peel was allowed to make mistakes. He was allowed to play things at the wrong speed or play a tape backwards, and none of it mattered. But for me, it did matter.”

Nightingale says she was never convinced it was a secure job, but she survived several sweeping culls and accepted the responsibilities of a 1970s radio DJ, a role that will sound laughable to anybody who didn’t have to live through it.

“You were expected to start doing personal appearances. In the ’70s and ’80s it was horrible, because you were a celebrity.”

Nightingale emits the word with disgust. “I’d turn up with a box of records thinking I would play what I played on the radio, and they didn’t want that, they wanted to give you a microphone and have you entertain people.”

“I was terrified. Nobody taught me how to deal with any of that,” she adds. “You were expected to tell jokes. It was horrific.”

Then what happened? I ask.

“Punk happened,” says Nightingale.

Bob Harris, presenter of popular TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, was not a punk fan, and so Nightingale, who certainly was, got the gig and was right on the frontline as pop music experienced another paradigm shift.

Then, in 1982, Nightingale took over The Sunday Request Show, which aired in a prime slot, immediately after the Top 40.

“The music in the early ’80s was awful. The mainstream pop music was really bad, and I thought, ‘What am I doing on Radio 1?’ But then indie started taking over: Factory Records, 4AD and The Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Aztec Camera – all groups I loved. They were becoming very popular on our show. I thought they would take us off air because it was too weird.”

They didn’t, and Nightingale presented The Sunday Request Show show until 1994, by which time her musical taste had evolved once again. In the late-1980s, despite being in her late forties, Nightingale embraced the burgeoning acid jazz scene, which for her was “as important as punk”.

“The days of John Travolta, all that fancy footwork, this wasn’t anything like that. You would just plant your feet and wave your arms about, no airs or graces. I totally loved all that. I got a residency at a place called Zap Club in Brighton and had to learn to DJ with vinyl and proper decks. I was playing all that stuff on the radio.”

“The first time I heard Kraftwerk, I thought, ‘That, electronic music, is the future,’” she adds. “I want to hear something I haven’t heard before.”

It’s that desire to discover what’s next, to “know where it goes” that keeps Nightingale motivated. She sees herself as a curator, downloading and sifting through hundreds of tracks every week in the hope that she can introduce her loyal listeners to something they haven’t heard before.

“At the moment my thing is Trap and Grime,” she says. Not a sentence spoken by many 75-year-olds. But that’s why Annie Nightingale is still on Radio 1 and, like John Peel before her, hates to be called an “institution” or a “national treasure”.

“It doesn’t really fit if what you’re doing is always forward-looking,” she says. “As the people at Radio 1 once said to me, ‘Why are you here? Because you’re relevant.’”

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