Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Anderson: John Peel was like someone you'd meet in a garden centre, but he discovered the Undertones

We look back at some of the late Gerry Anderson's wit and wisdom during his time as a Belfast Telegraph columnist

I may not have much to add to the tributes paid to John Peel, but I can't let his passing go by unmarked. I only met him a couple of times and each time I regarded him with something approaching awe.

He was an unlikely hero, balding, paunchy, pasty-faced and looked for all the world like someone you'd meet in a garden centre on a wet Saturday afternoon.

It took quite a leap of the imagination to convince oneself that this was the man whom Rod Stewart had invited on stage at Top of the Pops to play pretend mandolin on Maggie May. And Rod is known in the business as a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

This was the man who broke the Undertones from my home city, also the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order and The Fall; quirky, odd bands that you knew wouldn't have made it without his help.

I only spoke to him once, at a BBC staff Christmas party in Broadcasting House in London. I knew I shouldn't have.

I had just read one of his articles in a magazine and told him I thought he was just as good a writer as he was a disc jockey.

He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said that he wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not.

There was a short embarrassed silence and I was saved by someone else tugging at his arm. It's always a mistake to address one's heroes. It never comes out right.

However, I was pleased to note that he looked extremely uncomfortable among the big brass and the movers and shakers of the broadcasting world. He wasn't a man who'd shake your hand and engage in small talk while he looked over your shoulder to see if someone more important had entered the room. There were more than enough people in the room doing that already.

I spent a year working in the same building as he did but seldom saw him. On the downside, I saw far too much of the Steve Wrights and Simon Mayos of this world.

I did see other things, though. Once, while wandering down a corridor on the floor that housed the Radio One DJs, I came across a large framed photograph of Chris Moyles. The glass covering of the portrait had been severely damaged.

When I reached my destination on that floor and contacted the person I was supposed to see, I asked him what had happened to Chris Moyles' framed portrait.

I asked him this because it was unusual for the BBC to tolerate damaged property on display.

“Oh. Nobody wants to fix it or take it down.”

“Why?” says I.

“Because John Peel put his fist through it last week.”

I apologise to all Chris Moyles fans when I admit that I would have been tempted to do the same if no one had been watching.

Peel also earned plaudits and awards for his work on Radio 4's Home Truths.

I remember talking to one of the production team at the time.

He expressed certain anxieties as to how John would be accepted by the audience, bearing in mind that I myself had had the distinction and signal honour of having queered the pitch for broadcasters with regional accents.

“Never mind,” said another producer sitting close by. “Peel will do ok. After all, he's a public school boy. They'll like him because they'll sense they ought to.”

And Peel had indeed been a public school boy. It was easy to forget that.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday were frantic days in BBC Radio Foyle. Michael Bradley, radio producer and bass player with the Undertones, was inundated with requests for interviews.

Teenage Kicks was being played constantly on every major network in Britain. Somewhere in England today, I'll bet someone is planning the biggest tribute concert of all time.

The Undertones will undoubtedly top the bill and lead singer Fergal Sharkey can hardly refuse to rejoin the band if only for a day.

You see, even in death, John Peel is still giving good bands a bit of leg-up.

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