The radio DJ reveals how taking a very personal journey through musical history while writing his new book helped him survive a true annus horribilis
Almost the first words Mark Radcliffe speaks as he sits down in a cafe next door to BBC HQ in Salford are ones of reassurance. ‘I’m fine,’ he smiles. ‘I’m all right.’ For most people these would be airy pleasantries. For Radcliffe they carry considerably more weight.
Mark Radcliffe with David Bowie in 1999. ‘He was always fantastic company, very funny and approachable’
Last October, the Sony Radio Academy award-winner announced that he’d been diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer, an especially cruel blow for one of Britain’s most recognisable and beloved voices. Yet if Radcliffe feels hard done by, he’s hiding it well. ‘Someone did say, “Perhaps it’s divine retribution for all the rubbish you’ve talked all these years!”’
Hardly. During 40 years on British TV and radio, the Bolton-born broadcaster has presented the anarchic Radio 1 Breakfast Show, Mark And Lard, alongside Marc Riley, and fronted BBC2’s Glastonbury coverage. He now presents The Folk Show on Radio 2, as well as the weekend breakfast show on Radio 6Music with Stuart Maconie.
But all that faded into the background when he discovered a lump in his neck while shaving. ‘It turned out to be on the back of my tongue as well,’ says Radcliffe. ‘They said, “We’re pretty confident, but we have to scan your whole body to see if it’s anywhere else. They did it on a Thursday and you don’t get the results until the Tuesday. That was quite a long and testing weekend! When they told me it hadn’t spread, I remember coming out of the hospital on a beautiful sunny day and going, “Brilliant, I’ve only got cancer in my neck!” I did once ask them, if it hadn’t been found, how long would I have had, and they said four to six months. If I’d left it, it would have spread, because it was very aggressive, and it would have been too late.’
Perhaps the toughest moment was breaking the news to his wife, Bella, and their two children, Mia and Rose. He also has an older daughter, Holly, from his first marriage. ‘Holly felt it very keenly,’ he says. ‘My two younger daughters, in their 20s and teens, just got on with their own lives, really, which is what I wanted. I remember one of them said, “Will this affect me on a daily basis?” I thought, that’s a great question! I said, “No, it really won’t.” She said, “OK then, fine. Shall we have a pizza?” But it was very tough on my wife.’ The dedication in Radcliffe’s new book, Crossroads, is to Bella, ‘in sickness and in health’.
‘You say these words in your wedding vows, and then they come true,’ he says. ‘You think, Ah, that’s why they’re there. It’s quite profound.’
Between October and Christmas he underwent chemotherapy – ‘hideous’ – radiotherapy and an operation to remove the cancerous tissue. Before the op he had to sign a waiver. ‘They said, “We’re going very close to the vocal cords, it might affect your voice.” I thought, what’s the alternative? As it is, my voice is kind of intact. It feels slightly different to me, slightly lower, but that’s OK. After the operation I couldn’t swallow anything, it was so sore, but the lowest time was when it was all finished, after Christmas and New Year was over. Lying in bed, feeling like a husk of a person. You can’t earn, you feel useless. That was the hardest time.’
During this period he wrote Crossroads, his personal journey through a series of pivotal moments in musical history, from Black Sabbath inventing heavy metal to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, a concept album proving ‘that with the right record at the right time, anyone can become massively successful. You don’t even have to be pretty or smile.’ It’s so breezy you’d never guess it was forged in despair. ‘I had no voice, no energy, I couldn’t go anywhere,’ says Radcliffe. ‘I remember long, cold days in the kitchen with the dog, hammering it out, feeling like death. When I read it back, I’m quite pleased it’s not thoroughly depressing! Perhaps it was an escape for me.’
He received the results of his final scan in March and ‘finally felt I could stand up straight for the first time in six months. The sun came out in a big way.’ And now? ‘My throat still gets tired and I can’t eat without water. The radiotherapy blasted all my saliva glands, half my stubble is still missing on one side, and I get dead tired. But I’m fine. I get regular check-ups for five years, then you eventually get the all-clear.’
He certainly looks well, youthful for his 61 years, and svelte. ‘Two stone lighter,’ he smiles. ‘I wouldn’t recommend cancer as a diet plan but it’s worked.’ As for the wisdom he has gained: ‘I have nothing earth-shattering to tell people. You focus on what’s important. The moment is the now, there’s incredible clarity and beauty to that. Things that used to annoy me – people cutting me up on the road, the weather – well, who cares? There was a possibility that I mightn’t have seen the rain again, so it all looks kind of beautiful. During my treatment, a friend was found to have ovarian cancer and died within eight weeks. Why did she die, and I’m still here? Sometimes the randomness of it messes with your head.’
It was a testing year in other ways. His father died, and his beloved spaniel Toto also passed away. He is disarmingly honest about which event affected him most. ‘With Dad it was fine. He was 85, he was at his bridge club the week before he died. He was in a hospital about a week, got pneumonia, had a heart attack – gone. I don’t mean to sound offhand about it, but I think, well done, you! That’s a good way to go. My mum is in a home and suffering from dementia, and that’s a lot worse.’
Losing Toto, however, ‘was really traumatic. He went everywhere with me for 12 years. I thought, wow, I’ve genuinely lost a limb here. It took me a long time to get over that. Then we got a replacement dog and it ran under a f****** car. That was hard to take, especially for my wife. All the stress of the previous year clobbered her at that point. It was the one time I felt resentful, when I looked up at the sky and went, “What, us again? Leave us alone!” ’
Radcliffe reckons the Beeb is considerably more risk-averse than in the Nineties and early Noughties, when Mark and Lard wreaked havoc over prime-time Radio 1
Radcliffe returned to the airwaves in February and is grateful that his employer stood by him during his four-month absence. ‘The people who look after me at the BBC were quite kind, they kept some money coming through and said, “We’ll sort it out later.” I’m freelance. They could have said, “You’re not working, there’s no money.” ’
But last year, the Radio 6Music show Radcliffe presents with Maconie was cut from five days to two, moving from weekday afternoons to a weekend breakfast slot.
‘I wasn’t happy about it,’ he says bluntly. ‘I don’t see why I should make any secret of the fact that it wasn’t our choice. I have no issues with the fact that they wanted to do something slightly different, but I wouldn’t have taken the same decisions they did.’
He reckons the Beeb is considerably more risk-averse than in the Nineties and early Noughties, when Mark and Lard wreaked havoc over prime-time Radio 1. ‘A lot of stuff came through from a rather more adventurous spirit than there is now,’ he says. ‘When I hear Radio 1 now, it almost sounds like it did before Mark and Lard. I’m not saying we were some kind of watershed but we tried to create a little world. No one does that any more, they’re just talking about social media. We seem to be in a kind of Love Island world with youth culture, don’t we?’
He sighs. ‘I don’t want to be one of those old guys saying it was all better in my day. Especially since being ill I want to be forward-facing. At the end of the day the BBC has paid me enough money to buy myself a nice house, so thank you.’
His job has also given him the chance to meet his heroes. Two in particular stand out. He interviewed Kate Bush in 2005 and found her ‘disarmingly lovely, nice and normal. She warmed up a cheese pie in the oven for me. She’s kind of quirky but really smiley and warm. We talked after I’d been ill. She remembers you if she decides to let you in.’
He met his childhood idol David Bowie several times, and ‘got to know him a little bit. He was always fantastic company, very funny and approachable. There’s a picture of me and Marc Riley in the studio with him, and Bowie is reading the Viz annual. He took it away with him afterwards! Another time, before a show, we went into the dressing room, he was alone, and he was asking us what we thought of the set list. “Should I play Suffragette City here, do you think?” It was unbelievable, like a dream come true.’ The only major name left on his to-meet list is the ‘indelible’ Tom Waits. One day, he smiles. Thankfully, Radcliffe can dare to dream again.
‘Crossroads: In Search Of The Moments That Changed Music’ by Mark Radcliffe is published by Canongate on Thursday, priced £16.99