Queen of the Night

Annie Nightingale. Photo: PA Photo/BBC.
Annie Nightingale. Photo: PA Photo/BBC.

Annie Nightingale celebrates 40 years at BBC Radio 1 on Thursday, September 9, with a night of programmes dedicated to her.

The doyenne of pop music reveals how she became the first female DJ on the station and how she’s kept her love of new music alive for so long.

Annie Nightingale is so excited about a new track she’s just found, she plays it down the phone to me.

“I don’t know if it will get played, because it’s very controversial, but I find it very moving,” she says, as the beats sound in the background.

This ceaseless enthusiasm for music is the reason Nightingale won her place as BBC Radio 1’s first female DJ - and what has kept her there for 40 years. She celebrates her anniversary on September 9 with a night of music dedicated to her.

A rebel at heart, the DJ defies her 68 years. She’s like a glamorous, trendy aunt - always in shades, with bottle-blonde hair and manicured nails.

“Radio to me is hearing a tune, picking up the phone and playing it down the line to your mate and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’” she says breathily.

While TV presenters at the BBC, younger than Nightingale, have fallen foul of what many believe is ageism, and male DJs have been moved on to Radio 1’s less hip cousin Radio 2, Nightingale has stuck it out.

Over the past four decades, she’s continued to keep up with new music, and championed everything from punk rock and drum and bass, to acid house and breaks. Her Friday night show at 2am pulls in 18 to 25-year-olds worldwide.

“Radio 1 said to me, ‘You’re still relevant, and that’s what counts’,” she says of her longevity. “I suppose because I’m finding new music, that’s what we’re there for.”

“There was a time in the mid-Eighties before acid house happened, when we were in a really bad state musically and I didn’t know if I could carry on. Fortunately, because this country has got this culture, there’s always something around the corner. There’s this creativity with young people. If they find the door’s closed, they say, ‘OK, we’ll do it ourselves’.”

When Nightingale first started out as a music journalist in the 1960s, she found the door closed to female DJs.

The Sixties swung to the music of pirate radio stations, with “brash” rockstar style DJs transmitting from boats off the coast of Britain.

“I remember seeing Radio Caroline from my balcony in Brighton. I loved all the pirates and I loved the idea that it was all illegal and they blasted all this great music out from the sea,” says Nightingale. “It inspired me.”

In 1967, the Marine Offences Act put paid to Radio Caroline and co - and in September there was a new, government-sanctioned station in town, manned by men.

Nightingale mounted a war of attrition and was finally taken on by Radio 1 three years after it launched.

“It was totally a boys’ club. They stated quite categorically they didn’t want any females. I’d worked in TV, I’d written for magazines, I couldn’t understand what was so unique about radio that meant women couldn’t do it.

“Now it’s laughable,” she adds, chuckling, “but then it was ridiculous. It was real sexism at its absolute worst. I used to write articles attacking Radio 1. In the end they had to cave, they felt pressure to take someone on, so I was the token woman.

“I thought once I’d broken the door down, there would be a stampede, but it was 12 years before Janice Long came along. I thought, ‘Well maybe they don’t want to do it’, but it was a real drug for me. I feel very fortunate to have found something I love doing.”

Despite her obvious passion for music, Nightingale admits she worried Radio 1 would give her the boot in those early days.

“I didn’t think I’d last more than a year, because I just didn’t think I was any good. I’d been thrown in at the deep end and didn’t have any experience, so it took me an awful long time to get any confidence.”

“The DJs all liked me because I’d been writing things about them previously and making them more famous - it was the technical side that were the really sexist ones. You could just see them waiting for me to make a big mistake and it was all live, so it was a bit like being told to fly a plane when the pilot’s collapsed. It was that scary.”

On her very first show, Nightingale did drop a clanger: “I took the record I was playing off. Nobody knew who was doing what and there was this record going round and round, so I pressed stop thinking it would stop slowly, but it went ‘eeeeeeee’ and ground to a halt. There were eight seconds of dead air - it felt like a lifetime.”

Nightingale’s best known show - the Sunday Request Show - started in the late Seventies and moved to a slot just after the chart in 1982.

“I realised very early on there were two kinds of Radio 1 DJs. There were daytime presenters who didn’t get to play their own music and people in the evening who did. So I said, ‘I want to be on in the evening please, because I want to play new music’. I didn’t want to be on radio to be famous, I did it because I loved the music.”

Nightingale was born in Osterley, London, during the Second World War. She says she never fitted in at school and her biggest regret is being denied her first rave on Dorset’s Brownsea Island by her parents.

“You know when you’re a teenager and you’re going through emotional turmoil... I always thought, ‘Never forget what it feels like and how adults don’t understand you - and don’t turn into one of those people’.”

She’s been married twice, her second marriage lasting ten years, and has two children, Alex and Lucy, from her first marriage.

Over the years, she befriended bands from The Beatles to The Police, who she toured the world with, and The Who - and thrown wild parties at her home in Brighton.

“People say to me, ‘It’s amazing you had all that access, but things were very different then. You’d go out and get drunk with Marc Bolan or whoever and it just isn’t allowed now, you get 20 minutes.

“You had to learn discretion, you had to know when to keep your mouth shut, people had to be able to trust you.”

She deeply misses the late John Peel, her comrade in the new music crusade, who was Radio 1’s longest serving DJ before his death in 2004.

“He was a great inspiration to me. He used to say, ‘Here’s something you’ve never heard before’. It’s hard to top that.”

As a journalism student in London, she would regularly walk past the BBC’s Broadcasting House and shudder at what it stood for: “To me the BBC was like the establishment, it stood for authority. I would never have imagined I would work there.”

But over the years, Nightingale learnt to change things from the inside.

“When Radio 1 first started, we kind of resented it, I thought it wouldn’t be cool. But when it was obvious the pirates were never going to come back, we had to get in there and make it good. But they wouldn’t let me. I remember the firs agent I had just looked at me and said, ‘You’ll never make a BBC presenter’ because I was wearing something weird.”

“But I never conformed. There’s always been that rebel in me. Conformity does not get you anywhere in the creative world because we don’t want people copying somebody else, we want originality.”

And Nightingale is certainly an original.

Annie Nightingale celebrates four decades of broadcasting on BBC Radio 1, Thursday, September 9, from 7pm.