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Remembering A Lone Voice - My Homage To Glyn Worsnip

13/03/2017 11:47
Grassetto via Getty Images

A random experience on the morning commute made me think of the most inspired piece of radio I've ever heard.

Stepping off a busy tube at St Paul's, I was caught in a long bottleneck stretching from the foot of the escalators to the platform. I looked up, and saw someone who clearly wasn't prepared to wait: a middle-aged man, running up the down escalator. It was a crazy sprint, something I'd never seen anyone do before.

In a flash, I remembered the title of Glyn Worsnip's autobiography: Up the Down Escalator.

A household name from UK TV and radio in the '70s and '80s, Worsnip was diagnosed with the rare condition cerebellar ataxia, a progressive disease of the nervous system which was to rob him of his mobility, speech and ultimately his life.

In March 1988, he bravely shared his story in what was to be the most engaging programme in Radio 4's history - the BBC ended up taking on extra staff to manage the flood of listeners' letters.

Glyn Worsnip's broadcasting career had been an eventful escalator ride. As a journalist and actor, he first came to fame in the mid-70s, presenting BBC1's weekday magazine programme Nationwide and starring alongside Esther Rantzen in That's Life. For the uninitiated, that show was a strange menagerie of consumer affairs, con men, bureaucrats, talented pets and curiously shaped root vegetables. One of those pets prompted Worsnip's most unlikely assignment - to film a retired colonel who lived with a pet alligator in a basement flat in Surbiton. The 'perfectly harmless' alligator disrupted filming by biting a hole in the colonel's arm.

In the BBC Sound Archives

I first got to enjoy Worsnip's work in the mid-80s when he presented Radio 4's Sound Archives programme. In those days before 24-hour news and when parliament seemed more engaging, people with an interest in current affairs would tune into a summary of Yesterday in Parliament, sandwiched - Tuesdays to Fridays - between the Today programme and the 9am news. On Monday mornings, the same audience got some help kicking off the working week with the Sound Archives filling this slot.

Loosely inspired by events of the day, the presenter would dip into the BBC's sound archives for a hotchpotch of remarks and exchanges to play around with. Worsnip was to host the show once a month from the autumn of 1980 till 1987. Perennial clips he was fond of included a hapless Douglas Brown trying to interview Malawi independence leader Hastings Banda in 1962. Every question was met with a truculent 'I won't answer that!' Retrieved from the deeper recesses of the archive was a female voice, sounding like it came straight out of a 1940s Noel Coward film, quipping 'What you're saying delights me!'

The programme earned fan-mail from Labour Leader Neil Kinnock, who wondered how Worsnip could get away with it. Worsnip's Sound Archives was so strangely riveting that it frequently made me late for school. Not many Oxford-educated journalists could have that effect on a lad attending a comprehensive on the edge of the Yorkshire coalfield.

From The Press Gang to Stop Press

But Worsnip was more than just rude vegetables and anarchic sound clips. Apart from TV voiceovers and documentaries, he was a stalwart of Radio 4. Throughout the '80s he presented features on topics ranging from debutants to Oscars and Honours, from working men's clubs to gentlemen's clubs. His voice was ubiquitous, cropping up in school's radio, discussion programmes and panel games.

His Friday night Radio 2 panel game The Press Gang, more fun and light-hearted than Radio 4's News Quiz, foreshadowed TV's Have I Got News for You. On the serious side, Stop Press showcased Worsnip's critical digest of that week's news. If this sounds dry today, bear in mind that Stop Press was broadcast at a time of radical change in the UK press landscape. It was the era of Murdoch and Maxwell, when newspaper titles were being moved out of Fleet Street.

It was during his presenting of The Press Gang and Stop Press that regular listeners began to notice something odd about Worsnip's voice. In late 1987, two calls to the BBC Duty Office - the conduit for listeners' comments and complaints before the age of the internet - were to cost him his Stop Press job:

'Is Glyn Worsnip unwell or something? He doesn't sound his normal self.'

'What is wrong with Glyn Worsnip this evening? His enunciation was definitely slurred at times.'

But those calls also made him face the true impact of his illness, and take a step that was then by no means commonplace - going public.

Soundtrack: A Lone Voice

If the challenge that Soundtrack's makers set themselves was a nightmare, the Lone Voice episode was a dream.

Soundtrack was a series of 'films for radio', each a piece of realism on tape. In the first Soundtrack, Worsnip talked candidly about his condition and his life as it had become. Seasoned radio journalist become patient, he had taken a voice recorder to all his hospital appointments to record the experience.

Today, we're used to celebrities wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Back in 1988, a well-known radio personality sharing his highly personal experience with his audience - his deterioration, loss of career and impending death - was very fresh. Unique, inspiring, but somehow in keeping with the sombre mood of the time.

As someone listening to speech radio since my early teens, I'd got to know the voice so well it felt like a family friend - even though I had no idea what Worsnip looked like until he appeared on TV talking about his illness.

I'd heard some riveting radio pieces before and many since. But without a doubt, none has moved me as much as that lone voice who'd entertained and challenged me for so long, and was now so generously spelling out its own mortality.

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