Radio Norfolk legend Keith Skues will retire after 60-year career this weekend
- Credit: Archant © 2009
Much-loved radio presenter Keith Skues will broadcast his final show on Radio Norfolk on Sunday evening before retiring at the age of 81. Paul Hayes pays tribute
If Tony Blackburn was the Neil Armstrong of BBC Radio 1, famously opening the station on September 30 1967, then the Buzz Aldrin of perhaps Britain’s best-known radio station was a man who has been living and broadcasting in the heart of the Norfolk Broads for the past 25 years.
Keith Skues presented Radio 1’s second ever programme, Saturday Club. But that’s just one chapter in a hugely varied and successful career which has taken Keith around the world, seen him presenting on some of UK pop music’s pioneering radio stations – and which, after 61 years behind the microphone, comes to a close this weekend with his retirement at the age of 81.
Norfolk has been Keith’s home for over a quarter of a century now, but he was born in Cheshire just before the Second World War. Radio was very different when Keith was growing up, but he was in no doubt about what he wanted to do for a career.
“I was around in the early 1950s, when pop music was just about starting,” he recalls. “I loved rock and roll, and my parents wouldn’t allow me to use their radiogram. So I was sent down to the bottom of the garden where there was a shed. That was my home, basically. I had long wires from my bedroom as an aerial – nearly 200 feet of copper wire! And I sat there listening to Radio Luxembourg and pretended to be a radio presenter!”
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When Keith was called up for national service in the late 1950s and joined the Royal Air Force, he was also able to join the British Forces Network radio service. While stationed in Germany he became a breakfast show producer – which was how, in 1959 at the age of 20, his presenting career began in a rather unexpected manner.
“The rule was that if the presenter hadn’t turned up an hour before we went on air you were supposed to ring somebody to get another person to come in and present the programme,” Keith explains. “So I was ringing all sorts of people and nobody’s answering the phone and I said to the engineer, ‘What do I do?’. He said, ‘We’ll do the programme!’ So six o’clock came and I presented the show for three hours.”
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Keith was initially dismissed from the network for having the temerity to save the day – but his radio career was rescued by the intervention of a superior.
“Bill Crozier, who used to do a programme called Two-Way Family Favourites said, ‘Well, it wasn’t the best programme we’ve ever broadcast, but it saved us the embarrassment of having dead air for three hours.’ So I was given a second chance and I came back, and then when my National Service was over I applied for a civilian commission.”
Keith broadcast in places such as Nairobi and Aden, before in 1964 he began a new phase of his career. Heading to the North Sea he joined the pirate station Radio Caroline, becoming one of the best-known pirate broadcasters and later moving to Caroline’s major rival Radio London. “Pirate radio went straight to the hearts of the young listeners,” he remembers. “It was something that teenagers identified with and they loved it. There was the freedom of being yourself and having fun.”
Such was the influence of the pirates that they could make or break songs – with Keith’s championing of The Byrds’ cover of Mr Tambourine Man seeing him become particularly associated with the record. An instrumental version by the Golden Gate Strings has been his theme tune ever since.
When the pirates were outlawed in 1967, Keith was one of the presenters scooped up by the BBC to launch their own pop music station. “It was very exciting because pirate radio was great, but you weren’t heard in Scotland and places, but on Radio 1 you were heard right around the country which was absolutely fantastic. I loved it.”
His time at Radio 1 saw him travel across America interviewing some of the pioneers of rock and roll when he edited the series The Story of Pop, before in 1974 he was poached to set-up the commercial station Radio Hallam in Sheffield. Keith stayed there for nearly 20 years, until his RAF reservist status saw him called up during the Gulf War – and when he went back to Sheffield afterwards, he was told that he was surplus to requirements. Yorkshire’s loss was Norfolk’s gain as Keith was posted to RAF Marham as a press officer, fearing that his broadcasting career had come to an end. However, when attending an official function to open the new BBC Radio Norfolk King’s Lynn studio in 1993 he got talking to a member of the station’s management team.
“I was asked, ‘Why aren’t you in radio anymore?’” Keith explains. “And fortunately a job came along here at BBC Radio Norfolk. I wasn’t a youngster at this stage of the game, so I was absolutely delighted.” Keith began a regular show with BBC East in April 1995 – broadcasting late at night not just to Norfolk, but to the surrounding stations in a shared programme across the eastern counties. He’s become a much-loved local voice, racking up somewhere in the region of three thousand shows from Norwich and from his own home studio on the Broads. His retirement now brings that run to a close, although we very much hope that he can be persuaded to return for some one-off specials in the future.
One of the early pieces of Radio 1 publicity has Keith referring to himself as: “Your Radio 1-and-a-half man,” and perhaps there was always something more of the old Light Programme to Keith’s style than some of his contemporaries. But to try and categorise him at all is unfair. Even after thirteen years of working with him, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what his favourite type of music is.
He’s played everything from the Savoy Orpheans or the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra to The Clash or 50 Cent. He has no particular axe to grind or opinion to impart, and is not entrenched in a certain style or era at the expense of others. He just wants to give those at home something nice to which they’ll enjoy listening – a surprisingly rare and tremendously underrated quality.
The listener is the most important person to Keith, as it should be, and it’s that loyalty which has seen him earn tremendous affection in return. It also perhaps led to what Keith regards as his proudest moment – being presented with an MBE by the Queen in 2004.
“That came was a complete and utter surprise,” he admits. “Why me? There are more important people who are doing good work who are not honoured. Why should I get it because I’m a broadcaster? It’s my job.”
But it’s a job which has seen Keith bring enormous pleasure to many thousands of listeners. As the final notes of Mr Tambourine Man fade away for the last time at 1am this Monday morning and Keith goes, as he puts it, “disappearing into the pale blue yonder,” a rather special part of our radio history will be gone. Sadly, we’ll not see his like again.
Keith Skues’s final show on Radio Norfolk is from 10pm on Sunday, or online at bbc.co.uk/radionorfolk or via the BBC Sounds app