Shaftesbury’s-own Radio 2 legend, Johnnie Walker, will share stories from his 53-year career at St James’s Church on 18th October. The former pirate radio DJ tells Alfred how The Sex Pistols and Mrs Thatcher got him sacked. And Johnnie explains why he’s convinced that there’s life after death.
Sitting in the handsome lounge of Johnnie and Tiggy Walker’s 18th century former farmhouse home near St James’s Church, I can see why the ‘Sounds of the Seventies’ show star considers this a place of relaxation. “I tend to view living in Shaftesbury as my place to escape and to be off duty,” said Johnnie.
The room is dark, and its petrol blue painted walls give the sophisticated and calming air of a private gentleman’s club. “Working for me tends to be Saturday through to about Tuesday, in London. Sunday afternoon is a good time for ‘Sound of the Seventies’. When they introduced the rock show on a Saturday night, I now lose my entire weekend. It’s very hard to recreate that in the week because it’s just not the same atmosphere on weekdays. You have to find the balance,” explained Johnnie.
He does give his time freely to the Shaftesbury community. He’s turned on the town’s Christmas lights. He has spoken of his passion for Carers UK to the British Legion, but he does try to strike a balance. When he’s at his Primrose Hill place in London, he’s in work mode. Here in Dorset, Johnnie is at home.
“If you don’t do anything, people say, ‘He’s hopeless. He just won’t support the local community’,” laughed Johnnie. “I try and do my bit but you do get asked for an enormous amount of things.” And he says the level of recognition he receives around town is just right. People will occasionally praise his music selection when’s he queuing in the paper shop.
He’s had a long relationship with our hilltop town. “I used to motorbike down here quite a bit with friends. I remember often riding into Shaftesbury and looking at Gold Hill with some biker mates. When I met my wife Tiggy, she was hugely keen on Dorset. She came with her grandmother when she was about fourteen and just pronounced, ‘I’m going to live in Dorset one day’. I do believe in reincarnation and previous lives. I’m sure Tiggy has been in Dorset before, so she naturally wanted to gravitate back to somewhere way back in her soul memory that she knew,” said Johnnie. I made a mental note to return to his thoughts on the afterlife later.
When Johnnie met the future Mrs Walker, Tigggy was living in Dorset’s highest village, Ashmore. “We got married in the church opposite. Then, bless her, she moved to a newer place because it was a new start for both of us. We moved to Farnham. Then we went to a granary just outside Salisbury on the A36 road. It was in a little hamlet. But to do anything you had to get in your car,” said Johnnie.
He wanted to find a home where you could walk to buy a paper. “Shaftesbury eventually became it. We are in St James Street and we’ve hopped up and down this street in four houses. We rented next door. We had the chance to buy somewhere further down – the old Fox and Hounds. We lived there for a few years. Tiggy had always seen this house and loved it. It came on the market and there was a bidding war. Tiggy won. She usually does. She’s a formidable opponent, really,” he smiled.
Johnnie has no plans to move anywhere else. “Only if I live long enough and I can’t get upstairs. Tiggy says, ‘Maybe we should look for a place that’s all on one level’. For now, we’re very happy living in this house. It’s just got a lovely atmosphere.”
Johnnie first found fame on pirate radio. In the 1960s, there was no local radio, commercial radio or pop radio. The BBC offered a mainly national mix of orchestral, speech or classical music programmes. So entrepreneurs installed radio studios and transmitters on boats moored outside territorial waters, to beam the latest hits across the UK. Pirate DJ’s like Johnnie became hugely popular among the rapidly growing younger generation. For years, Johnnie has spoken with fans who consider him the voice of their teenage years.
“It’s becoming less people because people who remember are dying off,” Johnnie laughed.
He has become tired of the nostalgic reunions and fellow pirate radio DJ’s have decided not to hold any more events. But Johnnie recognise how influential those pirate radio boats were. “I do sometimes get students who decided to do pirate radio for their thesis at university. I try and help them with an interview. So much happened in such a short space of time, there’s just a huge burst of energy in all areas of music, fashion, art, culture. It was amazing,” he said.
If you had to review work that you had undertaken 50 years ago, you might find it uncomfortable. I asked Johnnie how he feels when he hears his 1960s radio recordings which are often played when the media remembers the role pirate radio played in shaping modern Britain. “I don’t really hear them,” Johnnie said. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking in the past. I listened to some of my recordings on my first pirate station, Radio England, where they were trying to make us sound like American, fast-paced disc jockeys, grinning all the time. I find those pretty embarrassing.”
The government felt threatened by the offshore pirates and passed legislation which effectively made broadcasting from a boat off the UK mainland illegal. The new law came in at midnight on 14th August 1967. Johnnie was the voice of defiant Radio Caroline, which continued. He read an emotive speech penned by the station’s owner. “It said, ‘Caroline belongs to you and we love you’ and all that. I find that a bit embarrassing now,” Johnnie laughed, adding, “But it was 196 – Sergeant Pepper and Summer of Love. Love was a big thing. They reckoned there were 22 million people listening that night.”
Many broadcasters with that level of exposure have segued to TV work, but Johnnie has stayed with the medium he loves. “Radio is the one thing that I feel comfortable with and I really enjoy. It seems to suit my complicated personality. I’m slightly introverted, but I can be extrovert in a room with a microphone and before an audience,” he said. “Few people have gravitated from radio to TV successfully and vice versa. It’s happening a lot at Radio 2. To get a radio show you’ve got to have a TV presence first. Automatically, because you’re a TV celebrity, you’re offered radio. Not all of them do radio as well as they do TV. I’ve never really felt comfortable with TV.”
Radio 1 and Radio 2 presenters have often been presented as a happy family in publicity pieces and articles. I asked Johnnie whether he spends time with his celebrity colleagues. “It’s like anybody in a job – you get on with some of them, you don’t get on with others. I get on very well with Steve Wright, who I see it quite a bit. Bob Harris also. I have always had a fond exchange with Ken Bruce. Claudia Winkelman or Graham Norton, you don’t get to see that much,” said Johnnie, although he added that the entire Radio 2 line-up is encouraged to attend get-togethers each year.
Johnnie has also worked for smaller commercial radio stations. “I’ve always very much enjoyed working in local radio. I worked for Radio West in Bristol for a while, then I moved up the M4 to Wiltshire Radio, which became GWR, in Wootton Bassett. You felt much more plugged in and connected to the area and your listeners. But I enjoy being on a national station,” Johnnie said, as he explained, with some pride, how he sometimes drives from the north of Scotland down to Dorset listening to Radio Two all the way.
In the 1970s, Johnnie worked for US Radio. Their stations are identified with letters and he left his job in San Francisco after visiting Brits poked fun at the station name, live on air. “One of the Sex Pistols said, ‘KSAN sounds like a lavatory cleaner!’ There’s nothing I could have done to stop him. The boss said, ‘I’m not having anybody calling this radio station a lavatory cleaner. You’re fired!’”
Johnnie had previously quit his Radio 1 show because he wasn’t a fan of the big Scottish boy band of the day. “They said, ‘We want you to do another two years of the lunchtime show. No more album tracks’. I said, ‘You mean more Bay City Rollers’.” Johnnie says his boss confirmed he would be expected to play the bands records and rejected his request to move to weekends, so he left Radio 1.
He was sacked from the BBC’s London radio station GLR when he made a remark about Mrs Thatcher quitting, when it became evident that she wouldn’t win her 1990 leadership challenge. “I knew a lot of people really hated her. I said, ‘It’s unbelievable to think she’s going to go. There will be street parties’, which is an exaggeration.” Johnnie said he didn’t have anything against the controversial Tory leader, but the comment didn’t impress his BBC GLR boss.
The broadcaster had previously been warned about his weekly paranormal show on Bristol’s Radio West. An interview with physic Doris Stokes lit up the radio station’s phone lines. But the broadcast regulator included representation from church groups and there was uneasiness about the subject matter.
Johnnie muses that times have changed. “If you did a poll now, you’d probably get over 50% of people saying that they believed in life after death. Attitudes to funerals are very different. They are less morbid, less sombre. The music played is very different to how it was a few years ago. There seems to be a general advancement of human understanding a bit more. It’s always deemed to be the paranormal. Those who have knowledge would say it’s not paranormal, it’s actually normal, but it’s just not widely known. It’s misunderstood,” he said.
One event had a major impact on Johnnie. “Keith Charles was actually a police officer in the CID in London. Sometimes the police will go and seek clairvoyants for clues. They like to keep that hidden from the public. He called himself the psychic detective. He came down for an interview on Radio West and was going to give a demonstration in a hall. I introduced him and he did readings for the audience,” said Johnnie, who says he agreed to follow the physic and his team to a curry house afterwards. “I pulled into the car park. I was just about to get out of my car when Keith Charles opened the passenger door and got in. He said, ‘I feel a real connection with this elderly man. It’s your father. He says, ‘How are you son?’”
Johnnie’s father always addressed him in that way. The psychic revealed things which Johnnie says only his father would have known. “I broke my leg stock car racing when I was in my 20s. My dad used to just tap my leg and say, ‘How’s your leg, son?’ Keith was just about to get out of the car and said, ‘Your dad says how’s your leg, son?’. That, for me, is convincing proof that my father somehow was communicating with Keith Charles. When people you have been very close to die, it’s terribly hard for the person remaining in the physical world. That loved one in the spiritual world can be a lot closer to them and supportive of them than they realise. I think it’s quite a thing to go around and help people believe that loved ones do still exist in a slightly different dimension and will meet them again one day. Some people criticise that. They say you’re just peddling hope to make them feel better, but I think it’s the truth, personally,” said Johnnie.
Johnnie thinks that St James Church will be a suitable setting, if his interview by Shaftesbury-based Julian Richards discusses spirituality. “Little things happened throughout my life that caused me to think maybe there’s more to this world, and us as human beings, than we know about. It’s quite conceited to think that we know everything about ourselves. What happens after death has always fascinated me,” he said.
Finally, I asked Johnnie about a matter that many people would consider private – his health. I mentioned it because Tiggy brought it up in a recent Twitter post, revealing his need for a ‘heart upgrade’. “I did have a minor heart attack in January, which I didn’t realise was a heart attack. I got carted away by ambulance about half three in the morning. I’ve had stents before,” said Johnnie, who explained how his doctor revealed that he needed a triple bypass. “I was in Salisbury hospital. I waited a week and I went to Southampton and they did an operation on me there, at the beginning of February.”
He says that he has been following the NHS’ excellent post-heart attack exercise programme and he laughed that we can put him down for the Gold Hill Marathon. “And carrying the cheese up Gold Hill,” smiled Johnnie.
Johnnie Walker is in conversation with Julian Richards at St James Church on Friday 18th October at 7.30pm. The event is to raise funds for the restoration of the east window, which is badly in need of work.