Early Big L memories
During the mid-sixties, when the thought of sitting on a ship playing records as a full-time job seemed too good to be true, young guys stepped aboard rusty old forts and ancient mine-sweepers to become disc jockeys. So it was that, for much less than £50 per month, some of this country's finest broadcasters were moulded into place.
I was a mere 6-year-old child, living in a miserable flat in Crouch End in North London when Radio London came on the scene. I will always remember my old Mum giving me 'what for', when I tuned to 266 and forbidding me to do so again. It was partly because Mum and Dad were great, loyal fans of Jimmy Young and the young Brian Matthew, but mainly because Mum honestly thought that our home would be raided by the police for tuning in! During 1966 I did tune to Radio London, and when my poor Mum discovered me listening to 266, she told me that my getting caught listening to the pirates would end up with Mum and Dad being sent to prison!!!!
It is strange to think that my Mum may have been quite right to warn her only child of the possible dangers. Seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo step off a DC10 at Heathrow in 1966, she decided she didn't want me to turn into one of those 'long-haired louts' like the Beatles!
Ah, those memories! I wonder how many parents in the 21st century would advise their offspring not to tune to corrupting pop music?
Called to Active Duty
December 1997 seems such a long time ago, but it was an incredible 25 days' experience that I will never, ever, forget.
Back to December 12th. I was in the middle of my overnight show on Juke Box Memories, going out to a number of radio stations in the North of England when the Red Phone started flashing! (I'll never know why they're called red phones - ours is grey!) It was Ray Anderson, The Boss, asking me to leave for East London asap, as the RSL Broadcast was suffering from an acute staff shortage, I finished my show a little after 0600hrs on December 13th and left in earnest.
The journey from Frinton to Liverpool Street took just under two hours by train, stopping at every station. On arrival, I took Bus 100 to Wapping, got off at the Safeway store and followed the signs for Radio London that had been placed on various street lamps and gates. St Katharine's Dock is like a maze of wooden pontoons, and after getting my bearings I saw what was to be my home for the next 25 days.
After negotiating the wobbly gangway to board the MS Ocean Defender, I was greeted in the mess area by Ray, who then introduced me to crew and companions on board. Then I was shown to my quarters, below decks in a part of the ship that never saw the light of day. It took quite some time to fumble my way down there! I was given berth number eight on the starboard side, which incidentally, was the only bunk without a privacy curtain! So being almost domesticated, I went in search of a curtain. There was nothing that resembled an Ikea drape! Luckily, I found an old French flag! This fitted like a glove (or curtain).
Domestics over, I set off for the on-board studios. The studio equipment was very familiar, as we used the same layout on JBM. I remember that my first ever show on Big L was quite nerve-racking - I have never, ever, been used to such fast-moving radio! Jukebox Memories was quite laid-back.
The format of Radio London didn't take long to fall in to place, although there was a certain amount of stress working on Big L. Most of the records lasted for about 2 minutes, during which time you were cueing the next disc, and going over the forthcoming ad breaks, and cracking walnuts with your left hand, whilst mentally churning over the next phrase. I wasn't used to speaking after every record, but this became easier and even quite fun. I was always taught to speak into an ad break, but here on Big L we had to treat the breaks as part of the show! It did not take too long to get into the swing of radio as it should be.
Life On Board
Living on board a ship built in 1912 did present a few problematic experiences! One thing that springs to mind, is that of personal hygiene. The female crew members on board had their own shower unit just forward of the Big L Shop, while the good guys had to leap from ship to shore to make use of a wooden shower block situated on the pontoon. This was done quite early in the morning before the mass influx of guests. The 100-metre-sprint to the shower block, in nothing but a pair of skimpy Calvin Kleins did get some reaction from the construction workers building the £500,000 penthouses on the waterfront! Access to those wooden shower blocks was gained by using a Radio London Crapper Card. The problem was that only three cards were issued by the marina and they often went missing!
Working with the New Generation of Big L jocks was enormous fun - in fact, quite jolly at times. Everyone spoke of the great camaraderie during the great Galaxy days but it was quite apparent that, even 30-odd years later, a similar atmosphere still existed, (Lil must do this to people) working with Steve Garlick, Russell Thompson, Ian St James, Mark Griffiths, and not forgetting Dennis Jason. (He was mad! Why does he keep calling everyone Dave?)
It was a great privilege to play some of the material that you just don't hear on the radio any more. My slot (amongst others) was predominately 2100-2400hrs, During that time I got to spin discs that you'd normally have had to tune to John Peel (circa 1967) to hear. One of my favourite CDs was the Trash Box, which Russell and I obtained from John (not the illustrious Peelie) in Camden. This CD contained mostly rare 1958-1969 native USA punk tracks - hands up who thought punk was a 70s thing? Truly Perfumed Garden experiences.
Cuisine aboard the MS Ocean Defender was mostly vegetarian, although we did get permission to eat meat on board! I think the crew was fantastic in the tiny galley, and Rhiannon Kingsley was an absolute wizard with vegetarian dishes! I did strike up quite a fond liking to Rhiannon, (no not like that!). She was like that long-lost sister I'd never had! We'd go shopping for ship's stores to the Safeway store in Wapping, load up the two trolleys, and push them back to the ship. On one occasion, we both got quizzed by the store manager. "Where are you taking my trolleys?" he asked. After the explanation, we arrived back at the ship and bellowed from the pontoon for help with loading the supplies on board. I remember we did this one day prior to Christmas, fully loaded. We bellowed out from the gangway and no one came. After discussing a plan, we did the loading ourselves, got back on board and left the trolley on the wooden pontoon. The ship must have nudged the pontoon and PLOP! The trolley fell helplessly into the historic drink!
One weekend, fellow DJ Pete Edwards from JBM was joining us to help us overcome staff shortages. When he came up from Frinton to do some night-time shows, I warned Pete that the food might not be to his liking, as only veg were eaten on board. Guess who smuggled fish & chips onto the ship all weekend?
The food did improve somewhat after Russell and I signed up a Indian restaurant as an advertising client. All I'm saying is that Russ and I ate very well indeed for the remaining three weeks. (We did need to use that wooden building a little more...!) Thanks to the Empress of Bengal in Leman St., E1.
(Picture: Russell (left) with Garry, who's dreaming of yet another Indian feast...)
Christmas on Board
I got some shore leave on Christmas Eve, and travelled back to my Essex home with Ray Anderson. We arrived back on board on Boxing Day, to be greeted by a very tired Chris Elliot, who took some shore leave himself thereafter. At this point I was presenting about 3 shows per day! Russell had had to get back to Malaga, so I was doing Breakfast, my own show at 9 and Russell's slot at 12! It was very tiring but enjoyable.
During this time I had to edit and prepare my own news bulletins. I remember I was halfway through one story and it hit me - I was repeating the previous story! Very quickly, I said, "Ooh, I am sorry I appeared to have read that story twice," and quickly moved on to the next item.
New Year's Eve 1997
We got wind of another station putting on a Grand Firework Display from Tower Bridge. I discussed this with Russell and as we couldn't persuade Captain Francis to move the ship to the middle of the Thames, we brought the Thames to us! I dashed below and retrieved my Walkman so I was able to hear the station output and Russell talking to me from the studio. After stealing the Newsroom mike, Russ passed this to me though the port side porthole and I stood amidships on deck with the mike on a long cable and interviewed the on-board guests, including Mark Roman. Mark latterly informed me that this was a great idea, but I didn't get in the record books for conducting Radio London's first ever OB. This happened back in 1966 with the Monaco Grand Prix, which was done via the telephone and pre-recorded. The £50,000 firework display, courtesy of Heart 106.2, was very nice though.
January 13th - the last day
I did a joint show with Russell between 2100-2200, which included the famous 'Radio London Six-pack', where listeners phoned in to request their 6 favourite Big L jingles, which I then played 6-in-a-row. Someone called in to hear all 6 Weather Jingles! That was great fun.
The final on-air party was too sad for me to attend. I decided instead to go to a really dodgy club in South London, as this was the only way that I could come to terms with My Ship being taken away the very next day.
The ship departed from St Katharine's the next day, leaving myself, Ray and Caroline still aboard to take everything to pieces and put Lil away to bed! The ship glided out in to the lock gate system with an almighty THUD! Yup, Francis had hit the side again! The lock system was quite interesting and the Ocean Defender was the largest ship to use it. The plan was to enter the Thames and steam to the re-fuelling pontoon near Wapping.
We finally got underway by about 12 noon, and were heading towards Depford in Kent where the ship was to have some repairs carried out, and to have her bottom scraped, (don't ask!). While the Ocean Defender was plodding down the Thames, Ray and I dismantled the equipment and placed it all on the foredeck, ready to disembark at the dockside. We then encountered a mechanical problem with the ship's speed control, which wouldn't turn off! We were heading towards the fashionable part of Limehouse at about 15-17 knots and couldn't stop the ship! There was no sense of panic from Chief Engineer Charlie, but with a little gentle persuasion from a 10lb club hammer the ship fell silent and drifted into the Depford dock!
We had arranged to have a large van waiting at the quayside, so that the equipment could be loaded and transported back to Frinton. The crew fixed up a makeshift gangway and by 2145hrs we were fully loaded. (Sad to think that Big Lil sat in a Transit van!) Lil was put to bed near her (1967) final resting-place in Frinton at about 2300hrs.
RSLs are costly, and Radio London's December broadcast cost almost £10,000 to stage. Unlike Radio Caroline, which already has a home, Radio London, unfortunately, lacks a permanent base and therefore, we have to borrow ships! That becomes expensive, and requires major investment. It's difficult to predict the outcome of our unique service of broadcasting great music, having fun and playing those fab jingles. Radio tastes change, audience figures are dwindling, and finding advertisers is problematic. However, I am quite confident that the return of Big L will happen one day. It's another classic case of 'Watch this Space'! Until that time, keep buying those lottery tickets!
(Picture: Garry's definitely not out of his pram...)
© Garry Williams & Radio London 1999
Chris and Mary would like to thank Garry very much for his contribution. Isn't it incredible that someone whose age was in single figures when Radio London was on the air, should be such an enthusiast for Big Lil and all she stood for? Great!