Simon Mayo has always been a quiet storm. Over the past 36 years, he’s become one of radio’s most trusted voices – and a bestselling novelist.
But the past half-decade has been tumultuous for the BBC darling.
Simon emerged from local radio in his twenties and rocketed to pole position as the host of Radio 1’s breakfast show in 1988, a time when DJs were bigger stars than most artists they played.
“In the first press release, I was described as an egghead because I was the only qualified DJ,” he laughs.
Simon Mayo (pictured) appeared on local radio in his 20s and was fast-tracked to Radio 1. Last year the DJ and author was awarded an MBE for his services to broadcasting
“A week later they changed it to ‘love at first sight’. I didn’t fall into either category – maybe more egg-like.
Whatever it was, it turned out to be a success. Married to researcher Hilary Bird, this London-born manager’s son was more of a decent guy than a party animal.
He never took part in Radio 1 expeditions to Ibiza (“Nobody asked me and I’m pretty happy”) and didn’t recognize Naomi Campbell when she gave him a birthday cake live ( “Annoying !”).
Simon, who last year received an MBE for broadcast services, has been able to adapt seamlessly to presenting on TV, from Top Of The Pops to Blockbusters. He ran the breakfast show for five years, then moved to a mid-morning slot and finally left Radio 1 in 2001, to host a daily current affairs talk show on BBC Radio 5 Live.
His memorable radio moments don’t involve spinning records with pop stars. They include the live broadcast of the fall of the Twin Towers and, in 2007, an impromptu discussion about God between Ricky Gervais and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
“It wasn’t planned,” he says. “Ricky was leaving the studio as Rowan entered, but it was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had.”
After stepping down from his Drivetime show, Simon went on to host Kermode And Mayo’s Film Review with critic Mark Kermode on 5 Live (pictured)
He talks about digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands to keep himself from crying when he sat down with soccer legend Bob Wilson as Billy Bragg played Tank Park Salute (Billy’s tribute to his dad , who died when he was a teenager).
“Bob lost his daughter, my father had passed away a few years before and the three of us talked about grief,” says Simon. “Again it was impromptu again, we just let it run, and again it meant something to the listeners.”
In 2008 he was named Broadcaster of the Year, and in 2010 he succeeded Chris Evans in the prestigious Radio 2 Drivetime slot. Then things changed.
And Simon, 63, whose latest novel Tick Tock has just been released, has no illusions. He is not up to date.
My pass was canceled before I left the building. I had to be helped by security
“I’m very masculine, pale and stale. And that, for a lot of people, is a problem.
He’s been on quite the pale, stale masculine journey. In 2018, the powers that be decided (without consultation) to bring a co-presenter to its Drivetime show. His friend, Jo Whiley.
His six million listeners were outraged. Jo was trolled to such an extent that she said she was “afraid to leave the house”.
Furious and helpless, Simon quit his job to go to a brand new station, Scala Radio. (Simon took revenge on his Radio 2 bosses in one of his books, but later).
He continued to host Kermode And Mayo’s Film Review with critic Mark Kermode on 5 Live, but after a turbulent few years he finally severed ties with the BBC when he and Kermode moved their show to Apple Podcasts, renaming it Kermode And Mayo’s Take.
We discuss his last moments at Broadcasting House when he left it for the last time in April this year. In a scene that could have come from the BBC W1A parody comedy series, he stormed off not into an ignominious scuffle with security.
In 2018 the Powers That Be decided (without consultation) to bring a co-presenter to his Drivetime show – his friend, Jo Whiley (pictured)
“My pass was canceled before I left the building,” he says. “That was not how I wanted to leave, to be helped by the security guards. I received a full apology but…yes, that was it.
It has not been cast into broadcasting oblivion. His stint on Scala Radio was a huge success for the station, and last year he was recruited to revive his Drivetime show on Greatest Hits Radio.
His audience remains loyal, his podcast with Mark Kermode remains massively popular. “And we’re both fully aware that if we went to the BBC as two old white men on the street, it’s not a show that would take off,” he says.
However, Simon is still as motivated as ever. Tick Tock (his seventh novel) is about a disease that threatens to wipe out humanity and the people at the heart of the storm: Professor Kit, his fiery daughter Rose, his science partner Lilly, and Lilly’s daughter, I ss.
The characters are well observed, the dialogues effortless and the plot twists endless.
Simon dreamed up the plot before Covid and, as the pandemic took hold, feared he would have to throw it away. “I was afraid it was too much,” he says.
“But after discussions with my editor, I knew I could move it beyond the pandemic so it looked like something that informed history rather than mirroring it.”
He based part of the plot on a Daily Mail article about the 2018 Novichok incident in Salisbury, in which Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by a nerve agent and a third party, Dawn Sturgess, died. British authorities have identified two Russians as suspects.
I am very masculine, pale and stale. And that, for many people, is a problem
The article was written by her younger brother, Jonathan, a regular Mail contributor. “I found it all fascinating,” says Simon.
“The science is compelling. My bookshelves suggest I’m either a medical student or a scientist!
Simon’s has been a huge success as a writer since making his debut as a novelist in 2012. His thriller Knife Edge was a bestseller and it was in it that he “murdered” his former bosses of the BBC.
“If you look at the people who are killed in Coventry Cathedral at the end, there is… a superficial similarity between them and the management of Radio 2,” he said.
His children’s trilogy, Itch, is now a series on CBBC, and the film rights to his novel Mad Blood Stirring have been sold. I ask him how he combines broadcasting and writing and he says he writes a book every two years.
“One thinks, the other speaks, but both require work. I like both in my life.
He has no intention of retiring at all. “Never,” he said firmly. So what drives him?
Has this three-year-old always felt he had something special to offer?
‘The opposite. I was a late developer. I only started finding myself when I did A levels and was accepted to do history and politics at Warwick [University].
As a child, home was his place of happiness and family life remains extremely important. Hilary, their three children – Ben, 30, Natasha, 28, Joe, 22 – and their three-month-old grandson Oscar are at the center of her world.
He says he is an introvert who always wanted to work in radio, but never expected to end up in radio. “As a kid, I was obsessed with radio,” he says.
‘My mother [Jill] worked as a studio manager. I found it fascinating. I installed a radio station in my room.
“My older sister, Sarah, wrote the jingles and I listened to all the DJs, recorded everything, tuned into obscure stations. I was obsessed with everyone.
His plan was to be a studio engineer like his mother, but when he failed the required hearing test (he has a frequency deficit in his left ear), he started presenting on hospital radio, then at BBC Radio Nottingham. He sent tapes to Johnny Beerling, then director of Radio 1, who offered him a job at the station in 1986.
He has nothing to prove. “But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to do more,” he says.
Would he consider returning to the Beeb? “I still have a good relationship with them but I’m glad I’m not here right now.
“I would have the conversation, but life is good as it is. Go for it.
- Tick Tock by Simon Mayo, published by Doubleday, is available now.