So far in this radio celebration, we’ve championed some of the most important figures in mainstream daytime radio. Yet surprisingly, what has yet to be documented is the great legacy of the relationship between radio and Britain’s best comedy. Writer, comedian and Impressionist Jon Culshaw’s relationship with the wireless began from a very young age when his father allowed him to listen to the mobile radio in the kitchen of his childhood home which was always tuned to his beloved Radio 4. Having an outside toilet meant undertaking personal ablutions were even more lovely than normal. It was here that Jon got his first taste of comedy listening to legends such as Frank Muir which promptly laid the foundations for his formidable career in British comedy. Of course at this stage Jon was totally oblivious to his future career plans but in retrospect this experience was to have an everlasting impact on the young man and promptly set the tone for a lifetime in radio comedy.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
In terms of radio, Jon remains unique in his ability to straddle both sides of the medium as both a performer and presenter. Beginning his career as a broadcaster on hospital radio, he was able to cultivate a relaxed broadcasting style as he read out patient requests and messages. Hospital radio remains a popular route for performers and radio broadcasters to find their voice and get a natural testing ground to create their own style. In 1987 Jon landed his first professional broadcasting role when he was invited to join the Preston radio station Red Rose which proved vital to his development as a performer. In doing this, he realised the enormous creative freedom which the medium offered. Finding his voice as an impressionist, he realised that he could put a unique stamp on the show by showcasing the range of recognisable voices in his repertoire. This spawned some bizarre moments of radio including Frank Bruno reading the news which proved a particular favourite for the audience.
In 1988 Culshaw began to make regular appearances on Capital Radio alongside the radio maverick Steve Penk who was blessed with a revolutionary attitude to mainstream radio. In the midst of the positivity of New Labour, Penk was forever on the lookout for radio devices to push the boundaries of daytime broadcasting. Having perfected the voice of the unmistakable leader of the opposition, William Hague, it was decided that Jon should make a telephone call to 10 Downing Street to speak with the prime minister Tony Blair. This idea was originally created to attempt to fool the receptionists on the switchboard at parliament and never did it occur to any of them that they would in fact get straight through to Tony Blair himself. Culshaw and Penk were live on Capital Radio as they made the phone call and were totally shocked when they were put through to the Prime Minister’s voice on the other end. Ever astute and savvy, it sadly didn’t take Blair long to work out that it wasn’t the legitimate Hague on the other end. Yet it did provide a bizarre experience for Jon as he found himself on News At Ten being discussed by the great Sir Trevor McDonald. This is just one incredible day in a career which has featured so many.
By the end of the nineties, the eccentricity of Tony Blair and New Labour meant that the comedy fraternity was crying out for a 21st century take on the art of satire. Jon’s contribution to the latter series of Spitting Image had made him a dominant force in Impressionism and when producer Bill Dare was looking to create a Radio 4 satirical series based on impersonation, Jon proved a safe pair of hands. First broadcast in January 2000, Dead Ringers was a radio sketch show which responded to the biggest stories of the day. Reflecting the ongoing whirlwind situation of domestic politics frequently demanded the show to be recorded merely a matter of hours before transmission. For comedy actors like Jon and Jan Ravens, this was incredibly exciting as scripts and content were likely to change subject to events at Whitehall.
This was unlike any radio which had gone before and the freedom and flexibility which the medium offered. This meant the cast needed to be ready for substantial changes to the script and occasional total re-writes to reflect breaking news stories. On many occasions, the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House acted as another current affairs outlet and would frequently break news stories to the watching theatre audience. It’s difficult to think of any other comedy show which had such a quick turnaround from recording to broadcast which seemed completely radical for its time and the influence of domestic politics was vast. Over ninety episodes spanning two decades, Dead Ringers took radio comedy to areas which satire had rarely ventured and explored the true power of impersonation, making it the perfect social time stamp for post millennium Britain. Just like Spitting Image did for television satire,Dead Ringers leaves an indelible mark on the history of radio comedy which is unlikely to be rivalled.
Jon Culshaw’s relationship with the art of radio remains entwined into the history of comedy itself with unforgettable moments from the rustic days of commercial radio to the award winning Dead Ringers with a great deal in between. As easily at home in a studio armed with a solitary microphone than in a theatre performing to a live studio audience, radio remains his biggest passion. Beyond The Title’s radio season wouldn’t have been complete without a celebration of the brilliant legacy of British radio comedy and Jon Culshaw is the perfect advocate of this. It was a pleasure to have him as the comedy representative for my radio celebration and I’m already looking forward to the next time.