Working Lives

A life in broadcasting – from pirate to the BBC (1962-1995)

Location: Norwich

Andy tells about his life in broadcasting and in particular his time as a disc jockey on Radio Caroline.

I was born in 1946 in a village just outside of King’s Lynn called Terrington St Clement. I didn’t know my father. During the war my mother along with many other women her age were often taken out to RAF stations in buses to be dancing partners for American airmen. My mother was taken out to Wendling, obviously met this guy and nine months later I was born.

I never met him and my mother would never talk about him. I know that when she discovered that she was pregnant my grandfather telephoned the airbase and they said that he’d gone back to America. Later in life when I spoke to my mother about it she only gave me his first name and she couldn’t remember anything else about him. I did trace him through DNA and the website Ancestry, he died in the 1980s. I did discover that he was married and had several children but I never actually met him. I had a strange relationship with my mother, you know, she never really showed a lot of affection, I was a lot closer to my grandmother who was a wonderful woman I have to say.

I remember when I discovered I had family in America thinking, ‘What should I do about it?’ After my mother died I got in touch with them and my sister said that I shouldn’t spend mum’s money on going to America and I thought, ‘Yeah you’re probably right’. I mean they’re probably terribly nice people but I think that my father was a bit of a bastard leaving my mother in the lurch.

My mother wasn’t the only one by any means, there were several women who had children. But back in 1946 in a little Norfolk village pushing a pram around and you know what people were like in those days. ‘Look at her’, it must have been very difficult. My mother wasn’t a trollop or anything like that, far from it in fact.

I have to say though, they still send me a Christmas card each year from America.

You know, when I look back at my family history, infidelity is rife in my family, my grandfather was the illegitimate son of the vicar of Castle Acre, my grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a King’s Lynn policeman and then me of course.

School, college and playing the fool

I went to school in Terrington and I have to say I was pretty useless, I was more interested in playing the fool than studying. I remember that I was interested in two subjects, music and French. We had a wonderful French teacher, Monsieur Stevens and he had two wonderful forms of transport. One was a 1000cc Vincent motorcycle and the other a Triumph car which had a dicky seat in the back, you sort of pulled the boot down and there were two seats. He was a funny little man, he had a particularly large gold signet ring and if you were playing the fool or not paying attention he’d creep up behind you and crack you across the head with it. His other trick was that if someone was giggling when he was using the blackboard rubber on the blackboard he would just turn round and hurl it. Everybody would dive under their desk and it would usually smash against the wall at the end of the classroom.

I used to go and watch King’s Lynn play football or cricket and you’d see the reporters there and I thought, ‘Oh what a wonderful job’ so I went to college in King’s Lynn. But, again I‘m afraid I played the fool and was kicked out after about a year or so for queuing up for tickets to see the Beatles in Cambridge. The photograph was all over the paper and the principal said, ‘Queuing up for the Beatles is obviously far more important to you Dawson than your studies, you’re out’. So that was it.

I got a job as a sales assistant in the wonderful gentleman’s outfitters Jones and Dunn which was on the corner of the Tuesday Market Place in King’s Lynn. They had very, I suppose you’d say, upmarket clientele, many of the people that came in wouldn’t actually pay, they’d hand you their visiting card. It was wonderfully positioned and during the festival you’d see all sorts of famous people walking around, the Queen Mother arm in arm with Sir John Barbirolli or Benjamin Britten.

I worked there for about a year and then had a succession of jobs in King’s Lynn, including being a trainee manager at the Globe Hotel. Along with the Duke’s Head it was probably the smartest hotel in King’s Lynn and I worked in the office before being taught to wait table. I always remember that the actor Raymond Francis who was appearing in ‘Lockhart of the Yard’ was staying in the hotel. We were all very excited and I remember spilling a gin and tonic into his lap, I mean I was pretty lousy as a waiter I have to say. He did give me a tip of sixpence which I thought was very generous for such poor service.

I moved on from there and couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do so I joined the Royal Air Force and was in air traffic control. I went to Swinderby, then Hemswell where we learnt how to march and fire .303 rifles. Then I went to air traffic control school at Shawbury in Shropshire and was then posted to Tern Hill, a helicopter station near Shrewsbury.

I’m afraid that again playing the fool sort of got the better of me, and two things happened to me. I played a lot of cricket, making it in to the coastal command team when I was posted in Ballykelly. At Tern Hill there was an internal radio station with a small studio and speakers in the huts where the airmen were staying. I used to do the daily programme and so I spent most of my time in the air force playing cricket or broadcasting on the radio station.

That’s where my love of radio came about. Mum had bought me a little radio in about 1964 and I listened to these pirate stations and thought that I would like to do that eventually. But this was where my love of it really came about.

Radio Caroline

The Wilson Government of 1967 had outlawed pirate radio. I think that the Marine Offences Act came in on the 14th August 1967, in other words from then on it was illegal for a British subject to work on a pirate station. But I had found the address of the owner of Radio Caroline, Ronan O’Rahilly, and I went down to London and waited for him all day. He came out at the end of the day and said, ‘See you tomorrow, I’m in a hurry’. So the next day I went back, same thing happened but on the third day I saw him. By this time another guy, an American, Howie Castle, had joined me in the waiting room and luckily they actually needed two people so we were hired for £15 a week. We were given two single tickets to Amsterdam, as in those days although the tendering of the ship was off the Essex coast you had to use a port in Holland. We used two ports, one was Ijmuiden and the other was Vlissingen or Flushing as we used to call it.

I wasn’t a particularly good sailor at that time I can tell you and I remember the first journey out to the Mi Amigo took in excess of 18 hours on a little boat called the Offshore One. The Dutch crew used to eat meatballs and they would fry them in frying pans full of fat and as it was only a tiny boat you could smell it all over the place. I was terribly ill, much to the amusement of everyone on board I hasten to add.

I eventually got out there and got nervous all of a sudden, I was this chap who didn’t know much about anything and found myself as a disc jockey on this radio station.

Radio Caroline 1967

We had to change our names because of Customs. I was unsure what to change mine too, but I wanted to keep my first name. The senior disc jockey was a chap called Robbie Dale and I thought we’ve got the Dales which was a famous BBC radio series at the time, so I said why don’t we have the Archers as well and that’s how I became known as Andy Archer.

There was no contract and we did two weeks on and two weeks off, which was very nice. We were lucky if we…. actually we did get paid, when we came off somebody came over from Ireland, strangely, and gave us £60 in cash.

We had a Dutch crew. There was a captain, a cook, a couple of sailors who did general maintenance and a marine engineer. There was always a radio engineer and probably four disc jockeys.

Before the Marine Offence Act you could play more or less whatever music was appropriate but after the Act came in it became illegal for a lot of companies to advertise so a sort of payola system operated. Companies would pay I think £100 to get it played four times a day for a week. As a consequence some of the music was pretty dire.

My slot was three hours long, two hours if we had extra people. Sometimes we had to do two shifts a day. Johnny Walker became a good friend of mine and if he was away I would do my show and his evening show, so that was six hours a day. Sometimes there was little else to do, if the weather was bad you couldn’t sit outside and sunbathe.

Television was only on a few hours a day and we turned round on anchor twice a day and the junior person, which was me at the time, had to turn the mast. I had to climb onto the roof of the mess room whatever the weather and turn this aerial around so that it was in the right direction to pick up the signal.

Radio Caroline 1968 (Normanb.net)

The accommodation on board Mi Amigo wasn’t bad. It had been a radio station for some time, starting off as Radio Nord off the Swedish coast and it had been well fitted out. It was particularly good in bad weather, some radio ships got tossed around all over the place but the Mi Amigo was very comfortable, it had a lot of atmosphere. We used to all clean the ship and keep it in pristine condition and when it was time to come off you’d clean your cabin for the next person coming in. Sometimes in winter it could be frustrating, thinking that the tender would be coming out and then if it was too rough it couldn’t come that day.

We used to have fishermen come along sometimes and they would bring newspapers and magazines. They would gladly do this because we had a huge supply of cigarettes, gin and beer on board so they would drop off the magazines and we would hurl them a thousand Camel or Lucky Strike or whatever.

Our audience figures were quite good, they were obviously hit when Radio 1 started in I think, September 1967. They had some very big names, Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn, who had all made their names on pirate radio of course. They were playing better music than we were, but we still had quite a large audience, in the millions I would say. Johnny Walker was the big star of Caroline in the ’60s, he used to get sacks of mail, thousands and thousands of letters and he couldn’t read them all. I will always remember one time, he used to grab a pile to take into the studio, you know maybe 20 or 30 letters and he opened one of them and found a £5 note in it. In those days you could almost fill your car up for £5 and after that he made sure that he opened every letter he got.

This stint at Radio Caroline ended in March 1968. Unbeknown to us on board the owners hadn’t been paying the tendering bills. One morning at about 5.30, 6 o’clock this huge ocean tug came along, they came on board, told the captain that was it and towed us into harbour. That was the end of Radio Caroline in 1968.

Club Oasis and Club Lafayette, Wolverhampton

One of the disc jockeys Spangles Muldoon, which is a wonderful name, came from The Midlands and he said to me, ‘Oh I know some people who have a nightclub in Wolverhampton called the Oasis and they’re looking for a disc jockey would you like it?’ I thought that I’d better do something so I became a disc jockey at the club. It was a very strange experience because I didn’t know anything about the Midlands and the Black Country accent was very hard for me to understand. Another club, The Lafayette, opened and they asked if I would go there. We used to have incredible bands playing live. I remember doing the birthday party for John Bonham who was the drummer with Led Zeppelin, he used to come into the club quite often with Robert Plant. He asked me to play the records at his wife’s 21st birthday and I said that I would be delighted. He asked me how much I wanted, I was on 20 quid a week and he said, ‘Fifty quid?’ ‘Mmm yes that’ll do’.

While I was at Club Lafayette Radio 1 started doing a programme called the Radio 1 Club. It was a two hour outside broadcast between 12pm and 2pm and came from locations across the country. The main presenter would be someone like Ed Stewart or Emperor Rosko but in each location they used a local disc jockey to do the interviews with pop stars and the crowds. They picked me and I did all of them in Wolverhampton, Stoke on Trent, Hanley and a couple in Birmingham. It was eight guineas and you’d have to wait about three months for your cheque in the post.

I was the first one of the pirates, you know, after the Marine Offences Act to be employed by Radio 1 and although it was only once every three weeks I really enjoyed it. Derek Chinnery who was the head of Radio 1 had told me that they liked my work and would like to do more with me, they couldn’t promise anything at that moment but that they would be in touch when something appropriate came along.

Radio North Sea International

In about 1970 a radio station called Radio North Sea International opened off the coast of Holland. My friend Roger ‘Twiggy’ Day, an old friend from Caroline in the ’60s got a job as a senior disc jockey on this station. His father rang me to tell me that Roger would like me to go out to the ship, it was a great opportunity and I went out there. It was based off the Dutch coast, at a seaside resort called Scheveningen

It was run by a Swiss company and we were paid terribly well, £90 a week, working two weeks on, so £360 a month for working two weeks. In 1970 it was quite a lot of money and we lived the high life I have to say.

I stayed out on the ship for the first time for a month and when I got back to our hotel base in Scheveningen I found a telegram saying that Radio 1 wanted me to take over the Dave Cash show in the afternoon. But of course it was far too late, I’d been on air and they were no longer interested. In a way I’m glad. I had a much happier life on the pirates over the years and met some wonderful people. The person who got the job taking over from Dave Cash was…..Terry Wogan, who was the best.

The owners, Herr Bollier and Herr Miester were very correct but we had a great time. I mean gosh everybody drank like fishes out there but it only lasted until the September as it was very badly run. There was another radio station off Scheveningen called Radio Veronica which had been there since the late 1950s and it was a bit of an institution in Holland. They paid Radio North Sea to go off air.

Looking for another job and then back on Radio Caroline, a hurricane and conjuring up the phrase ‘anorak’

Again I was looking for something else and luckily a couple of years later Radio Caroline came back again, with the same owner, on the Mi Amigo in 1972. It was a bit chaotic to start with, the boat had been in harbour since 1968 and hadn’t been looked after, it was in a dreadful state.

In November 1972 we had a hurricane and our mast fell down. I was onboard and it was really frightening. Remember it was quite a small ship and you know the waves, I mean you have to be in a hurricane to really realise just how big the waves are. They were brown because of all the sand and they would go right over the ship. I can remember Captain Jaap Taal, a lovely old sea dog who loved the programme Dad’s Army, we’d be cowering in the corner and he said, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ doing his Corporal Jones. The anchor chain broke but luckily we managed to stay at sea. So that was a pretty dramatic rebirth of Radio Caroline.

Running a pirate station cost an awful lot of money. It opened on a shoestring but at the end of 1973 a very wealthy Belgian guy invested an awful lot of money and things became better overnight.

I was the only person there from the previous time, Spangles Muldoon became one of the managers rather than out on the ship but I was the only original one and we did have a great crowd out there.

In 1974 when the Mi Amigo was off the Dutch coast we used to get boats of fans coming out to see us. It was quite an industry for the fishermen of Scheveningen because they would have I don’t know, 40, 50, 60, 70 fans all hopping on a boat being charged however many guilders. They came out and circled the three radio ships, Radio North Sea, Radio Veronica and Radio Caroline. Once when they were approaching us I was on air and I said to somebody, ‘Oh let’s go out on deck with the microphones and just do a little bit with them’. So we put a microphone out of the port hole by the studio and they came within something like 20, 30 metres and they were all waving. I said, ‘I have never seen so many anoraks in my life!’ I wasn’t referring to them being anoraks, it was the fact that they were all wearing anoraks which seemed to be the uniform of pirate radio fans. But it stuck and now when I hear it on television, ‘Oh he’s an anorak’ or, ‘She’s an anorak’ I think, my God I started that off all those years ago.

Radio Caroline 1974

I was there until 31st August until the Dutch government outlawed the ship. The ship moved over to England and I thought that I would go out one more time and I got caught coming off. It was rather strange, all very hush hush. We would take a little boat up the River Deben and get out at Woodbridge, somewhere like that. This boat came out to see us and we were waving, thinking that they were fans and suddenly boats appeared from everywhere and there were guys from the Home Office and the police. We were arrested, taken to Ipswich and I appeared in court on the charge of breaking the Marine Offences Act. I was the first disc jockey to be charged under the Act and I was fined £100 plus £50 costs.

Andy Archer and Mike Baker outside Southend Crown Court 1975

I had got a job meanwhile on Radio Orwell so I couldn’t really challenge the charge, but my oldest friend John Jason ‑ we still see each other a lot ‑ decided to. Johnny’s a real character and his real name is Baron Rudiger Von Etzdorf and he got himself a wonderful lawyer, the high court barrister James Cummin, James played his part wonderfully and was far more qualified than the judge, Johnny got off.

Radio Orwell, Radio Nova, Devon Air and Radio Broadland

Radio Orwell was the first of the 19 commercial radio stations. I had been working as a continuity announcer at Tyne Tees television and Metro Radio in Newcastle and also did voiceovers. The guy in charge of commercial production, an Australian called John Wellington, got a job as programme controller at Radio Orwell and asked me to join them. I enjoyed working at Tyne Tees. They had two male announcers and they were looking for a female one and part of the condition of my employment was that I would get all the work I needed until they found the new announcer. Luckily John offered me this job at the time they found a female announcer. I was a bit of a wanderer, and didn’t seem to worry about having money or possessions so I went to join Radio Orwell.

It was the early days of commercial radio so it wasn’t just being a disc jockey you know, you’d have guests on, like actors, politicians or people in the news. The advertisers were all local and we had a huge audience in Ipswich and the surrounding area, out as far as Felixstowe and Woodbridge. I was there until 1980.

I remember one particular interview. We used to have a recorder called a uher, which weighed an absolute tonne. You had this tape recorder and you opened up the lid and there were two spools. A spool with tape and a blank spool, you’d load it in, start recording and the tape would run from the left hand spool over to the right.

I was interviewing Bruce Forsyth at the Gaumont Theatre in Ipswich. I went into the dressing room, sat down, shook hands and opened the tape. Both spools were full of tape, in other words there wasn’t a take up spool. So, I had to ask Bruce Forsyth to put a pencil through the hole in the spool of tape whilst I sat pulling the tape out. It took quite a while because there was quite a lot of tape and Bruce, I have to say if only the interview that I later did with him was as funny as his commentary during the unspooling it would have been a marvellous thing to listen to.

I then went to Dublin and joined Radio Nova as both the radio controller and presenter of the mid-morning show. I enjoyed the job but when I was on air, because of course, as radio controller I had to abide by my own rules, I always felt a little constrained.

I also remember a managing director telling me that if someone rings in sick on a Wednesday you can guarantee that they won’t be back until next Monday. So you were always having to make sure that you had some great people on standby. Sleepless nights too. Sometimes you’d get a call at 6am telling you that ‘Fred Smith’ hadn’t turned up to do the breakfast show so you’d have to throw jeans and a t shirt on and hop in the car.

I enjoyed Dublin a great deal, I was there for a year and a half, and met some great characters and made lots of friends. I was friendly with the singer Chris de Burgh, his brother lived next door to where I was staying, also Philip Lynott, all sorts of people.

It suddenly hit me whilst I was there, I was in my mid-40s. I thought, wow I’m earning quite a lot of money, not a lot but a decent amount and I really ought to be doing something rather than sort of going out and buying countless bottles of Bollinger and you know going on mad holidays.

I moved on from there for want of change I suppose, and came back to England. I worked at Devon Air down in Exeter, doing Devon Dawn, the breakfast show, with Keith Cooper. That was great fun.

I was offered a job at Radio Broadland in Norwich. However, I just happened to be in Ipswich one night at a farewell do of a colleague and got talking to John Jacob who was the chairman of Radio Orwell. He asked me what I was doing these days and when I told him about Radio Broadland he said, ‘What? Why don’t you come back here?’ so I asked him if that was an offer and he asked me what I would be getting paid, offered me a better deal and I said, ‘Yes I’ll come back to Radio Orwell’.

That’s where I remained for a while until Radio Broadland actually took over Radio Orwell and I was one of the first to be kicked out.

My partner was a news editor at Radio Suffolk and I used to do occasional programmes acting as a sort of locum to various presenters. One day I was interviewing a Radio Norfolk correspondent and he recommended me to Radio Norfolk, because I am of course from Norfolk.

I went to Radio Norfolk and did a couple of weekend programmes. We were based initially in Surrey Street before moving to The Forum. I did a gardening programme on Saturdays where I knew bugger all about gardening, and a programme on a Sunday afternoon. An opportunity came up for the mid-morning show, it was quite a big show and I was lucky enough to get it.

This was in the late ‘80s early 90s and it was a very happy period for me. Radio Norfolk attracted a sort of older audience and there were a lot of people who remembered things like the zeppelins flying over Great Yarmouth. I remember talking to a woman who drove Glenn Miller to the plane that he took off on in the 1940s and he was never seen again.

This was long before the internet. I used to have Kelly’s Directory in the studio and used to pick a village each day and you’d get a marvellous response from people with their memories. Sadly all these people have gone now you know.

Our listeners were very fickle, and very set in their ways. I remember once doing a programme by a pond and there was rippling water in the background and we had so many complaints from old people asking us to stop using water in the programmes as it made them go to the loo the whole time.

The other thing that people used to hate was the door bell. Every Thursday on the mid-morning show I would have a guest that they wouldn’t tell me about. This complete and utter stranger walked into the studio and I had absolutely no idea who it was. We had this recording of a door bell and when I’d get the signal I’d press it and ‘ding dong’ and I would say, ’Come in’. I’d write a load of questions, such as are you an actor? Are you in theatre, the military? Things like that. Luckily I did recognise the first guest, Peggy Spencer, a famous dancer from the ‘60s. Richard Whitely did a similar thing on a television programme in later years and strangely enough he was once one of my guests.

But the complaints we got about the door bell, you know, ‘You’re making my dog go crazy’, ‘Will you stop that bloody doorbell’. Occasionally we would play the doorbell over a record and the box where all the phone lines came in, you know, they’d all light up.

I also did Morning Mix and Drive Live, which was more of a news based programme, with no music. We’d have the main news and I would have guests the rest of the time, either in the studio or by ISDN. I remember once, a guest wasn’t on the other line and I had about four minutes to fill so I played a record. I got really blasted by the news editor and did actually lose my cool afterwards and said would she rather have had four minutes of waffle.

The worst sorts of interviewees were the ones who gave monosyllabic responses. You’d think, ‘Oh this is going to be great, off we go’ and…….’Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Oh’. You’d have a few of those.

My last job at Radio Norfolk was the programme called the Garden Party which I used to present on a Saturday lunchtime with a guy called Alan Gray who owns the big garden at East Ruston near Happisburgh. It was a two hour gardening programme and I have to say that by then I knew a bit more about gardening than when I first started.

Changes in radio and retirement

I wouldn’t like to do the same thing today, I mean commercial radio must be dreadful to work for, you have no say over what you do. I mean when I started, not that I’m advocating smoking or anything like that but the studios were smoky dens with overflowing ashtrays, papers, records, newspapers and heavens know what all over the place. Today they are like show flats in new developments, you don’t see the records or CDs, it’s all on computer. I’m not hostile to that at all but you don’t get a choice in what you play. I mean, you switch on the computer and a list comes up of what you play and you even get cue cards sometimes.

The BBC has changed too. I mean the average programme was two or three hours when I worked there. I noticed that they’re now four and there’s a lot of programme sharing, a lot of programmes join up at night.

Strangely enough I never got a job in radio that I applied for, only Radio Caroline at the beginning. I was hopeless at interviews because I got very nervous about what they were expecting me to say. But I always got my jobs through recommendation so I was very lucky that way you know.

I suppose my best experience, I think, strangely enough, was Radio Norfolk for the reasons I gave earlier. You know, speaking to people who were around for the greater part of the 20th century. You would say, ‘Does anybody remember Jimi Hendrix playing in Norwich?’ And you’d get people saying, ‘Oh yes I remember Jimi Hendrix playing at the Orford Cellar, it was packed there was only room for about 60 people but there must have been 200 in there’, memories like that. People remembering periods of the war and the 1920s and 1930s it was wonderful to be able to speak to those people. Sadly hardly any of the programmes were recorded you know. There’s no real record of them, which is such a pity. They were only kept for a month, we’re talking about 12 inch tapes, in boxes of about a foot square so storage was a problem.

I retired in the late ‘90s. I did go back and do one programme, a sort of anniversary of pirate radio. They did a sort of ‘Radio Norfolk goes pirate for the day’ which was a bit of fun to do. I have had a lot of fun over the years.

Andy Dawson 2022

Andy Dawson (b. 1946) talking to  WISEArchive on 7th January 2022 in Norwich

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