Mike Read on his passion for music, a love for sport and Surrey connections

Mike Read at the mixing desk

Mike Read at the mixing desk - Credit: BBC

Mike Read dabbled in estate agency before finding on-air fame. The former BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show presenter chats about how his call to the airwaves came at a Surrey cricket match and how he’s now commemorating Surrey greats with prestigious blue plaques

Mike Read discovered his passion for music at just four years old. “Auntie Barbara and Auntie Joan, Julie Andrews’ mother and aunt, ran dancing classes in a room in our house. I tap-danced and sang, and was enamoured of the way notes were put together to form tunes that I thought were simply magical,” he says.

Growing up, many musical icons struck a chord. “The artists were good, but I always looked for the songwriters on the labels to find out who could weave this kind of magic. I have a very, very broad taste in music, but my top track is Survival by Yes and favourite artist is Scott Walker.”

Lancashire-born Read soon moved to Surrey and has many memories of childhood in Walton-on-Thames. He recalls, “The nightingales in the cedar trees, the stream where one always hoped to find ‘an adventure,’ organising Olympics in the garden, learning to play tennis on the grass court, fishing in the Thames, climbing every tree in Ashley Park and making camps.” A teenage Read partied at Kenwood, Weybridge, before it became John Lennon’s abode, and thoroughly enjoyed his school days at Woking Grammar. “I still wear my Old Wokingians tie on certain occasions and live up to the line from Milton’s treatise, the school motto, “Justly, Skilfully and Magnanimously” which, according to Milton, was needed for a ‘complete and generous education’.”

Pitch perfect

With a love of tennis, football and cricket, Read practised all three. “My father played football for Walton & Hersham, so I was devastated when they tore down the Stompond Lane ground for more housing. We’re meant to be encouraging young people to play sports, not deprive them of the spaces.” While Read was commentating on a cricket match on Desborough Island, Thames Valley’s Radio 210’s MD, Neil ffrench-Blake, suggested he became a disc jockey and later gave him his first job in radio. “His actual line was, ‘I want you on my radio station for three reasons; You’re very English, you’re mildly eccentric and you’re a bloody good opening bowler.’ Couldn’t argue with that,” Read recounts.

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Read has also resided in Holmbury St Mary and bought a house in Weybridge, where rock royalty ruled; Tom Jones, Ringo Starr, Sir Cliff Richard – with whom Read is good pals; playing tennis, holidaying and partying together.

Alongside playing the pubs’n’clubs of Surrey, Read tried his hand at property sales. “I’d been taken under the wing of Cliff’s manager, Peter Gormley, who lived in Weybridge, and was in and out of recording studios, gigging and writing, but the father of my then girlfriend was a very old-fashioned major who’d only allow me to see his daughter if I got a haircut and a proper job,” he says. “I had several haircuts before it was judged to be an acceptable length and took a job at Gascoigne-Pees to appease him! I went from junior negotiator to negotiator to senior negotiator to managing an office in the space of a year.”

However, estate agency failed to hit the right note for Read. “When Gascoigne-Pees’ high-flying partner, Barry Jarvis, called me with the ultimate promotion… head office. I told him that flattered though I was, this wasn’t my calling or passion.” Cue those poptastic years at BBC Radio 1, Top of The Pops and Saturday Superstore.

Having taken his dulcet tones to the mic with Steve Wright at Thames Valley radio, and on to Radio Luxembourg, Read found fame on the decks at BBC Radio 1 in 1978. “I was mighty lucky. It opened many doors for me, both in radio and television.” The award-winning DJ hosted the very last Top of the Pops in 2006. “It was good to be a part of history, but tinged with sadness for the end of an amazing era for popular music.” He also loved fronting Superstore. “Because it was live and, therefore, came with a certain amount of jeopardy. All the top bands and artists came in and many performed live. We had top sports stars and the three leaders at the time; Thatcher, Kinnock and Steel. I also had to deal with terrible situations like the Zeebrugge disaster, which would now be handled by rolling news, not children’s television.”

Read has since helmed shows at BBC Radio 2, Capital Gold, Magic, Classic FM and Jazz FM and has written hundreds of songs, as well as music to accompany John Betjeman’s poetry, which he has recorded with Cliff Richard, David Essex and Marc Almond among others. He’s also penned numerous musicals, including Cliff – The Musical in 2003.

“I suppose your first musical is the most exciting, which was Young Apollo, the story of the First World War poet, Rupert Brooke,” he says. “It opened with a good run at the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were both there for the opening night.”

Surrey connections

Read maintains many friends in Surrey and adores driving around the areas long familiar to him. Places on Read’s playlist?

“I loved filming at Newark Abbey last year; virtually built in the 10 years Richard the Lionheart was on the throne. The Silent Pool near Guildford, Wisley, what’s left of Ashley Park Woods? Holmbury Hill…”

He recently ran the length of the River Wey in a day, for the Shooting Star Chase Children’s Hospice. “That’s 30km you must do, it’s completely unspoilt.”

As Chairman of the British Plaque Trust, Read says Surrey has a captivating history. “Walton alone has a fascinating past. The manor house still stands where it’s said Bradshaw and his fellow regicides signed Charles I’s death warrant. Across the road, at The Swan, we unveiled a blue plaque to American composer, Jerome Kern, and just a minute’s walk away is composer, Arthur Sullivan’s house, which also has a plaque. Part of the Heart Shopping Centre is on the site of Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering film studios, founded in 1899.”

He continues, “The 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, is commemorated in West Grove, Hersham, where he lived in 1902, and both Canaletto and Turner painted Walton Bridge by Cowey Sale, where the Romans are said to have crossed. Ashley Park was the venue for the world’s first-recorded game of baseball in 1749. Sorry, American cousins… we invented it!”

On starting out, did he see himself still DJing decades later? “I never thought about it, I just take it as it comes. One challenge is keeping the balance of being true to yourself and maintaining enough commerciality to make a living.”

At 71, Read shows no signs of slowing down. At Easter, he launched the new online radio station, United DJs.

With his motto in life Carpe Diem he says, “Life is a holiday. Music can create, enhance or change a mood. The creation of a song comes from nowhere, and then exists.”

Tune in to Mike’s breakfast show at uniteddj.com

My Favourite Surrey

• Favourite pub: “The Withies Inn, Compton, is lovely, and The Black Swan in Ockham has always been a favourite spot.”

• Favourite restaurant: “I used to love La Cappana at Cobham, which is now The Ivy. Our crowd had many lively nights at Franco’s in Weybridge, which has also changed hands.”

• Favourite shop: “The Bentall Centre in Kingston and the long-gone Birkheads in Walton-on-Thames; a young boy’s Aladdin’s cave full of bicycles, model railways, and records.”

• Favourite gig venue: “My pal, Nigel Mort, has four great live music nights a week at Mort’s Wine Bar in Walton-on-Thames. I did a solo gig there a couple of months ago.”

Favourite place to visit: “Places with atmosphere are always good. Hampton Court may seem an obvious one but it’s so rich in history and heritage. The summit of Leith Hill is worth the climb. On a clear day, you can see the London skyline to the north east and glimpses of the sea away to the south.”

• Favourite view: “It’s still the most wooded county. The southern high points, Leith Hill and Holmbury Hill, have breath-taking views across the weald to the South Downs.”

• Favourite place to relax: “My home was the most relaxing place when I lived at Holmbury St Mary.”