Interview with Tony Blackburn: From Somerset schoolboy to radio star
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Tony Blackburn is enjoying one of the most enduring careers in music. To think that Somerset played such a part in the amazing story of one of Britain’s top radio DJs
“Not many people came out of Millfield school and became a pirate,” said Tony as he recalled his time at the famous Somerset school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I did feel that it had to have something to do with music.”
Tony’s ambition was realised more than he could ever have imagined but how did Millfield help and how did he come to go there in the first place?
“My father, Ken, was a GP in Poole and my mother, Pauline, was a nurse until she had children,” Tony explained. “I was first and then three years later my sister, Jackie, arrived.
“ I loved music from a very, very early age – as long as I can remember and I had an ambition from when I was about four. I knew I wanted to be a singer and entertainer. I even told my parents that was what I wanted and it never changed. As you grow up people ask more and more what you want to do when you leave school. My answer remained the same. I think my parents thought I would grow out of it but I never did and they were always very supportive.
“I was not very old when I started to sing in the local church choir. I had no interest in religion at all and would go as far as saying I hated anything to do with church, but I had quite a good voice and was in demand, so for the sake of the chance to sing I hid my feelings and went along with it.
“Singing was to prove a much better pastime than I had thought, even when I went to Millfield. First of all I went to Mrs Mudge’s nursery school which was pretty much playing games and colouring things. Then I went to a private primary school called Castle Court.
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“It was a pretty strict school, as most were at the time. In the classroom if you did somethihng wrong the teacher would throw chalk at you. That was fairly common in schools in those days. There was also the cane or the slipper. I got the slipper a couple of times.
“Although I was a bit of a loner I did have some good friends at Castle Court. Music was still the most important thing to me though and at that time Motown was starting to develop. I loved listening to The Drifters and artistes like them. The years passed and it was time for me to move up to a secondary school.
“It was not initially intended that I would go to Millfield. I ended up there because my father had been to the famous Rugby school and thought I might enjoy the same. So I took the common entrance exam for Rugby, without telling my parents that I didn’t really want to go away to boarding school. I was extremely happy at home. My father had thought he was doing me a favour and helping me with my life and in fairness, later when we talked about it and he realised that I hadn’t wanted to be away from home, he told me that I should have just said something. He was probably right but I went along with it and possibly the experience was good for me really.
“I didn’t try very hard to pass the Rugby entrance exam, and I failed. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that there was an alternative possibility – another boarding school called Millfield, where you didn’t have to pass any exams to get in. It seemed that I was destined to go to a boarding school whatever.
“I was 12, when my father took me to meet the headmaster, a gentleman named John Meyer who was affectionately known as The Boss.
“While there was no exam to pass there was something I had to do. I could bowl quite fast at cricket and the headmaster said, ‘Imagine I’m the stumps and bowl the ball at me!’ I did, and hit him really quite badly on the leg. He said, ‘God - that was fast!’ And he gave me a scholarship on the spot.
“Millfield was pretty good and certainly an interesting place to be. It was quite strict of course but it was generally more open-minded than most and the rules were not stifling.
“My only real interest was music. I took my guitar with me to school and was always practising and composing songs. I found a room that was isolated from everybody else and used to shut myself away and learn the guitar with the help of Bert Weedon’s famous book, Play In A Day which helped many a famous pop star to get started.
“I still sang as well and at Millfield there was a very nice girl in the choir called Mary Marsh so there were compensations and an incentive never to miss a choir practice. Much of my evening time was spent listening to Radio Luxembourg with DJs like Pete Murray and Alan Freeman presenting. Little did I know that the day would come when I would work alongside them.
“One problem at Millfield was to do with school meals. When I was about five we had a family holiday on a farm and I loved the chickens. I stopped eating meat from that moment and have been a vegetarian ever since. At Millfield this took them by surprise. I remember they once presented me with what was probably a very good steak and told me not to be stupid. I was polite in my answer but refused.
“I would not budge and just sat there for about an hour and a half until they gave up. After that I just had vegetables for the main course
“I was not especially interested in sport but somehow I was quite good at football, rugby and cricket. I was in every sports team that was going and captained some of them. Because I was quite good at throwing things I even used to throw the javelin during athletics!
“In the rugby team I played alongside a fellow pupil called John Sergeant who, of course, went on to be a top BBC journalist and programme presenter – as well as making a name for himself in Strictly!”
Many Millfield pupils went on to university but that was not what Tony wanted. He admits to not being much of an academic, his heart simply wasn’t in it.
“When I was 16, I wanted to leave school and get on with life,” he said. “I wasn’t getting very far with exams and spent most of my time either out on a field kicking a football around or playing my guitar. The more I thought about the more I wanted to leave. It was not that I wanted to leave Millfield, it had been pretty good there. It was just that I wanted to do something else.
“While I was at Millfield my parents used to visit twice a term and we would have a family outing to Cheddar Gorge, which was beautiful and I still love. I decided to pretend that an outing to the gorge was due, got permission to leave school from the headmaster, hopped on a train and went home.
“That was the end of my time at Millfield but not quite the end of my schooling because my parents arranged for me to have private education to get me through my exams. I stayed home, worked hard and got all my exams in a year and then went to college for three years in Bournemouth to get a business diploma.
“I was much happier and I was still singing and playing my guitar. In fact while I was at college I started singing with a dance band at the Pavilion Ballrooms. I became the guitarist and singer. To improve myself I also took singing lessons at the famous Maurice Berman Academy in London.
“I think my big break came when I spotted an advertisement in the New Musical Express. I read that there were DJs wanted at Radio Caroline which was of course a pirate station. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time but I applied and got the job. In that moment my life changed dramatically – I became a pirate! Later of course I joined the BBC and I have loved it ever since. I love going into a studio and work-wise I am at my happiest when I am talking live on radio and playing great music. That was all I ever really wanted.
“I look back at my time at Millfield and it certainly helped. In a time when there was still strict discipline at school we were given the chance to learn how to be decent human beings but we were allowed to express ourselves. I have always been grateful for that.”