Spectropop remembers

ALAN FREEMAN (1927 - 2006)


In the annals of pop disc jockeys, few made a more distinctive impact than Alan Freeman, who has died aged 79. His flamboyant and eccentric presenting style, crashing together different musical genres amid a barrage of catchphrases such as the celebrated "not 'arf!" or the perennial "greetings, pop pickers", was scarcely to all tastes, but once heard it was rarely forgotten.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Freeman, whose programmes would later cover everything from pop to pomp rock to heavy metal and grand opera, had originally wanted to become an opera singer (his final broadcasts were presenting 'Their Greatest Bits' for BBC Radio 2, from 1997 to 2001), but reluctantly concluded that his voice wasn't equal to the task. His first radio job was as an announcer on the 7LA station in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1952 and he gained further radio experience on the Melbourne station 3KZ between 1953 and 1957, but it was not until he visited England on holiday in 1957 that his career began to take shape.

Detecting the looming impact of rock'n'roll in Britain, Freeman took the decision not to return to Australia, and landed himself a job as summer relief disc jockey on Radio Luxembourg. He made enough of an impression to get himself recruited to the BBC Light Programme as presenter of the 'Records Around Five' show in 1960, where he first introduced his familiar signature tune, 'At The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal', written by Brian Fahey.

In 1961, Freeman took over 'Pick Of The Pops' from David Jacobs, and successfully managed to relegate the musical content to second place with his ebullient presenting manner. He was regularly censured by the BBC for his brash delivery and for such avant-garde (for the time) practices as leaving his sentences hanging in space on a pregnant "er ...". The contrast with the silky-smooth Jacobs could hardly have been more drastic, and, indeed, Jacobs was reinstated in late 1962.

However, Freeman bounced back into the presenter's chair in 1964, and continued to present the weekly rundown of the singles chart until 1972. He also established himself as a regular fixture on BBC TV's 'Top Of The Pops', having been appointed as one of the original four presenters in 1964, alongside Jacobs, Pete Murray and Jimmy Savile. Stretching his distinctive talents still further, he became chairman of the panel game 'Play Your Hunch'.

In 1973, he assumed his next big role on BBC Radio - the Light Programme had become Radio 1 in September 1967 - when he became host of the 'Saturday Rock Show', which he piloted until he jumped ship to Capital Radio, the London pop music station, in 1978. 'The Saturday Rock Show' boldly ignored such ephemera as punk rock, Freeman choosing to concentrate instead on hard or progressive rock stalwarts including Bachmann Turner Overdrive, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Vangelis and Yes. By this time, Freeman was widely known by his nickname "Fluff", apparently derived from his fondness for wearing a loose-fitting submariner's pullover given to him by his mother, Annie. The story goes that when Freeman took the garment to be dry-cleaned, it came back looking like a shapeless ball of fluff, but he continued to wear it regardless.

Freeman took his high listener-recognition factor to Capital Radio by presenting a show called 'Pick Of The Pops Take Two' on Saturday mornings, but after 11 years in the commercial sector he was back on Radio 1 in 1989, once again at the helm of both 'Pick Of The Pops' and the 'Saturday Rock Show'. However, by 1994 the increasingly restless veteran jock was lured away again to Capital, where he could be heard crashing his way through 'Pick Of The Pops Take Three' at weekends, and to Virgin Radio, which took up his rock show.

That same year, he revealed to startled breakfast television viewers that he had been celibate since 1981, but before that had been bisexual. Freeman was awarded an MBE in 1998 and over the years picked up an assortment of prestigious gongs for his radio work, including the Sony awards radio personality of the year in 1987, the Radio Academy's outstanding contribution to UK music radio award in 1988 and a special Sony award in May 2000 commemorating 40 years of service to broadcasting. The last was handed to Freeman, by now severely hampered by arthritis, by Dale Winton, who had succeeded him as the presenter of 'Pick Of The Pops' in its Radio 2 incarnation, recently revived on Sunday afternoons. Winton said Freeman was "a man who has served, and is held in the highest affection by, quite literally every sector of our industry."

He also found time for some film acting, and is preserved on celluloid in Julien Temple's garish musical 'Absolute Beginners' (1986), in 'Dr Terror's House Of Horrors' (1965) and as a DJ in the 1968 Dirk Bogarde vehicle, 'Sebastian'.

It was to his credit that Freeman could appreciate the ludicrous side of his public persona. In 1994, he appeared as himself in the television special 'Smashey And Nicey, The End Of An Era'. This was the final appearance of the two fictional DJs created with such ferocious satirical accuracy by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse that they effectively terminated an entire era of Radio 1 deejaying. By that time, however, Freeman had already propelled himself safely into broadcasting mythology.

(Adam Sweeting, The Guardian)

Alan Leslie Freeman, disc jockey: born July 6th, 1927 - died November 27th, 2006