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John Holmes MBE on His Autobiography, BBC Legacy and Career Highlights

23 July 21 interview: Hollie Anderson
photos: Nigel King

John Holmes MBE – the voice of Nottingham Radio - has put pen to paper for a cracking autobiography that documents fifty years of shenanigans. He spoke to Hollie Anderson about his BBC legacy, career highlights and the process of writing his own life story…

If you’ve never heard of John Holmes…. Well, he’s a bit of a legend. Racking up five decades producing and presenting for BBC television and radio, there is hardly a subject or person he hasn’t rubbed shoulders with. From Radio 4’s Down Your Way to natural history programmes, iconic rock show Extravaganza to presenting sports shows in the glory days of Brian Clough.

I’m thrilled to be sat in his Nottinghamshire garden. Magpies flit overhead as we sip cups of tea in sun loungers. I admire his roses coming into bloom. It’s idyllic; the perfect time to listen to John spin some tales.

I’d foolishly assumed the book was a product of lockdown but John is quick to explain that “I actually started it 10 years ago. I have so many stories and I wanted my family to have them. Then I showed it to Julie Malone and she said ‘You should sell this.’”

And now here we are, the hefty hardback in my hands. A younger John is beaming from the cover, radio mic swung to the side for the picture.

I was curious to know if writing the book was difficult, given he’s so used to asking the questions. “Not at all, it came naturally. I just imagined myself sat in a pub, chatting to some chap.” John’s certainly a talker; the result was a draft 200 pages too long.

To be fair, he’s got more stories than you can shake a stick at and every paragraph is jam-packed with detail, his trademark cheeky humour peppered throughout. It’s like a history book with punchlines.

I became fascinated with John’s career trajectory and how, if fate had had her way, John may never have sat behind a mic or donned his trademark splash of red in front of the camera. To begin with, John – born in Leigh-on-Sea - had actually studied mining. “Yes – an Essex boy doing mining ain’t bad!” 

But John also aspired to be an actor, making his way to theatres up and down the country, and his decision to study in Nottingham sprung from seeing the Playhouse in the Sunday Times. “I saw the different productions, all the big-name actors… I wanted to be a part of it.”

In the end, it was one of the UK’s first computers that suggested a career in broadcasting.

People sit in front of a computer, waiting for stories to come in rather than getting off their backside. Lunchtimes used to be sacred; you’d head off for a drink and find your stories that way

Did he regret leaving the arts behind? “Knowing my limitations, I probably made the right decision,” he chuckles, and when I ask him what his dream role would have been he excitedly jumps in with, “One of the big roles… Lear! Or something in Educating Rita. Though I’d probably be better in comedy.” 

While we chat about his time at the Beeb, John quite proudly states, “I can’t think of anyone in the BBC who has had a career as varied as me,” but in the next breath says very seriously, “If someone wants to make it, focus is the thing. I didn’t have that! I blew with the wind.”

Regardless, it seems blowing with the wind has served him well. I was keen to find out more about his top tips for making it in journalism. When producing for Radio 4 – “the Rolls Royce of Radio, where I was my most confident” – he learnt that “you have to get your foot through the door. I made friends with the right people – after that one thing leads to another.”

He regrets not living in London, but says Nottingham would have always drawn him back. “Nottingham’s got balls! That’s why we haven’t got a real castle – we kept burning the bugger down! I like rebellious people.”

It’s clear that John has tried to find rebellious, passionate individuals and help them – making sure they too were seen and met the right people. He mentions colleagues Charlie Slater, an award-winning journalist who used to man his phone at BBC Notts, and Emma Pearce, who now works for Radio 4. “I knew they were going to go places, and it’s wonderful to see. It’s because they’re hungry for it.” 

When I ask which decade was the best to be working in Nottingham, John acknowledges the sixties were a great time; post war, and the music was great, with seventies sport being cause for excitement.

But when talking about the developments in journalism specifically, John muses that “not all change has been good. People sit in front of a computer, waiting for stories to come in rather than getting off their backside. Lunchtimes used to be sacred; you’d head off for a drink and find your stories that way.”

He also says that “we can be too worried about audience figures and what the papers will say. If someone thought of a good idea then we should stick with it and make it work.”

Nottingham’s got balls! That’s why we haven’t got a real castle – we kept burning the bugger down! I like rebellious people

Before we even get to the matter of his autobiography, John has proudly waved me into his house, past a planter with Notts County FC emblazoned on the side. He can’t wait to show me a room that seems entirely dedicated to his vinyl collection. Stacked floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, he’s arranged hundreds of records alphabetically, spanning across the many artists he has played on air over the years. 

It’s no surprise that John has also embarked on another project called Fragments of Rock, where he recounts tales from the countless bands and musicians he has worked with, saying that he “can’t help looking back”.

Already uploaded are episodes about The Police, Marc Bolan and John Cale. He’s quick to point out that, despite being assigned to sports, music was always a passion and he pushed for more support of local bands, and getting musicians into the studio. “People don’t realise how avant garde Radio Nottingham was.”

With the autobiography hot off the press and Fragments of Rock steadily building steam, it’s clear that John will never stop telling stories.

This is the BBC Holmes Service is on sale at Waterstones Nottingham, Lowdham Bookcase, Lulu.b café and Five Leaves Bookshop

You can check out the docuseries Fragments of Rock on John’s website

johnholmes.co.uk

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