In 1957, two years into a job as a BBC producer-cum-announcer, Brian Matthew, who has died aged 88, was invited to present the BBC Light Programme’s Saturday Skiffle Club. Skiffle, that shortlived but vital hybrid that incubated British rock’n’roll, duly expired shortly afterwards, and so, in October 1958, the show was relaunched as Saturday Club, with Matthew as presenter.
Its first lineup is the stuff of a lost era: a crooner, Gary Miller; Johnny Duncan, an American expatriate scratching a British living out of the rock boom; a teen idol, Terry Dene, remembered now only for his ephemerality; and an eternal verity, Humphrey Lyttelton. The first record played by Matthew was Lonnie Donegan’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s Grand Coulee Dam. The following year Saturday Club was joined by a Sunday morning show, Easy Beat, again with Matthew presenting and producing.
Matthew had arrived. Across the ensuing half-century his broadcast persona evolved from that of with-it youth club leader to that of avuncular presenter. In the process, for many listeners, Matthew became the voice of Saturday morning music radio.
It is an irony – or perhaps the reason – that what became one of the most creative periods in British popular culture was marked by a dearth of broadcast pop music. In the late 1950s, youth listened to Radio Luxembourg, wheezing and coughing through the static nightly from the low countries, while the Light Programme – its title was the giveaway – focused on ballads, light classics and the aftermath of dancehall swing.
The Musicians’ Union didn’t help. It imposed radio “needle time” restraints so that, rather than the records teens wanted to hear, “live”, and dreadful, cover versions were transmitted – which invariably seemed to be performed by big bands caught for ever in 1940s amber.
It was out of this curious set-up that Matthew made his career. He was one of that group of presenters who, together with middle-aged managers of teen stars, became the harbingers of 1960s youth culture. Unsurprisingly they were viewed by many of those same youth with suspicion, as cardigan-wearing fifth columnists for grown-ups holding the pass against the future. Yet, looking back, three decades later, the singer and songwriter Ian Dury wrote of the “great Brian Matthew” and the huge influence of Saturday Club.
On both his BBC shows, the DJ interviewed musicians, and eked out his tiny weekly ration of 45s – which is what his audience wanted to hear – amid a swamp of live recordings. In 1961, career booming, he went freelance. There were shows on Radio Luxembourg for Pye Records and he published a book, Trad Mad (1962), on another long-lost phenomenon, the British bogus-Dixieland craze. He even made two novelty records, a cover of Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren’s Goodness Gracious Me with Maureen Evans, and What’s It All About Eh? with another DJ, Pete Murray.
Then there was television. In that two-channel era, the early Saturday evening slot featured, on the BBC, Juke Box Jury, introduced by the leading DJ of the era, the ineffably smug David Jacobs. ITV put out the more popular and teen-oriented Thank Your Lucky Stars – a precursor of Top of the Pops – and from 1961 its presenter was Matthew.
Thus was Matthew presiding over pop TV’s main outlet as the music mutated from Billy Fury and the Springfields to the Beatles and Dusty Springfield – and the country from postwar into the 1960s. “Never talk down to your audience,” he said. “Treat them as friends. They probably know more about the subject than you do.”
They did, which ultimately blew away the old order. In March 1964 Radio Caroline initiated pirate radio’s continuous pop and DJs who gave the appearance (and occasionally the reality) of youth. In 1965 Matthew became the first presenter, on the Light Programme, of the pop show Top Gear, but by 1968 that was John Peel’s preserve.
Meanwhile, Thank Your Lucky Stars was being overshadowed by Ready Steady Go and, on 30 September 1967, BBC radio was reorganised into Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. Matthew’s involvement with 60s pop appeared to be over.
Born in Coventry, Matthew was educated in the city, at Bablake school. His father was the onetime conductor of the Coventry Silver Band, and his mother was a professional singer. Called up in 1946 for army national service, while based in Germany he worked with the British Forces Network – a training ground for much of that generation which dominated 1950s and 60s broadcasting.
In 1949 he enrolled at Rada in London, and in the early 1950s worked at the Old Vic. From 1952 until 1954 he was an announcer with the Dutch overseas radio service. Back in the UK he returned to repertory, worked as a milkman in his home town, and then, in 1955, joined the BBC.
By the 1970s Matthew’s career had moved to Radio 2. He introduced Roundabout, Album Time and Late Night Extra, and from 1978 to 1990 compered the arts slot Round Midnight. He never quite abandoned acting – in the 1960s, with his wife, he co-founded an amateur troupe, the Pilgrim Players, and built a 50-seat theatre next to his home. He later toured a one-man Charles Dickens show.
In April 1990, Matthew became presenter of Sounds of the Sixties. There would be other presenters, but it was the voice of Matthew that defined and dominated those Saturday morning transmissions. In November 2016, a bout of ill-health took him off air, and he returned only for a final broadcast in February 2017, to be replaced by Tony Blackburn.
At the turn of the 50s and 60s, the with-it youth club leader had provided a soundtrack for teens impatient for the future. Half a century later, the teens-cum-pensioners may well still have been impatient, but by then they were rummaging through their pasts, back to when it was their party. The veteran broadcaster had become a chronicler of lost time and times, anniversaries, fateful blind dates at the Spa Royal Hall, Bridlington, marriages consecrated in the Wilson years and commemorated under New Labour, David Cameron and Brexit, but all to the sound of the Nashville Teens, the Mindbenders, the Downliners Sect, Sandie, Billy and Gene.
Matthew is survived by his wife, Pamela (nee Wickington), whom he married in 1951, and son, Christopher.
• Brian Matthew, disc jockey and radio presenter, born 17 September 1928; died 8 April 2017