As BBC WM hits 40, Ed Doolan reflects on his career as the region’s most enduring radio star. Graham Young reports.
He’s broadcasting’s equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man – physically rebuilt yet capable of outpacing all of his contemporaries in slow motion.
Along with his great friend and former BRMB colleague Les Ross, Ed Doolan was one of the first 40 inductees in the Radio Academy’s all-time Hall of Fame alongside Tony Hancock, Richard Dimbleby, Alistair Cooke and John Peel.
Ross lasted for an astonishing 25 years on breakfast at BRMB, but it’s the older Doolan who remains on air, with his 70th birthday now in sight next summer.
Born in Sydney, New South Wales on July 20, 1941, he’s as readily forgiven for being an Australian as his great friend Rolf Harris.
The only son of a pre-War, Jewish-Catholic marriage, Ed’s third wife, Christine, is a pharmacist 18 years his junior.
She’s a JP; Ed is an ex-teacher turned ardent radio campaigner for truth and honesty. The defender of weak and the schmoozer of all political parties – until he calls them to account.
After more than 300 editions of his Sunday lunchtime show, The Other Side Of..., the big names are still flocking to tell Ed their own life stories: William Roache for his 50th anniversary on Coronation Street, Earl Cameron to celebrate his 60th anniversary as Britain’s first black film star and Sir Cliff Richard for his 70th birthday.
Ed’s flings with TV included BBC2’s Tuesday People and Doolan At Large, as well as a brief stint hosting ITV’s Central Weekend discussion show.
But his most enduring home is a studio with a radio mic.
DOOLAN – A HAPPY JEW IN GERMANY; NOT ALWAYS SO IN BIRMINGHAM
Edwin Myer Doolan began his broadcasting career 40 years ago on August 1, 1970 ‘three months before the launch of BBC Birmingham began to mirror my life’.
The Second World War had ended just 25 years before but there he was – a Jew bravely working on German radio for the country’s own ‘Voice of Germany’ world service station, Deutsche Welle.
Incredible, when you think about it.
“I never made a secret about being a Jew,” says Ed.
“And I never came across any hostile or unpleasant act. But when I was standing in the lift with much older people I did used to wonder: ‘What were you doing 30 years ago?’
“I was 29, so it was very strange. The human perspective was that one of my German friends said to me: ‘We are being blamed for the most atrocious things that happened and I wasn’t even born’.”
Ed’s own father Ted was a Catholic who had married his Jewish mother despite the problems that would cause.
“That didn’t go down well in 1930s’ Australia, I can tell you,” says Ed. “Dad was actually from Tasmania. Travelling in 1933 with his friend, Percy, he was on his way to become a priest in Sydney. And then he met mum, Edna, at a rehearsal for Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. Three years later, they married.
“It wasn’t the cleverest thing to do, Jewish or Catholic. It was never easy.”
Edna passed away in August 1993, aged 82, having lived to see Ed succeed in radio. But Ted died on Ed’s 29th birthday – July 20, 1970.
A watershed moment in anybody’s life, but doubly so because Ed was to launch his broadcasting career in Germany just two weeks later. He moved to Birmingham in February 1974, at the dawn of BRMB’s commercial revolution.
The 70s were heady days. Led by the late John Russell, the station was a true community force with extraordinary personalities like Ross, Doolan and the outspoken football phone-in pioneer, Tony Butler.
Eight years later, Ed met the BBC’s John Pickles at a Midlands’ Television and Radio Industries Club social event.
Asked by Pickles ‘Are you happy?’, and replying ‘Not really’, the Aussie in Ed Doolan saw the words ‘escape’ and ‘opportunity’ fuse together over lunch.
“I began working on the WM lunchtime show two months later on September 20, 1982,” says Ed.
“I was the first commercial radio guy to be poached by the BBC. Until then, it was always the other way round.
“I often suspect that the BBC weren’t quite sure what to do with me, but it all worked out.”
Not everyone likes Ed Doolan’s style and he’s comfortable with that – except when people like racist Philip Norman take things to extremes.
During a court case in Stafford Crown Court, Tracey Lloyd-Nesling, prosecuting, said: “(Doolan) receives unfavourable comments and he accepts that as part of his professional life.”
But Norman, from Ludlow, Shropshire, was in a different league.
He was jailed for 18 months in March, 2003 for waging a near three-year anti-Semitic hate campaign against the broadcaster who had happily survived broadcasting in Germany 30 years previously.
“If somebody doesn’t like me, there’s nothing I can do about it and we’re both going to have to live with it,” says Ed today.
“In my job, you do your best to help people. You cover the news professionally, you try to make your show quirky and you get some very moving moments, like the listener who heard a piece about prostate cancer, had an operation quickly and is now OK. He wouldn’t be alive today if he hadn’t heard that programme.
“When someone says something like that it makes up for all of the other nonsense in the world. I’ve learned that you meet bullies all the way through your life. I ran into them when I was teaching. I’ve run into them in radio stations.
“Even at the BBC you can meet people who know absolutely nothing about broadcasting. But they come and go and I’ve been on air for 40 years. I wish them well.”
DOOLAN AND PRIME MINISTERS
Ed Doolan has now spent 28 years at BBC WM where his ratings, like his physique, still defy gravity.
He has interviewed world leaders like Nelson Mandela and every Prime Minister since Macmillan, save for Harold Wilson who ‘disappeared’ after leaving office.
“Before we go live to air we talk about something completely different,” he reveals. “When I last saw David Cameron, we talked about the Australian elections.
“I went to pick John Major up from reception but because I hadn’t met him before I couldn’t say ‘What’s up?’ So I said: ‘You’re clearly not happy’ and he said it was ‘Press stuff – they never get it right’.
“Tony Blair was very charming, in charge of everything around him.
“I met Lady Thatcher when she had just left office. Before we began she said: ‘I suppose they have told you all of the things you are not supposed to ask me’.
“I said ‘Yes’ and she said ‘Good, ignore it’.”
Does he ever feel sorry for any prime minister?
“Good God, no,” he says. “Because they’ve wanted it more than anything else. My interview with Cameron made national headlines for his comments in India about Pakistan.
“However tetchy it gets, you have to be able to have a drink with that person because you never know when you are going to have to talk to them again.”
DOOLAN ON RADIO HEROES AND CULTURAL REVOLUTIONS
Compared with Les Ross, Ed has proved more adaptable at changing stations and moving around the clock too.
“When BBC Birmingham began it had very few listeners because not many people had FM radios.
“BRMB was high quality local radio which wanted to be part of the local community, not part of a much larger, networked group.
“During those first six years until 1980, BRMB really was part of Birmingham and Radio Birmingham was changing too, very briefly becoming Radio 206 for a few weeks after getting its medium wave band, then it became WM.”
Today, radio has been revolutionised by mobile phones, text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter and the like.
“I helped to invent interaction, but a phone-in programme used to be a phone-in programme and that was it,” says Ed. “Contact with one listener that used to run for three or four minutes can now be 15 seconds.
“I’m not judge and jury. It’s my job to reflect what the audience is thinking, not to tell them what they are thinking.”
Is he tempted to join in other people’s shows?
“Tempted? Oh my God I’m tempted, but I never do,” says Ed.
“If I’m in Australia and listening to a phone-in there, I might think: ‘You’ve got it so wrong, but even there I just keep off!”
Ed’s own favourite stations include BBC Radio Seven (‘mainly because I’m on it and they also play old comedies like Round the Horn and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’).
Ed’s younger sister, Barbara, is 65 and a freelance accountant Down Under.
They take turns now to travel to the other side of the world to see each other once a year.
“Barbara could listen to me on the internet now, but she doesn’t,” says Ed.
“It’s now getting to the point where I hate the trip because it’s just too bloody long so we alternate our visits.
“It’s wonderful to go flying out of Birmingham. But flying back into this city is even nicer.”
DOOLAN AND HEALTH
Ed Doolan had only been married for eight weeks to Christine when he needed triple heart bypass surgery.
“Nobody on my dad’s side of the family has lived past 54 before,” says Ed.
“I never thought I’d live past the year 2000, so I never made any provision for old age. Why did I need to?”
But although he’s had more health setbacks than any other professional I know, suffering everything from asthma to piles and a detached retina, Ed has always bounced back.
“I’ve virtually got one continuous scar going down from my nose to my ankles,” he says.
On October 28, 1971, Ed was on his way to Edinburgh to cover a Ted Heath story when a multiple pile-up left him hospitalised for months in Durham – where he began to record a pop programme for Forces’ radio.
“I hurt my ankle so badly doctors thought I might not walk again,” says Ed.
He was also saved by his seat belt when he was driving from Sydney to Woollongong with his first wife Ruth. After cornering badly, their wedding present Triumph Herald spun on gravel, flipped on to its roof and landed the right way up in a ditch facing the wrong way.
And then he nearly died three years ago when his pulse dropped to 28. Luckily, it came during a routine three-monthly asthma check in hospital.
“That was close,” says Ed, while wife Christine, now 51, reckons it was a reminder of how tenuous life is.
“Ed always says he’ll ‘go first’,” she says, popping into the living room of their modern detached suburban home with tea and digestives. “But there are no guarantees in life. We all drive cars.”
Twenty years to the day after his wedding to Christine, Ed was having a pacemaker fitted while fully conscious.
Hours later he phoned to say: ‘I’ve sailed through other procedures including my triple bypass and others technically more difficult. But this was the first time I’ve been really frightened.’
This first pacemaker was unsuitable, so Ed had a replacement dual chamber model fitted during a second operation two weeks’ later.
In May 2009, he suffered a detached retina in his left eye, again operated on under just local anaesthetic.
Brave and always good humoured, Ed moved on again, safe in the knowledge that at least he’s got the right wife.
“Marrying a chemist was one of the great moves of all time,” he jokes. “But it’s frightening how fast my 40 years in Birmingham has gone.”
He and Christine have never had children.
“I’m too selfish,” he says. “Ten years of teaching them taught me how they manipulate their parents around their little fingers. I got divorced from first wife Ruth after three years. Janice, who was very fiery, married a school teacher who ended up becoming a broadcaster; Christine got me as I am.
“Too many relationships just go bust because children change the relationship. I find other people’s children pretty unattractive.”
Ed would prefer to be carried feet first away from his job; Christine sees things slightly differently.
“I don’t want to slow down as a magistrate, pharmacist and chairman of Birmingham Settlement,” she says.
“But I think Ed will have to think about slowing down in a year or two.”
Ed raises an eyebrow.
“At this stage, I would rather be at the BBC than not,” he says. “Retire? I will die first. If I can still turn in a decent programme that’s what I would wish to do.”