An afternoon with Northamptonshire’s Bernie Keith

BBC Northampton's Bernie Keith NNL-150812-163937009
BBC Northampton's Bernie Keith NNL-150812-163937009

Hugely popular presenter, Bernie Keith is celebrating his 15th year of entertaining listeners on BBC Radio Northampton.

He is a much-loved voice on the station and told Image editor RUTH SUPPLE why his main aim in life is to make people laugh but how he is scared he’s not funny...

Bernie Keith pictured for Image Magazine NNL-150812-163949009

Bernie Keith pictured for Image Magazine NNL-150812-163949009

An afternoon spent interviewing well-loved BBC Radio Northampton presenter Bernie Keith is literally laugh out loud stuff from beginning to end, with a few teary-eyed moments (from both of us).

It takes us a while to get started as, over the delicious afternoon tea he’s treated me to in the magnificent Great Hall at Fawsley Hall, we are interrupted by someone who says his mum loves listening to him, and his quick-witted innuendoes which roll off his tongue readily, have me spluttering out my cucumber sandwiches.

A household name in Northamptonshire, Bernie, 52, presents the mid-morning show from 9am to 12pm every week day on BBC Radio Northampton, as well as Bernie Keith’s Rock & Roll Heaven every Saturday evening from 6pm to 8pm on BBC local radio stations across the East of England.

He (and his dog, Riley) has a cult following and his forthcoming Evening With Bernie Keith at Derngate on January 23, 2016, sold out within hours.

Yet he is self-effacing about his success and says “I am a listener who works on the radio.”

And successful though his professional life has been, his personal life has been scarred by the tragic and untimely death of his partner.

That tragedy was what propelled him to come down to work in Northampton, where he is now celebrating 15 years waking up listeners every morning with his “end of pier-style humour”.

“I’m very grateful. I have the kind of following that I know is unprecented in local radio, I know that,” he says. “My listeners are everything to me. My purpose really is just to cheer people up.

“The reason I talk rubbish - and I do talk rubbish - is I don’t want to interview councillors and people like that. I don’t want to do serious stuff. There are loads of shows like that on the BBC that will cater for people who want serious stuff and they can do it much better than me. Find me someone who can talk rubbish better than me!”

London-born Bernie wanted to be on the radio from an early age, after his dad brought one home.

“I always wanted to do radio from the age of five. I was doing little radio programmes on the landing. I used to record my grandmother on the toilet. It was years ahead of its time,” he quips.

“My dad would bring back trannies - I don’t mean cross-dressers; he didn’t bring back a bloke called Bert in a frock from Dorothy Perkins.

“No, he brought back a transistor radio; a prototype set and my sister, Geraldine, had it and she somehow didn’t want it, but I loved it, the magic of it. It struck me as a box of magic and it still does. I cannot believe that I work in a box of magic.”

He got his first break at the young age of 16 in hospital radio in Plymouth, where his family had moved.

“You’re meant to start at 18 but I kept pestering and pestering. It was a war of atrition and it’s a lesson for life really. You knock on the door and they say ‘no’ so you knock again. They say ‘no’, so you knock again. So you’ve got to wear them down before they wear you down. Eventually I got in there at 16. No-one from my background had ever done anything like it and I used to think ‘what do I do if I can’t get into radio; I don’t know how to get into radio, so what do I do?

“So I went to university - Salford, which is very cool now but wasn’t then - and did French and English. I’m virtually bi Ruth; I’m virtually bi . . . people don’t know, but I am.”

Radio presenting wasn’t Bernie’s first job after university though. He - somehow - started his professional career as an accountant.

“I couldn’t find work in radio and I genuinely can’t remember what was going through my head, because I’m the least accountant-like person,” he recalls. “But I think I played badminton with someone who was an accountant and couldn’t find work, so I became an accountant.

“I was rubbish; it was plainly obvious from day one. I jumped before I was pushed. I stuck it for six months. The exams you have to go through! I’d just come out of three years at university and the exams were unbelievable.”

Persistence gave him the big break he wanted.

“I sent 60 demo tapes off to radio stations and they were either ignored or rejected,” he recalls. “So this time I waited for a month and then sent them all off again to the same stations with another 25.”

It was while working at a radio station in Nottingham, which doesn’t exist any more, that he found love for the first time with a man he’d known for five years.

“I was quite old to find love. I never thought it would happen and there was something wrong with me. I was 36.

“We were together for 18 months and then, in 1999, he committed suicide.

“You don’t get over something like that. There was no note, so you then go through this kind of - I went looking for notes - it was just bizarre. So then there was no reason for it and what you won’t get are answers and you can beat yourself up.

“I’ve had people die of old age before or cancer, but with suicide there is no resolution so you get to the point where there’s no point asking questions because you won’t get answers. I can imagine answers and people say to me, did he love you? And I say yes he did. But did he? Because if he did, he wouldn’t have done that to me because my life imploded and it will never be the same.

“I am happy now but it was difficult. That was August and then October/ November I thought I must move on. And I came here to be happy really.”

He never told his mum he was gay or about the greatest love of his life.

“Although you’d think when I was mincing around in my tutu she’d know; singing Kylie Minogue songs and Dusty Springfield medleys,” he says.

“I didn’t tell her because my parents were both born in 1923 and I knew they would have disapproved. They wouldn’t have disowned me, but I didn’t want the two people I held in the highest esteem ever, to think ‘what did we do wrong?’ It was cowardice.

“They didn’t know about Bob and his pictures were all over my house in Long Buckby and my dad was coming up to stay, and I thought ‘I’m not putting him in a drawer’ so I sat him down and he said ‘so will you go back to being normal?’ and I said ‘no dad, this is my normal’ and he said ‘what about all your lady friends?’

“It was the worst conversation of my life. I’d put it off and put it off. And he said ‘well I don’t know what you want me to say, but your my son and I loved you before and I love you now.’

“And I kind of think ‘should I have told him before?’ but the time was right then. When he died he said ‘thank you for everything you’re doing for me’ and he said ‘try and find someone who makes you as happy as you’ve made me’ and I’ve not been able to do it.”

He’s back at Althorp Literary Festival next year after being one of the interviewers there in 2015 and cites Lord Spencer as one of his friends.

“I did three interviews. Charles gave me gays and lesbians. I said ‘Charles, I can do outside the box, you know!’”

Romance though, is something Bernie says he has given up on now but is happy and wants to make others happy.

“This may sound trite, but I just want to make people happy. That, I believe, is my main purpose in life.”

He knows not everybody loves his bawdy sense of humour and says they can - literally - switch him off if they don’t want to listen to him.

“I don’t care if people don’t listen to me. What am I meant to do?” he asks. “You have a life; I don’t expect people to listen to me.

“Most people in my position are either paranoid about being liked or think they are better than they are. I always say for every one person that likes you, you have four that can’t stand you and five that don’t know who you are and provided you keep that in your head, you won’t go nuts.”

Yet there are thousands who do love him and, testament to that, is the fact his Evening With Bernie Keith at Derngate sold out within hours. And he accepts that the majority of his audience will be women of a certain age.

“Women love me because I give off an aura, I can’t supress it. I ooze it. I’m oozing at the moment,” he jokes. “But do you know what, I never analyse if people like me because I’d go mad. I’m always amazed. When we are doing the Derngate we’ve sold nearly 1,200 tickets, which is capacity for the Derngate and I am staggered.”

He deliberately agreed to do the one night show on what will be his 53rd birthday.

“Then they’ll be on my side. They won’t boo me! I’m not stupid. I look it but I use every trick in the book to get them on my side.”

The format of the show will be, in his words, “filth. It’s stand-up; I do stand-up comedy.”

I ask how he can do that as, after presenting Strictly Northampton 2011, in front of a capacity audience at Derngate, he told me how nervous he’d been and suffered stage fright.

“Because you only have one life don’t you? And I don’t really want to get to the end of my days, whenever that is, and think, ‘everyone said I was funny and should’ve done stand-up’ but I didn’t do it. Because I don’t think I’m funny, you know. Other people seem to laugh at me.”He writes all his own stuff and keeps it in big crates, bought in Coleman’s on St Giles Street “because I like to go local.”

He is passionate about living in his adopted county of Northamptonshire and 15 years is the longest he’s ever stayed at a radio station.

“I love it; Northamptonshire is my home. When my folks were alive I used to go down to Devon and my heart would kind of lift. It would swell when I saw the white sign saying Welcome to Devon on the M5 but it doesn’t do that any more.

“I look forward to coming back home now; this is my home now.”

He lives in a 19th century house with a 20th century extension in West Haddon, where he has turned one of the bedrooms into a record library

“I love music. I’ve got about 20,000 records and CDs in my library. That’s my den. I’m 52 and I’ve got a den. I’ve got all rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and cushions in it.”

When he’s not on air with his eight-year-old dog, Riley, always accompanying him to the studio in Abington Street, he says he’s living a middle-aged life where gardening, which he’d always resisted, is his hobby.

“I live in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheep, horses and birds. Is it an age thing? I love it and I spend, like half an hour at my window hypnotised by these goldfinches. Who’d have thought, Ruth, that I’d be obsessed with tits? No-one would, would they who knew me?

“It costs me a fortune, ‘n’ all . . . it’s £30 a pop for food and it’s gone. Have you seen the price of fat balls?”