Mayo found fame as the Radio 1 breakfast show host in the 1980s
After being forced out of his Drivetime show despite 37 years with the BBC, I wonder whether Mayo had been tempted to “do a Lee Child” in his own debut thriller and stick it to the Radio 2 controllers who treated him so shabbily. He chuckles knowingly, pauses and then says: “You know when you write an article and hand it in and someone says, ‘I’m not sure that’s wise’? Well, that’s pretty much what happened with this. I’m well aware of what Lee did – and it was a very neat idea.”
And if he had followed suit, no one would blame him. Mayo found fame as the Radio 1 breakfast show host in the 1980s before moving to 5 Live and then Radio 2 in 2010, where he soon established himself as the voice of Drivetime, winning six million listeners and multiple awards.
So it came as a shock, not least of all to the genial broadcaster, who found out via his agent, when bosses rejigged his show by introducing female co-host Jo Whiley in an attempt to redress a perceived gender imbalance at Radio 2.
Despite their long-standing friendship, and much to the displeasure of loyal listeners, the show’s delicate balance was upset and, after struggling gamely on for five months, Mayo quit the station in December 2018.
While he has remained diplomatic about his former bosses, and is enjoying building a new morning audience on classical music station Scala since its launch in March, as well as continuing his highly-successful Radio 5 Live film show with Mark Kermode, the nature of his departure clearly rankles.
“Trust me, I was cross. I just came to the conclusion that I needed to leave to get my life back,” he says. “I still work for the BBC with the film show but the controller had made things pretty unbearable for me so it was easier to start again.
Despite being friends, it didn’t work out for Simon and Jo on Drivetime
“My intention was to stay there for ever, but it didn’t work out and I decided to leave when Scala approached me with a brand new project. It’s fallen rather well but I tend to refer to everything that went on with the catchall phrase, ‘2018’. It’s certainly true it was my least favourite year but we move on and things in general have fallen very well for me so I have no complaints.
“I’m doing more radio shows than I’ve ever done, Scala’s performed very well in the lockdown and the film show’s still very positive.”
He pauses, sighs, and continues: “It was tough but I’ve moved on.” As one of the Corporation’s former high earners, Mayo, 61, doesn’t miss having his salary picked over annually by the BBC’s critics.
“It was a turkey shoot every year. In fact, it [his departure] probably all started from the fact that they started to print the salaries, so I’m very happy I’m not part of that any more,” he admits.
“There were injustices that needed to be addressed, there are in all walks of life, but I am nothing but grateful for the way things have turned out. I always had great bosses and then there was one time it didn’t work out.”
Fortunately Mayo’s new boss at Bauer Media’s digital station Scala is one of his old Radio 1 breakfast show producers.
Simon Mayo in the early 1990s
And since lockdown, he has been happily broadcasting from his spare bedroom – dubbed Egton Five after an old Radio 1 studio sign he helped himself to when the station’s former Egton House HQ was demolished – at the north London home he shares with wife Hilary, their three grown-up children and pet dog.
“I walk across the landing and go into my spare bedroom. I haven’t left my house for a week, literally,” he laughs. “A couple of times there’s been engineering issues. My broadband disappeared which takes me off the air. But, in general, radio’s very nimble and the technology’s worked in our favour.
“With a small mixer, a laptop, headphones and a mike, I can do my whole show. The film show’s slightly more problematic – an all-speech show is more difficult – but the Scala show is fine coming from my bedroom. There won’t be any official Rajar [Radio Joint Audience Research] figures for a while because no one’s going around asking who’s listening to what but with streaming you immediately know how many people are listening on their computers. And that was up by 30 percent in the first week in lockdown.”
With his broadcasting, writing and film show, Mayo has plenty to keep him going in what must be one of the country’s best jobs in culture and the arts.
“Now you put it like that, it sounds pretty good,” he smiles. “Maybe I should be more grateful. When you’re going from show to show and deadline to deadline it doesn’t always feel like that. But I absolutely have no complaints. The only thing I’d like to do is find more time to write.”
While he jokes that he has “imposter syndrome”, his writing – a children’s series, Itch, soon to arrive on British TV, and Mad Blood Stirring, his 2018 epic historical novel which is heading for a big-screen adaptation – has increasingly won plaudits.
Simon’s lockdown studio
He is talking today about Knife Edge, a gripping – and decidedly dark – debut thriller featuring world-weary investigative journalist Famie Madden that is published today.
Having drawn on newsroom experience from his time at 5 Live, Simon starts with the brutal murders, in a terror attack, of seven members of the investigations team at Famie’s news agency, and concludes with an equally nerve-wracking set piece at Coventry Cathedral, near Warwick University where Mayo studied history and politics in the late 1970s.
In between, the pace rarely falters as the body count escalates. He explains: “A lot of it surprised me when I was writing it. I don’t always know where it came from.
“I wanted it to be believable, credible, I wanted to have a journalist at the heart of it: hard-working, committed, passionate and angry.
“Hopefully it’s scary and hopefully readers will warm to Famie. She’s very good at what she does but there’s a certain amount of management changes.
“She’s hanging on and she still enjoys what she is doing. It’s clear when she walks into the newsroom, she thinks, ‘I might not have been a good wife, I might not be a good mother, but I can do this. This is what I do’.”
I wonder aloud whether Mayo’s own upsets at the BBC, the frequent management changes and ill-advised reorganisations that have been a feature of Auntie in recent years, might have subconsciously been reflected in his writing?
“There is a German word, ‘Verschlimmbesserung’, which means an improvement that makes things worse,” he explains wryly.
“If you work for a big company, the NHS, a broadcaster, a newspaper, you get that: ‘That last big change, that management idea, it sucked and it’s made everything worse.’
“But despite everything else, Famie feels at home when she sits in front of her computer. Then she has to report on the deaths of seven of her colleagues and she just thinks, ‘OK, that’s it’.” A key theme of the book, even more apposite now after the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic than when Mayo turned in his manuscript earlier this year, is that civilisation as we know it is never far from collapse.
“A lot of people do think we might have an unstable autumn which would be understandable with the depression that’s coming down the tracks and the number of people who will lose their jobs but I wasn’t imagining anything like this,” he says.
“It was really just the general drift of politics over the past few years and sometimes things feel very thin. It feels as though our institutions, our politicians, and the things we always thought were very permanent all feel very fragile.”
It’s slightly disconcerting to hear the broadcaster, whose reputation in part rests on the eternal optimism of those familiar tones, sounding so downbeat. He is, he admits, generally careful to avoid any controversy, especially on social media, concentrating instead on his radio shows and writing.
“As soon as you venture out of those spheres it’s a pretty unpleasant place,” he adds.
Knife Edge by Simon May is out today
Mayo is currently writing a second thriller, albeit with an entirely different cast of characters, and wrestling with the challenge of depicting crowd scenes, train stations, football matches and bars when it comes out in 2022.
“What will life look like then? We just don’t know,” he says. “This story hasn’t run its course yet. A lot of people seem to be behaving as if it’s all over but I don’t think it is.”
As far as cinema goes, he fears independents will struggle badly and that some may not reopen, but that major multiplexes will remain for big blockbuster films.
“It will be interesting to see how much of the streaming habit people have picked up. For something like Mulan or the new Bond film, I don’t want to see them for the first time on my laptop. That’s a terrible idea. But at the moment, who wants to be sitting next to a stranger for three hours – I don’t.”
Talking from his writing cabin at home, he reflects: “I feel safe in here. Everywhere else is slightly more dangerous.”
Knife Edge by Simon Mayo (Doubleday, £12.99) is out today. For your copy with free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via www.expressbookshop.co.uk