Ray Gosling documentaries were once a regular TV feature. Now, waiting for the bailiffs, he tells Chris Arnot why his era is over.
IT WAS back in 1990 that the then controller of Radio 4, Michael Green, professed himself
to be “a great admirer” of the presenter Ray Gosling.
“One of those singular and particular voices that we need to cherish,” he told the
long-forgotten Sunday Correspondent. Gosling was riding high at the time. Even before his
documentaries on adultery and the class system, television had made his crumpled face
almost as recognisable as his distinctively lilting voice. But he was already aware that
the media could be a fickle friend. “I’ll do this till I get booted out, you know,” he told
the same writer from the Correspondent. “Everybody has their day.”
Ten years on and it would seem that Gosling was prophetic. Offers of work have dried up.
Not just from the BBC, but also from other former employers such as Granada and Channel 4.
He has been declared bankrupt and, this week, he was waiting to be booted out of the
three-storey Victorian semi in Nottingham that has been his base for more than 30 years.
Heaven knows what the bailiffs will make of his spectacularly cluttered study on the first
floor. A bare lightbulb dangles from a cracked ceiling of muddy green. Yellowing newspapers
are stacked in precarious piles. Even yellower scripts and cuttings are crammed on to dusty
“I know where everything is,” he claims. “In that corner are my old articles for New
Society and book reviews for The Times. That shelf is devoted to Dundee – I loved doing a
programme up there – and all that lot’s about Manchester,” he adds, sweeping his arm along
a row of dog-eared papers from which protrudes the FA Cup Annual, 1969.
Pinned to the little remaining wall-space is a photograph, ripped straight out of a sports
page, of the England rugby player Ben Cohen. “I quite like the idea of a Jewish sporting
star,” Gosling muses. “And, apart from that, I quite fancied myself as a wing-threequarter
until I got injured at school.”
Certainly, he could never have fancied his chances in the scrum. At 60, he remains a small,
slim figure, slightly hunched with his hands rammed into the pockets of his faded denim
jeans. A television critic once described him as “effortlessly dishevelled”. Above the
jeans today, he’s wearing a white T-shirt beneath a white shirt and a waistcoat, decorated
with colourful peacocks, beneath a dark jacket.
It seems quite warm in here and you wonder: why so many layers of clothing? The reason
becomes apparent when we move downstairs where a gas fire makes little impact on the chill
in the high-ceilinged lounge. First, he fixes a small padlock to the battered door of the
study which he likes to call his “internal shed”. (Gosling was always at home rooting
around other people’s sheds and allotments.) “I’ve had to move my typewriter into the
bedroom next door,” he says, “in case the vibrations cause an avalanche.”
A computer would be out of the question for a man who once spent more than an hour trying
to work out how to switch on a Dyson vacuum cleaner. So he’s not well equipped for the
brave new media world of the 21st century, as he readily concedes.
“A new generation has come along with first class degrees, a knowledge of the internet and
new production skills. They’re very focused. They all come out of the same mould. They
drink bottled water at lunchtime and eat sandwiches at their desks. I’m a C-stream sort of
person. I went to Leicester University, but I dropped out after the first year to run rock
‘n’ roll bands. As a broadcaster, I never had that focused approach, so I wasn’t cheap. If
they sent me out on a job, I’d go fishing around for more, which costs money. They don’t
want that kind of thing now. It’s the same for presenters like David Bean and Phil Smith
who once did a programme called Conversations in a Fish Queue.”
So is Gosling saying that there’s no longer a place for celebrations of ordinary lives in a
quirky way? Yes, he is – except that he objects to “quirky” with regard to himself. “I hate
that word,” he says. “Quirky programmes are done, very cheaply, by young, off-the-wall
producers to be shown at two in the morning on Channel 4. I was doing it for mainstream
television, quite often at eight in the evening.”
It was offers of television work that dried up first, some time around the mid-Nineties.
“To begin with, I thought there was something wrong with what I had been doing. It took a
while for the penny to drop. It wasn’t me or the people I was working with. It was just
that our era had gone. Once you open up the airways, there’s no money for peripheral
things. The documentaries you commission have to be backgrounds to the news. The future of
Myra Hindley? Yes, please. Allotments? Piss off.”
Was the coming of multi-channel television inevitable? “It was made to happen here for
ideological reasons. Like a lot of things in this country, it was introduced with an
unnecessary viciousness.” Gosling appears keener to blame Rupert Murdoch and Lady Thatcher
than Lord Birt, the former director general credited with dragging the BBC into a
“When John was at Granada, we used to share the same floor. He seemed amused by me and,
later, he would invite me to his Christmas parties at the BBC and make a beeline to talk to
When pressed about the professional rather than the sociable Birt, he goes on to say: “John
was good at letting the cold people have the run over the eccentrics. Sometimes people
forget that it was the oddballs on the fringe whomade the BBC what it was.”
Gosling has always been a bit of an oddball himself. A maverick, too, and a bit of an
anarchist, always ready to stir things up. He got on well with ordinary people but saw
himself as a man alone, “living in small hotel rooms where I wash my socks and underpants
and go to bed”.
Yet he related well to ordinary people and had the patience to tease out little gems. “I
remember sitting in this Blackpool hotel with two old ‘duchesses’. One of them told us
she’d had trouble parking her Dolomite, and I loved the way she said it. I knew we’d be all
right with her. As we sat looking out to sea, she told me she’d tried Scarborough once but
had missed the Blackpool sunsets. I asked her what was wrong with watching the sunrise in
Scarborough and she just said: ‘Ray, when you get to my age, you’re not interested in
sunrises’.” Gosling smiles wanly.
He has never been a staff man, always a freelance. On his best year he grossed £50,000. But
almost always he paid his VAT in arrears, “with penalties”. As the work dried up, though,
so did the ability to pay those arrears and those penalties. “When I couldn’t get
commissioned, I was spending my own money on developing ideas, which I still couldn’t
sell,” he recalls. “I even cashed in my 250 shares in Man United.”
Plans to redirect his career back towards print journalism and novels were held up for 18
months while he nursed his longterm partner, Bryn Allsopp, who died in November last year
with pancreatic cancer.
Arrears of £5,000 quickly escalated to more than £55,000 and homelessness beckons. “Many
people will say that I’ve always been a scallywag and I’ve got my comeuppance,” he admits.
Others might ponder why even Radio 4 no longer cherishes what its former controller
regarded as “one of those singular and particular voices”.