Jon Gaunt, former mainstay of BBC local radio, will be The Sun’s new columnist. Chris Arnot reports
The Sun‘s prospective new columnist spent much of his weekend at a Butlin’s holiday camp, enjoying or enduring one of those sessions whereby the paper likes to introduce its writers to its readers. It seems unlikely that many readers will have heard of Jon Gaunt until now.
He is in fact a former leading light in the Eighties alternative comedy and theatre circuit, who promoted the likes of Jo Brand and Harry Enfield before becoming a triple Sony award-winning radio shock jock.
"Gaunty", as he likes to be known, moved back to his home city in the Midlands a few weeks ago and took up residency on the breakfast show at Coventry and Warwickshire Radio – but only after signing a lucrative contract with Britain’s biggest-selling daily newspaper. His hopes that he could be a controversial presenter on local radio at the same time as regaling readers of the Currant Bun with his forceful views crashed last week when the BBC insisted that he couldn’t do both. Gaunt had fallen foul of strict new guidelines, which insist that presenters should not be voicing their opinions in other sections of the media.
One notable exception would appear to be Vanessa Feltz, who took over Gaunt’s slot on BBC Radio London, despite writing regular columns for the Daily Express and its stable-mate, the Daily Star. When a listener contacted CWR last Thursday to point out this apparent anomaly, the normally loquacious Gaunty confined himself to a curt: "You may well ask." (Other listeners might well have asked how somebody, apparently based in London, was able to pick up local radio from Coventry.)
While Gaunt was packing his bucket and spade for his seaside jaunt to Butlin’s, The Sun‘s editor Rebekah Wade and her legal team were embroiled in the High Court. She was seeking an injunction against her former star columnist, Richard Littlejohn, trying to stop him from writing for the Daily Mail before his contract with The Sun expires next February.
The Coventry shock jock is coy about revealing whether he has been hired as a direct replacement for Littlejohn. In fact, he’s uncharacteristically coy about saying anything to the rest of the media until The Sun gives him the go-ahead. But his first column is due to appear on Tuesday 18 October, one of the two days when Littlejohn shared his world-view with Sun readers. He hasn’t shared anything at all with them for the past two weeks (hence the court case) and speculation is still rife as to whether his Friday slot will go to a more high-profile print journalist.
If Gaunt becomes the new Littlejohn, however, will readers notice much difference beyond the byline picture? The bluff, no-nonsense, man-of-the-people Gaunt, whom listeners in London or Coventry have known and either loved or hated, has travelled a long way in the 20 years or so since he left Birmingham University, where the policeman’s son studied drama. It was in dramatic writing that he first made his name. In 1986, his play Hooligans won a fringe first at the Edinburgh Festival, so beloved of The Guardian readers whom Littlejohn holds in such contempt. Offers of television work followed and he wrote five episodes of Emmerdale.
But live entertainment was his first love. In 1990 he led the consortium that transformed a long-derelict ballroom in a run-down neighbourhood of Coventry into a multi-purpose performance venue. It was called TicToc after his own drama company, which stood for Theatre in Coventry, Theatre of Coventry, and it attracted some of the top acts on the alternative comedy circuit. Among them were Lee Evans, Harry Enfield, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Sean Hughes – every one committed to stand-up routines that didn’t rely on jokes about mothers-in-law, sexism or racism. It seems unlikely, then, that Gaunt will gleefully follow Littlejohn’s stance on minorities. "I believe that Gypsies and Travellers have rights," he told listeners to his CWR show the other day. "But they shouldn’t have more rights than the rest of us."
In 1992, TicToc went bankrupt and Gaunt disappeared to Scotland for a while, keeping his head down and his mouth shut. It couldn’t last. His ebullience, quick wit and sharp tongue made him a radio natural and, when the chance came, he seized it. In the course of a career that has taken him from Coventry to London and back, via Radio WM (Birmingham) and Three Counties Radio (Beds, Bucks and Herts), he has accumulated three Sony awards and the occasional rap on the knuckles.
Last year, the governors’ programme committee upheld a listener’s complaint about the presenter’s comments on Radio London when two Greenpeace protesters climbed Big Ben. In response to a police comment that, once identified as "harmless protesters", they should be allowed to continue, Gaunt said: "I’m sorry … We should have shot them down… These people should not have been protesting in this way, this weekend. We are under threat of terrorist attack. What signal does this give? If two Greenpeace people can actually get to climb 200ft of Big Ben and the police say ‘oh that’s all right then’ … This is just nonsense – absolute nonsense. At 7ft they should have started to drench them with fire hydrants. They go any further, they should have been warned by loudhailers then be shot. I’m deadly serious."
Admittedly, those comments were made before an innocent Brazilian was gunned down by police in a London Underground station. But they are an indication of Gaunt’s trenchantly populist stance on a range of issues. On prisons: "Who cares if there are three to a cell? Who cares if they have to poo in a pot in the corner? I want them to hear the final clang of that door and feel that they never want to go back in there again." On truants: "If their parents don’t get them to school, they should be thrown out. I don’t care what happens to their children after that."
Occasionally, the former drama student re-emerges. "Are you the Harold Pinter of CWR?" he asked the station’s sports editor Geoff Foster after a noticeably long silence the other morning. There was another Pinteresque pause after which Gaunty gleefully observed: "You don’t know who he is, do you?"
"I do," said Foster, defensively. "He’s a writer."
"A playwright, you plonker. At the BBC it’s our duty to educate and inform as well as entertain."
Indeed. Only a day or two earlier, he had interviewed a young woman called Nicola who had been through an operation to have her breasts enlarged. The presenter managed to elicit not only the exact increase in bra size but also that, after borrowing £5,000, she’d been torn between the operation and a new car. The Sun and Gaunty could yet prove to be ideal bedfellows.
You couldn’t make it up … what ‘Sun’ readers will miss
"On your right, picking sugar beet, there are people from Albania, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Transylvania, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Peterborough. On your left, we are passing the old Fenland Cottage Hospital, now an international centre for the treatment of Aids patients from all over the world. Staff are proud to answer your questions in 100 different languages."
WELCOME TO LUNACY LAND
"Let’s meet our first contestants, from Afghanistan. Give a big Immigration Game welcome to the Talibans. Mother and son. That’s nice. Abdul, it says here that your hobby is stoning women to death.
"And mum, you once came second in a beauty contest in Kabul. We’ll just have to take your word for it. Nice eyes, though. A wink’s as good as a nod."
THE IMMIGRATION GAME
"If you are a newly-arrived asylum seeker and would like treatment for Aids, please ask your interpreter to press two and you will be put through to a consultant who will make arrangements for you to be admitted to a private room."
IF YOU’RE FOAMING AT THE MOUTH, PRESS 1
"Pressure has been mounting on the people of Tipton, which is surrounded on all sides by the Muslim enclaves of Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Walsall. Recently, a number of pro-Taliban campaigners from the town travelled to the Tora Bora mountains, in Afghanistan, to enlist the support of Osama bin Laden. But although a minority of the 20,000 citizens want sovereignty transferred to the Taliban, the vast majority wish to remain British."
THE BRITISH FLAG IS LOWERED IN TIPTON
"Be honest, how many of you could point to Sierra Leone on a map? Me neither, although I’ve a vague feeling it’s somewhere on the left of Africa, near the Gold Coast. It might even be the Gold Coast. But who cares? Most people probably think Sierra Leone is a limited-edition Ford. I always thought Sierra Leone was the bloke who directed The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Or was that Sir Leon Brittan?"
BLAIR DID PROMISE TO WOO SIERRA MAN
"There are plenty of countries between Rwanda and Britain. Let the black African nations do their bit. Let Nelson Mandela throw open the gates of Soweto. We have a few residual colonial obligations, but I have never understood why we should be expected to take in dissidents and immigrants from all over the world."
FOREIGN FANATICS ARE ONLY HERE FOR THE FEAR
"The Navy has always had its fair share of gays. Who do you think put the ‘sodomy’ in ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’? Discipline only went to hell once women were allowed at sea. Barely a week passes without some Wren getting herself up the duff or filing a sexual harassment suit. The Navy would be better off leaving the birds on shore and filling its ships with seamen – oh, behave yourselves."
NAVY FEBRUARY 2005
"Media watchdog Ofcom has banned an ad for faggots on the grounds it may offend homosexuals. I’ve never heard anyone in Britain refer to gays as ‘faggots’. It’s an American expression. What next? Are we going to be banned from buying mince? Will irons have to be reclassified as ‘clothes pressing implements’? As for fudge…"
OFCOM HAS BANNED AN AD FOR FAGGOTS
"It’s bad enough having to listen to someone using a cubicle for the purpose for which it was designed, without being forced to endure the groans of two men in the grip of passion. And while homosexuals will be allowed to ‘cruise’ toilets, will heterosexual men be allowed to hang around ladies’ toilets on the pull?"
ONE BIG BUGGER’S MUDDLE
"Being gay does not give you a licence to have sex wherever and whenever the urge takes you. Parks and public toilets, especially in London, have been colonised by copulating homosexuals."
GEORGE MICHAEL? HE DISGUSTS ME