The wheels of Peel

In 2002, John Osborne won a box of records on the late, great John Peel's Radio 1 show. Now, with a little help from Submarine author Joe Dunthorne, he's turned the experience into a play. Malcolm Jack investigates

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 19 Jul 2011
33330 large
102793 original

For playwright, author, poet and actor John Osborne, the path to this year's Fringe began with a sentence scrawled on a scrap of paper back in 2002: "Records you want to hear played by a man who wants you to hear them."

While tuned in to the late John Peel’s veritable institution of a BBC Radio 1 show, as he would be on many weeknights in his student flat in Norwich, Osborne was moved to enter a competition set by the legendary self-deprecating, comfort-blanket-voiced Liverpudlian disc jockey. It challenged listeners to pen a short missive summing up what it was that motivated them to keep on tuning in so religiously – basically to help him with the mountain of paper work required to enter the annual Sony Radio Awards.

A couple of weeks later, Osborne got a call from a Peel show producer to tell him he’d won. After a few days, his prize arrived: a box of 150 vinyl records picked at random from a place where many a disc posted hopefully over the decades to the famous champion of musical curios was destined to eventually wind up: John Peel’s shed.

"As you would expect it’s quite eclectic," says Osborne of the vinyl haul, selections from which he’ll give a spin during his one-man play. "There’s reggae, indie, electro. Some names I recognised: Screaming Lord Sutch, Shyheim, who was the youngest member of the Wu Tang Clan. Then there’s lots of really obscure stuff, like a band called Maher Shalal Hash Baz who were a Japanese jazz collective. The most exciting one is Oi Zone who are a Boyzone punk cover band."

A gentle one-man celebration of the joy of the wireless and the intimate bond between DJ and listener, John Peel’s Shed is in part adapted from Osborne’s 2007 debut book Radio Head: Up And Down The Dial Of British Radio – a funny and touching tale of what happened when he decided to listen to a different radio station every day, all day, for a month. It’s also based on a show that he made himself for Norwich community station Future Radio as part of his research for the book, plus new material inspired directly by Peel’s vinyls.

"The more I listen to these records the more I’m fascinated by who these people were," says Osborne. "Part of the show is obsessed with finding out what has happened to them since they sent the album to John Peel." And part of it is obsessed with cherishing the decaying ritual—perhaps soon-to-be-forgotten in the digital age—of trawling the airwaves. "I hope that it reminds people how exciting radio can be and how peaceful it can be to tune in and find stations that you really love," he says, "in the same way that people loved John Peel."

Its arrival at the 2011 Fringe brings John Peel’s Shed full-circle: the show was conceived and penned in Edinburgh last August, when Osborne was in town to perform in a play at the Free Fringe. The catalyst was director and producer Tom Searle, who had been listening to podcasts of Osborne’s Future Radio show and suggested that he could help adapt it for the stage. Osborne set to work immediately on penning a script, scribbling away during mornings in the Pleasance Dome, hoping to capture some of the "buzz" of the Fringe. "I was worried that as soon as you leave Edinburgh the magic disappears," he says.

Some editorial input was required and Osborne had the perfect person to call upon: Joe Dunthorne, an old friend from his days as a creative writing student at the University of East Anglia and a fellow member of London poetry collective Aisle 16 (who are also at the Fringe this August). Dunthorne recently saw his acclaimed debut novel Submarine turned into a hit British indie movie directed by Richard Ayoade, and he was happy to bring his unique brand of "pedantry", as he puts it, to the project.

"I was primarily being annoyingly tweaky with sentences and with the shape of it," says Dunthorne, who had performed a similar script editor role during the adaptation of his book into its "evil twin" big screen version. "I was always just trying to make sure the images were fresh and that there were no clichés. John’s a very good natural writer – I just tried to push him and make sure every word choice and every phrase was working."

Dunthorne compliments the "warmth" of John Peel’s Shed and Osborne’s performance in it, which he feels has merited comparisons with the kind of heart-warming whimsy Daniel Kitson does so well. "They’re definitely in the same ballpark," he says. "It’s that kind of feeling at the end – fuzzy, nice, uplifting. John is great at that."

Dunthorne will himself appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August to launch his new novel Wild Abandon. You can also expect him to occasionally cameo in Aisle 16 R Kool – a daily poetry triple-header with Osborne, Luke Wright and Tim Clare – and The Poetry Takeaway, "the world’s first purpose-built mobile poetry emporium" (an old converted burger van parked in Bristo Square). From there, Osborne and co. will serve-up freshly penned verse to order for passers-by. "People will approach us, give us their specifications and we’ll attempt to write them as good a poem as possible in 10 minutes and perform it," Osborne explains.

"It’s like a different way of flyering," he adds. "As a performer at the Fringe, it’s not the performance or the late nights or the drinking that tires you out. It’s the flyering. This is a fun way of getting around that problem." A lo-fi, DIY, creative and mildly eccentric approach to self-promotion? Peel would surely have approved.