For all the talk of star presenters on big salaries, producers are the backbone of Britain’s favourite radio station, BBC Radio 2. They choose the music, sort out the e-mails and texts, nudge the talent this way and that, and generally keep things moving. For 12 years until last November, Paul Walters produced Wake Up to Wogan, the station’s breakfast show, presented by the genial Terry Wogan and Radio 2’s most listened-to programme, and made a considerable contribution to its success.
Walters kept the star turn amused and middle Britain entertained, and also managed to introduce the music of Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua to millions of listeners – even the Queen occasionally tuned in – between the regular traffic updates, the news and “Pause for Thought”. “The listeners write most of the programme,” Walters said.
Letters, faxes and now e-mails pour in. But, apart from that, the show is unscripted. Terry and I have a cup of coffee at 7.15 every morning and then we just go and start the show at 7.30. He doesn’t look at any of the e-mails until the microphone is open because that would take away the feeling of spontaneity.
Nicknamed “Dr Wallington P. De Wynter Courtney Claibourne Magillicuddy Walters”, or “Dr Wally” for short, but also “Paulie” and “Poorly”, Walters was a favourite of Terry’s Old Geezers or Gals, aka the Togs, and helped Wogan, the Togmeister himself, preside over the regulars Alan “Deadly” Dedicoat, John “Boggy” Marsh and Fran Godfrey in what had become a gentle, whimsical version of the “zoo” radio format.
Over the years, the team broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, from British Columbia and from an oil platform in the North Sea, and also made sorties across Europe, venturing into Russia as part of the BBC’s coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest. They won a Sony Gold in 2002 and also shone every year as part of the BBC’s Children In Need charity appeal, with Walters contributing acoustic guitar to the rather risqué CD Radio 2 Janet & John Stories as told by Terry Wogan released in support of the fund.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1947, Walters worked for Associated Television and then Rank Radio International before joining the BBC as a Trainee Film Assistant in 1973. Four years later, he spent three months attached to Radio 2 and realised that his forte and future lay with the radio side of the BBC’s operations. He produced concerts, outside broadcasts and programmes such as You, the Night and the Music and The John Dunn Show for the network and, over the next 28 years, worked with everyone from Ken Bruce to Sarah Kennedy via Ed Stewart, David Jacobs and David Hamilton.
Walters first teamed up with Wogan on the Radio 2 breakfast show in 1979 and, after a short stint back at BBC Television as an assistant producer in entertainment and events, he renewed the partnership in 1993 when Wogan returned to Radio 2 from presenting a television chat-show. “Twenty years on and off, man and boy, joined at the hip,” Walters would joke, but the affection between the two was genuine.
Under Walters’ stewardship, Wake Up to Wogan evolved with the new technology and listeners graduated from sending letters to faxes and then e-mails and texts. In the late Nineties, Togs were even introduced to the delights of the webcam and briefly enjoyed Wogan’s Web, a mid-morning television spin-off, again produced by Walters.
With Radio 2’s repositioning itself towards a younger audience at the end of the Nineties and the increased importance given to singer-songwriters in its playlist, Wogan and Walters became the dream team for radio pluggers, so much so that, over the last five years, brunch-time showcases would be held near Broadcasting House in order to accommodate presenter and producer, so that they could attend after finishing their two-hour show.
The self-deprecating Walters liked to portray himself as a connoisseur of the buffet who enjoyed the hospitality, but he was always on the look-out for new talent which could fit into the show and engage its huge audience. The late Eva Cassidy, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Katie Melua were three of the singers whose profiles sky- rocketed thanks to the support of Wogan and Walters.
There was occasionally a feeling of Groundhog Day about Wake Up to Wogan when the playlist featured tracks by Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Phil Collins and the Beach Boys, yet again, but the eight million listening seemed to enjoy it. “The music is only important when it’s wrong,” Walters would say. But, when “Gaye” or “Home Thoughts from Abroad” by Clifford T. Ward, one of the producer’s favourite artists, wafted over the airwaves, all seemed well with the world.
Over the last year, despite illness, Walters was still choosing the music for Wake Up to Wogan. Easy-going and affable, he loved flying and playing golf and was a proficient guitar-player, keeping one of his thumb-nails long enough to help with the picking.
“To know Paul Walters was to love him. His character was in his smile,” Wogan said in tribute to his long- serving producer.
He was charming and he was relaxed, almost to the point of sleep sometimes. He was the self-styled “best putter in the world” and he was also the best music programmer in the world. Millions of listeners will mourn the loss of a friend. Me too.
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