When much-loved BBC radio and TV broadcaster, musician and writer Mark Radcliffe announced on air he was receiving treatment for cancer, I think we all feared the worst.
Boltonian Mark, this weekend co-presenting TV coverage of the 2019 Glastonbury Festival, made his big announcement on The Folk Show on Radio 2 in early October, delivering the news in trademark matter of fact way, telling listeners, ‘Now, here’s a thing. I’m sad to say unfortunately I’ve got cancerous skin and lymph node issues, and so as I’m sure you’ll understand I’m going to be disappearing for a while to get all that sorted out.’
But there was an air of positivity in his message, Mark stressing, ‘I will be back. You can depend on that.’ And less than nine months later he is back, and seemingly busy as ever, his treatment successfully behind him.
As well as a return to The Folk Show and his BBC 6 Music show with Stuart Maconie – now switched to weekday mornings – there’s a new book landing in September, incorporating the story of his cancer battle. And he’s also set to play a number of festivals with electronic collaborator Paul Langley, the pair going under the name Une.
Mark was diagnosed last September, surgeons removing a ‘walnut-sized thing from deep down on the back of my tongue’, then from his neck, ‘something the size of an apple,’ his wife Bella apparently declaring, ‘An apple and a walnut? That’s practically a Waldorf salad’.
He was holidaying in North Cornwall last July when he found a lump, not so long after his 60th birthday, telling The Mirror, ‘I’d had a beard for a while and thought, ‘Oh it’s too hipster, everyone has a beard now. I’ll go clean shaven’, and as I took it off, I noticed something on my neck.’
He put it down to a swollen lymph gland but on his return went to his GP, who sent him for an ultrasound, Mark soon seeing a specialist at Macclesfield for a biopsy and receiving his diagnosis. A full body MRI followed at Manchester’s Christie Hospital, his surgeon later telling him he was lucky he saw a doctor so promptly. Despite little discomfort, he had a large tumour hidden at the back of his tongue.
Following surgery, there was an intensive six-week course of radiotherapy and two rounds of chemotherapy, his treatment ending in mid-December, leaving him feeling ‘emotionally unstable’, January proving tough for the Knutsford-based broadcaster, feeling flat after all his day-to-day care. But he found his solution in a return to the airwaves, soon recording his Radio 2 show again, then joining Stuart live on BBC 6 Music from mid-February.
By mid-March, he was in remission, Mark now down to six-month check-ups, but also taking time out to help publicise North West Cancer Research’s head and neck cancer #SpeakOut campaign, raising awareness among men, found to be three times more likely to be diagnosed with the cancer yet often ignoring early signs.
And from the moment he picked up the phone, he sounded just like the old Mark to me, albeit perhaps with a different take on life. Although I’d seen him doing a live show in late April, 2017 in Preston Guild Hall’s bar, last time we spoke, I reminded him, was for an interview in December 2015, just before his band Galleon Blast sailed up the River Ribble and dropped anchor for a show at The Continental.
“Oh right. I remember that. It was badly flooded at the time, wasn’t it. The river was raging torrents.”
Luckily, as a band you knew your way around such choppy waters though.
“Yeah, we were alright. We’re used to rough seas.”
My excuse for speaking to Mark this time around is his latest music venture, Une, which despite its name involves a pairing between Mark and fellow hot-blooded male Paul Langley, set to play the Cotton Clouds, Bluedot and Kendal Calling festivals this summer.
Of Cotton Clouds, at Saddleworth Cricket Club, Oldham, where fellow acts include The Wailers, Peter Hook and the Light, and Ash, he told me, “It looks good. I don’t know much about it, even though it’s not far from me. We’ve been asked to play through Tim Burgess (The Charlatans, also appearing), so I don’t think we’re on the main stage – we’re probably in a little shed somewhere … which is fine. But we’re looking forward to it.
“It’s a bit of a departure for me, really. I’ve always loved electronic music, I’m a big Kraftwerk fan, and we just started writing these songs. We didn’t know where it would go. We didn’t know if it would work. We didn’t know if we’d enjoy it. We didn’t really have any plan for it. We worked separately on it, really. I’d get the ideas and write the words, then I’d give them to Paul, ask him to have a look. He’d then do the music and we’d get together, edit and fine-tune it. And it’s turned out really good, I think.”
The snippets I’ve heard so far sound good. ‘Cerebral disco rave’, I believe. Is that right?
“Is that a quote from me? It sounds like the sort of thing I’d say. Yeah, it is songs, and it’s sort of pop music, but interesting sonically. I’m really enjoying it. We’ve only played twice live at the moment. But I’m just enjoying doing something different.”
“Well, that was one of the starting points. And I liked the name Une, which is an anagram of Neu, so … even though it’s wrong really, ‘une’ in French being feminine.”
Well, we’re all in touch with our feminine side here, aren’t we?
“Yeah … I’m not sure Paul is, but yeah, we’re really looking forward to getting it out there.”
And who’s better with a screwdriver on stage when it all goes wrong?
“Paul. I leave all the technical stuff to him, really. I like to think of myself as the romantic poet of the organisation. He’s operating all the stuff.”
Has that always been the case? There’s a nice clip of you and engineer Mike Robinson behind the controls at the BBC in Maida Vale, when legendary broadcaster John Peel made a rare visit to sit in on a Tools You Can Trust recording session for his show in late 1984, for a feature on the Whistle Test show.
“Well, even then … I’m not very good with technology. I’m no good with gadgets. I’m a drummer – I hit things. I can manage a guitar, although I tend to hit that more than in a dexterous approach.
“I’m lucky I’ve got three daughters, so if there are any technical problems I’ll put one of my children on it, while they look at me with a look of disdain. In our house with things like Netflix and different accounts, there’s only Rose, who’s 17, who really knows how to work the telly. I’ve got a little telly in my room with Freeview on it. I can work that. Anything else is beyond me really.
“In Une, Paul’s very much the technological maestro, while I do singing and guitar. But I listen well. Sometimes I’ll say to him, ‘That’s not right. We need to do this’. I’m good at mixing things. I can hear the whole thing in my head and get a good picture of it. I’ve always had that, which is what a producer needs.”
On that Whistle Test clip, you pipe up to tell the Manchester band in session that ‘it’s a bit ragged’ at one point.
“I know. I don’t really like that clip of me. I feel a bit embarrassed now. I’ve got some sort of mullet and a yellow jumper on. And I now realise it wasn’t for me to tell Tools You Can Trust it sounded a bit ragged. It was for them to tell me this is how we sound, and this is what John Peel does. What you say doesn’t really matter. I sort of learned that over a period of time. I became a better producer by doing less. Leaving them to it, making sure they had a cup of tea. I think that was the most useful thing I did by the end.”
Who was your very first Peel session with?
“Wow. I’ve a feeling my first might have been the Tom Robinson Band. But I think I might have been shadowing someone. My first sessions would have started in mid-1983, although I can’t really remember who the first ones were.”
Incidentally, I’m not sure about that. I’ve since looked back, and while Tom did record sessions for Peel with TRB and as a solo artist, I can’t find mention of that one. Perhaps it was for Peel’s ‘rhythm pal’ David ‘Kid’ Jensen. Someone out there will know.
Back to Une, with Mark telling me that while the first album, Lost, is already recorded, it’s not out until September.
“We were fine tuning the artwork today, and it’s all done – it’s mixed and mastered. We’re ready to roll with it, and due to do more gigs later in the year. We’ve been spending a bit of time editing visuals, with good footage. We like to have a screen. For the first gig we had random, abstract images, but now we’ve edited images together for each song. We’re working on it all the time, and it’s getting better.
“We played in Northwich at a little festival (the DDGW festival in early May) and it went great. People loved it, and that really enthused me that we might not be so daft to put our heads above the parapet with it after all.”
Is that right that legendary punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke also features on the new album?
“He’s recorded some stuff that’ll be on the second album. We wrote a song to play live. Some of the album’s very quiet and reflective, so when we started to play live we wrote a couple of new tracks just to make it work. Our first gig was at a festival in Scotland – in Ullapool, called Lupalu – and we were up there with John. So while we were there, we recorded in the hotel vocals for this track.”
Not just because you mentioned Tim Burgess, but do you feel like, erm, charlatans for the sheer fact that you’ll be up there playing on the same stage as the legendary Kraftwerk (Blue Dot Festival, Macclesfield, July 20th) and the like this year?
“Ha! I don’t think anybody would see us in direct competition. We don’t really over-think it. We wrote these songs, We produced them electronically, but there’s a live element to it, with live guitar, drum pads, sampling, and vocals. But electronic music for me is different for me after years of being in bands, either playing drums or guitar. There’s a lot that’s pre-prepared. That’s the nature of electronic music. But I think we’ve a long way to go before Kraftwerk need to look over their shoulders!”
In the meantime, how about your fellow swarthy seadogs, Galleon Blast? Are they busy without you?
“That’s sort of on hiatus really (the band have dates of their own this summer, as you’ll find out here, but not with Mark). Having cancer last year in my throat and mouth, that left me unable to sing. I’ve got my voice back, as you can probably tell, and I do sing. I did a folk festival yesterday in Shropshire with Chris Lee from Galleon Blast on mandolin and our mate Dave Russell on bass – a little acoustic trio. At the moment I’ve no plans to do a big band, because playing drums, singing and talking places quite a strain on my voice, and I get tired. I’m not doing that at the moment … but never say never.”
That phrase ‘never say never’ makes me think of Mark’s good friend, Noddy Holder’s oft-repeated words, never truly ruling out another Slade engagement, unlikely as that might be. And there’s a bloke who’s surely learned a great deal about the perils of not looking after your larynx after all this time. How’s he doing?
“Yeah, Noddy’s alright. I had lunch with him and Roy Wood at a pub near Leek. They both had chilli.”
Nice touch of extra detail there, Mark. Saves me asking. And I see Nod’s got a new haircut.
“Yeah, he’s got like a Mod haircut. It looks really great.”
Agreed. It suits him, and takes me back to the Play It Loud days of Slade, around the turn of the ‘70s.
“Absolutely. He looks like he’s back in Ambrose Slade. He looks great, and Roy … looks like Roy. He’s not had a haircut. He’s still got his black and purple long ponytail. And I love having those two as friends. They’re so sweet, so lovely, both of them. I sometimes have to remind myself that they’re legends.”
They certainly are. You’ve also helped out with publicity for various cancer services and campaigns since your treatment, including for North West Cancer Research, alongside the likes of comic Dave Spikey, and also the Teenage Cancer Trust. Is this you spreading the word about great facilities and NHS staff who helped pull you through, while encouraging us to flag up problems as soon as we can?
“Yeah, anything you can do to tell people to get checked. I was lucky really, my cancer was visible – it was a lump in my neck. They got to it quite quickly. But they call it a silent killer as you’ve no idea of knowing what’s going on there. With any sign, you need encouraging to get it checked out.
“I think blokes tend to think, ‘Oh, it’ll be nothing’. Not necessarily just blokes. Some women are like that. It’s a very simple message – just get it checked. It’s amazing, if you catch something early – things that would have killed you 10 or 20 years ago – they can get you back from that point now. They said with mine it would have killed me in months, not years. So I’m lucky to be here and I’m enjoying life – loving every day.”
This time last year you were set to celebrate a 60th birthday, and it all seemed to happen so fast.
“It did happen fast. Thank goodness, because once they found it, they got me straight in there. From finding it in August, soon I was in Wythenshawe, having the operation in early October, and finished all the treatment by Christmas. I now have regular scans, and that’s fine.”
I saw you via social media tolling a bell at the centre where you were treated, as has become the tradition.
“I did, that’s when you’ve completed your treatment. It doesn’t mean you’ve got the all-clear. That wasn’t until March. That was an amazing day. It felt like I could stand up straight for the first time in six months.”
Stupid question, I know, but has this whole episode changed your outlook on life? Do you do anything differently now? Was it a wake-up call?
“Well, it’s the usual clichés really. It puts everything in perspective. Things that used to get you down just really don’t. Y’know, it’s been raining for three weeks. Well, who cares! I might never have seen the rain again, the way things could have gone. It does make you appreciate what’s important in life.
“And yes, grab every day. You never know what’s around the corner in life. Live a bit, enjoy the now. Nothing profound that hasn’t been felt by everyone else, but nevertheless, it’s a life-changing thing.”
And talking of grabbing every day, I see you’re presenting from Glastonbury Festival again.
“Yeah, I’m going down on Thursday, and the weather was looking very menacing but seems to have turned round completely. It looks beautiful, bright and sunny, not too hot. It looks perfect at the moment, on my app. But it’s a BBC app, and you should never trust the BBC, should you!”
As I’m putting finishing touches to this interview, it’s Saturday afternoon and it’s sweltering, ‘hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum’, as the fellas from the University of Woolloomooloo would say. So maybe those forecasts weren’t quite right. But there you go. At least he’s not likely to get stuck in the mud.
Meanwhile, The Folk Show continues in midweek on BBC Radio 2, and Mark’s BBC 6 Music show with Stuart Maconie has shifted to weekends this year. How’s that going?
“We’re fine. We sat down when the afternoon show ended, wondering, ‘Should we go our separate ways now?’ But we both decided we wanted to carry on working together, because we liked it and thought it worked. I think we were disappointed and surprised they moved us, but also philosophical. We know nothing lasts forever and we’ve had a good innings.
“Stuart’s busy with lots of writing projects and stuff like that, and I’ve been ill so three hours a day, five days a week might have been quite a tough ask for me. So even though I don’t like getting up early in the morning on Saturday and Sunday, I only really work regularly on those days and on Wednesday night for The Folk Show. I quite like the life now. It seems to fit. I’m still really rebuilding my strength, and I’ve been doing some writing myself.”
Ah, nice one. Can you tell us more about that?
“Yeah, it’s called Crossroads, and it’s about amazing moments in music where things changed forever. It was inspired by going to America, being at the crossroads in Mississippi where Robert Johnson met the Devil. But also with the cancer, my Dad dying and my dog dying last year, and turning 60, there were crossroads for me. It was that concept that sucked me in. That’s where it started.
“That’s due to land in the first week of September. And yeah, I’m getting back out there, taking baby steps. I’m doing the Une thing and enjoying that, and it doesn’t require me to sing and shout a lot. That seems to be a good, sensible way of progressing, y’know.”
To find out more about symptoms of head and neck cancer, and North West Cancer Research’s #SpeakOut campaign, visit nwcr.org.
Meanwhile, Une play the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Macclesfield, on Friday, July 19th; Kendal Calling at Lowther Deer Park in the Lake District on Saturday, July 27th; and the Cotton Clouds Festival at Saddleworth Cricket Club, near Oldham, on Saturday, August 17.