Back to the Future with Big L

By John Cookson,
Senior Correspondent, Sky News

John Cookson visited the Yeoman Rose in August 1997.
His subsequent report for Sky was broadcast worldwide.

It had been 30 long years since I'd last heard her. But, as we neared the Essex coast, my cameraman, Sid, tuned the car radio into 266 metres and three decades just rolled away! Of course, the music jolted the senses, but it was the "Big L" jingles which really brought a lump to my throat and caused the memories to flood back. Suddenly, like time travellers, we were motoring through the Essex countryside in the Swinging Sixties, Harold Wilson was in Number 10 and Mark Roman was on the radio!

No! It couldn't be so long since "Wonderful Radio London" had entered my life for the first time. Then, as an excited kid in the back streets of a Yorkshire town, I'd virtually glued my dad's transistor radio to my ear. Despite the crackle of static and the fading, I was mesmerised by something new and fantastic. Previously we'd only heard the staid BBC Light Programme and Luxy (Radio Luxemberg 208) on a good night. But wow! Now, there was Radio London and Caroline and 270, with friendly disc jockeys playing our music and having fun! Yes, I and millions of others, were instantly hooked on the pop pirates and, for me, Radio London truly ruled the airwaves.

Three decades later, as a senior correspondent with Sky News, I was ostensibly making a report about Radio London's temporary return. But it was much more; I was on a sentimental journey back to my youth. I caught my first sight of the "Yeoman Rose" from Walton sea front. It was a perfect summer's day and the North Sea was sparkling and flat calm beneath a denim blue sky. What the likes of Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn and Tony Windsor would have given for this. You could have almost swum out to the ship, instead of facing hours, as they did, on a tender in stomach-churning weather.

I was still wallowing in memories of my youth - a phenomenal period made more extraordinary by an explosion of music and fashion - when the tender collected cameraman Sid and myself from the end of Walton pier. Within minutes we were aboard, accompanied by Big L News Director Tom Collins, and being welcomed by Chris Elliot and colleagues. Below decks was best described as "basic". God, it was very basic! Like the pirates of old, the studios and mess areas seemed cramped. I was wondering what it was like working the Big L stints in the Sixties. Getting on with your fellow jocks and the crew would have been essential, because there was nowhere to escape to! If anyone had an annoying habit, well, you were bloomin' stuck with it for at least two weeks.

During our visit, two of the great names from pop pirate history, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart and Tony "Bird Brain" Brandon, were also making a sentimental return to Big Lil, after 30 years. Amazingly, although Tony had filled out a bit and Ed had one or two grey hairs (haven't we all!), neither looked a lot different and scrambled aboard like 2-year-olds! Certainly the familiar wit and repartee soon started, with both reminiscing about the "old days" and the "Summer of Lurrve"! I asked if they thought the same spirit could ever be recaptured on shore. Ed thought not. "There was something special about being on a pirate radio ship in the North Sea, in a roaring gale in winter," he said. "You obviously can't recreate that in a studio on land and that's what gave pirate radio its special magic and appeal to millions of listeners."

Earlier Tom challenged me to read a news bulletin for him... and I knew that at some point I was probably going to be humiliated big time, and almost certainly live on air!

I'd mastered my best Paul Kaye voice and with "The Wombat" at the controls, my maiden bulletin was going amazingly well, complete with the Big L morse code jingle between each item. Then, towards the end, my worst fears were confirmed. News Director Tom suddenly handed me a piece of paper containing "breaking news". In the first line of this mysterious late item, was the name of an African ruler, Sir Abubakka Tafawa Beliawa, and other assorted friends. Reading at speed and not having seen or heard the name before I was completely derailed!

Perhaps for the first time in a Big L bulletin, the reader, namely me, blurted out, "I'M NOT READING THIS. IT'S RUBBISH!" All about me collapsed in gales of laughter. The weather report that followed was a disaster and my humiliation was complete!

I hope it brought a smile to the listeners because in the best spirit, and "the best possible taste", it was meant to.

Our filming over, Sid and I headed ashore. To our amazement, as we drove down the M11, in the following new bulletins we heard the Big L news reader mention our visit and my newsreading gaff. That was straight out of the Big L book of long ago and what made the station so dramatically different and better than the stuffy old Beeb (BBC).

I'm glad I went on what was a personal odyssey. Sure, the ship was different and some of the characters from 30 years ago can never be heard again. But believe me, Big L's spirit lives. Not surprising really, because she is, and will always be, a sparkling and extraordinary chapter in broadcasting history.

© John Cookson 1998

Since writing this, John has left Sky News.

For up-to-the-minute varied news, see his web site at:

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