How I accidentally became a BBC Arts Correspondent


American band The Byrds, with Roger McGuinn second from right
American band The Byrds, with Roger McGuinn second from right

The story so far – having accidentally become the youngest-ever published ELT author, Salford-born EFL teacher Ken Wilson finds himself being interviewed in Spanish on the BBC World Service. His year’s worth of street Andaluz is about to be tested to the core…

Jorge gave me an encouraging smile.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied.

“Just talk about the things we talked about in the office,” he said.

“But we were speaking English in the office,” I mumbled, somewhat petulantly.

“Put your cans on,” he said. “The music has started.”

Muy buenas tardes,” he began, “Ustedes escuchan al servicio español del BBC…”

I had arrived at Bush House half an hour earlier for my interview on the BBC Spanish Service. I was introduced to a lovely Spanish presenter called Jorge Pequerra, who sat me down in his office and listened to the story of the making of Mister Monday, the first-ever album of English teaching songs. (* See my note at the end about this)

“That’s really interesting!” he said with great enthusiasm. “Let’s go and talk about it in the studio.”

When we were seated in the studio, he said: “These things work much better if there are no edits. Just be yourself, don’t stop, keep talking and don’t worry if you make a mistake.”

 The kind of thing we say to our students all the time.

And so we started.  Jorge’s rich baritone voice boomed in my headphones and I just went with the flow. Suddenly, my Spanish sounded like … well, Spanish. I talked about why I started writing songs, John Haycraft’s intervention, meeting the Italian pianist etc etc (if this is all puzzling, check the blog about The making of Mister Monday ).

Jorge had said he wanted a seven-minute interview, but we seemed to talk for hours. When we finally stopped talking, he said: “Wow! Thirty-seven minutes! Well done!”

Of course  he WAS planning to edit it down to seven minutes, but his advice not to worry about making mistakes had been very positive and I had enjoyed the whole experience.

We then went for a cup of tea in the Bush House canteen in the basement (or the Lower Ground Floor in posh BBC-speak). I was so chuffed that I even offered to buy tea and cakes for everyone. At BBC’s subsidised canteen prices, this wasn’t going to bankrupt me.

The Bush canteen is an amazing place. There are people from all four corners of the planet, who are all radio superstars in their own country. And they wait patiently in the queue behind you while you buy a cup of tea!

Jorge and I started talking about music. He asked me if I had been to any good gigs recently.

“Not exactly a gig,” I said, “but we went to the Lincoln Folk Festival a couple of weeks ago, which was out of this world.”

The Folk Festival had taken place in a field near Lincoln, which is about 180 kilometres north of London. Somehow the organisers had managed to persuade an amazing array of talent to come to this remote corner of the East Midlands. Artists included James Taylor, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tim Hardin, Sandy Denny, Steeleye Span, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and, my personal favourites, the American band the Byrds. In the advertising, they were billed to be doing an acoustic set.

Except, apparently, no one had told them about that. I explained to Jorge how the band, fronted by the legendary Roger McGuinn, had arrived in Lincoln with enough electric equipment to sink a ship, only to be told that they had been billed to do an un-plugged set.

Rather than walk off in disgust, the band set up their equipment and walked onto the stage to thunderous applause from those in the audience who, like me, were hoping for a break from the folksy stuff.

“Er, hello Lincoln,” said McGuinn, in a very attractive Californian drawl. “I hear that you’re expecting us to play an acoustic set, right?”

The crowd mumbled its agreement.

“Yeah, well, the situation is ….. uuuuuum…. we have, like, a hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment here?”  (The question mark is to indicate that high-rise terminals were already alive and well in California).

“Sooo …uuuuuuuum …is it OK if we …. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah …. do an electric set first?”

“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Fortunately, a few thousand of the 20,000 people there agreed with me. The Byrds started off with their biggest hit, a cover of Bob Dylan’s Mister Tambourine Man. If the field had had a roof, it would have been blown off.

After a mesmerising run through the rest of their hits, the band put down their electric guitars, and picked up acoustic instruments that they had been able to borrow from other performers – guitars, mandolins, violins etc. They then proceeded to show that they were one of the best acoustic acts on the bill as well.

Jorge listened to the story with interest.

“Do you mind if we go back in the studio and you tell me all that again in Spanish?” he asked.

I looked at him in surprise.

“It’s exactly what I need for the programme – an English person who can talk about music events in Spanish. And,” he added with a smile. “I can pay you for this one.”

And so it was that I found myself in the same seat, talking about Roger McGuinn and his mandolin. If I didn’t know the word for something, I just asked Jorge to translate.

“¿Cómo se dice en español ‘mandolin’?”


Over the next few months, I went back several times to do reviews of other concerts – The Band at the Albert Hall, Pentangle at the same venue (featuring Mister Monday drummer Terry Cox :-))  and The Who at an open-air concert at The Oval cricket ground.

Jorge introduced me to his friends at the Latin American service and I did some music reviews for them as well, but they weren’t so excited about my European Spanish accent. I must say I was delighted when they said I sounded too SPANISH. So much better than sounding too ENGLISH!

All good things come to an end. A few months later, our daughter Rowan was born, which was one of the great events of my life, but also meant that Dede and I didn’t go to so many gigs. And Jorge disappeared to pastures new.

My stint as a BBC Arts Correspondent was over. Little did I know at the time, but my own career as an actor-musician was about to start.

A couple more English Teaching Theatre tour anecdotes soon. But before that, guest blogs about NESTs and non-NESTs, and the visit to a Central London club that changed forever the way I thought about teaching.

Enjoy September!

* Credit where credit’s due: the first person I was aware of who wrote English language teaching songs was Alan Wakeman, the author of English Fast, the course that International House teachers d’un certain âge might remember using. But Mister Monday was the first album. Unless anyone out there knows differently.

3 thoughts on “How I accidentally became a BBC Arts Correspondent

  1. Another fine story, Ken – thanks very much! I’d like to tell you about the time I met Keith Moon (The Who’s mad drummer) in a pub and I bought him a few drinks, but I can’t remember too much of it now…

    1. That’s the problem with buying drinks for rock legends. It always gets out of hand. You could tell the story about Keith Moon’s reaction to being told to turn the ‘noise’ down when he was playing a Who tape in his hotel room. Do you know it? I’ve always liked Keith Moon, if only because Graham Chapman, my favourite Python, listed Moon as one of the nicest people he’d ever met (and then went on to tell the story about the Who tape in the hotel room).

  2. And here it is – the rest of the tale from the previous blog. Waiting paid off. Good things come to those who wait (Guinness ad). By the way, I’d like to listen to one of those with a nice pint of Guinness with blackcurrent juice 🙂 pulling other occasional thread from the story of your life.

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