Fitz of laughter over the air waves

David Fitzgerald presents the week day morning show for BBC Radio Devon as well as another – ‘A Bit more Fitz” – on Sundays.

He’s met and interviewed everyone from world famous comedians to local farmers. Born in Bridford, he now lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Ivybridge with his wife and two Siamese cats, Pablo and Taggart. They have a 24 year old son, George.

Fitz is a conundrum. He claims he can’t remember where he parks the car but a few minutes of conversation reveals he has an encyclopaedic memory that puts the Google search engine to shame. Here’s another contradiction: he makes his living by broadcasting every day to hundreds of thousands of people but insists he is a retiring soul by nature.

“I am pretty shy believe it or not,” says Fitz without any irony.

He has just stepped out of the studio after three hours of interviews, phone-ins music and amusing banter. “The whole purpose of the programme is to get the listener involved. I try to keep the show as light as possible,” he explains, “but we have touched on fairly gritty subjects. If it’s pertinent to the South West or to Devon or Dartmoor, we’ll talk about it.”

Last week he was interviewing Carly Simon and today it was a woman who likes being fat. Tomorrow it’ll be young actors opening in an improvised experimental play. He’s talked to Bill Oddie about parakeets and Don Mclean about American Pie. He has been out and about all over Devon, recording people as they tell him about their lives. How does he get the best out of everyone?

“I don’t consider myself a particularly good interviewer but I do like to chat” Fitz says modestly, “I will talk to anybody. I was talking to a Dartmoor farmer recently. He’s going to have to remain nameless because he was telling me how his father and he used to be a little free with the truth when it came to the Ministry of Agriculture – as it was then.

‘He had marvelous tales about how he got subsidies in the 50s and 60s. He would count sheep up on the hillside including in a good many rocks. Then he would herd the sheep flat out down the lane and round. And these huge sweaty sheep would be counted again in the lower field. Brilliant story.”

Does his wife listen to his show?

“No” fires back Fitz, deadpan. “Actually, I’ll tell you why. Where I live there is a huge lump of granite behind me and the signal goes right over the top.”

Did his wife put it there?

“Yeah” says Fitz playing along.

He devises the questions for his regular ‘Brain of Devon’ contest on his show and likes taking part in the occasional pub quiz, so it’s no surprise he has a magpie-like eye for interesting snippets and facts, although he is typically self-deprecating about it.

“I know rubbish, absolute rubbish. I can name you the eleven VC holders of Rorke’s Drift and the Obliquity of the Ecliptic,” he declares.

The latter for those who are not well acquainted with astronomy, is the angle of the tilt of the earth. He can also rattle off the names of all the kids in his class from Blewit and Brown to Westcott and Wyatt as fast as Mary Poppins could belt out the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” song. The school in question was Hele’s in Exeter and it had just converted to a comprehensive. Fitz assures me that he and his peers were voted the worst ever class to pass through the school due to bad behaviour on an epic scale; it was so bad it frightened off a new teacher after only one term.

“What did we get up to? Well we nearly burnt down the classroom on one occasion. We also locked a gentleman, called Mark, in the loft.”

Fitz was the class jester but his O level results were no joke. He gained just one, in Environmental Studies. Bearing in mind his subsequent achievements, one wonders whether the school system of the time might have let him down.

“I have a lot of stuff in my head which I need to get out and down on paper. But I often wonder if I’m dyslexic or on the spectrum because at times I get very confused,” he admits.

However, his own resourcefulness has always carried him through. In the early days of his career when he moved from local radio to television he landed a job as a news reader on Sky and found himself thrown in at the deep end.

“I’d just started at Sky News,” he explains. “It was the arrest of OJ Simpson. I was on air on the night that he drove down Sunset Boulevard holding a gun to his head. And I had to ad lib for one hour forty-five minutes. It’s a long time in front of that unblinking eye. There was a thing called ‘rip and read’. All the information came in on a piece of paper that you had to rip off. You assimilated it then had to give it to the viewer. At one point it was me being quoted by the rest of the world and I was thinking – I’m now part of the story.”

But the scene of this great triumph was also the home of his
biggest gaffe.

“I announced to 70 million people that Saddam Hussein was still bombing the Kurkish Turds. But as long as you carry on everyone thinks – oh did I hear that?”

That confidence to carry on is one of the tools of the trade that makes it look so easy as far as the listener is concerned. Relaxed chat smoothly shifts to music, interviews, phone-ins and back again. But there must be a lot of paddling under the water to keep it looking so calm on the surface. What’s the biggest worry?

“Technology,” he laughs. “You do worry about a hard drive jamming and occasionally we do have technical issues and electrical storms will take stations off air.”

So when it does go wrong what is a presenter to do? “We have some CDs,” says Fitz. “Having said that, I can’t remember where I’ve put them.”

Leaving lightning strikes and technological gremlins to one side, what about the classic natural disaster of being in the middle of a three-hour radio show and needing to go to the loo – how do you buy yourself some time? This is where thirty years in the business really shows. “Hotel California. Six minutes 24 seconds long,” he responds without hesitation.

Fitz, who is a director of the British Comedy Society and has many friends who are comedians, is convinced that humour is one of life’s essentials:

“Make people laugh,” he says. “There are too many people on this planet who make people sad. Last week I reckoned you could use a microwave to cook a meal and dry underwear at the same time, so I came up with a recipe for ‘coq au pants.’”

Of course, one person’s joke is another’s insult as Boris Johnson’s recent attempt has shown. Fitz is not amused by the politician’s efforts: “I’d rather not comment on Boris Johnson full stop. What he said was unforgiveable. Unfortunately, my friend Simon Weston has been dragged into this because a certain news station tried to bring in analogy of facial expressions where you can’t see someone’s face. You’ve got to be very careful if you’re in broadcasting or politics not to spout off. You can’t be trained for it.”

Simon Weston is, of course, the Falklands veteran and one of Fitz’s closest friends. Weston was on the HMS Sir Galahad when it was bombed. He was awarded an OBE and became well known after he overcame horrific burns to his face and body. Today he still tours the country talking about his life story and the journey to recovery; Fitz takes part by serving as interviewer. The two met nearly thirty years ago and after initially bonding over a love of rugby; a lasting friendship was born and Weston ended up as best man at Fitz’s wedding.

Weston has spent a total of five years in hospital and has undergone nearly 100 operations all under the same surgeon who originally looked after him. The ordeal is never-ending as surgery still has to be performed from time to time to ‘maintain’ his face. As Fitz comments: “It takes so much ketamine to knock him out these days because he’s so used to anaesthesia.”

But there is another side to the relationship. Weston was keen to try his hand at children’s books and Fitz, who had read many bedtime stories to his son George when he was ill as a child with meningitis, was up for the challenge. Of course, it was a natural decision to make the stories humorous. Fitz explains:

“He came up with the characters and I wrote the story around it. We have rugby-playing ducks called the All Quacks, and Lieutenant Pigeon, a pigeon with absolutely no sense of direction. One book features Prince Charles, and Nelson the horse keeps calling him your royal harness. I’ll never get on the New Year’s honors list with that particular book,” he adds ruefully.

Like many local radio stations, BBC Radio Devon has had its share of the struggle to maintain listeners. It has dropped a hundred thousand of them over the last fifteen years but has held up better than most. Perhaps like the village shop, it needs to be used and cherished because we would all sorely miss it if it disappeared. As Fitz sums up:

“If someone from Chagford wants to phone up and say I’ve got a charity event tomorrow, then we can do it. It’s the last bastion of being local.”

David Fitzgerald and Simon Weston will be
appearing at: Watermark in Ivybridge
7 September – Simon Weston: My Life, My Story

Author: Jane Rush

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