Obsessed with radio, before the internet he would fly to New York to spend the weekend in his hotel room listening to shows
: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
Steve Wright, who has died aged 69, hosted the anarchic breakfast show on Radio 1 for a year before switching to Radio 2, where he became a garrulous fixture on weekday afternoons with middle-of-the-road pop hits, interviews and features mixed with interjections from his regular on-air posse of equally mouthy subordinates, a format that became known as “zoo” radio.
When he suddenly quit Radio 1 in January 1995, Wright was said to be bound for Talk Radio, Britain’s first national all-speech commercial station, and was widely expected to be followed out of the door by the BBC pop network’s controller Matthew Bannister, whose station had shed 4.5 million listeners in the previous year.
Wright’s unhappy year on the breakfast show was reckoned to be a casualty of the changes to Radio 1 wrought by Bannister when he took over the station in 1993 and, at the behest of the ascetic director-general John Birt, introduced more speech content.
“Steve Wright stopped being fun when he brought his posse to the breakfast show and talked to them more than us,” complained the Telegraph’s radio critic Gillian Reynolds. “Radio 1 have let him run riot. A great shame, a waste.”
Wright was widely held to be a clever operator at the microphone, the most inventive since his idol Kenny Everett. “He is not, however, clever enough to stop reminding us how clever he is,” she added.
While Bannister survived, Wright’s abrupt leave-taking sent a shock through Radio 1. He had been installed on the breakfast show at the start of 1994 to help revive flagging ratings following the removal of the station’s ageing disc-jockeys such as Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates.
Having ceded his berth on the breakfast show to Chris Evans after little more than a year, Wright did indeed decamp to Talk Radio, but listeners did not take to him and he left after a few months, returning to the BBC in 1996 with two weekend shows on Radio 2 featuring “amazing” facts (later rebranded as “factoids”), celebrity gossip, royal tittle-tattle, television soap stars, horoscopes and travel news. His Sunday-morning show, Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs featured classics from the genre and dedications.
In 1999 he took over from Ed “Stewpot” Stewart on the weekday afternoon slot which was relaunched under the title The Big Show. With him went his zoo-crew, and a galère of characters played by Wright himself, notably Mr Angry, ranting on the phone from Purley.
Like Kenny Everett, Wright’s abiding obsession was radio, and he assiduously tuned in to other shows in search of ideas. In the pre-internet age he would think nothing of taking a flight to New York to ensconce himself in a hotel room for a weekend tuning round the radio dial.
At the height of his success he lived with his American-born wife and their two children in a mansion at Henley-on-Thames. But when his wife suddenly left him, Wright became known as something of an eccentric loner, sleeping during the week in a small flat round the corner from Broadcasting House and living meagrely, despite a reported salary in excess of £500,000, on a diet of microwave TV dinners, mini bottles of white wine, crisps and chocolates.
Occasionally he would instruct staff to book him into the luxury hotel across the road for the night. In the office he would send a minion to queue for his rail ticket to Surrey for weekend visits to his mother, while other underlings were dispatched to fetch sandwiches and junk food from local cafés. Over the years he struggled to control his weight, which at times ballooned to 18 stone.
The elder son of a tailor who ran Burton’s outfitters in Trafalgar Square, Stephen Richard Wright was born on August 26 1954 in Greenwich and brought up in New Cross. When the family moved out to Essex, he attended Eastwood High School, near Southend-on-Sea, leaving with only three O-levels, but after working in marine insurance and as a local newspaper reporter he fulfilled an ambition to join the BBC by landing a job in the gramophone library at Radio 2.
His first outing behind the microphone came in 1976 at Radio 210 in Reading (now Heart Thames Valley) alongside Mike Read in The Read and Wright Show.
After a dismal spell at Radio Luxembourg, he joined Radio 1 in 1980, presenting a Saturday-evening show, then taking a Saturday-morning slot, before moving to the afternoon from 1981. He launched a Sunday-morning show in 1984 and two years later returned to weekdays with Steve Wright in the Afternoon. The show became something of an institution, known for its madcap cast of telephone characters, but these were later dumped in favour of a “zoo” format, new to British radio, with spoof guests and comedy sketches, a “posse” of producers and radio staff joining in the banter.
As well as Mr Angry, Wright’s on-air retinue included Gervase the hairdresser, Damian the social worker and Barry, the elderly lifestyle guru from Watford, mostly played by actors.
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