Imagine watching your favourite podcast in front of your very eyes, but you’re a part of it. You let their witterings unfold and bounce off from one another. Never has there been a couple that so bickered… that are also unmarried. Never has there been a couple so different in style. Simon wears a knitted blazer, Mark a black suit (but not without the fun of a treble clef on his tie). Instantly their chemistry is apparent.
This combination has created one of the most prominent forces in film journalism and broadcasting in Britain. Their famous rapport on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review has put them in the hearts of listeners across the country, charming us with their sharp combination of ‘wittertainment’ and insightful criticism. Last week, the pair came down to Exeter to discuss Mayo’s new book, Mad Blood Stirring, as part of the University’s Creative Dialogues series, reversing their usual dynamic of Mayo hosting. Before they walked onto the Forum stage though, Print Screen Editor Chloe Kennedy and Screen Editor David Conway sat down to witness their wittering in action.
First off, thank you for coming and congratulations [Kermode] on becoming honorary professor.
Kermode: Thank you, I think that’s really the main reason we’re here [laughter].
Mayo: It’s amazing how that happened.
Kermode: I know… remind me which honorary thing you have?
Mayo: I’m an honorary doctor, which you told me at the time was, I think, a complete fake.
Kermode: Yes, well, when I said complete fake what I meant was that there are many ways of looking at it. Some people might say that it was…I am happy to accept, because I’m not as stubborn and doctrinal as people may think. I’m happy to have moved on my position that your honorary doctorate is indeed a proper doctor, because I am now Professor Kermode.
Mayo: Right. But does my honorary doctorate cancel out your honorary professorship, which just makes you a doctor?
Kermode: No it…what?
Mayo: Well if you cancel out my fake degree and your fake honour.
Kermode: Well you mean, if you’re not a doctor?
Mayo: Then you’re just a doctor.
Kermode: Yes, if you’re nothing… I’m a doctor. If you’re a doctor, I’m a professor. Whatever it is, I’m one step above you, ok?
Mayo: Ok, we got that. [laughter] Sorry, that’s all we’ve got time for.
Kermode: It’s been lovely speaking to you and Simon has a book out as well. Bye.
[laughter] Well, congratulations on the book, it’s doing very successfully and we’ve heard as well that there are rumours of a screen adaptation?
Mayo: There are rumours of that, yes, and who knows? I mean, there’s a screenplay and there’s a producer, and there are always a thousands reasons why these things don’t happen so I’m not assuming anything.
What drew you towards the historical period of Dartmoor prison in 1812?
Mayo: I honestly stumbled into it. I was writing a book called Blame, which was set in London, but it needed to have a prison set in the South West of England because there was an escape from London, and they came to the South West and so, I thought, Dartmoor is the most famous prison in the South West of England. So, I was doing some research into Dartmoor prison, then discovered half of this story and thought, that’s too good to waste. So instead, Blame ended up in Bodmin, so that was that story already done. And then, I came back to the story of Dartmoor prison, and it was one of those things where the more I researched, the more interesting it got and the more I thought that surely someone else had told this story, it seemed too good to be true. I just kept on going and kept on going – Britain’s only racially segregated prison, that was a pretty good story. And then I found out about King Dick, and he was too good to be true, and then I got to his production of Romeo and Juliet and that was the point where I though, ‘ok that’s good enough’. It has to be a version of that. So, you know, it was just a footnote in history, but it felt like it should be slightly more than that.
“It was literally a bit of kids’ stuff, […] I think it was sports and education was nominally, because Radio 5 was made up to protect a frequency”
So winding the clocks back a bit, because of lot of people here are very interesting in getting into journalism and broadcasting – last time you were here Mark you spoke about how a lot of it was just through persistence –
Mayo: Have you been here before [Kermode]?
Kermode: Have I told you about my professorship?!
How did your experiences compare?
Kermode: [Gesturing to our microphone] This is how you [Mayo] started.
Mayo: Yeah, I mean, we come together for two hours on a Friday but our ways into it are very different. You know, I went through, I did hospital radio, I did student radio. When I was at Warwick I did a Saturday night show called Pyjamarama and enjoyed that very much. And my plan was to be a studio manager for the BBC which is what my mother had been. Then I applied to be a SM and I failed the hearing test, because I have one faulty frequency in my left ear, which meant that they said I couldn’t balance the BBC symphony orchestra if I was asked to do that [laughter]. So I then had to re-think what I was going to do, and in BBC local radio they have a thing called station assistants, which is basically like the bottom run. So to cut a very long story short, I mean I did hospital radio after that (after student radio) and then started for jobs in BBC local radio, put records away in the radio Brighton record library, you know, all those things to make your CV slightly better than the other peoples. So then I ended up at radio Nottingham as a station assistant, and you drive the radio car and you read the news, and I presented a classical radio programme, then they asked me to do a mid-morning show and then I sent a copy of my mid-morning show to Radio One.
Kermode: Yeah but, the punch-line of that story is that you got a call.
Mayo: I got a call from the controller of Radio One, to Radio Nottingham. The receptionist at Radio Nottingham said ‘there’s a call for you, it’s the controller of Radio One’ – a guy call Johnny Bealing – and I assumed it was a joke, assumed it was a hoax, I didn’t believe it at all. And it turned out to be Johnny Bealing.
Kermode: But he called you in and said something on the lines of ‘we think you’re doing interesting stuff’.
Mayo: No, he said ‘you’re a good broadcaster’ and I did say ‘well, I sent you a tape a year ago’ [laughter].
Kermode: But I just think [that’s so] great… that you actually got a phone call in your workplace: ‘It’s the head of Radio One’
Mayo: So what had happened is, I had invented a quiz and made a pilot of that, in the local radio station, and then sent it to him because I had had this idea for a half-hour kind of game show on Radio One, and he really liked the idea and when he was listening he missed his tube stop, which is always one of those things – he was so into it he missed his tube stop.
Kermode: He fell asleep, he just went straight through.
Mayo: [ignoring] So he called me as a result of that.
Kermode: You have to admit, if somebody made a film of your life that’s the scene that I wouldn’t believe. The scene of the guy missing the tube stop and then you getting the phone call, because it would seem like too much of a set up.
Mayo: If that ever happens, I want Joe Wright to direct it. I think he’d do it just right [laughter].
Kermode: A great long angle… there’s people in the thing [train carriage] going [in a posh voice] ‘oh what do you think of this radio quiz that I’ve put together’.
Mayo: That’d be quite good… But everyone [cinema-goers] would say, ‘it was quite interesting, that scene on the tube’
Kermode: [they’d say] ‘that was rubbish’
How did you meet then if you both had such different paths into the industry?
Mayo: Well, it was Radio One, where you [Kermode] were doing Radcliffe
Kermode: Yeah, I was doing Mark and Lard. I’d worked for Danny Baker from Radio Five. When it started out [it] was a hotch-potch of different things. I mean, it was literally a bit of kids’ stuff, a bit of youthy magazine stuff, a bit of sports, I think it was sports and education was nominally, because Radio 5 was made up to protect a frequency, because 909 and 693, they were told, that they had to put something new on it, so they literally invented a radio station as a holding pattern before it became Five Live. So it was a period of a few years where Radio five was Radio five and it was, the rule was, stay on air, don’t swear, that’s it [Chloe: that’s what you want!]. Yeah it was good. And then, I had been working with Danny Baker and then Mark Radcliffe had a show on called OUt on Blue Six, that’s how I ended up doing Mark and Lard.
Mayo: And then, I got moved from breakfast to mornings and one of the things I wanted to is to do is to cover film. So Matthew Bannister, who was the controller at the time said, ‘oh, well Mark Kermode’s doing that on Mark and Lard, why don’t you do that?’
Kermode: I don’t think we piloted it or anything, I think we just did it.
Mayo: So it was a Matthew Bannister arranged marriage.
Kermode: When you say it like that it feels really creepy [laughter]. At the time it was fine. Everyone was doing it. There was a war on, y’know?
“This is the reason for the whole Radio 2 thing – because you’ve literally got more work than you can actually do now”
Moving on more to the present day, you’ve obviously had long prolific careers – how do you keep with the times? Do you strategise?
Kermode: I don’t think we’ve ever strategised anything.
Mayo: You say strategise, you’ll never get anywhere, because essentially all we do is exactly the same as what we’ve always done because podcasting and, however it’s packaged, is basically radio. It’s old fashioned, speech radio, and that’s what we do. What you do is you add bits at the beginning and add bits at the end so you end up with the super executive version; like the director’s cut.
Kermode: DVD extras was what we used to call it, wasn’t it?
Mayo: Yeah, essentially if you listen to all the most successful podcasts, it’s old fashioned talk radio. And when you go and see the live shows of some of the most successful American podcasts you come over and you’re watching, it’s like musical hall from the 30s and 40s. It’s just people in front of mics doing plays and sketches with music – so, it’s actually quite reassuring ‘cos it’s the old skills essentially.
Kermode: Yeah, and honestly with that we have never strategised anything – partly because I don’t think we’d know how to start, and partly because it’s not really how – I mean the show has expanded from being the five minute segment it was on Radio 1 to now being this two-hour whatever-it-is thing on Radio 5, and the podcast, but at no point did anybody ever sit down and go ‘we should sort of do this’. It just sort of happened. It did happen organically, you know, like a wart. [laughter]
Mayo: The truth is, if you were putting [the film show] together now, if we were starting from scratch…
Kermode: …you wouldn’t come up with us
Mayo: You wouldn’t come up with us two. And it actually would genuinely not get commissioned. ‘They’re how old? They’re how white? They’re both men?’ So, fortunately we’ve been around so long I don’t think anyone thinks of it like that.
Kermode: No, I think if you sat down and tried to figure out – you wouldn’t come up with us because it is literally two people talking in a room. It’s like Mark Radcliffe saying that ‘radio is playing some records with some talking in between’. With us it is just some talking in between; that is literally all it is. And actually that whole thing about the first half-hour of the show now theoretically being ‘we’re doing a top ten countdown’, but actually what that is is a way of doing all the listeners’ correspondence; and we’re still only scratching the surface.
Mayo: I also think it’s the fact that it doesn’t sound – like obviously we are old – [but] I think the show’s attitude is young.
Mayo: If you were a [Radio] 5 Live manager person and you came to one of the OBs that we did they would look around at the audience that come to our shows in genuine astonishment because the audience is so young – they’re like your age [points at us], that young. The average age of a Radio 5 Live listener is in their fifties, so if they go out and do a show for an average listener everyone will be in their fifties – and that’s great, I haven’t got a problem with that, I just want everybody to listen. But when we do an OB, even though we’re really really old, the audience is really really young and I think that’s because the show’s attitude is young.
Kermode: I buy that. To counter it slightly, the thing that we hear the most nowadays is somebody will come up to you and they’ll go ‘my Dad loves your show’. And it is literally that that is great, lovely. The fact they listen with their Dad, that’s the point.
There’s an open, inclusive feeling to it that shows an avoidance of snobbery.
Kermode: We’re not snobby. I think we’re a lot of things, but snobby… I know you’re not saying we were. But I don’t think we are snobby – chippy, sometimes, but not snobby.
Mayo: I agree with him.
“If you assume everything is going to go wrong, you can only be pleasantly surprised when they don’t”
There’s a nice healing quality to your witterings.
Mayo: We do have magical powers.
Kermode: I’m slightly worried that you’re starting to believe it.
Mayo: I do believe it.
Kermode: You’re starting to think that we are actually working miracles because there are people actually being brought back from the dead, woken from comas, and [that] somebody had a broken leg and then they listened to the show and they didn’t have a broken leg. I’m starting to think that you are buying this.
Mayo: I have another career as a healer after this.
What does the future hold for you both?
Kermode: Well, Simon’s going to go off and become a famous screenwriter and author and I’m going to be left behind in the studio slagging his movies off to say ‘yeah, see, see, you left me and went to Hollywood and now I bet you regret it!’
Mayo: I suspect that’s probably not true.
Kermode: Mad Blood [film] is going to happen. You’re underplaying it, but the thing is, you’re right, there’s a million things that could happen between now and the movie actually happening, but a proper screenwriter has done a version of it, and you’ve got proper producers – and Simon’s got the Itch books – the Itch books are being turned into a TV show in Australia starting –
Mayo: – in February.
Kermode: This is the reason for the whole Radio 2 thing [Mayo leaving his drivetime show] – because you’ve literally got more work than you can actually do now. So it is very likely that that side of your career will take off.
Simon: Well, I mean, next year’s quite interesting because I’m leaving Radio 2 and I’m going to Australia to see the filming of Itch which will take a bit of time. And then Mad Blood Stirring – counting the chickens, all that kind of stuff. Jack Thorne is writing the screenplay – we had meetings planned this week but he’s doing King Kong on broadway so it’s been delayed.
Kermode: But this is also Jack Thorne that wrote the Harry Potter play [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] that sold out forever and ever and ever, y’know.
Mayo: So, y’know, the thing it has in its favour is that on the screenplay it says Mad Blood Stirring – Jack Thorne, so most directors will go, ‘well, okay, at least I’ll read it’. So, who knows? I suspect radio and writing is what I’ll continue to do, just the balance of it might shift.
Are you excited by this new branch in your career?
Mayo: Yes, excited. And fearful. Excited and fearful, because I’m always fearful about anything. If you assume everything is going to go wrong, you can only be pleasantly surprised when they don’t. So I’ve got some new radio adventures, and some old radio adventures.
Kermode: Thank you for including me in that, I momentarily worried.
Mayo: You’re the reliable pillar in my chopping and changing year.
Kermode: And you know, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. So that’s what we’re going to do – he’s going to go off and become stellar, and I’m going to continue to hitch my wagon to his star. Because Simon is much more than a partner and a friend, he’s a pension plan.