Gerry Kersey interview: BBC Radio Sheffield presenter looks back after 50 years on air

Gerry Kersey's weekly show on BBC Radio Sheffield is the easiest of Sunday afternoon listens.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 10:02
Radio Sheffield presenter Gerry Kersey. Picture: Dean Atkins

Music from the 1950s to the 80s, quizzes, stories - one can picture people across the city tuning in for a pleasant three hours after polishing off a roast dinner.

But even for affable Gerry, it isn't a matter of simply sitting behind the mic and talking about whatever is on his mind.

Radio Sheffield presenter Gerry Kersey. Picture: Dean Atkins

"Every week is a challenge to produce something interesting," he says over tea at Radio Sheffield's studios on Shoreham Street.

"To do a three-hour show involves seven or eight, or nine hours' preparation sometimes. I produce, present and administer the programme. I don't have an assistant at all. It's driven, end to end, by me."

Nonetheless, it must seem like a breeze compared to his days at Radio Hallam - now Hallam FM - in the 1980s, when for a four-year period he was producing 11 shows a week, demonstrating an appetite for broadcasting that has kept him on air for 50 years locally.

In fact, he can date his first radio appearance to this week in 1968, when he interviewed The Star's theatre reporter Terry Finch at Radio Sheffield's old HQ on Westbourne Road, Broomhill.

Gerry - who was born in a two-up two-down house in Shiregreen, was schooled at Firth Park Grammar and began his working life as a wages clerk at Hadfields steel company - was acting in amateur theatre as a sideline from his day job handling advertising for Stanley Tools when he was called in by the station's management with a proposition following his chat with Finch.

"One of them had seen me in a play and they asked me whether I would like to do a story. I did two JP Bean short stories and got paid £2 for each. That was the only payment I got for years," he says.

At this point he had already had a taste of the entertainment world, by way of a gig on a TV comedy programme called Nice Time, made by Granada and starring Kenny Everett, Jonathan Routh and - in an odd diversion from her academic career - Germaine Greer.

"I was invited to an audition because they'd asked for men who could sing soprano, or falsetto," he says, breaking into song to demonstrate he can still hit the notes. "I loved the whole atmosphere of it. Germaine was quite wild in those days, and Kenny was just a loose cannon."

Reading stories led to Gerry getting his own show on Radio Sheffield in the early 1970s, and things 'started to build up'. 

"It became an alarmingly unbalanced life where I was trying to do two jobs," he remembers. Radio eventually won the battle for his time.

"I decided, with my wife's full approval, that although it was only earning £12 a week I would take it on and see what I could do."

Then, in 1980, came the opportunity to switch to Hallam. He was offered the request show - four or five programmes a week - then took the mid-morning slot, from 10am to 1pm.

"That was the big time, as far as radio was concerned," says Gerry. "But I managed to get increased listening figures."

He must have been virtually living at Hallam's offices - as well as the morning and evening shows he did another request programme on Sunday and 'the only classical music show on commercial radio', Music of the Masters, a world away from anything the tightly-focused Hallam FM would schedule today.

It all 'went pear-shaped', he says, when Magic AM was introduced. "They decided they didn't want old boys like me, they wanted to broadcast to young people, which is fair enough. So we decided to part company. That was in 1997. I'd had a good run by then but I came straight back to Radio Sheffield."

He can draw on a wealth of anecdotes from interviews with famous faces - Sir Patrick Moore, Sir Ian McKellen and Cynthia Lennon are just three names he can reel off in an instant.

"She was talking about how John Lennon used to wake up in the middle of the night, get a paper and pen and start writing lyrics," he recalls of meeting the late Beatle's first wife.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Today he works on a freelance basis, signing six-monthly contracts.

"I have a lot of fun doing the Sunday programme. It's had loads of highlights. But the top thing for me is I've never left the area. The only time I've left was to do two years' national service. And even 18 months of that was spent at RAF Norton, which was a compassionate posting because my dad died just after I'd gone in."

Gerry's father, Billy, spent 40 years working as an electrician for Hadfields, having come to Sheffield from a country life in Suffolk to be in the steel trade 'where the money was'. He fought in World War One with the Yorkshire Light Infantry, and was read the last rites after taking a sniper's bullet to the chest after the battle of Ypres, miraculously pulling through.

"That's why I'm here today," reflects Gerry, who was one of three children. "He's my hero, my father. I think of him a lot. He never, ever lost his temper."

Billy also had an aversion to debt which he passed on to his son. "You always had to have the means to pay for something. I've always come over as a bit of a stickler for that in my own life. I owe nobody nowt, as they say in Sheffield."

His mother Jessie, meanwhile, was a housewife and 'a bit of a hard lady'. "She never struck us. But my mum had a belt, she used to whack it like a circus trainer. 'You'll get some of this if you don't behave yourself'."

Gerry, who turns 80 soon, lives at Bents Green and has been married to his second wife, Christine, since 1992. He has two sons from his first marriage, and Christine has three children too - between them they have six grandchildren. He is a talented painter and veteran member of the Hallam Art Group, is an avid stamp collector and holds presidencies with the Work Ltd charity at Ringinglow and with Worrall Male Voice Choir.

"They've never asked me to sing, funnily enough," he says of the latter. "Which is something I'd love to do, although I don't think they like comedy numbers."  

He insists leaving Sheffield has never crossed his mind.

"I've got a voice, apparently, that works on radio, and I could have gone a lot further. But I've been content with being in this atmosphere. I'm very comfortable with the city and what it's given me. I've watched it develop from being in a bombed-out state at the end of the war. I'm proud, I think it's great."

Good feeling about Radio Sheffield

BBC Radio Sheffield is 'in a good place', says Gerry Kersey, after the corporation's director general Tony Hall pledged his commitment to local broadcasting.

"The station now is so vibrant," he says. "We've got all these young people coming up in the midweek programmes and I just love to see their enthusiasm. We've got a balance of males and females, and we're up for awards again."

Last November Lord Hall cancelled £10 million of national cuts and reinstated stations' evening shows, which had been syndicated for several years.

"It's gone full circle," Gerry observes. "Tony Hall has almost gone back to the original remit - to make local programmes, different to the mainstream. That's the exciting thing. I feel Radio Sheffield is in a good place. Because of my age and longevity I get fantastic respect."

Regional radio, he says, provided a route into broadcasting he would not have had otherwise. "There was no other way I would have got in."

One of his colleagues is comedian Bernie Clifton, who has a show in Sheffield on Saturdays.

"I have these conversations with Bernie where we give each other a man hug and say 'Aren't we lucky to be working at our age'. And he says 'Yes, but we're lucky we've got the energy and enthusiasm still'. Age doesn't seem to have anything to do with it."

The Sunday show attracts 'literally hundreds' of responses from listeners each week. "I like to acknowledge everybody who writes in."