There was always a hint of danger with Tommy Boyd. Even when he was operating in the relatively safe waters of children’s television, you never quite knew what he would say or do next. Watch old clips of Magpie and you’ll see that while his copresenters, Jenny Hanley and Mick Robertson, smile brightly at their young viewers while dutifully following the autocue, Tommy delivers his lines to the camera with an anarchic energy that would have given Kenny Everett a run for his money.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a leap to talkRADIO after all. In the 1990s, he became the UK’s answer to the American shock jock, where, as a DJ on the controversial phone-in station, he employed his rapierlike wit and verbal dexterity to devastating effect, skewering his outraged callers with a few well-chosen put-downs.
Thankfully, off-air, Tommy, 66, is softer, kinder and more amiable, but does he recognize the maverick quality I’ve described? “Yes, it’s slightly genetic,” he says. “My father was a hard-line communist and always had this sense that the establishment needed to be challenged.”
Tommy learned his comedic skills as a Butlin’s Redcoat at Bognor Regis where, as a 19-year-old fledgling performer, he watched the likes of Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and Bob Monkhouse from the wings. “I drank it all in, seeing what they did and how they did it,” he says. “The resident comedian was the old-time Music Hall superstar Tommy Trinder, and he gave me a few tips which were gold dust. On my birth certificate, it still says Timmy, but he told me, ‘You’ve got to be really funny if you’re a Tim. Tims are nice guys, but you’re a cheeky chappie like me. You’re a Tommy.’ So I changed one vowel.”
Tommy has lived in Sussex, on and off, for nearly 50 years, but grew up in west London. When he was seven, his younger sister, Sally, died after a two-year illness and his parents went to pieces. “I never saw them laugh again,” he says. “What effect it had on me, I’m not sure, because my parents, who were typical of that wartime generation, tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. There was this curious silence. I’m only piecing the impact together now.”
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