The Bradshaws Story
(By Steve Suttie – first published in Northern Life Magazine October 2011 Edition)
Long before Peter Kay burst onto the comedy circuit and made millions from his unique style of turning everyday conversation into humour, Alf, Audrey and Billy Bradshaw were leading the way – entertaining housewives, van drivers, factory floors and offices on a daily basis.
The well loved “Bradshaws” radio series was broadcast on local radio stations the length and breadth of the region. Like most folk in the North, Peter Kay could not escape the broadcasts that coincided nicely with brew time. In fact, it was very probably the Bradshaw family that first inspired him to try his hand at comedy. (His Mum had all the tapes.)
It was in the early 1980s that the Bradshaws first opened the front door of their mid terraced 2 up 2 down. The population were shown through to the parlour and invited to eaves drop on this very typical Northern family who kept us chuckling at their exceptionally normal lifestyle, the typical day to day occurrences and their inimitable observations of Northern life.
Today, the Bradshaws are still going strong on local radio stations from the Midlands to Gateshead. I met up with one of the nicest men in radio, the Bradshaws creator Buzz Hawkins at his brilliant new recording facility, and the spiritual home of the Bradshaws “Hotsox Studios” in Mossley – to hear his story about the much loved, award winning radio comedy that started by accident!
How did the Bradshaws first come about?
I’m a musician as you know, and in 1982 I started working at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester as a session musician on a programme called NightBeat. In those days radio stations only had a certain amount of records they could play per day, so my job was to sit on a stool and play my guitar and sing some songs live on the radio as a way to get around the rules about playing too many records. It was a great job, but very early into it I started thinking of telling stories and doing other things on my shift between midnight and six in the morning. I got this idea for a comedy sketch of a Northern tale involving a Mum, a Dad and a little lad when I was going home early one morning and as soon as I got in I started writing. By the time I got back to Piccadilly that night I was really looking forward to going on the air with it and seeing if it would work.
And that was it, the birth of the Bradshaws?
Not quite. Although it was nearly 30 years ago I can remember it like it was yesterday! I had the script in front of me and about half an hour before I was due to go on air I realised that it would sound better if each character had their own voice rather than me just reading it out as a monologue. So, I went into the record library and practised using my deepest voice for the Dad, my highest voice for the lad and one inbetween for the Mum.
Wait, are you saying that not only do you write the Bradshaws, you are also the voice of all 3 characters?
That’s right, As if you didn’t know! But at this time of course it was only a one off sketch I was doing, just to break the songs up a bit, have a bit of fun and see what happened. Gary Davies was the DJ on air and I told him what I planned to do. I asked him to slip some slow brass band music under my voice as I launched into this story. From that moment the phones started ringing, the whole switchboard lit up and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since.
And this was in the middle of the night?
It was half two in the morning! It was bakers, security guards, the valium barmcakes, table top scribblers – they were all there! It was stunning. The interesting thing was that people were ringing up asking all sorts of questions about them, things I hadn’t even thought about. They were saying “who are these people?” “what are they called?” For the first ten or twelve episodes they didn’t have a name. They were just Mam, Dad and a little boy. But, as time went on I called the lad Billy, and then the parents became Alf and Audrey. Then people were calling in asking for a surname! I couldn’t believe it. The DJ asked me what the surname was live on air and I just said off the top of my head “Bradshaw.” I didn’t know where it had come from. And that was it, the family had a name and I’d no idea where I’d plucked it from. Later on, I found out that we have relatives on my Father in laws side of the family called Bradshaw, and later still, I found out that they’d asked Piccadilly for royalties for using the family name!
So the concept was clearly popular from the beginning, but when did you first realise that you had created an enormous hit with the Bradshaws?
I remember it well. It was at Christmas of the second year of doing it. Listeners had started ringing up asking for cassette tapes to give their family as presents. Piccadillys bosses smelled a rose, and called a meeting with me. They said they’d pay me an extra £5 per script on top of the wages I was getting for being a producer, and that they wanted to take the Bradshaws onto afternoons and sell cassettes over the counter at the radio station. I agreed to everything, but I said don’t pay me for the scripts. It was the best thing I ever did, because if I’d agreed to that they’d have owned the rights to the Bradshaws. So, we moved the series onto afternoon radio and it went crazy! As Christmas approached I got called into the reception at Piccadilly and that was the moment I really understood how popular the family had become. For as far as the eye could see was a queue of fans waiting to buy the tapes! It was quite incredible.
One of the biggest TV shows of the 1990s was the Royle Family. It was obvious from the start that this was very similar to the Bradshaws. Did you make that link?
I have to say, when I saw the first episode my heart sank. I felt absolutely gutted because the premise was identical to the one I’d been using for the twelve or fourteen years before it came out. That was, the grumpy old fellah and his occasional use of the word “arse,” sat in the armchair opposite a dippy woman and just everything in general, the whole thing took place in a living room and talked about the daily life of daily life. It hurt me when I saw it, and I didn’t watch it again after that first one. I thought it was odd because I knew the people behind it, and I know they were fans of the Bradshaws. But they never mentioned it at the time, and it hasn’t been mentioned since. Bill Tarmey bless him, came up to me one day when the Royle Family was at its peak and said “Arent you just a bit brassed off by this?” which was nice, he cared enough. But it did stop the Bradshaws TV series very early in its tracks, because thanks to the Royle Family, it had already been done! Its funny how things work out but I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm by it.
Are there any other examples of the Bradshaws being copied?
Occasionally. Even Coronation Street have been guilty of it! I remember once, Granadas script writing department had contacted Piccadilly and asked for some of the Bradshaws cassettes. Low and behold a few weeks later, a story that I’d written about Alf sitting in his chair and a bird getting caught in the chimney was played out identically on Corry, complete with the character ending being covered in soot! But it never did me any harm, in fact it has opened doors for me, like the Bradshaws TV series.
Did you enjoy doing the TV adaptation of the Bradshaws?
It was great while it lasted, we did ten episodes of it. It was on at ten to seven on each week night after Granada Reports. The difficulty was that I wanted to protect peoples thoughts of what the Bradshaws looked like. Everybody has their own vision of the characters, and now we were taking it onto telly I had to be really strict about how to do it and not ruin the “theatre of the mind” magic that radio creates. As a result, Alf and Audreys face never appeared on the screen – the cameraman focused on objects and hand movements and of course Billys animatronic puppet. It worked though, it meant they got some really fascinating shots without spoiling anybodys minds-eye view. My only regret with the TV show was that the set designers gave Audrey an over greasy cooker. Audrey would never have a greasy cooker!
The Bradshaws has become the biggest thing on the radio in the North, that’s no small achievement! How many stations are broadcasting the series and why do you think it is still so popular after such a long time?
Last time I counted, which was a couple of years ago we were on 36 stations from Stoke upto Gateshead! BBC Radio Merseyside only started broadcasting it about 5 years ago on the Billy Butler show and its really at its peak there now which is obviously strange because it was at its peak in Manchester in the 80s and 90s. It just connects with the audience because everybody knows a Billy, an Alf and Audrey in their own families or community and they all do the same things, have the same conversations or use the same phrases. I’m forever being told “you’ve not done one about nits, or about working in the mill” and it just doesn’t stop.
You now have 300 episodes recorded, and 2 Sony Radio Awards for your efforts. Are there plans for more episodes of the Bradshaws?
Well, I’ve taken a few years off from writing new material because I’ve been busy building my new studio, and I’ve also been touring a lot with the stage show. But I am in the process of recording volume 26 and that will be on local radio very soon.
Thanks for a lovely chat Buzz and good luck with the tour. Finally for now, I’d like you to share your opinion on what makes the North such a special place?
Its full of real people – theres an honesty in the north, “a spades a spade” honesty that I fail to find anywhere else. Not to say that Southerners are dishonest, but theres a brutal honesty up here, people say what they mean. In the south you wouldn’t get that because they are too polite and their politeness comes across as ignorance sometimes. If you go down there you’re a kind of stranger wherever you go – whereas up here, I can go anywhere and before I even open my mouth people welcome me. In the North people give you a chance, theres a warmth here that you just can’t find anywhere else.
The Bradshaws are appearing daily on a local radio station near you!
Click here to buy the official Bradshaws CD’s (no tapes left!)
And completely unrelated but dead good anyway, click hither to read about Steve’s 5 star rated novel, The Clitheroe Prime Minister.