He may not have returned as a Tupac-style hologram or been signed up to posthumously promote Pepsi like Michael Jackson, but John Peel has proven surprisingly newsworthy recently.
In April the first chunk of the late, great DJ’s record collection was archived online, to widespread acclaim. Then came news of the first John Peel Festival of New Music, scheduled for October at various venues around Norwich, not far from the Peel family home.
And later this month the Soho Theatre will host the final performances of John Peel’s Shed, a low-key one-man show that has become something of an institution itself over the last 12 months.
The origins of the show are also in that vast archive. Or, more specifically, in a smaller pile that ended up outside. “I won a box of records in a competition on John Peel’s Radio One show in 2002,” recalls John Osborne, the show’s softly-spoken writer and star. “I got 150 records from his shed. I’ve always wanted to do something special with them.”
The competition involved writing a catchy slogan for Peel’s submission to the Sony Radio Awards, because the glamour-spurning DJ couldn’t be bothered.
His fondness for Osborne’s entry – “records you want to hear, played by a man who wants you to hear them” – was an early boost for the aspiring wordsmith. Admittedly it eventually dawned on Osborne that living in Norwich was probably the decisive factor, given that the records had to be hand-delivered by Peel’s team. But no matter; by then he’d become an established performance poet.
The Shed show is poetry-free. It’s an elaborate monologue dreamt up at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe, where Osborne was performing in a show called The 100 Greatest Beekeepers in Switzerland, Ever. “I wrote JPS in a few afternoons when I should have been out flyering,” he recalls.
It proved to be a good decision, as John Peel’s Shed was a sell-out success at the following year’s Fringe, and Osborne has been touring it ever since. Though auto-biographical, the show is also an ode to radio; from the succour it provides people toiling in tedious jobs to Peel’s unique appeal, with Osborne playing selections from the box along the way. “I still like pretty much all of them,” he says. “The only record
I always play is by Oizone, a Boyzone punk covers band.”
Peel was an influential figure for Osborne, growing up. “I didn’t know much about music,” he explains, “and was leading a pretty average, unexciting life when I was at sixth form. Then I listened to John Peel and everything changed.
“A couple of people have said they’re surprised there isn’t more about John Peel in my show, but his life story isn’t for me to tell – it’s about my relationship with his radio show. That’s something a lot of people can relate to. He changed a lot of people’s lives. Not massively, but enough to make a difference.”
Osborne has encountered a good few like-minded people during his year on the road. “I’ve met people who have been in bands who had Peel Sessions, or who had their records played by him. I’ve met people who worked with him, old producers and sound engineers, his former colleagues, Steve Lamacq, Matthew Bannister. I’ve met Sheila – John’s widow – a couple of times too: she’s a lovely lady and has been very supportive. Being able to spend time with her is the one thing I was hoping to be able to do, and to get her approval.”
Osborne’s next project is a book about another unglamorous institution, the British seaside, which will probably spawn a show of its own – after he’s recuperated from this one.
“John Peel’s Shed has opened lots of doors for me,” he admits. “But having performed the show so much and been away from home for such a long time, I’m really enjoying just being at my desk, drinking coffee, listening to 6Music.”
John Peel’s Shed
July 25-Aug 4