Mark cuts a Big Figure

Mark Radcliffe arriving for the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2011
Mark Radcliffe arriving for the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2011
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DJ Mark Radcliffe is in our city to gig with an old friend. Judith Dornan found out more.

As a Radio 1 and BBC6 Music star, DJ Mark Radcliffe can demand things of the biggest of stars.

Mark Radcliffe playing with The Big Figures

Mark Radcliffe playing with The Big Figures

He once got Sir Paul McCartney to autograph a book for his young daughter but had to ask the ex-Beatle to keep his signature to one side to make room for her favourite - Ringo.

He laughs at the memory. “I used to read the Yellow Submarine books to one of my kids and I got it signed for her by Paul McCartney.

“And I took it to her and said, ‘Look, I’ve had this signed by Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles,’ - and she said, ‘Oh really? I would have preferred Ringo.’

“So Paul McCartney said, ‘Right, I’ll sign it over to one side and leave space for Ringo in case you ever bump into him!’”

But despite 20 years spent hobnobbing with stars, Radcliffe hasn’t forgotten his oldest friends - and this is what brings him to Preston next Friday.

The DJ is playing a very special show with The Big Figures, a Dr Feelgood covers band he formed with his best friend from university days - Poulton le Fylde born Phil Walmsley, who now lives in Longton.

The pair met at Manchester University in the 1970s. Radcliffe says: “I was from Bolton and he was from Blackpool and we were both very into punk rock.

“But we really loved a band who came before punk rock called Dr Feelgood who were playing really short sharp energetic R n B songs. I was a drummer really but I didn’t have my drums with me, it was difficult at university. So I became the singer and he was the guitarist. We went through a few bands like that.”

After uni, Phil worked for BDP in Preston and Radcliffe, who was starting out at Piccadilly Radio as a producer, came over for band practices and gigs. He says: “We played at a tiny little pub across the road, it might have been called The Lamb.

“And there was another pub I used to like going in, is it called the Blue Bell? And we used to go to a disco, me and Phil, years ago, oh God, was it called Squires? That was Phil’s stamping ground. You’d pay to get into the disco in the hope of looking for girls but you also got a buffet which I remember we were terribly impressed by.

“We’d skip tea until we got down to Squires and then stuff our faces with 14 bread rolls. Then, when that was done, we’d go looking for girls - which Phil was always conspicuously more successful at than me!”

But as Radcliffe’s career blossomed, they saw each other less. Radcliffe says: “Our lives went different ways. We’ve always been best mates and we’ve always stayed in touch.

“But then about three years ago, we went for a pint and said, ‘We don’t see each other enough,’ and he said, ‘You know why that is - because we haven’t got a band!’ That’s how our friendship works best when we’re in a band together.”

They formed The Big Figures, based on the band they loved at uni and named after Feelgood’s drummer. Radcliffe says: “I was working on the evening show on Radio 2 so Phil got all the guys he knew - he used to be in bands up that way, including one called Lights Out.

“They would rehearse at the Dolphin in Longton and then when we had a gig, we would have a couple of rehearsals at my house and I’d put the singing on.

“The other guys play in bands like The Stumble. Cameron is the bass player from The Stumble and Phil and the drummer Andy are in a rock covers band called the Firm. I think our harmonica player, John Jackson, is just in our band at the moment. So it’s a local gig for everyone but me.”

Radcliffe played drums since childhood and recalls beating rhythms as a child on “stuff from round the house, washing up bowls and things like that.” He says: “I had a red shiny sparkle plastic Ringo Starr snare drum with a little cymbal attached.

“I must have been 10 or 11 and I’d watch Top of the Pops and play that. It had a picture of Ringo Starr on the skin so everytime you hit it, you were hitting Ringo in the face.”

In the Shirehorses, the band he formed with his Mark and Lard partner Marc Riley in their Radio One heyday, he got a taste of the real rock and roll lifestyle. He grins: “We finally became a band where we had our own road crew and people were setting it up and we’d come later in a smarter car. It was living the rock and roll dream.

“But of course, we screwed that up as well because we never had any merchandising. We were supposed to go to Preston funnily enough to pick up some T-shirts. And we were sat in the pub one night - and we said, ‘Ah yeah, but we’re quite cosy, shall we just stay here?’

“So we never went! We did four tours with no T-shirts - four sold out tours of universities. And we couldn’t be bothered going to Preston to look at some T-shirts. We probably would have sold a thousand at £20 each.”

These days, Radcliffe leaves the drums to Big Figures drummer Andy. He admits: “To be quite honest, I couldn’t be bothered carrying them about, hahah!

“Every time we’re packing up at the end of a gig, I play a bit of guitar and then put my guitar in the case. Then Andy’s packing up for about 45 minutes. I sympathise with him greatly - but only from the bar!”

Mark Radcliffe and the Big Figures play Preston Continental on Friday October 12 with support from This Dirty Swamp. Tickets are £10 from the Continental on 01772 499 425.