Lesley Douglas: in case you need cheering up

One of the perks of living a long way from the UK is that you become detached from the media-driven storms that occasionally swamp daily life. Even in Abu Dhabi, I was aware of the row over dodgy calls from Russell Brand, on his BBC Radio 2 show, to the Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs. I knew Brand had resigned in the subsequent furore, and that Jonathan Ross had been suspended. Until a friend alerted me yesterday, I had missed the news that Lesley Douglas – a star of Salut! Sunderland – had also resigned, leaving her job as controller of the station ( a job she had done very successfully) on noble and, these days, rare grounds: “The events of the last two weeks happened on my watch. I believe it is right that I take responsibility for what has happened.”

Lesley was not only, as one report I have now seen notes, “enormously popular with her employees” to the extent that “her departure will have a disastrous effect on morale at the BBC”. She is also a Sunderland supporter, and – five years ago – gave a terrific interview to me for the London SAFCSA branch newsletter Wear Down South.
This was reproduced at Salut! Sunderland soon after this site was launched. And in tribute to Lesley’s fine efforts to transform a bland radio station into something worth hearing, and to her wise choice of football team, I repeat it here in the hope that, together with these words, it cheers her up as much as she once cheered us…..

****** Do we all live in a Gary Rowell world? ******

Loads of Sunderland’s more vocal supporters certainly do, and so does the woman who now holds* the No 1 position at Radio 2, a station that is unquestionably a success story at a time when not all things BBC are success stories. And, as you will discover as you read on, she has just been promoted again.

But let’s dwell on football for now. As Wear Down South was able to reveal back in 2003, Gary is one of two heroes in Lesley Douglas’s life.

The other is some bloke called Bruce Springsteen. Meeting him was a doddle. She is far less sure how she’d cope if she suddenly found herself being introduced to Lord Rowell of Seaham. Bruce may have a lot going for him, but he will never score a hat trick against the Mags.

(Heavy brackets time). Salut! Sunderland‘s record of getting answers from the BBC is not great, but we may yet find that she has met and become a firm friend of GR since the interview of so long ago. Watch this space.

Lesley Douglas already had one of the top jobs in British radio when she joined the list of Sunderland-daft VIPs interviewed for WDS’s Celebrity Supporters series.

Soon afterwards, she rose even higher, from head of programmes at BBC Radio 2 to the station’s top role, controller.

There was, she said at the time, no better job in broadcasting and the tributes from fellow professionals suggested that she fully deserved the elevation (which an esteemed colleague – see later – thought was beyond her).

Since that promotion – which followed a traumatic relegation season for us – Lesley has won more acclaim, taking the top prize at Music Industry Women of the Year award 2004.

And as we are freshening these articles, let us congratulate her on yet another step up, to the BBC’s first ever controller of popular music, which she will juggle with her existing roles as head of both Radio 2 and 6 Music.

Back to 2003. Despite a hectic schedule, she readily agreed to share her memories of growing up as a passionate Sunderland supporter – including the heartbreaking story of the day her Roker hero made her cry.

But first consider what an odd thing, on the surface, it is that Lesley has always been such an unbending supporter of Sunderland. For she was born and brought up in Newcastle.

If you are reading this and come from the North East, how many places dotted around the region you have some family connections with. My own include plenty of Mag territory – Wallsend, Byker, North Shields, Seaton Sluice, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay, Middlesbrough – as well as Ryhope.

I grew up (from early infancy, as in after the first three months or so) in Shildon but, horror of horrors, was born in Hove, Sussex. I know out-and-out SAFC fans who were born in Sunderland but, having been moved south at an early age, speak like Londoners.

Lesley’s links with Sunderland are strong enough any case. It’s where her dad and most of her family came from, and it’s therefore the only place she wanted to be when, at the age of nine, she was deemed old enough to start going to football with her father and elder brothers.

Gary Rowell came into her life a little later. As a rarely-miss-a-game-fan, home and away, right throughout the rest of her childhood and until she went off to university, Lesley had many favourites.

But nothing, Gary, compares 2 U.

“My absolute hero,” she says, as if only a fool would expect or need further explanation.

Pressed, nonetheless, for, more, Lesley adds: “In my vision, he was just sublime. And he was there at the time when I was really, really obsessed.”

Yes, Lesley was at St James’ Park for the unforgettable three Rowell goals in our 4-1 victory of February, 1979. But she was also at Roker Park a month later when Gary – now Simon Crabtree’s summariser for SAFC match commentaries on Metro Radio – suffered a career-threatening injury.

“I remember it clearly,” she says. “It was the one that nearly scuppered him. He knackered his ligaments and I sobbed all the way home, listening to Metro for updates and realising he was going to be out for a very long time.”

Leslet was 39 when we spoke so is now 44-ish. She has worked for the Beeb for virtually all her adult life.

Her husband, Nick Cripps, is also from the North East. Most Bishop Auckland fans I know support Sunderland if they support anyone except for the Two Blues. So Nick, a Bishop lad, is Lesley’s football rock? Not a bit of it.

“Hates it,” Lesley says and many of us can sympathise from painful experience of spousely indifference or worse. “If I say Sunderland have won, he says ‘Oh, did it?’.”

At least she got a little support from one of their two children. If we are on the box, three-year-old (at the time) Sarah will will wander past saying loyally: “Sunderland will win, mummy.”

Then eight months, Leo could be forgiven for not yet caring.

Back at that first Roker outing, young Lesley did not, oddly enough, see a Sunderland win.

She thinks Brian Little scored to give Villa a 1-0 victory, but must be confused (he did score in a 2-2 draw around the same time.

But whoever we were losing to, Lesley was transfixed. “I was so, so excited. But dad had got tickets for the stand and I can still remember wishing we were standing. I have always thought that at football matches you should stand.

“The Stadium of Light is an absolutely fabulous stadium but, for me, my heart will always be in the Roker End. It’s cyclical; my dad used to go there so I did. One generation stands in the Roker End, the next in the Fulwell.”

After Manchester University – “I tried to plan weekends home to coincide with games at Roker Park” – and some time out in America, she headed for London.

Lesley started at the BBC as a production assistant and worked her way up. And up and up. There was the David Jacobs Show (“nicest man in the world”), some work with Radio 4 and the World Service, research for Tomorrow’s World and, of course, the remarkable rise of Radio 2.

Everyone has heard the sniggers that any mention of Radio 2 used to provoke. These days the station has more listeners than any other in Britain.

Gillian Reynolds, as respected a radio critic as they come, says Lesley deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Radio 2’s success.

At that time, the Radio 2 controller Jim Moir was approaching retirement. Broadcasters and observers of broadcasting alike were speculating about his likely successor.

Lesley’s name had been mentioned among the candidates for a job said by the Guardian to be worth £250,000 a year. Blimey, that’s even more than you get for running Salut! Sunderland.

But Gillian thought then that while Lesley would unquestionably do the job well, she might lack the power-suited babe image that would please the corporation’s decision makers.

“She is dedicated, intelligent and knows the network, and the troops love her. In many ways, she absolutely personifies the network and, to a very great extent, its success has be attributd to her.”

But in the sort of prediction Gillian will not thank me for recalling, she added: “I think she is unlikely to get the job because an awful lot of people want it.”

I want, of course, doesn’t always get, and the prize went to the lady with Mackem passion.

Lesley made a noble attempt when I spoke to her to pretend that she didn’t care too much one way or the other. “I have an absolutely wonderful job and I don’t think that far ahead,” she told me then.

“I have always been like that. I just fall into things. My job is great; I work with some great presenters – Jonathan Ross, Terry Wogan, Mark Lamarr – and feel very privileged.”

The lively professional life, and the needs of a young family, restrict Lesley’s chances to see the Lads live. She did pay to have text messages sent to her mobile each time we scored – a thrifty device in a season like 2002/03, when we hardly ever seemed to hit the back of the net – and naturally has digital satellite TV.

But for all daughter Sarah’s efforts to remind her of her roots, that’s not quite the same.

Still, she gets to maybe five or six games a season, retreating to the old university trick of finding a home game the very weekend she’s back in the North East.

And she warmed quite audibly to the purpose of our little conversation. Despite having just recovered from a bout of tonsillitis and ‘flu, she talked for ages beyond our agreed 20 minutes, saying she could “go on for ever” about Sunderland.

Without being unduly gloomy, she accepts that seeing us beaten at her earliest Roker Park experience set the scene for the next 30 years.

“I have cried some tears for Sunderland,” she says, and that’s not just because we lost each time she saw us at Wembley.

She brightens at the thought that some of the tears have been tears of joy, the balance sheet of good and bad times being pretty much what she’d have chosen in any case.

“Each year I say to myself ‘this is going to be our year’. But when we were seventh for two years in the Premiership, I didn’t know how to cope. Success! Now we are in a dogfight again – one that saw us relegated in disgrace – I know where I am.

“Don’t get me wrong; I was so proud, especially knowing as many Newcastle supporters as I do. But in truth, I’d much rather support a club like Sunderland than one like Man Utd. It’s all about football and it’s what football is about.”

***** Colin Randall

* at time of writing.

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