George Webley, known to most as ‘Big George’, sadly passed away on Saturday May 7th at his family home, aged 53. As well as a long career in music as composer and session player, George also became a successful radio broadcaster, and was the presenter of the late night show (2.00 – 6.00 am) on BBC London 94.9 for the last five years. The show was similar in style to the American type of ‘talk radio’ programme, discussing with callers a very broad selection of topics with virtually nothing being ‘taboo’ or off limits. What made it very different though was the relationship he built up with his listeners, and the obvious affection he had for them. All of them. Add to that a larger than life character, and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of music, and what you got was a show that was unmissable for thousands of Londoners, and people all across the globe.
Now to a lot of people, his name may well be one that you’ve never heard of before, it was to me until about a year ago. However almost all of you will have heard some of his work as a composer at some point. As well as a long list of tv and radio work (and jingles for ads), he wrote the very recognisable theme tune to the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, as well as producing and arranging the theme to The Office and the finale of One Foot In The Grave. Music was in his blood from an early age, having left school aged 14 to become an ‘apprentice’ for Herbie Flowers, and toured with many bands as well as being a session bass player on many recordings up to the age of 30.
His career in radio broadcasting began in the mid-1990s on GLR, the original incarnation of BBC London. Having suffered a heart attack on air in 1996, he took some time off to recuperate. He was then offered a job on Horizon Radio in Milton Keynes, apparently after jamming the station’s signal for seven minutes (and replacing it with his own ‘loop’) in protest at the lack of variety in the music playlist. He eventually left them when they were bought out, resigning live on air. He won the Sony Gold for Music Broadcaster in 2002. That’s only really scratching the surface of his career though, I don’t have the time (or space) to list it all here, but suggest you check it out further at his website, or elsewhere.
Sadly, I only discovered Big George and his radio show late last year. I’d never been much of a radio listener in the past, but purchasing an internet radio changed all that. After some experimenting and searching, I quickly found that BBC London 94.9 was easily my favourite, enjoying all the different shows and presenters throughout the day. In the last couple of years I have had growing problems with my sleep patterns, with sleepless nights becoming more and more frequent. Those hours of the morning, between 2.00am and 6.00 am are quite possibly the most lonely you can endure, especially if you live on your own as I do. George’s show made it that little bit more bearable, with his entertaining manner and humour, plus a regular ‘cast’ of callers that become more familiar to you with every call. His voice was strangely reassuring, and looking back (only) now, became that of a ‘friend’, one that you assumed was always there, five or six days a week.
And as such, his passing has hit me very badly, I have to say. Why am I so moved by the death of someone I never met? Listening to the various shows that have run since his passing on BBC London 94.9, I find I am not alone as a seemingly endless slew of calls from others who are completely distraught and emotional. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched or moved by some of the tributes pouring in. As someone who usually scoffs at public outpourings of grief, such as that for Princess Diana and Jade Goody, I cannot fail to see some personal hypocrisy at work here. Or is it? I’d like to think it’s something fundamentally different, but it’s hard to say just what.
One of George’s strongest bonds with the people of London, was his relationship with so many of the capital’s taxi drivers, who made up a big part of his ‘family’ of listeners and callers during the wee small hours of the night. And one of them, John Kennedy (John the Cabbie as he’s known on air), put together a wonderful celebration and tribute to the man on tuesday night. Hundreds of London cabbies and ‘friends’ of the show gathered at 1.45am at All Souls Church (just around the corner from Broadcasting House), to light candles and have a minute’s silence at 2.00am. I sadly couldn’t make it, but the pictures of it put up on Facebook make it look like a wonderful occasion, and a rather extraordinary sight to behold. The station covered it live, with some of the BBC London presenters joining the crowd, and it was finished off with a touching rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”, one of Big George’s favourite songs.
I have to say that BBC London’s reaction and coverage of such a sad event has been exemplary. They’ve all the kept the tone just right, without curtailing any individuals personal grief, and it’s been a nice touch that (for now) the show is still called the ‘Big George Show’ whilst Ray Khan has been covering the slot. It’s going to be an almost impossible task to fill such enormous ‘boots’, and I’m sure that Big George’s influence will still touch any replacement for years to come. Many people are referred to as legends, but hearing everyone’s reaction to his death, it’s very difficult to disagree in this case. My thoughts go out to the family he leaves behind who he talked about all the time (especially his grandson Daniel and recent addition, Mabel the dog), and of course to his lovely partner (and fellow presenter) JoAnne Good. I can hardly imagine the grief they must be feeling, if his ‘family’ of listeners are anything to go by.
So, rest in peace Big George, I’m really going to miss you. It’s not just the world of broadcasting that has lost a true friend and talent, the world has. Thanks for all the laughs you gave me.
Big George’s official website can be found here
Here’s one of George’s videos that he uploaded to YouTube, hope you enjoy it…