Simon Mayo’s calm, classless voice has been on our airwaves pretty much every weekday for 30 years: first on Radio 1, which he joined in 1986, then 5 Live, and since 2010 on Radio 2. His Drivetime programme has almost 6 million listeners, a record audience for that slot; he also presents the beloved Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on 5 Live with Mark Kermode. In addition, the 59-year-old Mayo somehow finds the time to write books: his first adult novel, Mad Blood Stirring, which is definitely stirring and perhaps a little mad, is out this month.
Mad Blood Stirring is set in 1815, at the end of the war of 1812 between Britain and the US. That’s a curiously under-the-radar conflict, isn’t it?
No one knows anything about it, even the Americans – and you’d imagine it would be a lot more significant for them, with the burning down of the White House and the writing of The Star-Spangled Banner. For the British it was a trade war really, an extension of the Napoleonic wars, so it’s just been tucked away.
The novel has a cracking – and apparently historically faithful – conceit: it tells the story of a group of American POWs (mostly white, but with a large black minority) housed in the brutal, smallpox-ridden Dartmoor prison. There are illicit affairs, racial tensions, gospel singing and an all-black production of Romeo and Juliet…
When I came across the story, my first instinct was: if only I knew someone in period drama in telly… This was an idea for them. And I was going to give it away. I know Amma Asante, the British film director, and I thought: Amma would be interested in this. And my wife said: “You’re an idiot, you don’t give stuff like this away.”
And the film rights have already been optioned to Tessa Ross, executive producer on Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave, haven’t they?
Yes, the film rights were sold before I’d written a word. They were sold on a four-page synopsis. The agent said it was the easiest sale she’d ever had. I had breakfast with Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, and she said: “Simon, you have to understand, there isn’t a Hollywood studio that would say no to this idea.”
There’s a memorable character called King Dick. Have you daydreamed who would play him in a film?
My hunch is that King Dick should be someone we’ve never seen before. That’s going to be quite tough, because he’s black and he’s 6ft 7in, so that narrows it down. But he’s such an extraordinary character, my concern was to not make him cartoony. Because the facts are: we know his height, we know he wore a bearskin and carried a club, we know that he ran the place, we know that he was a gangster, we know that he was a theatre impresario and we know that he went everywhere with two white boys. So there you go! I wouldn’t have had the guts to create that character. Who would?
Do you wish you’d started writing earlier?
Yes, it would be great for this to be my 15th book rather than my fifth, but I’m absolutely not complaining. To be in your 50s and to be doing something you’ve never done before, that’s thrilling. I heartily recommend it.
From May, you are going to be joined on Drivetime by Jo Whiley as part of a shake-up at Radio 2. How do you feel about the change?
I think I’ve been doing this job every day since 1986, and that’s a long time to be a daily show on a national network. So most of me thinks it’s fairly extraordinary that I’m being given a chance to keep on going. I mean, I don’t think anyone else has been on for that amount of time unbroken. And Jo does a fantastic show and she’s way cooler than me, so how bad can that be?
You are one of the best-paid presenters at the BBC, earning £350,000 last year; she earns much less, around £150,000. Will there be parity now?
I’m sure that’s been discussed, because you can’t launch a show and have two presenters starting if they are not on the same money. I’m sure that we’ll be on the same otherwise there would be a lot of embarrassment for a lot of people.
Jane Garvey, host of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, described Radio 2 as “extraordinarily male, entirely pale and big salaries”. Do you think the station has been guilty of not being diverse enough?
I’ve never thought that particularly. Radio 2 has been and still is an extraordinary success story. The share [of listeners] that our shows get is unbelievable. Over the next few years there will be a lot of changes, and it might be that it’s lagged behind a bit, but when you look at the success of Chris Evans, Ken Bruce, Jeremy Vine, Steve Wright, Drivetime… Astonishing.
Does the BBC feel like an embattled organisation?
It feels like a difficult time to have a book out. I understand all the reasons for the questions – because if I was you I’d be asking the same questions – but that doesn’t mean I can speak on behalf of the BBC. I can say I’m very proud of the show I do, I can say I’m very proud of the traditions of the BBC, and that it’s been a difficult period for everybody. But I think a period of silence from radio presenters might be a useful thing for everybody.
With the rise of streamed music and podcasts, does it feel that the golden age of radio is over?
The podcast revolution is amazing, because it’s old-fashioned radio, it’s like a concentrated form of radio. It’s people discovering radio but just delivered by a different format. I grew up recording the top 40 with a microphone into a cassette recorder, so the idea of just having all this at the press of a button is like nirvana. So it seems to me like this is a golden age for broadcasters.
• Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (Doubleday, £12.99) is out on 19 April. To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• Simon Mayo will be presenting a new Radio 2 show with Jo Whiley from Monday 14 May (5-8pm)