‘We’re pandas in a zoo – they stick you together and hope it works’: Alan Carr and Melanie Sykes reveal the secret to their radio double act
BBC Radio 2's Alan Carr and Melanie Sykes discuss what makes great – and giggly – radio
Saturday mornings on Radio 2 are alive with the sound of laughter – often uncontrollable hysterics. Alan Carr and Melanie Sykes are back on the airwaves, standing in for Graham Norton for a second consecutive summer with Alan and Mel’s Summer Escape, now entering the fourth of a ten-week run.
“Graham’s Saturday-morning show is an institution and people can be wary of change,” acknowledges Carr, and both hosts admit that, despite their combined broadcasting experience and the relaxed on-air repartee, there were nerves. “It’s a big responsibility.”
“It’s a prestigious slot,” counters Sykes. “We don’t want to muck it up, we really care about what we’re doing.”
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The fizzy format is a live, light-hearted mix of chat, music, celebrity guests, quizzes and lively listener interaction, but the real draw is the winning relationship between the hosts. Links dissolve into infectious laughter as the goodnatured banter crackles. Carr and Sykes bounce off each other brilliantly – unsurprisingly since their professional partnership goes back almost a decade.
The comic, 42, and model-turned-presenter, 47, first worked together on Radio 2 in 2010 on Going Out with Alan Carr on Saturday evenings, though they had met long before that.
“My very first TV appearance as a standup was on Mel’s daytime show with Des O’Connor [Today with Des and Mel, which ran on ITV between 2002 and 2006],” recalls Carr. “I was on with Pam Ayres – she did a poem about a wheelie bin after me. How could I forget that?” Sykes continues: “We didn’t meet again for years until I filled in for [original co-host] Emma Forbes on Alan’s radio show. She then left, so a two-week stand-in turned into a regular job. It was like an on-air chemistry test.”
They passed with flying colours. Carr’s quick wit and affectionate teasing, combined with Sykes’s sunny northern charm, created an unexpected dynamic that was warm and completely uncontrived.
“We were comfortable from the get-go,” says Sykes. “I work well with comedians because I don’t need to get the laugh. I react, and maybe feed something to them, but I don’t crash over their gags. I tend to say daft things and Alan runs with it.”
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“With co-hosts it’s like pandas in a zoo,” reasons Carr. “They stick you in together and hope it works. We’re not competitive, but she is hilarious. There are lots of elements to this business that can be hard work and a bit of a drag, but for those three hours we’re together it’s just a chat and a laugh. That’s how I see it.”
Why some double acts work and others don’t is a question currently on the minds of Radio 2 bosses, given the recent negative reaction to the Jo Whiley and Simon Mayo drivetime show. Carr believes chemistry isn’t something you can easily quantify. “If we start thinking about why it works, then it won’t work. You can’t overthink it. We are mates and socialise, which helps.”
The pair regularly go out for dinner and are planning a holiday to Rome. Both love art – “My other half Paul doesn’t care about all that,” says Carr. “I took him to Pompeii and he said it looked like a building site. Mel also took me to a Liam Gallagher concert recently, which was an experience…”
Sykes and Carr’s friendship is the key to their success. Watching them cackle through the photoshoot before sitting down for our interview in a sunny private garden proves nothing is faked for the radio. The conversation takes hilarious tangents such as Sykes’s unsavoury habit of spitting out pork scratchings when laughing (“I’m veggie now so I’m off the pig skin!”), and the time Carr did a link with a mouthful of Jaffa cake (“The song ended quicker than I thought and I was still eating. So unprofessional”). It’s just like listening to one of their shows. The friendship, the fun, the spontaneous sniggering – it’s all real.
“It’s not a performance from either of us,” assures Sykes. “One of the criticisms I’ve heard is: ‘All they do is giggle,’” adds Carr. “But if you’re listening to a radio show with two people and they’re not having a good time, then you need to switch over. We are genuinely having fun.”
“And it’s not like we’re laughing at nothing,” picks up Sykes. “The public make a huge contribution to the show, they respond so well to us. They email in funny stories, which give us lots to work with. It’s observational humour.”
Have the duo considered transferring their radio double act to the small screen? When I suggest the Generation Game as the perfect format for their friendly, raucous rapport, an excited Sykes almost leaps out of her seat as she spins round to her colleague.
“What have I been saying?! That’s our show! I don’t think they’ll go for it with different presenters for a while after Mel and Sue. But that is the type of programme I think we’d be really good in.
“I love radio, I’m a communicator and there’s no leap to get to the audience. And to be at Radio 2 is a dream fulfilled for me, I’d love to be here regularly. But if you get the right TV format then I’m in my element.”
“I get loads of people in the industry saying me and Mel should do something on telly,” admits Carr. “We’d definitely like this partnership to continue, either on TV or more on Radio 2. Somebody send us some ideas!”
Alan and Mel’s Summer Escape airs on Saturdays at 10am on Radio 2