It’s a moment, Petroc Trelawny says, that “still brings back slight terror”. It happened at the Ulster Hall in Belfast one afternoon when a concert was going out live on Radio 3 and the time came for Trelawny to introduce the soloist. “I was standing at the front of the stage,” he recalls. “I did my introduction and the applause began. And then the applause went on. And on and on. It went on a bit more and finally it stopped. There was no soloist.”
The presenter was left high and dry, obliged to improvise his way through the next ten minutes; it turned out that the absent soloist had just flown in from the US and was asleep somewhere, heavily jet-lagged. But as his fans know, there are few radio broadcasters better equipped to deal with such an emergency than the imperturbable Trelawny.
Those fans are on the increase, swelling the numbers tuning in to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, on which Trelawny is lead presenter. He’s hosted the show with great aplomb for the past seven years, invariably mixing in jazz with classical choices. Nor has it escaped people’s notice that the growth in the audience for Breakfast – which recently acquired Georgia Mann as its alternate presenter – has coincided with a decline in listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme. Is Trelawny stealing Today’s thunder?
“The Today programme is clearly the bench-mark for morning news programmes,” Trelawny says when we meet at the Royal Albert Hall ahead of a Prom he is about to present. “It’s an amazing institution that feels very valid for today. But I guess we live in a time of quite difficult, bleak news, dominated by a couple of issues that inevitably fill most of Today’s airtime. I suppose people are thinking, ‘I can’t face quite as much of it.’ I think people have found they can come to us and we’ll offer a bit of a sanctuary.”
All of which is very diplomatic, so for a wider perspective I turned to one of Breakfast’s devotees, the novelist Linda Grant. “I stopped listening to Today several years ago,” she told me. “Radio 3 had always seemed rather austere and inaccessible but after only a few weeks, Petroc had become my morning companion: friendly, knowledgeable and, above all, enthusiastic for the world he is part of. I think he’s one of the jewels of the BBC. And we share a connection to Cornwall. His campaigns for better transport to the West Country are part of the world you enter when you listen to him.”
Cornwall is where it all began for Trelawny (the clue is in the name), but listeners might wonder why no local accent is detectable in his delivery. “My father was an Army officer,” he explains. “He had a typical Army officer voice, and I just picked it up from him. I think it’s important to be who you are. On radio, people will see through fakery very quickly. It’s different on television. On television, you can create a persona.”
Trelawny, 47, is the youngest of five brothers. He grew up in Helston, went to the local comprehensive, and from the age of 12 was brought up by his father after the death of his mother from breast cancer. “She was a very keen musician and church organist. She would take me off to hear chamber concerts, and the seeds were sown.”
His father also played his part. “He liked classical music. He was of that generation where liking classical music didn’t mean you were ‘cultured’, it was just what you did. I think in a sense that’s one of the holes we’ve dug ourselves into, that we sort of say you’re cultured if you like classical music. Why shouldn’t you just like classical music?”
There’s a refreshing non – elitism underpinning Trelawny ’s whole approach to music and broadcasting. It is perhaps no coincidence that having sat his A-levels he didn’t go to university but instead went straight into a radio career. After Plymouth Sound and Radio Devon, he spent a year in Hong Kong working for the British Forces Broadcasting Service, returning to the UK to join Classic FM. There was a stint on LBC before – still aged only 27 – he was hired by Radio 3, and this year he’s celebrating 20 years on the network.
“It seems like yesterday,” Trelawny says of 1998, but he also believes that Radio 3 has changed a lot in his time. “I think there used to be a bit of a sense that Radio 3 was a club that you had to pass an exam to get into. I think that has gone completely. It’s a place of shared learning, a place where you can switch on and learn something. I like to think that in half the links I do, there will be a useful nugget of information that a listener can take away and think, I didn’t know that about Brahms or Beethoven or this particular piece.”
And the early starts? The alarm going off at 5.15am at his home in Camden in north London? Trelawny is single and he says that helps. “I’ve never really had a problem with mornings. And there’s something very nice about being on air when everyone’s getting ready for the day ahead. You feel the responsibility because the music that we play can shape people’s mood.”
And does he bump into the Today team? “I sometimes see Sarah Sands [Today’s editor] at the tea point.” And does she say, you’re the so-and-so who’s taking our listeners? “No comment!”
Radio 3’s Breakfast show airs Monday – Friday at 6.30am