Back in the mists of TV time, in the days before we saw it mostly on jars of putanesca sauce, the visage of Loyd Grossman would appear on our screens in front of some suburban bungalow or Cotswolds pile to ask: “Who would live in a house like this?” on Through the Keyhole. A few judiciously placed items – an MBE on the mantelpiece and a javelin in the spice rack, say – would point us unerringly toward Fatima Whitbread.
Similarly, can we discover something about one of our biggest – and most secretive – stars by studying his taste in music? Who would listen to a playlist like this? Jane Weidlin, the Cars, ABC, Deacon Blue, Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, Donna Summer, INXS… Certainly someone who grew up listening to a lot of daytime radio in the 1980s, with a love of slick pop, soft rock and danceable soul. Someone who read Smash Hits, watched Top of The Pops religiously every Thursday (with Dad muttering darkly in the background about Boy George) and did his homework listening to Janice Long, ear cocked to the breezier end of what the NME said you should be into, such as Prefab Sprout or Aztec Camera.
Someone, in fact, very like the comedic phenomenon that is Peter Kay. In Car Share, Kay (with the help of co-star Sian Gibson) puts together the exhaustive playlists for the fictitious Forever FM, the local northern radio station that provides the in-car soundtrack to John and Kayleigh’s commute to work. This expertly “curated” (as the fashionable term has it) retro music, plus the fantasy sequences it inspires, are as much of the show’s engaging, slightly bizarre appeal as its fabulous cast and script.
Now 43, Kay grew up in the former Lancashire mill town of Bolton a few years after my very similar adolescence in neighbouring Wigan. Through his teens and early 20s, he worked in local football hero Francis Lee’s famous loo roll factory, a cash and carry and a Netto supermarket. These are all the kinds of places (just like me in my mill job in Bolton) where he would have been exposed day long, in echoing warehouses and strip-lit aisles, to “Oooh” Gary Davies, “Simes” Bates and Steve Wright on “wonderful” Radio 1, or local commercial behemoths Piccadilly Radio out of central Manchester, or Radio City from a tower in the heart of Liverpool.
Forever FM, with its endless diet of sing-a-long nostalgia hits, is an altogether more local, less glamorous affair with its ads for discount carpet warehouses and traffic reports of hold-ups near Adlington. Kay still lives six miles away in Bolton, where some of the show is filmed. But its relentlessly upbeat sound and achingly Proustian songs evoke our 80s (and 90s) early adulthood perfectly.
Peter and I first met on the set of BBC Manchester’s I Love… shows in the 90s and bonded over shared experiences of lives down the road from each other in industrial Lancashire, of being altar boys, signing on and, most of all, pop music. Later, Peter asked me to play a TV crime reporter in his series Phoenix Nights. So I think I can say that the Forever FM playlist has a lot of Peter Kay in it, plus that almost novelistic sense of imaginative detail.
John from Car Share isn’t Peter Kay, but Peter knows him well. And I think Car Share’s music has a lot of Peter in it, mainstream but super smart, irresistibly buoyant and fun but razor sharp, lovable and accessible to all the family and all your workmates but capable of throwing the odd curveball. For instance, all right-thinking people love Kylie, but choosing Hear’Say, Five and B*Witched is designed to irk the purists and appeal to people who got their 90s pop through TV. And there’s something of the pop über-nerd in the deliberately perverse choice of Rick Astley’s straggly haired and meaningful ballad Cry for Help – whose tune not even Rick remembers – rather than the nuclear-powered catchiness of Never Gonna Give You Up.
There’s Johnny Cash and Cliff for granny and grandad, Hanson and Enrique Iglesias to remind yummie mummies of the posters on their bedroom wall, and if you didn’t know that Peter was northern – did you know that? – there might be a hint in the inclusion of an obscure second B-side from a Smiths 12-inch or the Mock Turtles’ Can You Dig It? (the band were led by Martin Coogan, brother of Steve, whose dad taught Kay metalwork – oh yes, we’re all related somehow up here!). But the real touchstone might be the choice of Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl, a piece of fabulously engineered frothy AOR that you think you’ve forgotten until the big choruses kick in and have you playing air drums on the steering wheel.
Forever FM, playing to a constituency of reminiscing kidults and the early middle-aged, may be cheesy but it’s our cheesy. This will inevitably sound like the harrumphing of those fathers flustered at the sight of Boy George, but what innocence after the sapping homogeneity of modern commercial chart radio with its playlist of the same four records and the whiff no Magic Tree freshener can remove of cynicism, algorithms, formulas and flow charts.
When I hear these stations my mental image is of Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry clutching champagne bottles and grinning malevolently while cranking the handle of a gigantic sausage machine. I would much rather have Peter Kay at the wheel.
Peter Kay’s Car Share returns on Tuesday 11th April at 9pm on BBC1