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Ray Gosling: writer, broadcaster, campaigner, rebel, local legend.

John Baird
Sat 5 May, 2018

As today would have been Ray Gosling's birthday, we thought it a good time to highlight one of the most original voices in broadcasting and journalism.

If you’re under the age of 30 you might not have heard of Ray Gosling. Others might respond with: Gosling, didn’t he kill someone? For many, he was a man of the people.

With a 50-year career, Ray Gosling was a broadcasting maestro. His hundreds of TV and radio shows were presented in an instinctive style that transformed how documentaries were made. The antithesis of celebrity obsession, his bright light shone on the ordinary. He was curious about normal folk and their curiosities, reporting on the likes of caravans, allotment sheds and guinea pig breeding. His interest in people’s passions and the places they lived was infectious. He was authentic, a man in the crowd, an observer not a judge.

Unlike many of our finest writers, including his pal Alan Sillitoe, Ray didn’t come from Nottingham only to leave, he did things the other way around, initially arriving via Northampton (where has was a war baby) and Leicester (where he dropped out of University). "I was the first articulate Teddy boy," he said, "determined to be a writer." He came here in 1962 as a spirited 21-year-old and he hit the ground running with his first memoir, Sum Total, published by Faber the following year. With the sixties about to ignite this was a time when it was possible to push for a life beyond conformity, when the working-class youth challenged the norms and redefined culture. Sum Total captured England at that moment. 

In 1963 Ray’s first film documentary was released, Two Town Mad. The eponymous towns were the places of Ray’s rebellious youth, Leicester and Nottingham. He compared their residents’ lives and locations, focusing on the working class he aligned himself with.

There were plenty of jobs back then but, for many, employment was no cure for poverty. Angry at the slum conditions many were accustomed to, Ray stood in the local city council elections, his party listed as ‘madman’. 475 people voted for him, leading to Dave Sutch (he of the Monster Raving Loony Party) getting in touch after the elections and asking Ray how he did it. Years later Ray encouraged and supported Lord Biro with his Bus-pass Elvis Party. 

St Anns Group

Ray with a group from St Ann's

A natural activist and indefatigable campaigner, for the best part of decade Ray fought for the community of St Ann’s, against city planners intent on flattening 340 acres of shops and homes. He wanted selective demolition, the better houses to be retained and improved rather than bulldozed. To that end he helped set up the St Ann’s Tenants and Residents' Association (SATRA), bringing people together to demand improvements and decent services for the new estate.

It was also in the sixties that Ray helped to form the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. It became a mass movement supporting gay men who had been discriminated against and were seeking reform.

By the 70s and 80s Ray was presenting TV programmes such as On Site and Gosling’s Travels. Listeners heard a presenter who shared their concerns and sounded like them. His everyman image not harmed by his hard to pin down provincial accent. Typically, he’d travel around talking to people and describing the landscape, perhaps hearing aggrievances that he would help take up with those in authority.

Ray would rally, rage and be a voice for the underdog but he was also a contradiction. He wrote for New Society, New Left Review, and Anarchy. And yet he hinted that people should help people rather than using the state, and in ’79 he even voted for Thatcher (an act he later regretted). Like Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton, Ray can’t be pigeonholed, there’s no spectrum you can place him on.

He was, however, a man of the people, and his people loved him back. For years Ray never left home without a red notebook ready to receive his observations. This need to keep records, and his encyclopaedic memory, helped with the writing of a second memoir Personal Copy (1980). The book captured Nottingham in the early 60s, recounting his efforts to save and improve St Ann’s. The book’s sense of place is its strength, describing a Nottingham and Britain divided by class and receiving a new generation of immigrants. In the book, St. Ann's Well Road is described thus:

It was a maze: amazing little houses in little narrow streets, some quiet, some steaming with people, bawling, bag-eyed, hair-matted mothers crossly pushing prams on jostling pavements; hooting traffic; old men pushing carts of belongings in the middle of the road talking to themselves. 

The TV work kept coming, with statues, bus travel, OAP workers, windmills, cafes and gnomes all getting the Gosling treatment.

Ray had the most expressive face. It wore his emotions, flashing them up to let us see how he was feeling, in real time, often showing his empathy.

Throughout the 80s and early 90s he presenting series for the BBC and ITV. Then his fortunes flailed. Ray ‘ran on drink’, and had done so from a young age, but by the mid-90s it was starting to show, especially after his partner of 30 years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Ray nursed him until his death in late ’99, by which time Ray was bankrupt. He soon lost his three-storey Victorian house on Mapperley Park Drive, a place he’d loved.

In 2000, aged 60, Ray was living in poverty and benefited from the ‘bank of friends’, his years of generosity repaid. He was living in “social care” and he “didn’t want to be there”. Work was taken as a tutor and there was a return to television. He documented his recent personal life and commented on aging, with the acclaimed Bankrupt and Pensioned Off

This led to BBC East Midlands hiring him in 2004 as a regular presenter on Inside Out. His first film for them was a look back at his debut documentary, Two Town Mad. He returned to the places depicted in the original film, comparing the cities fortunes of the passing years.

A year later, much of the immense accumulation of notes, papers, books, paintings (originals by local artists) and research that had been left at Ray’s old house were salvaged by John Goodridge at NTU. Ray was such a hoarder that his collection has established a large archive.

In 2007, Ray Gosling OAP won the Jonathan Gill Award For Most Entertaining Documentary. 

Ray Gosling OAP was overshadowed by the final of Ray’s regular 15-minute slots for Inside Out. He once said, “I’m not scared of anyone. I’m only scared of myself.” Prophetic. If drink was one form of self-destruction his storytelling powers were to be another. During one infamous appearance, whilst walking in a graveyard, Ray said to the camera: “Maybe this is the time to share a secret that I’ve kept for quite a long time… I killed someone, once… He was a young chap. He’d been my lover. And he got Aids. And in a hospital one hot afternoon, the doctor’s said, 'There's nothing we can do.' I said to the doctor, 'Leave me. Just for a bit.' And he went away. And I picked up the pillow and smothered him until he was dead.”

The show was pre-recorded. Knowing what an explosive story the BBC had on their hands, the editor spoke to Ray in regards to cutting his admission. Ray allowed its airing. Perhaps he was exploited, he certainly seemed naively unaware of the storm that was to come. The world’s media and the local authorities demanded answers. Nottingham Police questioned him for nine hours and trawled through his love life. Ray was convicted of wasting police time, 1,800 hours of it, for a false confession that had cost the taxpayers £45,000. Was it a fabrication or a false memory? All we know is that Ray didn't do it. He had been out of the country at the time of his lover’s death.

After Ray’s drinking got worse, the tutoring and journalism understandably dried up. He became more erratic but never lost his spirit or his appetite for ordinariness. He remained proud of Nottingham and its people. He would encourage us to look up, literally, at the buildings above us, to take in our surroundings and, if they are threatened, to protect them. We must all stand for something or we'll fall for anything. 

“Sometimes you have to say no,” said Ray. “That’s what I mean by rebellion.”

Ray Gosling died in 2013. 

Dan Whitehouse played this song at Ray's wake.

Much of today’s ‘reality’ TV is scripted, our ‘authentic’ TV voices often restricted to vox pop. Modern meet-the-people presenters, the likes of Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley, now walk the road first taken by Ray Gosling, but their destinations are the famous or those with extreme lives. Ray stopped off along the way, spoke to normal people, his people.

“I am for the working classes, for the underdog, for the seedy and the left behind….and the England that seemed and still seems an impossible dream.”

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Ray Gosling

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