Interview with The Mail on Sunday’s Event Magazine
The day Theresa May came to tea with Timmy Mallett: The children’s TV star reveals how the then Prime Minister took time out from Brexit to support him after the death of his brother.
Timmy Mallett – DJ, artist, author and Eighties children’s broadcaster – was preparing to embark on the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain when a bulletproof government limousine arrived at his Berkshire home in the spring of 2018. He describes what followed in his highly entertaining and wildly odd new memoir, Utterly Brilliant!
‘The Prime Minister’s armour-plated car pulls up in our drive,’ he writes. ‘And a bodyguard opens the rear door. Theresa May steps out, beaming. “Timmy!” she exclaims. With her arms out wide.’
Mallett, 64, was about to set off and cycle more than 1,200 miles through France and northern Spain to the shrine of the apostle St James, a place of veneration and pilgrimage for Christians since the Early Middle Ages.
The trip was to be a dedication in memory of his brother Martin, who had died just days earlier.
At the height of Brexit turmoil, Mrs May had much on her hands, but with admirable generosity had responded to Mallett, who’d written to her as his constituency MP, and she wanted to wish him well. So there she was, at the height of a national and personal drama, taking tea in his front room.
Mallett shows me photos of her visit. ‘See, here she is looking at my bicycle,’ he says proudly, laying out the pictures on the table in a pub near his home. One shows the PM studying his planned route through Spain. ‘She was very interested because she and her husband, Philip, are keen walkers.’
Mallett had also received encouragement from President Emmanuel Macron of France and the Archbishop of Canterbury. For the former children’s television star – famous for his outlandish clothes, brightly coloured spectacles and habit of hitting people (including Margaret Thatcher, a bishop, several professors and countless children) with a large yellow-and-pink sponge mallet – has a winning way with the great and the good.
For example, while at the Abbey Road studios to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney asked: ‘Hello, Timmy, can I have your autograph?’
Mallett, who was dressed in a scarlet jacket and big glasses, recalls: ‘I laughed. Everybody turned round to look at me. So I said to the Beatle, “Who should I write it to?” ’
Timmy comes from a long line of Malletts. As he reveals in his memoir, this includes William Malet, one of the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
The entertainer is not quite that powerful but the DJ Chris Evans still calls him ‘boss’, having been Mallett’s ‘office junior’ at Piccadilly Radio. He also discovered TV presenter Michaela Strachan when she was a member of a dance troupe. Mallett also gave Andrew Lloyd Webber his first ever No 1 as a record producer with Itsy Witsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini in 1990, a cover version of the 1960 hit, with Mallett as singer.
For a short while Mallett enjoyed a smattering of international fame. Did beautiful women throw themselves at him? ‘No,’ says Mallett, whose Australian wife Lynda is the mother of their adult son Billy. ‘I’m lucky. I have a happy home life. We got married when Itsy Bitsy was No 1. What a lovely day. I remember thinking: Wow, this is nice. Is it always going to be like this? It isn’t of course.’
Born in Cheshire in 1955, Mallett is one of three brothers. The oldest, Martin, had Down’s syndrome. ‘When Martin was born, they said, “He won’t make his teens,” ’ says Mallett. ‘Then it was “He won’t make his 20s”, then not his 30s, or his 40s. I got fed up of hearing that. In fact, he made 64 years and seven months. And before you say “That’s a good life for someone with Down’s syndrome”, it was a brilliant life, filled with the joy of the moment.’
Martin spent much of his in Scotland in a residential community for people with developmental difficulties. Meanwhile, his brother embarked on a career that first showed signs of success when he became a DJ on Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio station. He was quickly given his own show, Timmy On The Tranny, which was the launch-pad for three of the biggest names in British media.
Nick Robinson, now a presenter on the Radio 4 Today show, was a young journalist in the newsroom and voiced one of Mallett’s characters, ‘Zak the Zit’, for a sketch. A young Chris Evans was Nobby Nolevel, an under-achieving teenager who was sent out to interview stars such as Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, and the future Professor Brian Cox, described by Mallett as ‘a gangly Goth-type of 17 years’, who played the keyboards on jingles.
From radio, Mallett graduated to Wide Awake Club, the Saturday-morning children’s TV show featuring daft contests such as Singing In The Shower, which, along with its summer holiday spin-off Wacaday, made him famous. Prince William and Prince Harry were among countless young fans, watching Wacaday with Princess Diana, as did a schoolboy Keith Lemon, of future Celebrity Juice notoriety, who won a competition to design underpants for Mallett.
Much of the joy of Mallett’s memoir, Utterly Brilliant!, is his unselfconscious tone. It reads like Mr Pooter channelled through Alan Partridge. He explains that the name for Wide Awake Club came from the idea of being ‘wide awake and in a club’.
Not surprisingly, during his pilgrimage, he encountered people who don’t share his kooky world view. While cycling through Hampshire, he became involved in an altercation with teenage travellers on horseback. He remembers: ‘My greeting to them, “That looks fun!”, is misinterpreted and I get a mouthful of colourful, threatening abuse.’
Such reactions are perhaps an occupational hazard during a career spent, in large part, hitting people over the head with a sponge mallet. One celebrity who clearly did not appreciate the experience was Gloria Hunniford during a skit on ITV’s Loose Women. No wonder he has been called ‘the most annoying man in the world’.
Mallett had already been planning his pilgrimage but when Martin became ill, the trip acquired a greater and far sadder purpose. ‘Martin took a turn for the worse suddenly and died overnight. He died of dementia. Sufferers forget to breathe. He would be sitting with you and just drop away. You’d ask “Would you like a cup of tea?” and he’d say “Nice tea”, but he’d forgotten to drink it. He’d drop away and come back again after a minute or two, but ever so slightly less each time.’
At Martin’s funeral, their brother Paul showed him a bundle of Martin’s name tags for sewing into his clothes. ‘I said I’d take them. Later I thought, ‘What do I do with these?’ He soon found a purpose. He left tags at special places on his way to Santiago, places he thought his brother would have liked.
Mallett offers me, too, a gift: a bookmark featuring miniature versions of the pictures he painted on the trip – rather good, impressionist landscapes. Although painted in different locations, they all have one thing in common: none features the previously ubiquitous large sponge mallet.
Has he lost the original?
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘I always travel with a black bag with Top Secret written on it.’
Is the mallet in the bag?
‘I can’t tell you, it’s top secret.’
Timmy was interviewed by Michael Hodges for Event Magazine.
The article was originally published by Daily Mail Online on 11 January 2020.
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