Interview: Tim Samuels

He gave the world The Zimmers. Now, the Manchester-born journalist has come up with a male ‘Woman’s Hour’

By Simon Round, July 15, 2010
Tim Samuels says he has been inspired by his Jewish youth club experience

Tim Samuels says he has been inspired by his Jewish youth club experience

Tim Samuels is famous for his stunts. The pensioner's choir that he assembled, named The Zimmers, topped the YouTube charts. He invaded Trafalgar Square with a platoon of disgruntled ex-soldiers, and organised a guerrilla clean-up of dirty hospitals by MRSA victims. He also drove a car bedecked with England football regalia through Scotland during the 2006 World Cup only to have it trashed outside the Celtic stadium.

His latest venture, although no stunt, is attracting plenty of attention, and not a small amount of criticism. Men's Hour, on Radio 5 Live, is not a pastiche of the long-established Woman's Hour programme on Radio 4, but has been described as that venerable show's "cheeky younger brother".

Manchester-born Samuels is not surprised that female columnists have been outraged by the idea of a men's programme, given that it appears on a channel which already bombards its predominantly male listenership with a testosterone-driven diet of sport, led by Premier League football.

However, he does feel that the show is a serious and worthwhile venture. He says: "I don't think men's magazines have moved on very far from the laddism of the '90s, so there's nowhere that really caters to what I think the modern man is. He's a mixture - a more complicated creature who wants to talk about emotions and feelings. I don't think there's currently space in the media to talk intelligently about relationships, work or the pressures of life. That's what we're trying to do."

However, Samuels is not ready to let his hard-won reputation as a subversive slip that easily. The serious stuff will be interspersed with blokey banter, and regular features including Thought for the Gay, and Token Woman of the Week. There will also be a Celebrations of Hypochondria segment which, laughs Samuels, is "probably not only pertinent to men in general, but almost exclusively to Jewish men. For example, I want to know whether sperm quality is affected by soya milk because I read some stuff about that in the papers recently."

We'll be addressing men's fear of commitment

But there will also be more thoughtful material. "We'll be addressing relationship issues like the male fear of commitment and monogamy. Stuff like how you can continue to fancy your partner after years together. We are billed as the men's magazine that women have been waiting for. Hearing men talk candidly is hopefully something women will find appealing."

Women might find certain aspects of the show slightly less digestible. One of the features the producers have been toying with is inviting women to apologise for various aspects of feminism, then get them to run a Hoover around the studio. "We tried it in the pilot but its actually quite hard to control a vacuum cleaner in the studio," says Samuels.

However, he is adamant "the show won't be like Loaded. We want to present men as they are rather than the two-dimensional characters you get in lads' mags, but at the same time without falling into naval-gazing nonsense."

This is not new ground for Samuels, who has built himself a reputation for making radio and TV documentaries with attitude. Having come through the BBC's traineeship system, he became frustrated with the fact the news journalists were passive in their reporting style. "I preferred to do something proactive," he says. He developed his own style of cheeky documentaries - the best known of which was his Power to the People series, in which he took disenfranchised groups, including pensioners and alienated war veterans, and took on their battles. He says he has an activist streak in him - had he been around in the late '60s he might have been organising demos. However, in the 21st century, Samuels prefers to play to his strengths, and that means using the media to get his points across in a stimulating and provocative way. "I think I have a bit of repressed hippy idealism about me. For Power to the People we got Yoko Ono's permission to use the John Lennon song as the main soundtrack - she thought it chimed with John's ideals, a kind of Lennon-style fight back.

"Rather than just say: 'Isn't it horrible how we treat old people', and leave it at that, I prefer to take them on a journey, try to change their lives and change perceptions of how the elderly are viewed. If soldiers have been badly treated, why not do something with them - take over Trafalgar Square. It has to feel organic though. You have to believe that this is something these people would like to do if they had the chance - then we can elevate it into something a bit more anarchic."

The 34-year-old Samuels attributes his career path in large part to his years in the RSY youth group in Bowdon, south Manchester.

"People from Habonim, like David Baddiel, Dan Patterson and Matt Lucas, tend to be more into comedy. The RSY people like me go for the more meaty stuff - based on the programmes we used to write in camp about serious things but in an entertaining way. Had I been in Habonim I probably would have been a lot funnier."

'Men's Hour' begins on Radio 5 Live on July 18 at 7.30pm

Last updated: 11:21am, July 15 2010