David Jacobs - irreplaceable gentleman of the airwaves

September 12, 2013
David Jacobs

David Jacobs

Broadcaster Michael Freedland pays tribute to a much-loved colleague

At home, listening to the radio on a Sunday night, David Jacobs was a warm comforting presence.

In the studio, he was The Gentleman. The Gentleman Professional is probably more accurate. His voice was that of a man of culture. When his colleagues turned up for work in grubby jeans and frayed T-shirts, he invariably was in newly-pressed dark trousers, an immaculate blazer.

Well, of course, you knew that. When you listened to The David Jacobs Collection on Radio Two, it was obvious from his urbane tones that he dressed that way. The music he played was invariably from an era when music did not have to sound like a battle cry played at the wrong speed.

There was nothing about David, who died last week at the age of 87, that was at the wrong speed. You knew that, too.

What people did not know about was his Jewishness. He did not wear his Judaism on his sleeve, but it was there. The fact that he remained David Jacobs, and did not Anglicise his surname at a time when Jewish names were neither fashionable nor usual in showbusiness, spoke volumes.

He was a dedicated supporter of Israel — the country where his son was killed in a road accident. He spoke at Jewish functions, rarely said no to a local synagogue if they wanted him to make a guest appearance — and could tell great Jewish stories.

He was a regular at meetings of what used to be called the Jewish Variety Club, the Celebrities Guild.

My last encounter with him was at his elegant — naturally, it was elegant — London mews house. He wanted to discuss his funeral. “I want a Jewish funeral,” he said. “What should I do?”

I rarely bumped into him in the Radio Two studios without his saying how he liked a programme I had recently done. That was truly a compliment.

But what spoke most loudly to me happened when I was very young and had just started in freelance journalism. A magazine called DJ was published in his name, but which I suspect he had little do with. I was commissioned to write a piece, which I did. But before it could be published, the magazine folded. Without paying me.

After weeks of trying to get some response from the publishers, I wrote to “Mr Jacobs” himself. By return, he sent a charming letter of apology, enclosing his own personal cheque. He was simply being that Gentleman.

He was born in Streatham, south London, the son of a Covent Garden fruit importer who fell on hard times — so hard that he had to dispense with his luxury car, the chauffeur and the maid. So David left school at 14 and took various jobs, ranging from stable boy to pawnbroker’s clerk.

David Jacobs on the air

David Jacobs on the air

He joined the navy in 1944. The thought of going into broadcasting would probably never have crossed his mind had it not been for an executive of the British Forces Broadcasting Service hearing his voice and offering him a job as an announcer.

That was how it began — through being chief announcer for the BFBS in what was then Ceylon to the BBC’s Overseas Service. He lost his newsreader’s job there for laughing at a item he thought funny.

He was also fired from the BBC Home Service for the same reason when a jug of water was poured over him as he was reading the news.

He went to Radio Luxembourg and then returned to the BBC, where he became known as one of the principal voices of the favourite Housewives Choice record request show.

But his real fame came with television. Juke Box Jury, which he chaired (a show in which panellists would decide if a record was a “hit” or a “miss” and which he disputably claimed to have invented) made him a household name.

So did being the central figure of the quiz show What’s My Line and Come Dancing, a programme paid homage to in the title of the BBC’s current huge hit, Strictly Come Dancing.

But with professional success came personal tragedy. Three years after the death of his son, at 19, there was another car crash. This time, it was his pregnant second wife, Caroline, who died.

Quite suddenly, it seemed, David disappeared from TV. Instead he presented Radio Four’s premiere discussion programme, Any Questions, for 17 years.

But perhaps his whole broadcasting career could be summed up by the title and the content of his last show, The David Jacobs Collection. He played Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Tony Bennett. They were his kind of music and that of an increasingly large audience who put off going to bed on Sunday nights just to dwell in what was not so much nostalgia as a love of good music.

The show is in other hands now, and it is not the same. As one of the hits he played was almost titled, Call Him Irreplaceable.

Last updated: 1:45pm, September 12 2013