My granddad’s life – as he circled it in the Radio Times

It was an unconventional legacy, but the box of old copies of the Radio Times left behind by John Osborne’s grandfather revealed more about him than a lifetime of family memories.

John Osborne
John Osborne

The circles he had drawn around the programme titles and the notes he had scribbled between the printed text and the edge of the pages constituted almost an autobiography – not just of his viewing habits but of a life in retirement.

As far as anyone knows, George Osborne never intended them to be seen – but to his grandson they told a story too good to keep to himself.

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Mr Osborne junior, a writer and actor, has turned them into a one-man theatre show which garnered rave reviews on the Edinburgh Fringe and has now gone on the road.

“He hadn’t exactly collected the magazines – he just never got around to throwing them away,” said Mr Osborne of his grandfather, a retired policeman in Stockton who died in his 60s.

The old copies, rescued by a neighbour from his house and then put in a garden shed for safekeeping, betrayed some of the obsessions of many a retiree.

“Every single police drama had been circled and Inspector Morse was always circled with a lot of hearts,” said his grandson. “There weren’t any police detective shows that were left uncircled.

“And the older he got, the more wildlife shows he seems to have watched. I never associated him with anything like that, but in his last few weeks he seems to have been watching David Attenborough documentaries.

“Maybe that’s what happens when you know you’re ill – you start watching programmes about the natural world.”

The collection of magazines, mostly from the 1980s, is surprisingly complete – with missing issues coinciding only with Christmases spent away with his family, and treatment in hospital after a heart attack.

The margin notes, scribbled with a cheap ball point borrowed from the local bookie’s shop, also reveal some typical viewing exasperations – such as when he circled all the week’s entertainment and game shows in angry red pen, and highlighted a reader’s letter complaining about the “modern” storylines in The Archers.

It was a character very different to that of the kindly grandfather on the arm of whose settee he had perched as a boy, said Mr Osborne, who is performing his homage at the Lamproom Theatre in Barnsley next Thursday and at the Otley Courthouse next month.

Ironically, it had been one of the programmes in the Radio Times listings that had been responsible for his career on the stage. In 2002, at 21, he won a competition on John Peel’s Radio 1 show, the prize for which was a box of the disc jockey’s own records.

“It was an odd little competition. He asked his listeners to write one sentence to explain why they enjoyed his show,” he recalled. It took him eight years to get around to listening to the 150 albums, many of them rare and by obscure and long-forgotten bands.

“I carried the guilt for years. I had this incredibly special box of records and never really knew what to do with them.

“After John died, I began playing them on a community radio station, and a producer heard them and suggested I turn them into a stage show.”

The story has now been combined with that of his grandfather for the current production.

“That box of records was the launch pad for what I’m still doing now. I’d have you ever made shows if it wasn’t for John Peel,” Mr Osborne said.