Radio 2 legend Ken Bruce – the Popmaster. Image: BBC / Ray Burmiston
Things will never be the same again. Ken Bruce, BBC Radio’s most popular broadcaster, is leaving after 37 years as the presenter of Radio 2’s mid-morning (9.30am to 12pm) show, along with what will surely be many of his loyal followers. He’s taking his hugely popular daily quiz PopMaster too.
From April 3, Bruce will be on Greatest Hits Radio at the slightly different time of 10am to 1pm.
It has been suggested that his newly announced replacement, northern showbiz perennial Vernon Kay, will present some kind of replacement music quiz as part of the new regime.
But it’s safe to say that for many, no matter what approach he takes, he will never come close to competing with Bruce’s easy charm. Let’s face it, no one could.
The music on Ken Bruce’s show has always been relatively unchallenging. Which is fine. The reason people tune in goes way beyond the music. Bruce’s avuncular, reassuring burr sways the dial in his direction – and then there’s the behemoth that is PopMaster.
This is a format that has struck a chord with the public. I have lost count of the number of friends who have told me that their work stops when it’s PopMaster time. Well, usually a few minutes before the 10:30am kick off so the kettle can be boiled ahead of our communal experience.
I write as a two-time PopMaster contestant. I had been encouraged by friends for years to have a go. I’m a trivia buff and a regular listener, like millions of others, and often scored the maximum 39 points on offer. So how hard could it be, eh?
After making it past the researchers by scoring full marks on my trial questions and charming them with my patter(!) – explaining I had a face very much designed for radio – my first time happened in late 2019. I remember it so clearly.
I chose ‘Let’s Build a Home’ as my bonus round but only got one of my three six-pointers. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Chairman of the Board’s early 1970s run of hits didn’t extend much beyond Give Me Just a Little More Time. And, sadly, Tasmin Archer’s 1994 Number 40 hit cover of Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding had also passed me by.
I ended up drawing 24-24. Then in the tiebreaker, my lack of interest in Engelbert Humperdinck‘s back catalogue was ruthlessly exposed. That’s showbiz.
But my debut appearance uncovered the amount of love swilling around for Bruce. I was invited to join a Facebook group that revealed the full extent of the ‘cult of Ken’. Beyond all the sympathetic messages I received, a further examination revealed that this group’s devotion went far beyond PopMaster. There were predictions about forthcoming shows, guessing the long song, comments about playlists, ruminations about contestant performances. These guys are all hardcore.
When Bruce tweeted that the BBC had asked him to leave on an earlier-then-expected date, the news of his hasty departure was met with fury, the loyalty towards the gentlest of broadcasters ironically bordering on the ferocious.
PopMaster attempt 2
Despite the Bruce Bunch’s well-meaning words, I felt chastened by my defeat. And I was determined to right a wrong. You have to wait at least two years to get back on PopMaster, but return I did in 2022. Again I got through my trial questions with full marks, and once on-air immediately bonded with Ken due to my (admittedly quite good) Paul McCartney anecdote. That seemed to tickle him to the extent that he responded with one of his own, and failed to ask me very much about myself, as is custom.
I eventually triumphed in a thriller. But, devastatingly for me, corpsed on the bonus Three in 10 – even though it was the relatively simple task of naming three Four Tops hits. After two then my mind went blank. I couldn’t even remember Reach Out.
I could feel Bruce’s reassuring but demanding presence keeping a keen eye on the clock. Although I didn’t want to let myself down, that’s what I felt I had done. It felt awful. Once it gets away from you, there’s very little time to reset your mind. And it’s harder than you think when you know that Ken Bruce is definitely listening.
What should have been a triumphant occasion (I had won, after all) felt like a failure. It wasn’t about the smart speaker. It’s never about the smart speaker. I didn’t even get to hear Bruce shout, as is custom, “AH! IT’S ONE YEAR OUT!!!” as I nailed my ‘in which year’ questions on both occasions.
After that experience, I decided it was time to gracefully retire – from PopMaster at least. Never mind. I have my One Year Out T-shirt and Bluetooth headphones to placate me, as well as a lifelong frustration over what might have been.
It is nice to have been part of PopMaster history, especially now its time on Radio 2 is over. I am still asked about it when I bump into people I haven’t seen for a while. You can’t get away from it. That’s just how it is.
It’s now time for Ken Bruce to leave his hugely successful comfort zone after 37 years (save for a two-year break from 1990 to 1992). And who knows what awaits him in his new domain? Presumably a very nice salary for starters.
It remains to be seen whether this is the end of something or the beginning of something else. Or both. Whatever, one thing that’s clear is that for many, whatever happens, Ken will always be the master.
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