Behind the call: the Blair Stitch-up Project

Steve Penk takes us behind the scenes of the Tony Blair wind-up call

By Steve Penk
Posted 21 January 2018, 7.00pm est
James Cridland

What happened on the day British broadcaster Steve Penk wound up Tony Blair, the thought process behind it, why he did it, and the fallout afterwards. On the 20th anniversary of that famous call, Steve Penk tells the full behind the scenes story of the day that surprised everyone.

January 21st 1998 is a date I will never forget...

I had been presenting the mid morning show on London's Capital FM for just over a year, with my trademark Wind-Up phone calls being the highest rated part of the show.

Everywhere I went the wind up calls were the number 1 topic of conversation, it’s all people wanted to talk to me about: every London taxi driver would spend the entire journey telling me about their favourite calls.

On Tuesday January 20th 1998 whilst doing prep for the show the next day, I had the idea to call 10 Downing Street, but I needed a fresh approach. I had called 10 Downing Street a few years earlier to talk to John Major, who was at that time the Prime Minister, I called as a simple minded member of the public with a complaint about the price of onions in my local supermarket and insisted I speak to the Prime Minister immediately, but never got any further than the tough lady on the switchboard at Number 10, who told me the British Prime Minister “has more important things to worry about than the price of a pound of onions” and the call ended.

I ran that wind up a few years earlier on my show at Key 103 in Manchester and the listeners loved it, so I knew this time, and with a different Prime Minister, I needed a fresh approach.

The idea behind my next call to 10 Downing Street, calling Tony Blair, was to see how far I could get through the security phone system of number 10 and my thought was, for my listeners that would be the interesting and entertaining part of the call, little did I know what was about to happen.

I had recently met an impressionist (new to London) who at that time had told me he was finding it difficult to find work, he was struggling to get noticed in London and was thinking of moving back home to the north, his name was Jon Culshaw.

On the Tuesday night I rang Jon to ask him if he could do an impression of the then leader of the opposition William Hague, he did it for me down the phone and it sounded perfect, so I asked Jon to meet me at the studio in Leicester Square at 8am the following morning, which he did.

My daily show on Capital FM started at 10am, so I knew I had limited time to try and record the wind up, edit it, have my daily pre show meeting with the Programme Director and get stuff ready for the show at 10.

At 8:20am I went into a studio to make the call to 10 Downing Street, and like any wind up you only get one chance to get it right, it’s a one go hit.

I rang Directory enquiries to get the number for 10 Downing Street, rang the number and the switchboard answered, at this point Jon launched into the voice of William Hague asking to speak to Tony.

She put us through immediately to Tony Blair’s PA who at first wasn’t quite sure, saying it didn’t sound like him, but after a few more lines of dialogue, confirmed that she was convinced it WAS William Hague she was talking to and would go and fetch the Prime Minister.

During this brief moment, I closed the microphone and told Jon, he was almost certainly about to talk to the Prime Minister and to be prepared, 30 seconds later a very familiar voice said “Hello”… was Tony Blair. Jon’s face was a picture, I will never forget that look of total shock in his eyes, he literally started to sweat.

The conversation with Blair lasted less than 60 seconds and ended when security who were monitoring the Prime Ministers calls in a separate office, pulled the plug. I later found out, Tony was thoroughly enjoying the call and would have let the call last far longer, but the call ended and at that point, Jon had done his bit and left.

Because I’d been doing wind up phone calls for years, at the point Tony Blair picked up the phone I knew I had the most almighty dilemma. This wasn't some local builder or housewife, THIS was the British Prime Minister, one of the most powerful people in the world and I had just wound him up.

I didn’t know him, I didn’t know if the man had a sense of humour, or if that morning something world threatening was going on, and here I was trivialising his day.

The call ended with Tony Blair at 8:25am. Every morning at 8:30am I had a daily pre show meeting on the 6th floor with my Programme Director, Richard Park.

Richard Park was a tough man to work for, almost brutal at times if your work wasn’t to the highest standards, he expected nothing less. As I entered the lift, alone, on my journey from the 3rd floor of Capital Radio HQ in Leicester Square to the 6th floor (30 seconds) my whole life went into slow motion.

I had worked all my life to get to the very top of my career and the decision I was about to make right now could destroy everything overnight. The dilemma was, when Richard asks me in 2 minutes time what do I have on today’s show, do I tell him I have just wound up the British Prime Minister or do I say nothing and just run the call without telling anyone.

If I tell Richard, his next question would be, do we have permission from number 10 to run it, at which point my answer would be: "No we don’t". He'd have no alternative than to stop me playing it on my show, three hours later.

As a creative bit of content I knew Richard would have loved it, but as the Programme Director it would have placed Richard in an impossible situation, without permission from number 10 he would have had no choice but to ban me from playing it on the air.

This was a total make or break decision for me. If I played the call, and Downing Street, Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell came down on Capital Radio, not only would my own career be over but Capital Radio could have been heavily fined by Ofcom, or worse, had its licence taken away.

Holy sweet Jesus, what a moment, what a decision.

As I’m going up in the lift, I’m thinking - ’Steve, you don’t fuck with the British Prime Minister’

The lift doors opened on the 6th floor and there was Richard in his office, he welcomed me in and we sat down, my heart beating faster than ever, sweaty palms, my head racing.

His opening question……What’s on the show today Penky?

At that moment, I froze, it seemed like a long pause but in reality it was nothing, as I went through everything that was on the show that day……I told him everything apart from the Blair call. The meeting finished at 9am, I got back in the lift, went down to the studio and started to edit the Tony Blair wind up for transmission on my show at 11:30am.

My show started at 10am, Chris Tarrant and I (Chris was on before me doing breakfast) exchanged our usual morning silliness, but still I mentioned to nobody what was coming up.

As 11:30am approached, I was getting more and more anxious and nervous, the question should I play it, shouldn’t I play it, went over and over in my mind.

My wife Helen, daughter Natalie and I had moved from Manchester to London, we were living in a lovely house in Surrey, we had recently had another baby (Andrew) and life was pretty good, but was I about to throw everything away in a moment of creative madness, even my own wife didn’t know the risk I was about to take, I told nobody.

I knew if it went okay everyone would benefit, but everyone else had absolutely nothing to lose, whereas I had everything to lose.

At 11.30am, I played the Tony Blair wind up live on the air.

Initially nothing happened, I had no comments from within the radio station, I suspect on that particular day the Producers, managers and Richard himself hadn’t actually heard it go out on the air, perhaps they were in meetings, as was normally the case in a busy radio station.

I finished my show at 1pm and as I walked through the building after the show, still nobody within the radio station said anything about the fact I’d just wound up the Prime Minister on my show that morning. I made my way home and got home about 2:15pm and started preparation on the following days Show.

Then, everything went crazy.

That afternoon, Tony Blair mentioned during Prime Minister's Question Time that earlier that morning he had received a wind up phone call from Steve Penk at Capital Radio and that the wind up made more sense to him than anything William Hague had said that day in the House Of Commons during Prime Ministers Question Time, much to the amusement of MP’s from all parties.

At the point Tony Blair mentioned the wind up in the House of Commons, the story went into overdrive, I had every single newspaper, radio station, TV station in the world wanting to talk to me.

It was the craziest 24 hours of my professional life, it made Capital Radio even bigger, it took the heat off Tony Blair who at the time was under intense political pressure, it made Jon Culshaw famous and gave him that big break he was looking for, and it made me into troublemaker number one and for a moment, the most famous radio presenter in the World. Everyone was a winner.

On the day I made the Wind-Up call to Tony Blair he was under considerable political pressure and things weren’t great for him, he was being bashed somewhat and a few cynical journalists thought the Wind-Up had been executed so perfectly with Tony Blair coming out of it so well, that they were convinced the whole thing had been stage managed by Alistair Campbell, it most certainly was not, in-fact I’ve never met or spoken to Alistair Campbell.

The following morning as I started my show and every single newspaper was full of the wind up story, the door flung open and Richard Park stood in the frame of the studio door, said nothing and simply stood and applauded me, he knew the enormous professional risk I’d taken, he knew exactly what I’d done.

We’ve never spoken about it, from that day to this.

Happy 20th anniversary Mr Blair.

Listen to the call in full here:

Steve Penk — Manchester-born Steve Penk has worked for national and local radio stations, and is renowned for his wind-up calls. He started his career in Manchester in 1978.