XFM was a tiny radio station that made a big noise: a new film finally tells its story

Kick Out The Jams: The Story Of XFM is a film about the London radio station that brought Britpop to the airwaves and an office that inspired The Office

Kick Out The Jams: The Story Of XFM poster
(Image: © Signature Entertainment)

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In the second series of the Ricky Gervais comedy The Office, there’s an episode called Appraisals. In one scene, Gervais’s character David Brent reads a poem to Lucy Davis – a.k.a. Wernham Hogg receptionist Dawn Tinsley – that’s as creepy as it is psychotic. It’s titled Excalibur. The first verse (there’s only two) reads: ‘I froze your tears and made a dagger / And stabbed it in my cock forever / It stays there like Excalibur / Are you my Arthur? / Say you are.’ 

And then, to fill the gap in the terrible silence that follows, he picks up a beer bottle and blows across the lip, producing a forlorn whistle. It’s excruciating.

If you’re wondering where the inspiration for the scene comes from, it’s possible that clues may be found in the documentary Kick Out The Jams: The Story Of XFM. It’s a film about the rise of pioneering London alternative music radio station XFM (now Radio X), which was at the epicentre of Britpop as it rose to prominence, giving bands like Oasis, Radiohead, Blur, Suede, Supergrass and Pulp their first daytime airplay. 

XFM also gave Gervais his first media job, as the station’s Head Of Speech (full disclosure: this writer was Head Of Music, and was interviewed for the film). It was a role that lacked any defined job description, which gave Ricky the leeway to define it as he wanted, so he chose to not define it at all, which meant he could do very little. Perfect. Stephen Merchant was hired as his entirely unnecessary assistant, and the rest is history. Ricky began to work on the material that eventually became The Office as the station teetered on the brink of collapse, writing lines of dialogue as the listening figures fell short of expectations and the budget dwindled.

The station was eventually sold to the corporate behemoths at Capital Radio, which is where the film ends. Ricky was made redundant but was rehired a year later, his new producer an oddball by the name of Karl Pilkington. Again, the rest is history.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant at XFM

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant pretending to work in their XFM office (Image credit: Fraser Lewry)

Kick Out The Jams: The Story Of XFM is a little ragged. The timeline leaps about more than it should. Some of the editing is a little odd. It's divided into Quentin Tarantino-style chapters, but there's some overlap and repetition. At one point there's a discussion about The Verve, but it's Radiohead that plays in the background. Much of the soundtrack is a modern approximation of the kind of music XFM was playing in the mid-90s rather than the music itself – presumably due to budgetary constraints – so that big hit of sonic nostalgia is missing. And there’s some great stories that aren’t told. 

Like the time a notably unsteady Nick Cave showed up for an interview, and answered the DJ’s enquiry as to his well-being by proudly proclaiming: “I’m as drunk as a fucking cunt!” On-air. Thinking about it now, decades on, still makes me shudder. 

Like the time Ricky and I went rowing in Hyde Park when he was supposed to be appearing on a show. I ferried him around The Serpentine while he casually lolled at the other end of the boat, calling the station on his mobile phone and broadcasting as if this was completely normal. Which, by then, it was. 

Like the time David Bowie took me aside ("Hello, I'm David", he said, perhaps unnecessarily) and showed me the tattoo on his calf. The time Debbie Harry came to visit. The time we held a festival in Finsbury Park and 20,000 people turned up to show their support for what we were trying to do. 

Where the film really succeeds is in capturing the excitement the station managed to generate, from its inception as East London pirate Q102, through five temporary broadcasts, to the award of a full-time licence and subsequent launch – on the worst day to commence broadcasting in the latter half of the 20th century – right up until the day it was sold. The centre of a cultural whirlwind is an exhilarating place to be, and you get a real sense of that from some of the talking heads, most notably DJs Claire Sturgess and John Kennedy. 

The film is testament to the vision and hustle of founder Sammy Jacob and funder Chris Parry, and to what’s possible when people know they’re in the middle of something revolutionary and will expend every last breath willing it to succeed. It’s also testament to what can be achieved when you don’t pay much heed to the way things have been previously done. Received wisdom is, after all, the enemy of revolution.

And that poem? Excalibur? I don’t know what inspired it. But the thing with the beer bottle and the whistle? I saw someone do that in real life, at XFM, to fill an awkward silence. And Ricky was standing next to me, taking mental notes. 

Kick Out The Jams: The Story Of XFM is available in The UK and Ireland as a Download To Own on Sky Store, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google, Xbox and Rakuten. From September 19, it will be available as a video on demand on the same platforms, and via Virgin Media and BT.

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.