Saturday, 7 April 2012


David Frost has been telling us at length how to interview, with illustrations of some of the worst examples by so-called star interviewers.

I did my first published interview on VE Day in 1945. For the next half century scarcely a day passed when I didn’t do one for radio, TV or newspapers. My books are extended interviews with people or other books; yet it took me forty years to become an interviewer.

I may have mentioned that I once fell asleep in the middle of an interview for a Radio 4 series. For the first and only time in my life the office was inundated with letters praising my interviewing technique. At last, they all said, an interviewer who isn’t forever interrupting.

To be truthful, I could never take TV interviews seriously after my first experience on an arts programme in Cardiff with Gwen, the poet Vernon Watkins’ widow. Neither of us could believe that we were required to rehearse our interviews. The producer Gwyn Erfyl explained: “If the interviewer doesn’t know what you are going to say, how could he know what to answer?”

I was to go on to make a weekly half hour radio interview for a decade. Although I did hours of research I deliberately never knew what I was going to ask my guests until the programme began. That is why I think of TV interviewers as actors. The only real interviews are on radio. Libby Purves and Eddie Mair are my favourites. Neither hectors their guests and both elicit the best answers.

The Today programme is the nest of the worst so I was sad to read in the RT that Evan Davis thinks his gentle questioning lets his guests “off the hook“. Which is more than can be said of headmistressy Sarah Montague and prolix Naughtie (who not only asks rambling questions but insists on parroting the answers), attack dog Humphrys and his petulant puppy Justin Webb.

Received radio wisdom is that answers should be kept short. Otherwise listeners get bored. Rubbish. Interview questions are spurs in the flank of monologues. The interviewer is the jockey - a sort of horseman of the puckered lip. If you can see him, even in your mind’s eye, he has failed.

On Radio Wales and R4 Vincent Kane was a superlative interviewer. He left space for answers. So did a man called Gerry Monte and, though his strength is aggressive sycophancy, starstruck Michael Parkinson and quirky Ray Gosling were the best of a bad bunch on TV.

Nowadays the interviewer is the star. His questions swirl like a matador’s red cape as he taunts the “bull” in a suit of too bright lights...I do sometimes wish they could fall asleep and give the other chap a chance. We don’t get interviews: we get cross talk acts between John Humphrys and various elephantine politicians; even crosser talk acts between Paxman’s eyebrows and more politicians, though Boris Johnson and both Lord Bell and George Galloway wiped the floor with him this week. But these ineffectual interrogators never seem to elicit any information.

Are the broadcast media anyway right to concentrate almost exclusively on politics? I know it is cheap to do but I don’t know anyone who listens enthralled. Perhaps I am also wrong in believing that interviewing should not be part of the entertainment industry, which it has plainly become. I would have thought that if satellite news bulletins and the barely live ‘Five’ proved anything they prove there isn’t enough news about - or news they can afford to get -to nourish a rolling news coverage. The reason the first popular newspapers included features is that there wasn’t enough news to fill a paper big enough for people to buy. In the old days BBC announcers would sometimes come on, announce the nine o’ clock news and say: “There is no news today. Goodnight.”

Isn’t news just another fix anyway? We are used to getting it at stated times like the six o’ clock gin of happy memory; and we think we can’t do without it. Even more depressing, we are now copying things like the Oompah Whimpering show where you manufacture news by bringing together stage villains or antagonists and invite them to fight whilst the audience boos and cheers.

It would be difficult to have faith in our major parties when one considers the appalling mess they made in choosing their leaders. Labour chose the wrong brother whilst the Tories based their choice on one speech at the Conference. David Davies has all the assets Cameron so conspicuously lacks. Impeccable working class background, considerable experience of life in the real world, leadership skills honed in the SAS and a liberal dose of common sense. Cameron went from Eton to Oxford and from Oxford to politics. He is said to have experience of PR. Only in the conservative party back rooms which is not the most shining nursery for skill in the Dark Arts.