• Jonny Ainslie

Libby Purves - Showbiz shouldn't have leeched it's way into broadcasting.

Updated: May 28, 2018

I talk to Libby Purves, writer and radio host, about celebrity, the spoken word, and grief.

You’ve said that the sort of radio which has “enriched national life” with its freedom, cheapness and inventiveness, is endangered. Why is that?

At the time I was really angry, because radio gets incredibly underfunded for what it does, if you consider intellectually what it does, not overpaid DJs and such, whilst the money that goes into production is eaten away, eaten away, eaten away by television and groovy online budgets. What’s interesting now is that there’s a tiny little sign of change in that Bob Shennan, the head of Radio, has lately done a speech about how he wants to reinvent radio for the 21st century. They’re cancelling the idea of going all-digital, and part of the reason is that they’re panicked by podcasts. There used to be no rival to Radio 4 and apparently there are 2m people who only listen to podcasts now, I don’t believe that statistic but apparently that’s right, so they’re getting a bit worried. But what amuses me is that if they thought for a minute they’d realise the USP of radio is live programs. And being able to listen and go “Ooo, get out of that Paxo” is part of the fun.

You see through people much faster if you’re just hearing their voice

What does the art of radio add to an interview that televised content does not?

It’s much nimbler. And I think the way people receive radio is really interesting because they tend to be active. You’re driving, you’re walking, you’re out for a run, you’re ironing – you’re doing craftwork, people who make art and so on. Whereas people who watch television are by their very nature sitting down, all the blood is sinking to the bum and they’re much less critical. On television you have silly little people in the corner of the room being daft, and if you disagree with them – you dismiss them. With radio, they’re in the room with you, they’re all around.

The other thing is that because you do not see people, you don’t make cheap, boring, modern preconceptions, you listen to what they’re saying. The example I used to give was going “oh she sounds quite grounded, what an interesting woman” and then you realise it’s actually Ulrika Jonsson and the tabloid vision of her was of this blonde, glorious, Swedish airhead. And you listen to her talking, and she is not.

You rose through the ranks of the Today programme as a trainee producer, reporter, and finally presenter. Brian Redhead was famously quoted as saying “if you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it” – what was your mission whilst on the show?

I had no intention! He wanted to drop a word in the ear of the Prime Minister, that was Brian’s thing, the ear of government. But no, I never paid the slightest attention. It was like being a small child when it’d snowed, and you wake up first thing in the morning and you get to run all round the house waking them up with a bit of news. Thank god I never had to work through Brexit, just a nightmarish blocking-out-the-sun nonsense. But I was not that kind of mission person, I just asked the questions and let the audience decide what they think of the answers.

That’s another thing – you see through people much faster if you’re just hearing their voice rather than seeing their wonderful stately presence. And you hear a lot from people’s voices. I spent my young days editing tape; and you hear every little click, every little pause, every breath. You hear the tension in a voice, how certain they are of what they’re saying. And politicians have really been learning that.

Does this have a connection to our oral history and people being in love with telling a story?

Oh yes, to be told a story is a great thing. You remember things as they’re spoken. I’ve got things in my head and I could reproduce now the tone they said them in; I can hear Tony Blair going “yeah, I’m a pretty straight sort of guy”, “people’s princess”, and that does stay.

As an interviewer... your job is to make them be the strongest possible flavour of themselves

Well the Today programme still holds 7m listeners a week and stands as one of the most influential news programmes in Britain. Do you think this blend of lighter subjects and humour with the thoughtful or political segments is a good way to draw listeners in to topical discussion, or is it a watering down of both?

You need some lighter stuff, and it always had that. No editor has ever got it quite right – they just don’t. Treating the arts as if this is the light bit of the programme is also not terribly helpful. And there is stuff going on that isn’t Brexit.

After working as The Times’ Chief Theatre Critic, you set up your own website Theatre Cat just to continue that sort of reporting. Clearly you love it; but why do you think people read theatre or other arts reviews? Just to know what’s on?

I think you want to know what’s on even if you’re not going to see it. Quite an important part of reviewing for me is that you’re not marking their homework, you’re trying to say: “this is what they’re doing, this is how they’re doing it, this is what it’s about” so the audience can be part of the moment. And I stayed with it because I think theatre’s on such a fascinating roll at the moment. And critics are an endangered species, Lyn Gardner’s just been sacked today from The Guardian! They say they’re trying to refresh it, no they’re not - they’ve run out of money.

You’ve said you admire actors unreservedly. Why do you think people are interested in what they have to say?

I’m not always interested, there’s a few of them at the moment who’re a right pain in the backside. A lot of them have been nightmarishly remainiac – I’m not a Brexiteer I have to say, but I’m sick of the way the arts establishment is beating its head. A lovely line from Barney Norris, he said “Ah yes, there was this thing called Brexit where suddenly a lot of people in the subsidised arts were horrified to find that not everybody agreed with them.” I quite like it if they’re really interested in a cause and do something about it. Juliet Stevenson actually taking provisions down to the jungle in Calais and so on.

But I do admire them enormously for what they do, we have such an incredibly high quality of acting in this country. You see a play and it’s hardly ever the actor’s fault if it doesn’t work, it’s always the director and the writer’s fault; with a small exception for Rufus Hound.

The BBC should have the bottle to say to them, we made you. If you take them off the telly, they’re not celebrities anymore

How has the nature of celebrity changed since you started interviewing them?

Oh, incredibly. It’s like an explosion of shite! Can’t stand it: the famous for being famous, famous for not having any particular skill – the post-Warhol thing. And it’s disastrous because you get kids seeing famous actors and not thinking “God, I’d like to go to RADA or central – work my socks off for years, do fringe things and live broke – no actually I want to be a star” you know, like in the song, the barman: ‘Bill I believe this is killing me... I’m sure that I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place’ (Billy Joel, Piano Man). And that’s all around us, they don’t even have to be movie stars which means organising yourself and standing in front of cameras, no, just the Jane Goody level. And I hate that, I think it’s corrosive.

But people will gradually get sick of it I think. And you see the people who don’t bother being celebrities who are actually great and famous performers and artists, they just behave like themselves. Ken Dodd came to Radio Oxford, I’ve never forgotten it. Turned up, no entourage, no nothing for his interview – holding his tatty tickling stick and said to the receptionist who he was. “There’s a Mr. Dodd in reception for you”, and of course we all ran out going “oh my God it’s him – it’s a legend!” But he wanted to make us laugh, he didn’t want to be a legend.

I used to get irritated on The Times when the first night editor said “oh you’ve got to mention, this guy’s in it – he’s on Game of Thrones.” And I thought “so what?” this is the theatre, you’ve given me 320 words and I’m not wasting three of them writing ‘Game of Thrones’. I once met Glenda Jackson, and she knew who she was, and she said a wonderful thing: “the egos you get in parliament wouldn’t be tolerated for 10 minutes in the professional theatre”, because of course you see actors are often so awfully insecure.

Part of the art of presenting and managing guests is your own sense of comic timing and personality on air. Are these facets often lacking from wider national conversations and news?

A presenter who does interviews is only there as a conduit for the other person. Your job is to make them be the strongest possible flavour of themselves, and sometimes you have to use yourself to take the shyness out of them. But that’s not a performance, it’s not the me-show. You’re there for the guests. And presenting news again, you’re there to be reasonably upbeat and to know what’s going on but the main thing was to get across what’s going on.

When I was on The Today Programme as a presenter, I would go over to the atlas at half past four in the morning and go OK, where actually is Venezuela? Does it have a coast? Not because I needed to say any of these things but because I wanted to have, in my head, the reality of the thing I was saying – so you’re not just reciting.

Can you define your voice when you’re writing?

I hope grown-up. And I hope interested - in anything. I’m willing to listen and see how things are, how things work. I’m always interested in experts, I love people who know stuff. And I think you want to be not-unfriendly. I’m not trying to be a great personality, I think there’s too much of that. There’s a wonderful German phrase, it means ‘I’m like that’, oh me, I’m just like that – I’m crazy, just mad, me’ – there’s a lot of that.

You’ve blamed the pay gap on “vain and greedy men”. What’s going on?

I was tired of people saying ‘women don’t lean in, women don’t negotiate enough’. Look at the size of some of those pay-packets, it’s un-bloody-believable. The disgraceful thing was the discrepancies between Sarah Montague and Justin Webb, for instance, doing exactly the same job. But you have to add up who’s doing the most days, there should be a going rate. But I think a lot of men and men’s agents are very self-important. I accosted one at the Cheltenham Literary Festival for fun, and he said “you’re getting a bit stern aren’t you”, and I said, “c’mon, you know you’re overpaid, you know you are” and he said “well I came from newspapers – and the BBC had to match that”, and the question is - why? He wanted to be on the BBC, we’ve all taken jobs because we want to work for a particular organisation. There used to be an old journalistic joke, I’m saving up to work for The Guardian, of course now The Guardian pays the same rate as anybody else.

But there was a lot of greed in it, measuring yourself by how much you earn. It trickles all the way down from bankers’ bonusses and so on, the guy who feels that if he gets less than £1m in his bonus packet he’s somehow failed. I mean how pathetic is that? I think showbiz always had it, and that’s fine, you want Kiera Knightley you’re going to have to pay Kiera Knightly money; but it shouldn’t have leeched its way into broadcasting, it certainly should never have made its way into news work. When Evan Davis said it, “you’re in showbiz”, you’re not in showbiz mate – you’re an economist, no-one wants you on a red carpet. The BBC has always been pathetic about standing up to the talent.

I’ve spoken about this for years, if someone says, “I could get more money by going to ITV”, you should say “Have fun. However, do note, the history of people moving out of the BBC and away from their great production values and staff, have not done very well.” The BBC should have the bottle to say to them, we made you. If you take them off the telly, they’re not celebrities anymore, and if you put someone else on – slowly they become one, as long as you’ve chosen well to start with. We all learn, I was only ever any good on Midweek because they gave me years to practice.

You’ve written about an incident on Midweek when Darcus Howe called Joan Rivers a racist when she said she was bored of talking about the issue, which she passionately denied. How do you find the modern culture of using media platforms to call out bigotry and such?

I think there’s way too much of it. The old military saying is ‘keep the powder dry and wait until you see the whites of their eyes.’ You’ve got to be sure. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “he sounds like a bit of a tit”. You should be able to go “urgh” without saying “oh my God, take them off – they should lose their jobs!” I think the hypersensitivity has gone too far, and it spoils it for the real cases. There are some abominable people out there with abominable thoughts; but if you’re going to faint like a Victorian maiden because somebody says a slightly ‘wrong’ word…. Poor old Christopher Biggins made some joke on Big Brother or something which was considered anti-semetic, I can’t remember what it was now, but he said he was frightfully sorry straight away, and he took himself off on holiday and a sort of pilgrimage to Auschwitz which made it worse in a way. He’s just an old-fashioned character.

What seems to happen is that some people choose to be the contrarian. “I am Rod Liddle, I will say dreadful things and I will be rude about Welsh lesbians and I won’t care” but others who are politicians or whatever choose to be vanilla, and it’s really easy to be zapped.

No normal person has 52 opinions a year – and you don’t want to go repeating yourself.

I know you’re a Reithian. What do you think is important to broadcast?

News, properly checked news. Analysis, as long as analysis is possible. Entertainment that brings people together, information – useful information, stuff you might not know you wanted to know but feel the better for knowing. I listened to a program this morning about a guy in France who makes concertinas and accordions, never knew it was so complicated. Some chap was saying that when you’d had a ‘box’, as they called them, at first it didn’t suit you – but the older it got the better it worked for you. I think we should be broadcasting odd bits of information like that, even on something light like Midweek.

After losing your son Nicholas to suicide, you explored the theme of grief in your fictional book Shadow Child, and posthumously published a collection of his poetry and writings. How has such grief informed your own work?

As you go through life, shit happens. And it always has an edge, any misfortune has an edge of information in it about other people, and how other people feel. When I wrote Shadow Child it wasn’t really about the grief, it was about something I’ve never felt myself: granny hunger. She wants a grandchild, she doesn’t want the line to stop. I know a lot of women who’ve been waiting for a grandchild - watch out for parents, especially the mothers. My mother really persecuted me to have babies when I’d only just first got married. So I was interested in that need, that feeling that you needed to go on.

But that wasn’t so much about grief. Doing Nicholas’ book was really because I found the writings, very few of which had been seen by anybody – he was very private; and I started transcribing them alone in the early mornings. I was sending them to Duncan Wu his tutor at Oxford who was very fond of him and spoke at his funeral; and Duncan came back and said, “you are publishing aren’t you”. And I said no, I work in journalism, I am forever interviewing people whose child died and they’re now publishing ‘Sally’s poems’, and they’re awful – that’s not what I want to do. And Duncan said, you haven’t got a choice. This is a testament, you have to publish. Then I thought about publishers, and of course I’ve published novels so I knew about publishers and talked to a couple, but they were just desperate for me and my misery. ‘A mother writes’. And I said no, no – no. This is his book, any narrative is about him, it’s his book. So we just decided to do it ourselves – and it still sells.

You learn a lot. My favourite thing is when young men write to me. When this young group did an Edinburgh festival show of it, I said “do what you like, but no suicide porn. It’s not about the suicide.” It was hilarious, they got all the jokes, the adventurousness, the doubts. And when young men say “it’s like having a new friend – we don’t say these things because we’re blokes.” (Although) I think the post-millennials do now. Boys get typecast as sex-obsessed, horny and laddish, going around in gangs keeping their rooms untidy and smelly and so on; but actually they’re among the most sensitive – and girls talk to each other all the bloody time about their feelings from infancy onwards – but boy’s don’t so much. When mothers write to me and say “my son’s taken the book off me and won’t give it back” – I just say well, you tell him: any suggestion of suicidal feeling and Nicholas will be fucking furious with him. There’s a glamour about suicide, so I like it when I get that response from young men because I feel like it’s useful. Everything leads into something.

How do you bring together your thoughts as an opinion writer? Is it a specific skill?

For The Times, we have a convo by about Thursday or Friday to think of a theme. I don’t just do social themes I sometimes do administrative themes like the sacking of the lifeboatmen, which is fascinating at the moment. I’ve now got masses of messages from the lifeboatmen saying the management of the RNLI has become nuts. But yes, you just think about it; I’d really like to write such and such, and then bloody Janice does something like that on Saturday. That used to be my motto, ‘William Rees-Mogg shot my fox’, because they don’t like two people writing on the same subject. Quite often you have to persuade them that there’s some point to what you have to say – and then those are the ones which get the biggest below the line stuff.

Of course there’s different kinds of journalists, freelancers remain about 25. There are the ones who shape media, great editors – Harry Evans etc. And there are the ones that work inside, checking, the reporters – and then the opinion merchants. I never wanted to be an opinion writer, no normal person has 52 opinions a year – and you don’t want to go repeating yourself.

You finish your book That Was Midweek That Was, an epitaph to the Midweek program you hosted for over four decades, with an anecdote about preparing for a show just after 9/11. Why?

The further away you are from these events, physically, probably the less they change you. You can’t overstate it. What we wanted to do on that morning, the reason I ended the book on it, was just to remind everyone that really most people are not hating anyone particularly, they’re getting on with their lives, their interests. We made everybody say one thing on it at the beginning of the program, and in fact the comedian Dave Gorman was the best, he said: “as soon as I heard, I just had to ring my mum. She’s not in America, I just had to ring my mum.”