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The Midweek programme has been hooked offstage by the Radio 4 Controller
Midweek was born in the late Seventies, with Desmond Wilcox as chairman
In a memorable interview Joan Rivers angrily encountered activist Darcus Howe
Published: 00:48 GMT, 18 March 2017 | Updated: 00:49 GMT, 18 March 2017
Like a red-nosed old variety artist, the Midweek programme has finally been hooked offstage by the Radio 4 Controller (the seventh since the programme started).
So why write its obituary? After all, it is nothing but a loose chain of not particularly newsworthy interviews and light conversations, a nine o’clock relief after the rat-a-tat news and conflict of the Today programme.
I found myself suddenly aware that I had presented it for up to 45 weeks each year, for 33 years. Years which span, with pleasing neatness, a bit over half my time on this planet.
Like a red-nosed old variety artist, the Midweek programme has finally been hooked offstage by the Radio 4 Controller (the seventh since the programme started)
I have hosted Midweeks through the birth of one child and the death two decades later of another, the loss of both parents and a brother.
I have found solace in work by continuing through two bouts of clinical depression, four house moves and ten years assisting incompetently with my husband’s horse-drawn organic farm, frequently breaking off from wrestling with my research notes to chase sheep. But always Midweek returned each autumn as the swallows flew south.
There must have been around 6,000 guests. Though some, admittedly, turned up more than once. So, I thought OK: give the old show a biography in case nobody else does.
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I deserve at least the corner of a dusty glass case in the Museum of Lost Radio. And I can at least say that I did this show for ten years longer than Hilda Ogden was on Coronation Street.
I thought further, and reflected sadly that I would actually be happier if the Controller had kept the programme and just ditched me for a new presenter. This moment of personal obsolescence, after all, is something all sane presenters half-expect at every contract time.
BIRDBRAINED IDEA TO MELT HITLER'S HEART
Harman Grisewood, a pioneering announcer and founder of the Third Programme, was an irresistibly light-hearted spirit.
I loved his memory of the BBC’s second Director-General, Sir Frederick Ogilvie, who wanted to relay to Germany the famous 1924 recording of the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing to the nightingales in a Surrey garden. The idea was to soften Hitler’s heart. ‘Yes, it’s amusing,’ said Ogilvie, ‘but he took it very seriously indeed. Said the Germans are a sentimental race, and if they heard this nightingale they would be moved to tears.
‘I thought this was rather rot . . . because I’d taken the trouble to go to Berlin to see what was going on. A fellow announcer went with me, and we told the Director-General that it was pretty grim.’
But I didn’t feel that Midweek itself deserved the heave-ho. It had grown over the years — organically, largely accidentally — into something different and rather fascinating: a casual meeting place for people of utterly different experiences and qualities, who surprisingly often bond and find shared human ground.
This is where Thora Hird met Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden; where Denis Healey, ex-chancellor, was introduced to the principal of the London School of Striptease; where plodding old Ken from Coronation Street, Bill Roache, struck up a friendship with the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta.
Here Frank Zappa and Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains met and stayed friends; here Damon Albarn first met the artist Suzi Winstanley, who’s become his long-term partner.
People faff about devising exciting new ‘formats’ for broadcast shows, but this one had a perfectly simple chemistry.
Because it was live, everyone round that table knew they were in the same boat, vibrating the same frequency for all to hear. Because the show wasn’t in a wire-strangled overlit TV studio but in a small hutch with sound-absorbing walls, nobody was self-conscious about the way they looked.
The mix of guests — often an accident because someone suddenly became available and someone else dropped out — had a curious and benign effect, in which oft-interviewed celebrities or people of power expressed a different side of themselves.
This is not because of any skill of mine but because they were sitting next to an astrophysicist, a woman who raised a score of foster-children, someone who walked across Antarctica or survived kidnap and war. Sometimes it was simply someone doing a useful and unsung job: community midwifery, a census of estuary seals, road planning.
Another memorable interview was with Sheridan Smith, explaining how she got the chihuahua to leap into her handbag seven times a week without fail in Legally Blonde: The Musical
It is also my contention that my job was not to challenge them, Today-style, on every point (unless they were actually Nazi or libellous). The point was to encourage them to be the strongest possible flavour of themselves, so that listeners could make their own judgments. My argument was, and remains (though it’s unpopular in these days of hysterical over-reaction), that Midweek was more like a natural History programme.
Sir David Attenborough would not challenge a badger — ‘Why do you eat hedgehogs? They do you no harm! And what’s that silly black and white striped snout about?’
Rather he would say, ‘Shhhh … quiet …keep very still and the badger might come out further so we can have a good look at him.’
Listeners are not stupid. They can decide who they like and who they don’t.
In the same way, if you are interviewing someone who claims to have been snatched by aliens, it is always more enlightening to ask ‘What did they look like? Did they give you anything to eat?’ than to say ‘I don’t believe you’.
THE 'NUTTERS ON WEDNESDAY'
The three Radio 4 shows punctuating the week got their nicknames in the late Eighties.
Richard Branson had been on Start The Week and, as it happened, his auntie Clare Hoare, who kept rare black sheep in Norfolk, was on Midweek two days later. Branson reportedly said to her: ‘Yeah, I was on Pluggers, on Monday, and you were on Nutters on Wednesday.’
So the shows became ‘Pluggers’, ‘Nutters’ and (for Robert Robinson’s argumentatively eloquent Stop The Week) ‘W*****s’.
Challenges are for news, for demanding answers from the powerful. I can do that too, and grew up doing it on Today. But it wasn’t the point. The point was to catch the gamey, honest, fascinating human flavour.
So, I have enjoyed this curious programme, which has weathered many a sneer. Some radio critics hate it. Some general commentators — God bless the Guardian newspaper, the people’s friend! — drop disdainful references to ‘middlebrow tosh’.
But to hell with all that: we held up, with our two million-plus listeners, sometimes beating the more chin-strokingly respectable In Our Time and Start The Week.
It has been fun. I’ve groaned at a particularly dense, difficult set of books and research notes (it’s like doing an A-level in a hurry some weeks, when it’s Ethiopian history or astrophysics). But it is over now — or will be on March 29.
Midweek was born sometime in the late Seventies, with Desmond Wilcox as chairman. I also seem to recall a bizarre period when Sylvia Syms hosted it, but it may be a bad dream. By the time the BBC gave it to Russell Harty in 1979, and then asked me to be a ‘guest interviewer’ sidekick, the show’s reputation was so poor that my husband Paul said: ‘I wouldn’t bother. Midweek never did anyone any favours.’
But Russell Harty’s eccentric charm rescued Midweek. Sitting near him as he rambled obliquely through the guest list was marvellously educative and refreshing.
It taught me about the value of the apparently vague question, and the need to deviate from the notes and research when an interesting trail opened up.
On one occasion, Russell neatly filleted the purity campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who tended to go on a bit about how she represented the Decent Moral Ordinary Housewife’s Point Of View. Russell, with that childlike inquisitiveness which could never offend but always hit the mark, suddenly asked apropos nothing: ‘Do you do a lot of cooking, Mary?’ Her startled reply made it instantly crystal clear that she had not been any kind of ‘ordinary housewife’ for many years, but a tough, full-time, seasoned one-note lobbyist.
Some time after Russell left, the producer championed me for the Midweek chair. But Monica Sims, the Radio 4 Controller at the time, was against the idea and had seemingly blocked it, to the point that, in frustration, I managed to get an interview in her office to ask her why. (She had, by the way, earlier disliked the idea of me becoming a presenter on the Today programme, and was overruled.)
At first Monica Sims denied having anything to do with vetoing me for Midweek, then said something along the lines of, ‘Well, I prefer you doing documentaries’.
I explained that Radio 4 documentaries, which I would still make, were such lovingly crafted things that they paid less per hour than babysitting or cleaning windows. I never forgot her response: ‘Oh, is money an issue then? But you’re married …’
So much for Seventies women in management. Or maybe it was just me she didn’t like. Fair enough. Anyway, she gave in and I began.
Sometimes the 20 minutes or so in the ‘green room’, where guests gathered before the show, were useful. They gave you an indication of who might be shy, who was grumpy, who was eloquent and who was monosyllabic.
It was rarely what you would expect. The most nervous guest ever was Lord Snowdon, and some of the most confident were people who had never been interviewed before.
Only a very few guests have been dislikeable or dull. Most have shown me what grace there can be in humanity — and how listening to one another in company is a hopeful and healing thing. The guests who really made things hard were the ones who didn’t want to listen to the other three, and who emanated a weird sort of chilly disapproval as if they had been forced by their PRs to do this pathetic show.
They have been very rare, but my remembered shudders are about the union leader Clive Jenkins, who radiated disapproval of all the rest of us, and Christina Foyle of the famous bookshop, who answered monosyllabically and with disdain, and did not appear to listen to any of the others.
It was difficult, too, when a guest (invariably a male rock star) would not remove his sunglasses, which slightly alienated the rest of the room.
HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A RACIST! THE DAY JOAN RIVERS BLEW HER TOP ON AIR...
One of the most relaxing, jovial presences in any studio is ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond.
He’s been on Midweek twice: frank and interesting about growing up as a Mormon and helping his family through tricky times, but also so visibly pleased to meet everyone else that before the show he offers to hand round the tea and eagerly asks: ‘What are you gonna talk about? You’ve written a book? Awesome!’
It is amazing how happy this makes people.
Rarest of all are the moments of actual hostility on air, and I suppose I should relate the most famous — the encounter between Joan Rivers and the black activist Darcus Howe.
He had made a programme about tracing a son he didn’t live with as a child but found as a young adult. Joan was increasingly restive about this ‘babyfather’ history and gradually took against his campaigning stance. It proceeded thus:
Joan: ‘I’m so bored with race, I think we should all . . .’
Darcus: ‘You are entitled to be bored by it, I am not.’
Joan: ‘Yes you are, yes you are, let me explain, I think people should intermarry, everyone should be part this, part that and part everything, and race doesn’t mean a damn thing, it’s about people . . . everybody just relax, take the best of their back cultures and move forward.’
Me (emolliently, without effect): ‘That’s a very American approach, a melting-pot approach . . .’
Darcus (loudly): ‘America is one of the most savagely racial places . . . So since “black” offends Joan . . .’
Joan: ‘Wait — no — just stop right now! Black does not offend me — how dare you! How dare you say that! Black offends me? You know nothing about me — you sat down here and . . .! The USE of the term black offends me? — where the hell are you coming from, you have got such a chip on your shoulder, I don’t give a damn if you are black, white, couldn’t care less, it’s what the person is — don’t you dare call me a racist — I don’t know you.’
Me (deciding to calm things down a bit): ‘I don’t think it was personal, Joan.’
Joan: ‘Oh, I think it was! When someone says the term black offends Joan! I will not sit there and have you say that.’
Darcus: ‘I think this is a language problem.’
Joan: ‘No, I don’t. I think this is a problem in your stoopid head. You had a child, you left them, your wife said you weren’t there, you married a woman, you deserted her, now your son comes back and he’s got problems — Don’t you dare call me a racist — don’t you dare. I will not . . .’
Me: ‘I have great sympathy with both sides.’ [Actually, I really did: Darcus was being patronising, but Joan was overreacting.]
Joan: ‘Sympathy? Then YOU’RE a racist! (to Darcus) Don’t you dare call me that! Son of a bitch!’
It quietened down, but Joan was so genuinely angry that — scheduled to do her interview next — she said she would rather be on at the end.
So I looked at the fourth guest, an eminent botanical photographer, who was sitting there frozen in horror.
And I said: ‘OK, let’s turn to talking about plant photography.’
Afterwards, the phones went mad, and I had to go on the PM programme and explain that no, I really didn’t think it was my job to prevent this happening. These were grown people, both genuinely aggrieved, on a grown-up channel. I was not their nanny. They had a right to say what they felt.
Midway through the afternoon Joan Rivers rang me at home in Suffolk and said: ‘Hey, honey. Sorry. Did I call that guy an asshole, on the BBC??’
‘No, Joan. Sonofabitch.’
‘Oh, thank Gaaaad!’
Frankly, if we’d had Jimmy Osmond at the table, it would probably never have kicked off so viciously at all. He would have said ‘awesome’ and we’d all have felt thoroughly hygge again. Maybe.
But occasionally you got someone who — without meaning to at all — utterly intimidated the rest of the group to the point that when he left the room afterwards an excited chatter broke out, exactly as if the headmaster had swept out of a particularly fraught assembly.
The most striking of these was Enoch Powell. He didn’t intend to create this vacuum of joviality but effortlessly did. Not least because of his response, when politely and shyly asked in the green room by the poor researcher (in fetching leopard-print leggings) whether he would like the Gents before the show.
Enoch fixed her with those extraordinary hypnotic blue eyes and said in that high, otherworldly voice: ‘No … I speak with more passion on a full bladder.’
Some moments are bathed now in my mind in golden legend, yet they really happened.
The late Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, who deployed a pleasingly antique judicial manner and a fine West Country accent, was on in the early days alongside a newly crowned Miss UK.
I was chuntering on, asking her ordinary questions, when he suddenly took over with all the majesty of the Bench. ‘How long does it take you to get dressed for your pageants?’
She was a sparky girl, and replied: ‘Dunno, how long does it take to get into your judge kit?’
‘Oh, a long time sometimes, if I am in my Gold Robes. There are tights, you see.’
At this point it befits a presenter to sit very, very still and quiet and hope against hope that the pair of them will get onto comparing suspender-belt technique.
We haven’t had much swearing. People tend to know they shouldn’t do it on Radio 4 at nine in the morning. So whenever they do, it is memorable.
Especially when unexpected: you can warn off all the comedians but then find that an elderly marine biologist, telling about an encounter with a Scottish fisherman, drops the man’s instinctive F-word into a quote.
The one really gratuitous F-word came from Jeremy Irons, when I was probably annoying him by talking about the very establishment-toff parts he’d been playing since Brideshead Revisited.
‘Do you ever feel you want to break out and do something different?’
‘Like saying f*** on the radio?’ he replied — and instantly regretted it.
I made no comment and moved on. I always do — though, officially we’re supposed to ‘apologise to the audience on behalf of the guest’, an instruction which I consider downright creepy.
Mind you, in the Eighties, there was a BBC diktat that you couldn’t say ‘b****r’ in a southern accent, but it was all right to say ‘booger’ if you were Northern.
No, I have no idea whether that still applies. Best not to ask.
But it is remarkable how little people actually do swear and how rarely they get aggressive.
Vinnie Jones was gentle as a lamb, and when I flailed for a moment over relating a famous moment when the footballer grabbed a fellow player by his … er … male … er …intimate parts, it was Vinnie who chipped in politely.
He finished my sentence with ‘threepenny bits’.
What a gent.
Unlike the American general who, talking about Vietnam, annoyed me first of all by his boast that he always made sure troops under him got ‘clean whores’.
I didn’t challenge that, though I should have. But a moment later, when he was saying how hard the war was for his guys, I murmured that it was pretty hard for the Vietnamese, too.
He went silent, then in the green room after the programme turned to me, looming over a chestful of invisible medals, and said loudly, ‘You, ma’am, are a bitch!’
Yep. In that context, proud to be.
Sir David Attenborough was on Midweek, not long after his wife’s death. I asked him whether wildlife made him happy, and he talked with eloquence about sitting in an Australian hide, watching egrets, ducks, crocodiles and kangaroos.
My next question came up from somewhere unplanned. Somewhere not unrelated to my own loss of my 23-year-old son Nicholas, who committed suicide in 2006.
‘Is there — consolation in that?’
‘Yes,’ he said quietly. ‘That’s the word. There is a sort of consolation. In moments of personal trouble, and trial, there is huge consolation in looking out and seeing that there is actually a robin, come to sit on your windowsill, as it has and always will . . . Yes, consolation is the word.’ The moment meant a lot; the geese flying over our marshes in Suffolk console me still.
Occasionally, it is not one of the guests but the presenter who is momentarily torpedoed by a line.
The time around Nicholas’s suicide — which was prefigured by a few years of growing, unexpressible, inchoate anxiety — was a vulnerable period for me.
A few weeks before it happened, a line from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian was quoted by a guest: ‘When the lambs is lost in the mountain . . . they is cry. Sometime come the mother, sometime the wolf.’
I felt that wolf prowling round my son, and though I had no idea of the form the monster would take, the line stopped me dead for a moment.
After Nicholas died, there was some anxiety expressed about how I would deal with guests with parallel or allied stories to tell. Should they keep away from suicides, lost children, any children?
I firmly, indeed arrogantly, told the producer that he must pull no punches. The presenter’s feelings are simply not the point: as a mad old proverb from my childhood goes: ‘Be not a baker if your head be made of butter!’
The producer took me at my word, and I found myself able to deal with the hardest of stories, indeed was often fortified by them and by the astonishing human ability to accept fate.
But shock can come at you from left-field, from the blind spot, suddenly.
The only time I had to choke back a rising flood of inappropriate personal emotion was when David Shepherd, the wildlife artist and conservationist, began talking with pride about his nine grandchildren, and the pleasure of watching enthusiasms and talents flowing on down the generations.
And suddenly there was the awareness in me, not fully realised before, that one branch of our own small family would never flower now.
But hell, you carry on to the next topic. And if I never felt such choked hesitations, it would be wrong. One is not a Vulcan.
To mark the 50 years that the Duke of Edinburgh had been associated with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, we invited him on to Midweek for a special broadcast, live from the museum.
HRH rolled up in his transport of choice, a black London taxi he drove himself.
I’d been on the museum’s board with the Duke and knew a little of his ways and tastes. So when it was suggested by the BBC we should invite alongside him some eminent people of his generation, random admirals or whoever, I said: ‘No, he likes the young.’
So we booked a Sea Harrier jet pilot who had landed safely after his cockpit dome exploded, and a young woman merchant officer who was shot and injured defending her crew from bandits.
The Duke loved it. Talked about life after the unexpected accession of the Queen (‘One just gets on with it’) and the Navy and his love of the museum. Wrote me a note afterwards saying that it was more fun than being interviewed ‘all on one’s own’.
Who knew? All those years talking to the likes of Gyles Brandreth about playing fields or world wildlife, and he’s been pining for the chat-show circuit?
The best moment, however, was after the show. He had asked the injured woman officer, ‘Where did the bullet hit you?’
‘In the breast, sir!’ She indicated the oblique glancing shot which had got her.
Afterwards, Prince Philip laughed and said to me: ‘So you’ll tell me that women are good for the front line? I’m telling you,’ (his hand made a whizzing motion past his flat chest) ‘if she’d been a bloke — would’ve gone right past her!’
Despite the joke, though, his respect for the young woman officer was palpable. Especially when I asked, ‘Could you have got away?’ and she replied, shocked, that she had her watch to defend. He liked that.
Two Christmases running in the early Nineties, we did the programme from our own farm kitchen in Suffolk. The most memorable encounter around our kitchen table was between Germaine Greer and Bruce Smith, chief groom at a prison stud which did great work with young offenders.
Anyway, the programme went fine. But Bruce didn’t really take to Germaine, since in the chat before the programme she had told off our producer Ronni for not being really emancipated.
Why? Because Ronni had never tasted her own menstrual blood. ‘If it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby,’ Germaine told her.
After the programme, she headed off promptly, and Bruce stayed on to talk horses with my husband Paul.
As he finally left, he glanced at a twig broomstick propped outside the back door.
‘She left her transport, then?’
Another memorable interview was with Sheridan Smith, explaining how she got the chihuahua to leap into her handbag seven times a week without fail in Legally Blonde: The Musical.
‘I hide pieces of meat all around my person,’ she said gaily. ‘You should smell me after the show.’
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