'... But With Respect' by Sir Robin Day - review by Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

The Knight Historical

'... But With Respect'


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 302pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

At the beginning of his career as a television interviewer Robin Day was criticised for being too disrespectful of his subjects. By the end – or rather by the present day, because Sir Robin’s long and glorious career is not yet over – he was criticised for being too chummy with them. This collection of interview transcripts spanning more than thirty years enables one to judge whether it was Robin Day himself who changed, or the public’s perception of the correct degree of respect in an interviewer. The answer quite clearly is the latter. Robin Day’s interviewing style remains remarkably consistent over the years: in fact it is impossible to see now, reading those famous early interviews with Harold Macmillan and President Nasser, what any viewer could possibly have objected to. Perhaps it was the fact that he was asking questions at all – in those deferential days, before ‘the public’ developed any sense of its own importance, it was felt improper for a mere man in the street to demand answers from a Head of Government.

How far the media has altered the political game can be illustrated from Day’s 1964 interview with the then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Day asked him whether, as the papers had suggested, he would engage in a television debate with Harold Wilson, and Douglas-Home replied: ‘I’m not particularly attracted by, so to speak, confrontations of personality. If we aren’t careful, you know, you will get a sort of (what’s it called?) Top of the Pops contest – I daresay I should win it, I’m not sure. But at any rate, I’m not really attracted by this. You’d then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter.’ How prescient he was!

The interviews Day seems to be fondest of are the ones where he feels he is ‘well-matched’ with his subject, for instance, Lord Hailsham, Lord Shawcross or Enoch Powell. I notice these are the ones in which Day’s questions seem to be much longer than the answers, and in fact they are by far the weakest in the book – a couple of old clever clogs showing off. No – where Day is at his best is when he’s having a tough time, up against Mrs Thatcher in full spate, or Edward Heath at his sulkiest. Then, far more than when he is being ‘clever’, you notice the speed of his intellect, the breadth of his knowledge, his perfect judgement of how far to let the conversation go down an interesting sidetrack before pulling it back to the subject at hand. Of course there is no question of him or anyone ‘winning’ an interview with Mrs Thatcher, but Robin Day, like his nearest rival Jeremy Paxman, is best when he is losing. Incidentally, the two interviews with Mrs Thatcher in this book, one from 1983 and the other from 1987, show how alarmingly her character changed in the course of her premiership. In the first, she is combative, authoritative, occasionally high-handed but still capable of listening to a question and answering it; in the second, she is practically gibbering like a madwoman in her desperate attempt not to let Day get a word in edgeways. And she finishes by giving Robin Day a compliment every good interviewer would rather not hear: ‘I can cope with you,’ she tells him.

Many of the interviews in this book were conducted live, and suffer – I would say suffer though Day would disagree – from being too newsy, too caught up in the headlines of the day. Thus his first ever interview with John Major, in 1992, is largely concerned with the nine days’ wonder of Jennifer’s Ear and his 1972 interview with Edward Heath gets bogged down in the exact provisions of the new pay freeze. Such topics may be of interest to historians, but they seem fusty now. Day of course believes that interviews should be about ‘the issues’ and has scant desire to probe personality. Nevertheless he is surprisingly good at it when he does: getting Roy Jenkins to admit that ‘honestly’ his accent was no different from his father’s was a little gem. Even better was his interview with Lord Lambton in 1973, three days after Lambton resigned from the Heath government after being found in bed with two prostitutes. It was the first – and last – time Day had ever raised the subject of sex in an interview and he obviously found it acutely embarrassing, especially as Lambton’s eleven-year-old son was in the room throughout. Lambton, however, seemed unruffled and, whether intentionally or not, put Day on the spot and neatly showed up the falsity of the conventional ‘man of the world’ position when Day asked him: ‘Why should a man of your social position and charm and personality have to go to whores for sex?’ Lambton responded: ‘I think that people sometimes like variety. I think it’s as simple as that and I think that impulse is probably understood by almost everybody. Don’t you?’ Alas the transcript form doesn’t allow us to deduce the precise meaning of that ‘Don’t you?’ but it is noticeable that Day immediately changes the subject.

Each interview in the book is preceded by an introduction, setting it in its contemporary context, and providing a usually Pooterish puff for the epoch-making importance of the event. Day has never suffered from false, or perhaps from any, modesty and makes very free with the adjective ‘historical’. Through these introductions, too, one can trace the running gag of The Name. This is evidently a matter of extraordinary’ importance to Sir Robin. His first Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, called him Mr Day. Harold Wilson, however, called him Robin, which was a mark of how far he had come. Jim Callaghan called him Robin off-screen, but insisted on calling him Mr Day on, because, he explained, ‘I don’t care for too much mateyness on the television between interviewer and interviewee. Otherwise the viewer will get the impression it is a set-up job.’ Mrs Thatcher also called him Mr Day – apparently forgetting that in 1981 she had awarded him a knighthood – or ‘the’ knighthood as Day always calls it.

How important is Sir Robin Day? Well obviously not as important as he thinks himself – nobody could be – but pretty important nonetheless. He virtually invented the television political interview and made it something worth watching, something that viewers would tune in to and talk about afterwards, that newspapers would comment on, and therefore something that politicians needed to do. Some people of course deplore this trend and think that we were happier when politicians existed in some remote empyrean above the gaze of the common man, but that seems to me as futile as lamenting the demise of the three-masted schooner. Day’s additional achievement was to make the political interview genuinely popular while nevertheless making no concessions to the intellect of the average television-viewer. I’m not quite sure how he managed this but it was partly, I suppose, by looking interesting and also by keeping up a good sort of ding-dong rhythm which somehow kept boredom at bay. He introduced new standards of hard questioning, not the ‘Could you be so kind as to tell us, Prime Minister, whether you enjoyed your trip to Africa’ forelock-tugging that had prevailed before. He was always brilliantly prepared and dauntingly well-informed and he brought a sort of grace to the interviewing process which few of his successors have managed to emulate. However, Bernard Levin, whose 1980 interview with Day forms the tailpiece of the book, pinpointed the major fault of the political interview as practised by Day. Day admits that there is virtually nothing he could ask a politician that he or she hadn’t been asked before, and Levin counters, ‘But doesn’t it then become a game, really? Almost like, in some respects, but only in some respects, advocacy in a courtroom: that everybody knows the rules?’

Day’s answer is not very convincing. He reckons he may sometimes elicit a new fact, or a new aperçu on an old problem, but it is not much. He admits himself that Thatcher and Kinnock between them virtually killed the political interview by turning it into a platform speech, in Thatcher’s case by simply ignoring the questions. Nowadays baby politicians in their prams know how to demolish interviewers and thus Day’s rule that ‘Questioning should be tenacious but civil. I shudder to watch interviewers who think it clever to be snide, supercilious or downright offensive’ seems to me like fighting tanks with cavalry. The only way to jolt a politician into telling the truth these days is to rattle him so much that he forgets his set text. The interviewer will then, like Robin Day in the Fifties and Sixties, like Jeremy Paxman in the Nineties, be excoriated by viewers for his rudeness but at least he will have avoided the pit of boredom into which all political interviews are only too liable to sink.

Robin Day’s title, ‘…But With Respect’, is not, I think, meant ironically: he does respect politicians, and would have liked to be one himself. This is both his weakness and strength. He plays them at their own game by their own rules and he plays very well, but by conceding so much he limits his own power. I believe the political interviewers of the future will have to be more subversive, less respectful, more keenly attuned to the viewers and less to the politicians than Sir Robin. Nevertheless he was, and always will be, the first, and so has earned the right to his little ‘historical’.

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