The Times, June 14, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

John Humphrys has a reputation as the rottweiler of Today. But interrogating the interrogator, Ginny Dougary discovers a self-critical soul who talks of life, death, fear and fatherhood

John Humphrys

John Humphrys, the so-called rottweiler of Radio 4, is in fact a pussycat. This would have been more of a surprise if I were one of the six million-odd regular listeners of the Today programme, where Humphrys has honed his interrupting skills with filibustering politicians over the past 21 years, but since I can think of nothing less soothing than starting my day with the soundtrack of argumentative discourse on governmental policy, this is not the case.

Journalists tend to be the most unrewarding interviewees and in some respects Humphrys is no exception. He is more careful than the most circumspect politician, super-alert to the possibility that he might be tripped up by a trick question into revealing more than is good for him. I had no idea, for instance, that his job would make him quite so paranoid about discussing politics in any shape or form – which is a bit like interviewing Peter Hall and discovering that he will not comment on the future of theatre.

This means that we cannot talk about the rise of the New Tories other than in the blandest terms: “It’s exactly what happened in 1997, isn’t it? It’s the political wheel turning. It’s what happens. Whether it will continue…” Do you think it will? “Well, I wouldn’t like to offer a judgment about that. I can’t because I’m making a political judgment. I can’t. I really can’t. Do you see? I know it’s silly of me. It isn’t silly of me. No, it’s sensible.” Not for the first time, I have the sense that he is arguing with himself. “I know it’s boring.” It is a bit boring. “I’m sorry, but I can’t honestly say to you, ‘Yes, I think David Cameron is going to smash Gordon Brown at the next election.’” What he will say is: “We’ve had 13 years effectively of New Labour ascendancy – only 11 years in power, admittedly [he includes the last two years of Major’s reign] – but it will be 15 years by the time, if Brown is thrown out at the next election.” Which will be? “My guess is May 2010 but…” Are you good at such predictions? “Hopeless. Almost always get it wrong – hopeless.”

This “I’m hopeless” refrain is another surprise. I’ve never come across a man who puts himself down so frequently in a series of pre-emptive strikes against himself, and I had rather thought, but this was before our meeting, that Humphrys might suffer from a certain smug self-regard.

Referring to a live interview he did with Tracey Emin – who apparently told him that he was the rudest man she had ever met – he said, “I – with brilliant, startling originality – suggested to her that maybe she hadn’t won [the Turner prize] because it was an unmade bed and, you know, with the vast depth and knowledge that I have of art, was this hard?” They met again on Have I Got News for You when Humphrys was presenter – “I wasn’t very good. Well, they didn’t ask me back which proved I wasn’t very good. It was good fun but I was nervous. I was all right but I don’t have that… I don’t have the Boris [magic?]…” Another unfinished sentence. He doesn’t get to see the programme very often, he says, because (with his 3.30am wake-up call for Today) it’s too late for him.

We have a long verbal ramble around the tricky task of interviewing politicians. Why Humphrys continues to be essential listening for many journalists – and the reason why he is so popular with listeners generally – is that he simply will not allow politicians to waffle on without answering his questions. The alternative to not interrupting them would be to allow them to use their alloted slot to get their point across unchallenged. What is interesting is that Humphrys himself is a bit of a waffler.

His conversation is peppered with “Here’s another little digression” and “I’ll answer your question in a minute”. At one point I’m exasperated enough to interrupt The Great Interrupter himself: “Where is this going, John?” And several minutes later (bewildered): “I’m getting a bit… I don’t know where we’re going with this…” “I know. I know,” he says, then, “That’s not my fault, that’s your fault – you’re the interviewer,” which is a fair point, but then my rottweiler skills are clearly no match for his.

The point Humphrys seems to want to get across is that he has been unfairly cast as an aggressive interviewer. When he started out he admits that this was true: “I suppose I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a name for myself and prove that I’m tougher than anybody else.’” He still winces when I mention an interview with John Hume, then leader of SDLP, in 1993, which commentators described as particularly bullying. “It’s hard to bully John Hume because he’s a very tough guy and bright but, yeah, that was bad. I was trying to make a name for myself and I was showing off. The audience has an immense sense of fairness, spotted it instantly and quite rightly ripped me apart.”

He goes on to say: “There is a great myth, I think, about interviewing – and you’d expect me to say this, I know, and it’s a bit self-serving and the rest of it, given the kind of interviewer that I am seen to be – which is that if you were only a bit nicer to politicians and treat them with, give them…They will tell you all kinds of things they didn’t intend to say. That I think is absolute tosh because the kind of people that are likely to be interviewed, the ones in Cabinet or whatever, are very, very bright by and large, and know when they come on exactly what it is they want to say.

“And if you looked at every serious political interview I’d done over the past 21 years, a handful of those would have been pretty devastating for the politician, a handful will have resulted in utter demolition of the interviewer, and most of them will have been neither – which is a very ungrabby answer from your point of view, but it’s honestly the way it is.”

He says that learning about policies is secondary and that his primary mission is to leave the listener with a bit more insight into the character of the politician. There are plenty of political commentators who know far more than he does about what’s going on in Westminster. Humphrys has always maintained an outsider’s distance from those particular corridors but, “even if I do an interview that is information-light – where you don’t learn anything that will make a front-page splash on your newspaper the following morning – if I’ve done my job properly you will still have learnt something because what I try to do is get under the skin of the politician.”

In a chatty telephone conversation we had before meeting up, Humphrys mentioned a smart party he’d once attended with a girlfriend he was trying to impress. The host was David Frost, who welcomed him like a long-lost friend – although they had never met – asking about his two grown-up children by name. This was useful for gaining kudos points with his date, but what intrigued Humphrys was that Frost had been similarly briefed to greet every guest as he worked the room. Part of him was clearly impressed by such conscientious schmoozing but, I suspect, a greater part of him rather despised it. Certainly, he seems to have a bit of a thing about Frost since he has beefed about the man’s interviewing technique many times over the years.

He has no problem, he says – this is clearly, to use his own word, “tosh” – with the sort of interviewing that takes the form of “an agreeable conversation” where the Prime Minister or Chancellor is allowed to say whatever he likes: “Although I used to find it incredibly frustrating when I did On the Record and Frost came on before that and they got the biggest interviews, almost always.” You think it was an extension of public relations? “Well, that’s being a bit unkind, but it is, sort of.”

The most common complaint about the Today programme, he says, is that politicians never answer the question, so what is the point in having them on. Humphrys’ view is that a politician’s very inability to respond to a reasonable question reveals something about his or her character. He mentions a particular woman politician – “I’m not going to use names because I can’t, but everybody knows the particular minister – you only have to say her name and every editor and presenter would say ‘Oh God’ because of the way she handled interviews.

“It’s not only women, but this particular one treats the interviewer like an idiot and by extension treats the audience like an idiot, and the effect on her is immensely damaging. Patronising. ‘Look, I really have answered the question’ – ‘No you haven’t, so let me ask it again.’ What they’re doing is deliberately not answering the question and they’re fighting off every attempt on your part to learn a bit more about them and their approach – in a way that somebody like Thatcher, for instance, never did.”

Before we get on to Baroness Thatcher, I try my damndest to get Humphrys to reveal the name. My guess is Harriet Harman because of the interview she did as Social Security Secretary (1997-1998) when she refused at least 13 times to answer questions put to her by Humphrys after a leaked government document revealed plans for sweeping cuts in disability benefits. But when I ask him directly he says: “I’m not giving you a name – no, no, I’m really not – but, actually, no, I wasn’t thinking of Harriet Harman.”

He has had a number of journalistic heroes over the years. Brian Redhead, whom he joined on the Today programme, was a “superb interviewer” – he rolls out the word “sooopurb” sounding very Welsh – “the best all-round broadcaster the BBC’s ever had. At his peak, he was my role model. And to be sitting next to Brian Redhead! My God, I couldn’t get over it. Brian Walden was another kind of hero, quite different, but also superb.” Charles Wheeler, the BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent (whose barrister daughter, Marina, is married to Boris Johnson), is up there, too.

Wheeler’s name comes up in the context of Mrs T – “I don’t know whether Charles will thank me for telling this story…” Do go on. “It was when she was doing her Iron Lady thing and made that extraordinary trip to Moscow. A British prime minister going to the heart of the communist enemy’s camp – you know – and they came out in their thousands. She’d left London at four in the morning, flown here and there, meetings, doing all those walkabouts. She was making history and Charles and I were both waiting to interview her at the British Embassy.

“It must have been about midnight when she came into the room, walked straight up to Charles – ignored me totally – and you could see the electricity flowing. Charles is a man who holds a certain appeal to women – always has done anyway – and you could see the sparks bouncing between them. They might almost have been making love. It was wonderful and I just sat there going, ‘Wow!’” Did you say anything to him afterwards? “God no! He was one of my heroes. I was intimidated by him.”

He was also intimidated by the lady herself. This was pre-Today, in the years when he was a foreign correspondent and he was keenly aware that there were big gaps in his political knowledge: “I’d never worked in Westminster, I wasn’t part of that scene… She had a fearsome reputation obviously and she was, indeed, terrifying. She really did have that aura of power around her.”

Can you convey that to me? “The way she looked at you was interesting, because once you started the interview, she would not look into your eyes but at a point in the middle of your forehead and she would talk to you like this [gazing at my forehead] ‘I really think, Mr Humphrys, that was a very foolish question.’ Oh…” he almost shudders, “she was just terrifying and took me apart. Oh yes, absolutely. It doesn’t help if you begin the interview scared of the person you’re interviewing because you will blow it.”

All these references to Humphrys being terrified and intimidated go along with his anxiety to prove that he is not as aggressive as his reputation. Being a clever chap, he is probably aware that humanising himself by displaying his own vulnerabilities might make for a more sympathetic portrait. There is something else going on here, too. One of his more interesting questions to me was whether I thought he was still a bully, and I pointed out his first words when I arrived at the Hammersmith home he shares with his partner, Valerie Sanderson – a News 24 presenter – and their eight-year-old son Owen. He had asked me how I was and I said “Good, thanks.” “Oh,” he said. “You’ve obviously not read my books [on the abuses of the English language]. I hate that Americanism.” I retorted that this response was, in fact, an Australianism and a good-natured wrangle ensued. But if I were a different sort of personality might this “welcome”, at the very least, not have been almost guaranteed to put one off one’s stride? He says that as a reader of my pieces (another adroit ego-massaging touch), and having spoken on the phone, he knew that I was not the timid type. But the longer we spoke around the table of his Country Living kitchen, the more biddable he became. At one point, when he had got up to answer his phone for the third time, I said crossly: “Could you please turn it off, you naughty boy,” and he meekly replied: “I will.”

Bob Humphrys, one of John’s three siblings (the youngest, Christine, died when he was four), gave a joint interview back in 1995 and talked about how they had recently spent a couple of weekends together, “talking about how our background has made us what we are today. Occasionally I become very morose and introverted, and John revealed he feels the same way.”

When I asked him what his brother meant by this, Humphrys said he had no idea. But, as he admits, he has a shockingly bad memory. On the telephone, he confessed that he had recently forgotten the name of one of his guests on the Today programme and had an awkward moment trying to cover it up. “I do not have a very good memory,” he said, “which is one of the reasons why I try not to tell lies.”

There is nothing remotely morose or introverted about the Humphrys I meet. On the contrary, he is immensely likeable – warm, engaged, with a ready smile and great bursts of laughter. He does have a sense of humour, although his own attempts at jokes are a bit awkward, something I remember from his hosting the press awards one year. In our interview, he launches into a bizarre riff about his radio personality: “Everybody knows that I am a sunny, eternally optimistic, switched on, ‘down there with the hoods’ or whatever the expression is, so I don’t attempt to conceal it. Frankly the difference between Evan Davis [the openly gay presenter of the Today programme] and me, well you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between us. Me and Evan, we’re out clubbing every night, we go to the same kind of clubs, we enjoy the same kind of music…” What is this very long joke? “Yes, all right,” he says. “It’s not very funny, is it?”

But it is only when we move away from the politics to the personal that he really opens up and, in particular, about that background which cannot help but have formed him. He was born and brought up in the unlovely-sounding Splott, a working-class area of Cardiff. His mother, Winifred, was a hairdresser and his father, Edward, was a self-employed French polisher who voted Tory until Thatcher. Despite both of his parents working long hours, there were times of real hardship when the children went to bed hungry. He has said that the priority was always to make sure the breadwinner – his father – was fed before anyone else. He grew up to the sound of his parents arguing (nearly always about money), and he never remembers them once addressing each other by name. There was one particularly dreadful night when his father wept, which Humphrys now assumes was the start of a nervous breakdown.

John was the bright one of the family who got into the local grammar school, where he was miserable (one of the reasons he left at 15 to become a reporter) and keenly aware of being the only boy in his class to have an outside loo, as he probably did not call it then. In his street there was never a question of going into each other’s houses for the luxury of afternoon tea, so when he was invited to a classmate’s house – he even remembers the boy’s name, Bolton; it was the sort of school where pupils addressed each other by their surnames – the experience made quite an impression. “It was a beautiful place with a lovely back garden and I remember a stream. From the point of view of somebody who’d been brought up the way I was, it was indescribably comfortable. There was sugar in a bowl and milk in a jug and jam, jam in a nice thing, and different sorts of jam and… It was wonderful. I was enormously jealous, of course.”

He describes his father as always being “a hard man. There was no sense of being loving – I mean he never hugged me.” Are you huggy with Owen? “Oh yeah, all the time. He probably gets fed up with it. No, actually, I don’t think he does. He likes it. Well, anyway…” Whenever Humphrys talks about his boy, his face creases with tenderness. He admits to being completely besotted.

Back to his father whose ghastly final years have prompted Humphrys to write a new book on dying. Although alcoholism runs in the family – both his grandfather and uncle died of it, and he reckons he was in danger of becoming one himself back in the double-martini-lunchtime of journalism – Humphrys’ father was never a big drinker. But after his wife died, Edward’s personality changed and he started drinking a bottle and a half of Scotch every day. It took a while for the family to realise that he was descending into dementia. He wasn’t forgetful or walking into the street half-naked, but “he was incredibly cruel to my sister, who cared for him and was a wonderful, fabulous woman”.

Did you ever feel like punching him? “Yes.” Did you? “Good God, no. Towards the end, I disliked him intensely at times but because he was so incredibly strong physically we didn’t recognise what was happening to his brain, and his last years – and it was ten long years – were awful, absolutely bloody awful.”

Towards the end, he refused to live with anyone, refused to go into a home, tried to drink himself to death, collapsed and was rushed into hospital where he stopped eating in his desperation to end his misery. But, of course, this was not an option so in went the drips and his father carried on surviving. He lasted six weeks in a home before being transferred to a mental hospital “which was hideous. He spent most of the day shouting, just shouting. It was hell.

“In the end, we did find him a home where they were good and humane and decent but still… It shouldn’t have happened. He was a man who prized… he went blind when he was young and all those things, and dignity mattered to him more than anything. They used to call him The Count.” Was he aware that he’d lost his dignity? “Absolutely. It was the ultimate torture, in some ways, utter helplessness and I know that if I’d been able to give him a glass of something…”, a sentence that doesn’t need an ending.

He remained friendly with his wife, Edna, after their split in the late Eighties (some years after he first met Val) and he says: “I will always feel guilty because it wasn’t all that long after we divorced that she got cancer.” He was in the room with her when she died. “I couldn’t talk to her because by the time I arrived she was unconscious but they are so bloody brilliant in these hospices. It was a big room that she was in and it was nine o’clock at night. They hadn’t turned on the lights and there was this soft light coming in from the corridor. I was sitting at the window in the corner and the nurse who came in didn’t see me. She bent over to her and stroked her forehead and talked to her and obviously my wife couldn’t hear her but she just said something and, you know, it felt like… love. If I could have done, I would have gone over and hugged the nurse. Every so often there was that sighing noise that dying people make, fairly steady and then ‘ahhhhh’ and then…”

Do you fear death yourself? “Yeah. I think most people do. It’s a cliché but you fear what’s going to come afterwards, even though I don’t think anything will come afterwards. Fear is probably the wrong word but I don’t want to die.” Humphrys will be 65 in August. He still runs regularly, plays tennis – there are courts opposite his home – and with second dadhood he seems to have shrugged off much of his grumpy old man persona. He bounces around the kitchen in his black jeans and trainers like a super-energised Tigger. His present contract with the Today programme ends in February 2009 but he sees no reason why he shouldn’t continue doing what he’s doing until he’s 80: “Assuming I could contain the dribbling.”

He admits that he was nervous about starting a family all over again, “whether I might resent this little kid for buggering up my life as it were.” But this time round, he was there for the birth and “it was a wonderful, yes, wonderful thing to see and to be handed this little bundle.” It’s Owen, he says, who has reversed the inflexibility that tends to come with the onset of later years. “The opposite has happened to me because of him. He’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

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John Humphrys speaks at the Althorp Literary Festival on June 14; for further information, call 01604 770107. In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist, Hodder, £7.99