Eddie Mair: Why Kirsty Wark has a cattle prod was never explained to me, but it did the trick

"There was a slightly startled look about my eyes but, frankly, I have that all the time after 9pm"


It’s holiday time for many people, and TV and radio presenters are just like many people, except they tend to wear make-up all the time. Especially the radio presenters. The faces and voices you’re accustomed to are sunning their make-up on tropical beaches and so, just as when flu sweeps London’s theatreland, it’s suddenly stand-ins everywhere.


I’ve been having fun of late deputising on Newsnight on BBC2 and Any Questions? on Radio 4. The upside of doing Newsnight is that its offices are directly across the corridor from the office where Radio 4’s daily news and current affairs programmes, like PM, are made. As long as I remember to turn left and not right on my way in to TV Centre, everything is fine. And it all was fine apart from the night I took a wrong turning and accidentally presented five minutes of The World Tonight. Robin Lustig was unflappable, of course, and didn’t baulk at me introducing the report on the rise of the right in Uzmenistan and the pressure on all sides in the capital, Uzmenibad.

The only downside of doing Newsnight is that it’s on so late. During the Olympics it was on even later. The production team are all night owls, but I’m more of a morning person. This led to judicious use of a cattle prod on at least two occasions on the set to keep me awake. Why Kirsty Wark keeps a cattle prod in the office was never explained to me, but it did the trick and the viewers didn’t notice aside from a faint plume of black smoke emanating from my rump. There was a slightly startled look about my eyes but, frankly, I have that all the time after 9pm.

Newsnight is just across the corridor, but Any Questions? demands travel. Long before the BBC decided to move thousands of its staff outside London, the AQ team have been taking it to the people – travelling to every cranny and nook in the kingdom. I’ll swear there isn’t a school or village hall that has not played host to the programme, or my name isn’t CindyLou Peebles. There’s something charming about preparing for a programme in a classroom festooned with the colourful drawings created by five-year-olds, or in a tiny room off a main church hall that is busy with parish announcements and details of fund-raising successes.

The financial cost of taking a programme like Any Questions? on the road each week is quite high. I can imagine an accountant working out that it would save squillions by broadcasting from one set venue each week. And the lazy part of me would like nothing better than to cross the corridor to do the programme. But the value of meeting your audience, and people, no matter where they live, having the chance to take part in the programme, is incalculable.

When I interviewed Nicholas Parsons for Radio Times recently, he was bemoaning the fact that cuts meant Just a Minute was on the road less frequently. That is a shame. Giving people the chance to be part of our programmes on their own doorsteps is a great way of having them connect with their BBC.

Here is a photo of the crowd who were part of AQ in Salford the other week. You can see why I went into broadcasting and not photography. 


Eddie Mair co-presents iPM Sat 5:45am and hosts PM Tue-Fri 5:00pm on Radio 4.