Andrew Marr: “I was completely delusional about how ill I was”

"I feel like a sort of knackered version of myself. I’m supposed to say I’m reflective. But I’m by and large not reflective, not very deep in the first place”

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When a political programme’s guests include an archbishop, a chancellor of the exchequer and a shadow foreign secretary, the journalist asking the questions shouldn’t normally be the star of the show. But as the credits rolled at the end of The Andrew Marr Show at the beginning of September, spontaneous applause erupted across the studio, and all for the eponymous host. “We love you, we love you!” a departing guest exclaimed. “Well done!” purred another. Marr’s wife, his agent and even the BBC’s director of news were all waiting in the wings to congratulate the presenter, who was looking a lot less nervous than he had an hour earlier. Everyone trooped off for breakfast in the canteen, and as Marr sat swapping jokes with the Archbishop of York and George Osborne, he had the air of a man back where he belongs.

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“It is absolutely fantastic, I have to say. I have been looking forward to the moment the title credits rolled at the end of the programme for a long time. Just because, you know, once I’ve done one I can mess up the next one and not worry. I won’t mess up the next one, but you know, there’s a sense of great relief, great we’re done, yes.”

Before the cameras went live Marr, 54, had looked less like a TV grandee than an undergraduate about to sit his finals, tense and bleached with focus. His biggest worry had been whether his limbs would behave themselves. Following his stroke in January he now walks with a stick, and wears a special shoe designed to disguise a brace on his ankle that he operates with a remote-control device whenever he stands and walks. He still has no use of his left arm, and holds the wrist firmly with his right hand.

“So of course, yes, I was self-conscious. I normally use my body a lot when I’m talking. I wave my arms about. But I can only wave one arm around, so I’d fall over if I did it too much, and also my face is slightly less mobile, so I’m less inclined to smile and sort of make strange facial gestures as I work. I’m conscious about that as well.”

But after the terrible medical dramas of the past nine months it was, of all things, the common cold that very nearly kept him off air. “All week I had been sneezing and coughing, and I thought I’m not sure I can go through this show without blowing my nose and sneezing. That was actually what I was worrying about, not the stroke.” His wife, the political columnist Jackie Ashley, had tried in vain to persuade him to postpone his return by a week, worried that viewers might imagine the stroke had affected his voice, when it was really just the cold.

The job of monitoring Marr’s workload in case he overdoes it will fall to Ashley, Marr concedes ruefully. He admits that saying no to jobs was never his strong point. “We journalists, even when it looks like we’re doing well, we all think, yeah, but what’s going to happen next week? If I turn this down will they come and ask me again? And some things you only get offered once. So someone comes along and says, would you like to do the history of the world? I don’t say no, or how many hours will it take? I say yes, of course! So I would say yes, and yes, and yes. I was doing far, far too much.”

By most people’s standards Marr has probably been doing too much all his life. We first met in the mid-90s when he was political editor and columnist on The Independent, a newspaper he’d helped to launch, and none of us on the staff was surprised when he was made editor – though it was to prove the only professional role where he didn’t quite sparkle, and ended after two bumpy years. Friends who attended his 40th birthday party chuckle at the memory of a rather glum Marr, panicking that his career might already be over, when in fact, as he was about to discover, it had only just begun.

Appointed the BBC’s political editor in 2000, he became a household name, famed for his wildly enthusiastic gesticulation, then stepped down five years later to present what would become The Andrew Marr Show, before also taking charge on Radio 4’s intellectual showpiece, Start the Week. The success of his BBC documentary series and accompanying book, Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, led to ever more ambitious bestsellers and flagship series, culminating last year with Andrew Marr’s History of the World.

So nine months away from work this year must have been a torment for him. Which stories did he most long to be covering? “Oh, I got very exercised about the economy in the late spring and was very, very keen to get back then. I was very over-optimistic about how long it would take. I thought I’d bounce back in a couple of months. I was lying in bed completely delusional about how ill I was, and Jackie was very good, she didn’t tell me. She kept saying, ‘Yes, dear, you’ll get to go to St Petersburg in March, I’m sure it’s going to be fine,’ knowing perfectly well that it wouldn’t. So it took quite a long time for it to sink in just how long it would be. I’ve got another two years before I’ve made a recovery.”

His timing turned out to be uncannily good, though, for his return to work has coincided with the parliamentary high dramas over military action in Syria. “Ah yes,” he jokes, “I fixed that entirely. I persuaded Cameron to recall Parliament and then lose the vote. It took a bit of doing, but I have my contacts, as you can see.”

When people survive a close brush with mortality – and Marr’s wife was told twice to prepare for the worst – they often describe feeling altered, so I ask if he feels like a different person, or even just a different kind of journalist. “Not really. I feel like a sort of knackered version of myself. I’m supposed to say I’m reflective. But I’m by and large not reflective, not very deep in the first place, so I suspect not.” He pauses to think for a moment. “No, you know, you definitely see the world differently, actually, that is true. You move more slowly. You suck up experiences more intensely and you live the day more. And you’re much more aware of all the people all around us who have got really, really difficult disabilities who are looking after their parents, perhaps, and who frankly most of the time, like most people, I simply didn’t see. I wasn’t thinking about them. That has changed. I do see them now, I do think about it.”

Being Marr, he hasn’t exactly been idle while away from our screens. Unable to type, he’s had to rely on voice recognition software, which I’d never heard particularly good reports of, so ask if it actually works. “No!” he curses. “No, no. It’s really annoying. If it was useless it would be no problem, I’d just get rid of it. And if it was perfect, it would be no problem. But it’s kind of 80 per cent there, so you dictate a paragraph, you look back at it, it seems to be alright so you carry on, and the next one is complete gobbledygook. And you go back to the first one and you realise words are missing or subtly transposed. There are just lots of weird things it does that I don’t understand, and make it very frustrating. But,” he adds with feeling, “it’s better than not writing at all.”

Viewers will undoubtedly agree with that on Saturday night, when one of the projects he was working on this summer goes out on BBC2. The Making of Merkel is a fascinating study of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose future lies with German voters going to the polls the following day. With a commanding lead in the polls, she looks set to win a further term, having already ruled her country for eight years – but her influence extends way beyond its borders.

Even more remarkable than the scope of her powers, observes Marr, is the extent of our ignorance about who she is. “She matters to us an amazing amount, and I knew she was completely crucial, but I knew virtually nothing else about her. It was an education for me as well. Actually who is this person? Is she really Bismarck in drag? No, she ain’t.”

The film follows the chancellor’s life from her childhood in East Germany, as the bookish daughter of a Lutheran pastor under the Communist regime. Raised in a climate of intense paranoia, the young Merkel learnt from an early age to keep her cards close to her chest, and Marr traces her inscrutable political style today right back to that formative experience.

Some remarkable archive footage (“This film is really a triumph of the Beeb’s archivists”) reveals the young Merkel to have been every bit as indifferent to her appearance as the no-nonsense figure we see today. “And I really like that she doesn’t care about her image,” Marr chuckles. “When she met Tony Blair she told him, ‘I’ve got no charisma and no leadership qualities, by the way.’ We could never elect someone like this in our country – I mean look at how Theresa May has struggled in our system, even she was attacked for being dour and not sexy enough!”

Marr’s admiration extends beyond Merkel to the German political system itself. “I am jealous of German politics. We keep being told it’s stodgy and dour, with all these different layers of power. But what’s the end product? They’ve been able to devise 30- to 40-year industrial strategies that have worked. They’re the strongest economy in Europe – and they managed to do it on top of bailing out eastern Germany.”

But many in southern Europe now accuse Merkel of grinding them into poverty, imposing stringent austerity regimes and expecting everyone in the EU to behave like a German. “Well, yes,” Marr agrees. “This business of playing to the German audience, and being tough on the Greeks – I think she should have spent more time on the Greek audience, because she is the leader of Europe, too. She could have addressed the struggling economies in a more sympathetic tone.”

But was she right to impose such fierce austerity? “All the way through the alternatives have been very, very stark. If you are going to persuade German and EU tax payers to make this huge transfer then it would have been impossible without demanding austerity and reform. If you said no, no, no, we are not going to impose that kind of austerity, there could have been no bailout, and then Greece would have had to leave the Euro. I can’t quite see a scenario in which she would have acted differently.”

Towards the end of the film Marr speculates that Merkel may well turn out to have been a stroke of luck for Europe. Is that the conclusion he reached in the end?

“That is how I feel about her, yes. If you are looking for the most powerful EU leader to be a deal maker, then she is the perfect leader. The more you talk to people about her the more you like her. I warmed to her enormously.” He pauses, before adding, “This will sound really pompous, but this is what I think the BBC is for, and the kind of film we should be doing more of. It’s a film I’ve been trying to make for a very long time. They said, will people watch it? I think they will.”

After his first morning back at work he’s ready, he announces, for a good sleep. I wonder whether he’d had any dreams about coming back to work, but he laughs. “No, sorry. I can’t remember what I dreamt about, but it wasn’t that. You know, I’m a curious fella, but I don’t lie in bed dreaming about George Osborne.”

The Making of Merkel is on Saturday at 8:00pm on BBC2

The Andrew Marr Show continues on Sundays at 9:00am on BBC1

 


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