A lot has been written about the life and death of Tony Benn, and you’ll be astonished to hear I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add. But watching the funeral on TV reminded me of an encounter with him in Tunbridge Wells, which I won’t forget for a number of reasons.
It was my first stint chairing Any Questions? Usually Nick Clarke would sit in for Jonathan Dimbleby, but Nick was indisposed with the cancer that would, in the end, take him from us. It was with something of a heavy heart I approached the task of deputising for him: it felt wrong to be doing his job. (Typically of him, after the show, Nick phoned with generous praise.)
There is always a dinner before Any Questions? This is not, as you might think, a ruse to screw as much free nosh out of the licence payers as possible, although I always throw a hissy fit if it’s the wrong kind of caviar.
It’s more of a production device. With four guests arriving on a Friday evening from different starting points sometimes several hundred miles away, it provides a flexibly timed meeting place. Rarely do we all sit down at the same time… panellists drift in as their journeys end, usually with tales of gridlock. There’s only a few minutes spare for a wolfed-down appetiser, then it’s showtime.
As you can imagine, on my first night in Tunbridge Wells I was nervous – so much so I almost spilled my Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. I was relieved to hear that Tony Benn was one of the panellists because he’d been appearing on the programme since the early 1950s. If all else failed, he could take over. He arrived when a few of us had already started eating. He greeted everyone warmly and produced several sheets of A4 paper, densely typed on both sides: “Jusht a few thoughtsh on what might come up.”
The AQ? panellists never have advance notice of the questions so Mr Benn had spent a considerable amount of time listing every possible news event that might arise. I scanned the list and despite working in news all week, he’d found stories that had completely passed me by. Jonathan Dimbleby tells me that Tony Benn did this for EVERY Any Questions? he appeared on. Rigorous research: no winging it, even after 50 years. And generously shared with everybody.
As he walked round the table deftly distributing his crib sheets to one and all, the kerfuffle of paperwork proved too much and the spectacles he’d been holding tumbled from his hand to the floor. Half a second later – and with a terrifying CRUNCH – Tony Benn’s glasses were crushed by Tony Benn’s foot. There was a collective gasp. I almost choked on my Warm Lobster in a Summer Preparation. In an instant I wondered how the poor man would be able to see for the broadcast. And I thought: “What a waste… all this diligent research he’s kindly handing to us all, and its author will be unable to get the benefit.”
Half a second after reducing his glasses to a tangled mess, and without missing a beat in his journey round the table, Tony Benn reached into the lapel pocket and said in those distinctive tones: “Oh, I’m alwaysh doing that,” and produced another pair of identical glasses that, completely unfazed, he propped onto his nose.