Eddie Mair on the Steve Hewlett interview that never took place

“I wish when he was of firmer voice and more robust health we could have captured his thoughts on a notable career”

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There are many things to admire about the late Sir Robin Day, but there are two in particular I’d like to draw your attention to.

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First, he’d know not to end a sentence with a preposition like what I just done. And second, he once gave a piece of advice that has stayed with me.

Before I offer it to you, please bear in mind my bare mind. While it honestly believes this to be a true memory, it’s old, it misremembers and despite extensive research (the first ten Google search results), I have found no online reference to Sir Robin’s wise words. Maybe it never happened, like those two meetings with the Russian ambassador I forgot I didn’t have. But let’s work on the assumption that my memory might be accurate. 

Someone years ago had the bright idea of asking the great and the good for the best advice they could give the rest of us – and compiled all the wise words into a book. Sir Robin’s advice was direct and brilliant – like his interviewing style. It was simply this: “Do it now.”

It’s beguiling, isn’t it? An encouragement to pursue our goals and dreams. An admonition to stop faffing about. Or just enough to persuade you to make that cup of tea you’ve been thinking about.

The words have been rattling around in my mind with greater resonance of late.

A few weeks after Steve Hewlett began his weekly appearances on PM, talking about his health, I had a quick word with him outside the studio once we were off the air. I was conscious that while he was candidly sharing with the world his experience of cancer – and as discussed here previously it was something that connected with listeners in ways we couldn’t imagine – Steve’s professional life was never discussed. I didn’t doubt he had amazing stories to tell about his time as a producer/editor/documentary-maker/media commentator and a ridiculous number of other activities. 

My pitch was this: that one day we sneak off, just the two of us, to secretly record an interview about Steve’s working life. Anecdotes, behind-the-scenes gossip… perhaps a little friendly backstabbing! We would keep the recording until after his death, and broadcast or podcast it.

I was anxious about making the suggestion. He could easily have found it offensive or distasteful. To my relief, he didn’t hesitate. He thought it was a good idea and would love to do it. 

I still felt awkward around it: Steve’s outlook was all about life and living. The prospect of death loomed larger for him than for some of us, but it never seemed to dominate his thinking. My little idea was, in a way, predicated on his demise, and it made me uncomfortable, so I resolved not to mention it unless he did.

Several times over the course of the next few months he said, “We should do that interview,” and off he would bustle… a time never fixed. After the last occasion when he made it to the PM studio, he reminded me that we needed to do the interview but that he wanted to wait until his new drugs regime had kicked in. Of course, I said.

I would never have pushed him into it – in any event, Steve was not a man to be pushed – but I wish when he was of firmer voice and more robust health we could have captured his thoughts on a notable career.

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So, whatever it is for you, do it now.