Libby Purves on the demise of Radio 4’s Midweek: “Nobody has given me any kind of big philosophical reason for it”

As the presenter contemplates her next move after 33 years fronting the Radio 4 stalwart, she admits the controversial decision to axe it has never been fully explained to her

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It takes a special sort of radio programme to have an entire book written about it. Today can make that claim, so too The Archers and Desert Island Discs. Now their ranks are about to be joined by another Radio 4 institution – Midweek, the Wednesday-morning gathering of the great, the good and the downright eccentric over whom Libby Purves has presided for the past 33 years.

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The difference with this book, however, is that Purves has written it and published it herself – a loving memorial to, and a robust defence of, a programme that, as of 29th March, disappears from the airwaves, leaving its host to put on a brave face, reflect on her career, and, at 67, contemplate where she goes next. 

The decision to axe Midweek is one that Purves says has never been fully explained to her. “Nobody has given me any kind of big philosophical reason for it,” she says over a cup of tea in a London hotel. “They wanted to put something else in, and the other programmes they could have moved they are not going to move. They wanted Wednesday. But that is the Controller’s choice. Controllers control and that’s just how it is.” 

The loss of Midweek obviously hurts.

“What Midweek did,” she says, “almost by accident because it grew organically, was it brought in people who are not famous, and they’d sit next to, say, Cameron Mackintosh, Priscilla Presley or Paul McCartney, and these people were given equal time and value, and it had the effect of both humanising the big stars and giving proper live dignity to people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. And we did it together, creating this web of understanding. There were extraordinary moments when people reached across to each other. No other programme does that live, and it’s why live matters.”

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Pat Timpson, John Timpson and Libby Purves in 1979

The Midweek that aired the day after 9/11 stands out. “I just remember that I’d assumed we’d be taken off, but Helen Boaden [then Radio 4 Controller] said, ‘No, I think people need a break.’ There was one very nice review of the programme, which was touching because normally radio critics weren’t kind to Midweek.”

Ah yes, Midweek’s detractors. There have been a few. It was too middle-class, they said; it was a bit D-list, a bit random. “Everyone has detractors,” Purves says. “I’m a detractor myself. There are one or two things on Radio 4 I’d like to do a mischief to.” Such as? She won’t say.

The thought occurs that Purves – a Today programme presenter at just 28, the first woman to be handed the role, and for decades one of the pillars of Radio 4 – could so easily have ended up in senior management herself. Might I have been talking to Libby Purves, director-general? “I wouldn’t have made DG. Might have made Controller of Radio 4, God help me. But you have to choose one or the other – presenter or management. Unless you’re Alan Yentob.” And she goes on to be withering about the one-time BBC arts supremo who commissioned himself to present programmes. “To many people in the BBC that was quite wrong and we cannot understand why he was allowed to have that dual role.”

So what of the future? Where does Libby Purves go from here? She’s been living in the past for a few months – writing the Midweek book, attending a 40th anniversary reunion at BBC Radio Oxford, where she started out – but now she has to move on. The post-Midweek plan originally was for her to front a programme about theatre – she is a former theatre critic of The Times and now runs her own reviews website, theatrecat.com – but the format wasn’t to her liking. She says she was offered the position of permanent presenter of Pick of the Week, but that wasn’t to her liking, either – she described it as “just a links job”.

“I’m not Alan Partridge. I’m not going to take something just for the sake of being on Radio 4. If a programme challenges or interests me, that’s different. But I’m in my mid-60s. I maybe have ten years left in me, and I don’t want to dribble it away on things I don’t really want to do.”

She has come up with one programme idea that is currently under consideration (“It’s a bit wacky”), but at the moment the only guarantee of hearing Purves’s voice again on Radio 4 is a documentary she’s making about a new theatre in London being created by former National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner. It’s due to be broadcast in the autumn.

Still, she has her theatre reviewing, and having written 12 novels, she’s now interested in writing plays. And there’s sailing, which has been a big part of her life, and still is. But sailing off into the sunset? Not quite yet.

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The last episode of Midweek airs today at 9am on Radio 4