It’s been said before, but what strikes you most when first meeting the famously fearsome John Humphrys is how friendly he is. How solicitous. Dammit, how downright smiley. I had assumed – with, I think, a degree of justification – that the Today programme’s enforcer-in-chief would prove a combative interviewee. Or at least a disputatious one. Or certainly, even if he didn’t engage full attack-dog mode, he would at a minimum surely be a grumpy so-and-so.
Grumpy as in grumpy old man. Radio 4’s premier hard man is, after all, 71. He is, moreover, a senior citizen with a history of making scathing comments concerning some of the classic bugbears of his generation: venal politicians; vacuous media celebrity worship; the declining quality of written and spoken English, and so on. Furthermore, I knew he’d got up at four o’clock that morning – a start time unlikely to presage a good mood in even the sunniest character. Humphrys has been levering himself out of bed at an ungodly hour to present Radio 4’s news flagship for almost 30 years. Let no one say his reputation for ill-temper has not been hard-earned.
But hey, you live and learn. Humphrys turns out to be neither angry nor argumentative nor the teensiest bit acerbic. Nor does he betray so much as a trace of antipathy towards the ways of the modern world. “Young people,” he says, referring to his teenage son’s friends, “are fabulous.” Blimey! Surprised as I am to write it, sceptical as he no doubt is to hear it, shocked as you may well be to read it, John Humphrys is delightfully easy company. Thoughtful. Self-deprecating. Funny. A good listener. All in all, a pretty cool guy. Who knew?
With the final of the current Mastermind airing this Friday, we talk first about the enduring quiz show he’s hosted since its revival in 2003. “You couldn’t argue,” he says, “that it’s a great intellectual challenge. You’ve got to be able to take the pressure, sitting in that bloody chair, but it’s a challenge of memory, and that’s it. Still, compared with everything like it, you can’t phone a friend, it’s not multiple choice, you’re on your own, you have a miserable b*****d like me staring at you through the lights – the people that do it are phenomenal. God Almighty, I can barely remember my own surname.”
Does he enjoy Mastermind? “I love it!” Has he detected any lowering of its cerebral quality over the years? “Absolutely not. When I go through the questions – and I do, every single one, not the specialist ones, obviously, the general stuff – if I can get one right, I’m pleased.” He then swiftly qualifies that judgement by admitting he might be underestimating his own competence.
He admits one reason he values the Mastermind gig is that it shows his more human side. “That’s part of it, yes. But I do think the times I do an interview on Today where there is actual confrontation, a real bit of aggro, are vanishingly rare. But you’ve only got to do it a few times, and I did have a couple of big run-ins, but people want to categorise you, don’t they? Paxman was the Rottweiler and I was the Welsh terrier. Which I must say – I know I’m not very big – I did rather resent.”
The salient point stands. Knowledge – its accumulation, nature, possession, deployment – is a hugely sensitive subject for John Humphrys, national interrogator and quiz maestro though he may be. He says as much himself. When I tell him I want to talk principally about schooling, learning, education, his instant response is to quip, “Oh God – I haven’t got any of that!”
Which is obviously not remotely true. And yet he believes it to be. Born in 1943 in the unprepossessingly named district of Splott, a working-class suburb of Cardiff, Humphrys passed the 11-plus in 1954, thus gaining entry to Cardiff High School, “which everybody said was actually the best school in Wales.” In spite of, or because of, that exalted status, Humphrys “hated it”. The headmaster at the time was, he says with feeling, “a crashing bloody snob. The thing that really pissed me off was I used to do a paper round and one morning I was a bit late for school, because it was snowing, but I got caned anyway, even though the headmaster knew the reason.”
This was, significantly, close on 60 years ago. Humphrys cheerfully confesses he still bears a grudge. “They asked me to go back and do a prize-giving and make a speech,” he recalls. “So I said, ‘Yes – here’s what I’ll say,’ and they changed their minds. They withdrew the invitation.”