Jeremy Paxman doesn’t like to watch himself on screen. In fact, he tends to avoid it altogether. “I find looking at myself on television horrible,” he says, a touch balefully.
The BBC’s former inquisitor-in-chief, who left Newsnight after 25 years last June, is speaking in the back of a taxi on his way to the airport. This week, the 64-year-old will be fronting Channel 4’s election-night coverage and he is grabbing a short break trout fishing in Scotland before the hectic run-up to polling day.
What’s the secret to landing a fish, then – patience?
He bats away the question like a bored lion swishing at a fly with its tail.
“People always say that, but actually, it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of patience at all,” he sighs, and for a moment I feel like a University Challenge contestant who has answered “Victoria Beckham” to a question about particle physics. “It requires concentration and immersion.” A pause. “Sometimes literally,” he adds.
On Thursday night, 7 May, Paxman will be joined by comedian David Mitchell and guests including Pointless presenter Richard Osman for an acerbic, occasionally light-hearted look at the results as they come in.
“The aim is to tell the whole story and to tell it in an entertaining way,” Paxman explains. “I’m not preparing any [comic] sketches, but there are some monologues about voting, about Scotland, what’s wrong with politics. And one or two bits of telly on the night that will involve the three of us.”
At first glance, it might seem rather surprising that Paxman, the man who has never used one sneer when three would do and whose interview manner strikes icy fear into the heart of the ill-prepared politician, would sign up for this. But then you remember that, last year, he took a one-man show to the Edinburgh Fringe where he made jokes about tandem cycling with Sigourney Weaver and setting up a high-street Dignitas franchise. (“You’ll take Auntie Doris there and drop her off and she will say, ‘See you next Tuesday,’ and you will say, ‘Well… possibly.’”)
His motto, he tells me, is “Be unexpected” and he did the one-man show because “I was scared of doing it and I feel very strongly you should do things you’re scared of doing.”
The Paxman I’m speaking to today is very much the stand-up version – borderline jolly and frequently given to extravagantly sarcastic remarks, often made at his own expense. When I ask him how he feels about turning 65 four days after the election, he groans. “Do you have to intrude into private grief in this way?”
And when I gingerly press him on his departure from Newsnight and whether there is anything about it he misses, he chuckles benignly. “I don’t have any second thoughts about my decision. I don’t see Newsnight, I’m afraid. My idea of fun is to go to bed at 10.30pm and read a book.” He has just finished Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, a memoir written by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, which he thought was “rather wonderful”.
Perhaps it’s the prospect of a few days by a picturesque Scottish loch that’s making Paxman so Zen. He says he hasn’t looked back over the interviews he did with David Cameron and Ed Miliband on Channel 4 in March, even though his questioning style was criticised by some for being overly aggressive. Andrew Marr called Paxo’s technique “disdainful” and “contemptuous”, dismissing his former BBC colleague as “a genuinely tortured, angry individual”.
Did Paxman see those comments?
“Yeah, I did read them,” he says. “You are not the first person to try to get me to be rude about him [Marr], and I’m not going to, I’m afraid.”
But is Paxman a tortured and angry individual?
There is a light squall of laughter. “That’s for others to judge.”