When Dara O Briain met Stephen Hawking: “I fluffed it the first time we talked”

At 73, Stephen Hawking has given his most revealing interview to maths and theoretical physics graduate turned comedian Dara O Briain...

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On a shelf in my house there’s a book that has managed to stay with me through 27 years of house moves, one full-scale emigration and who knows how many spring-cleans, de-clutters and tidy-ups. It was a Christmas present in 1988, and proved to be a little more important to my life than the cassette of Now That’s What I Call Music 8 I also received that year.

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It was, of course, a copy of Professor Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, then only just released; a book that along with other classics of popular science fired my 16-year-old imagination sufficiently to start me on the path to a degree in theoretical physics in order to, I hoped, learn the secrets of the universe. Oh, and, since I am a proper nerd, yes, I have actually read it to the end.

That book was, for most of us I suppose, our introduction to Hawking and the astonishing human story of his life. Since then he’s become a global icon, meriting even a Hollywood biopic in which he inspired an Oscar-winning portrayal from Eddie Redmayne. I’ve met him a number of times, at the sort of events that underline his broad appeal and interests; at the Royal Society and the Science Museum, yes, but also at the Monty Python reunion and the British Comedy Awards.

This film, however, allowed me to see not just this busy public side of his life but also to spend more intimate time with him, with the team who help maintain his punishing schedule and even his children.

Of course, this was never going to be an ordinary interview. Stephen communicates by “dictating” to his speech synthesizer with tiny movements of his cheek muscle, so it takes him about a minute to write each word, or roughly ten minutes a sentence. I fluffed it the first time we talked, because I asked him an informal question and then realised I was crouching down in front of him waiting for him to write an answer. Between my awkward stance and the reflex of filling the quiet with silly small talk, it wasn’t my finest moment as a broadcaster.

We’ve tried to leave a taste of that clumsiness of mine in the film, since it is presumably how a lot of people act the first time they meet Stephen Hawking, and you should see me learning to just shut up and wait for him to speak. And when he did talk, he was incredibly open and revealing. Our interviews were perhaps the most unorthodox I’ve ever done, because I needed to submit my questions in advance, to give him time to prepare his responses for the camera. 

We took a chance then, asking some questions that might seem to be a bit rude, but he was strikingly candid about his loneliness, his regrets and the mysteries of women. I suppose that, when each word takes that much effort to write, waffle and deflection aren’t really on the cards, but it is moving to hear him speak of his shyness, how his illness affected his relationship with his children, and what has kept him going all this time.

Stephen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963, and given two years to live. Today, at 73, he is still defying that diagnosis, but there is a danger, with the muscle-wasting illness that it is, that he will lose control of more of his muscles, and with it his only outlet for communication. Losing the ability to speak is his biggest fear, and we see how his team is searching for new ways to help him, including advanced digital mapping of his face.

Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for playing Stephen in last year’s The Theory of Everything, described him to me as having “perhaps the most charismatic face I’ve ever seen”. And I spoke to Stephen’s children, who have a very normal relationship with their father, even revealing that their father would never let them win at board games. His son, Tim, smiling at the memory, said, “He was hugely, hugely competitive.”

I am very fond of Stephen. He was lovely to be around, and he spoke with great candour. He was also very happy to make jokes and mess about. His professional life has given him huge gravitas, but he’s also used his fame to enable him to do the fun, crazy things any of us would want to do – to go up into zero gravity, visit a submarine, or appear in The Simpsons (below).

There is a point, I learnt, where you have to get past the chair, as it were, and get past the notion that he’s defined by his illness or his intellect. Neither of those two extremes defines him; they’re just parameters within which he’s worked all his life. Between those two poles there is just him; normal human interaction occurring independent of the towering heights of his intellect or the difficult reality of his illness. Instead, his personality shines through. You see it in his eyes. You see it reflected in the people around him – who are absolutely devoted to him. You see it in the jokes he makes.

Yes, his life has been utterly remarkable, and entirely worthy of the Hollywood treatment it has received. He is a genius, while at the same time being the person who has lived with motor neurone disease for the longest time in history. But amid the high and the low of two ridiculous extremes, what astounds is the triumph of the normal. A father, and a grand- father, through it all he has somehow forged an ordinary life.

And, for me, it becomes a lesson in the difference between how somebody is a hero to you when you’re 16, and when you’re 43. 

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Dara O Briain Meets Stephen Hawking is on BBC1 tonight (Tuesday 16th June) at 10.35pm

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