Readers of Eddie Mair’s Radio Times column over the past seven years will be used to unsettling references to his Radio 4 colleagues. The thought of Martha Kearney’s face “almost obscured by a swarm of bees”, is a hard one to shake.
And there is something slightly sinister in Mair’s description of Susan Rae proferring “superbly moist brownies”. They both feature in a weekly report that draws upon Mair’s multi-award-winning, 19-year stint as the presenter of PM on Radio 4.
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However, the 51-year-old Scotsman tells me, outside his Broadcasting House studio, when he put those columns together into a new book, A Good Face for Radio, he received a concerned letter from the publisher’s lawyer. He’s brought the letter along. “Corrie Corfield often found prostrate in the Broadcasting House reception?” Mair reads out. “What is the joke here? Is there some innuendo, unknown to the general reader but understood by those who know and worked with Eddie and Corrie?”
Mair, straight-faced for much of the interview, insists he is simply reporting fact. Susan Rae’s moist brownies very much exist: “They’re not just superbly moist on the inside,” he says, “but also heavy and sort of crunchy on the outside.” Martha Kearney really does keep bees, and Mair did once find Corrie Corfield prostrate in the Broadcasting House reception.
“She was on the floor outside the lifts,” he says. To illustrate the story, he takes me to the exact spot where he found her. On the way he points out the branch of Costa just outside Broadcasting House, “Where all the BBC plotting goes on. The things you can hear in there!”
Mair can poke fun at the institution that employs him, I suggest, because he’s untouchable, the intellectual equal of his contemporaries and a better broadcaster. “You’re kind,” he says, “but honestly, that’s just silly.” He doesn’t feel like someone who can shift the national debate? “No! No. No. People tune in and want to know what’s happened. That’s a responsibility I take seriously. But the other stuff I find quite frightening. If it’s a reality it’s one I would rather avoid. I’d like to just come in and be in my bubble.”
Mair now takes me to the balcony inside Broadcasting House’s cavernous news area where, “it’s possible to moon the weather presenter doing the news at six”. In the (very funny) book he reveals that Mark Thompson, then director-general of the BBC, “has been told to stop doing this”. The Thompson gag also worried the lawyer – “Risk of defamation!” – but he was happy to pass on the many digs at Robert Peston. Testy interchanges between the two were one of the highlights of PM before Peston’s departure for ITV in 2015 (“It was a tragedy,” Mair writes. “For ITV.”)
The feud is, I think, almost entirely a joke. “Robert is a lovely, sensitive soul,” Mair says. “We’ve never seen each other outside the office, except at work-related things, but a few months ago he took me for lunch at the Groucho. Though he spoke about himself the whole time.”
The jacket quote for Mair’s book, “Indisputably the funniest man I’ve ever worked with”, is supplied by Peston. “I think he may have thought a long time about this quote,” says Mair. “It’s not like most of his political analysis where he just makes it up.”
Mair enjoys the comic feud with Peston, but perhaps there is some real edge. Mair earns £300,000 at the BBC. Peston is reputedly on £330,000 at ITV, and Mair’s BBC colleague, Today presenter John Humphrys, gets between £600,000 and £650,000. That must be annoying? “Oh, that is tempting,” says Mair. “Very tempting. But I am not going there. It’s exactly what I would ask me, which is quite insulting, isn’t it? You’re as good as me!”
There are worse insults. Mair has won eight Sony/Radio Academy Gold awards for his broadcasting and interviews. By turns sympathetic and searching, Mair is as adept at nursing victims of assault into talking about their experience as he is skewering professional politicians. When a blustering Boris Johnson came on PM in June, Mair delivered the deadly line, “This is not a Two Ronnies sketch”.
Mair had previously told Johnson, “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” when presenting The Andrew Marr Show in 2013 and there was precious little humour on display during their June encounter.
“It is serious,” Mair says. “You can be ironic, but when it gets down to it, it’s a minister, representing the Government.”
You destroyed him, didn’t you? “I don’t like that, the language you get on social media, about the interviewer ‘destroying’ the interviewee, about people being ‘owned’ by somebody else. Boris moved on to his next thing and so did I.”
But how much has Mair’s career moved on? He also presents iPM, sister show to PM, but surely he can’t just do what he does at the BBC forever? “No, that’s true,” he says, “I’m sure they wouldn’t want that.” Is there part of him that is waiting for a similar call to the one Peston got in 2015, and a chunk of ITV money? “I do get nibbles every now and again,” he says. “And I don’t mean olives.”