“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” was the phrase that came to me, looking at the pages of my notebook afterwards. Almost every one was blank. It had been Winston Churchill’s way of talking about Russia in 1939. It could equally well be applied to Eddie Mair.
Not that there is anything Russian about Eddie. At least, I don’t think there is, but I can’t be certain, for the simple reason that I didn’t ask. On no other occasion, in a long habit of asking questions of people with a lot more to hide than the nation’s premier radio broadcaster, have I emerged thinking I had discovered less. I cannot even tell you his favourite colour.
That, too, was because I didn’t ask him. Others may think it a dull subject. But at least you might have learned something. Instead of which I learned next to nothing about him. Favourite toothpaste? Shoe size? Preferred flavour of Starburst?
The presenter of Radio 4’s PM (and Radio Times columnist) has left the programme with which his name is synonymous and is going to present a programme with which he will be synonymous on LBC.
We’d arranged to meet at Fischer’s, an Austrian café near Madame Tussaud’s designed to make that villain of post-war Vienna, Harry Lime, feel at home. The encounter did not start well when I failed to recognise my target. There is a rule in television that you can spot front-of camera people by the way their house-brick shaped heads sit on top of preternaturally short bodies. Mair, who describes himself as having “a good face for radio”, is tall and solid. His disguise was completed by spectacles and a blue-grey floral shirt. I assumed he was the photographer’s assistant.
You can’t buy that sort of camouflage, but that is part of the thrill of radio, the best of which develops a personal relationship between broadcaster and listener. The audience is actively involved in the business of creation, in a way that is simply impossible when some numpty is glaring from a screen hectoring you that ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT”. Mair presented PM for 20 years and developed the most intimate relationship between presenter and audience in broadcasting. He is a terrible loss to the BBC.
So why is he going? “Well, I’d done 20 years,” he says. “I’ll be having fun, and I know I’ll be working with talented people. Lucky old me. It’s joyous and I get a job out of it.”
He talks like someone who has won the Lottery, and – rare among the nabobs of media land – apparently genuinely. It cannot have helped the BBC’s wooing that, in trying to clean up the mess they’d made about what people were paid, they first made public his salary (£300,000- £350,000) and then tried to persuade him to remain by cutting it. In his column in this magazine he denied that his pay had anything to do with his decision to jump ship and also said that he had offered, in writing, to take a pay cut.
After the question about why he was quitting, and sensing perhaps that he might have perpetrated a quote, he tries to shut down other questions by repeatedly saying, “You can look that up, if you want to know.” The newspaper cuttings disclose that the caressing, classless voice comes from Dundee, home of Dennis the Menace. His father was a lorry driver and his mother, a nurse.
I know a now-distinguished journalist from that neck of the woods who spent his 20s driving around the Highlands with his eye clamped to the imaginary eyepiece of a TV camera, dreaming he was a household name, reporting the outbreak of World War Three from Killiecrankie. He was brought down to earth by a whiskysodden news editor who used to scan the death notices sent in to the paper each day, and when something out of the ordinary seemed to have happened, would hand him the form, with the words, “Unusual death. Get down there, laddie!” The next-of-kin interview cures most things.
Eddie Mair’s entire career has been in radio. He had been bitten by the broadcasting bug as a teenager and – in the city of jam, jute and journalism – he managed to get part-time work on Radio Tay. At the age of 17, the station offered him something more permanent. There had to be a conversation with Mum and Dad about whether to abandon plans for university.
(He claims not even to be able to recall what he had been hoping to study – “English or History or Politics or something”.)
Jeremy Paxman and Eddie Mair sit down for lunch (exclusively photographed for Radio Times by Mark Harrison)
I can inform readers, though, that when it comes to the menu, he toys with the Bismarck herring, then chooses cod instead, on the grounds that “I’m having schnitzel tonight.” These nuggets apart, the interview is like trying to get hold of a wet bar of soap.
Time for the sledgehammer. “So. How did you vote in the Brexit referendum?” “They told us to vote both ways,” he claims, implausibly (the BBC referendum coverage may have been bad, but they surely cannot have encouraged their staff to break the law).
“And what are your politics?” I ask.
“I am,” he says, “a Whig.”
I think this may be a Scottish joke. If not, it’s a fashion statement more than anything else. I suppose, like most in his position, he is somewhere on the continuum from Wet Tory, through Lib Dem to Right-wing Labour. I imagine him a Unionist and a Remainer. But I don’t know. And nor, frankly, do I care.
He must occasionally have had run-ins with the editorial hierarchy at the BBC: he seems a natural conversationalist, which inevitably must have involved striking the occasional oppositional pose. I doubt that – unlike so many who present the news – he needs to be told what he can or can’t say.
When I left Newsnight I recommended to the then Director of News at the BBC that he should see if Eddie wanted the job. He didn’t, and a refusal to succumb to the false glamour of television is another of his notable characteristics. A few years ago he went on an astonishing diet, which changed his shape: those not in the know said he was readying himself to become a star of the plasma screen. While it’s true he has done occasional holiday stints on TV – during one of which, standing in for Andrew Marr, he memorably accused Boris Johnson of being “a nasty piece of work” – they say he doesn’t like the intrusion that inevitably follows appearing on screen. Maybe he fears that it wouldn’t sit easily with his daily routine: he claims to get up at five in the morning.
Whatever the reason, unlike most of the BBC, he doesn’t see radio as the poor relation of broadcasting, and television’s loss has been radio’s gain. We end up gossiping about that other genius of radio, Barry Cryer, who rings him every birthday, just to tease him. You can tell a lot about a person by whom they admire.
The man is the best radio news broadcaster in Britain and LBC is lucky to have him.