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.”
He ended up leaving school at 15 to go into journalism. He had an opportunity in his 20s to take up a place at the Open University, but by then he was working, travelling, not least married with two children, so he declined. “I’ve still got a chip on my shoulder about not having been to university. I hugely regret it. Not because I think I would have done better at my job, it’s worked out all right, but because…” he pauses to compose his thoughts…“when I went occasionally to a students’ union, to get pissed or something, I didn’t half feel jealous. I used to resent massively kids wearing scarves. I’d see them in the street. God, I wanted to strangle them with those bloody scarves!”
Jealous, I prompt, because you were grafting while they were having a good time? “Mostly that, but also because they were learning more.” Don’t bet on it, I say. “I haven’t given up on it,” he says. “I might do a mature degree.”
For the foreseeable future, however, he remains committed to his current role, 4am starts and all. “I can’t see any reason to stop until either they get fed up with me, or I get to the point where I think, ‘I really don’t want to get up so early.’ ” He rejects the charge that Today has resorted to a more populist agenda in recent years. “The idea that the Today programme is dumbing down is complete garbage. It is as least as serious as it was when I started, in some ways more serious. It depends on the editor – we had one who felt he’d failed if we didn’t interview a cabinet minister at ten past eight, even if he wasn’t very interesting. We don’t do that now, but I don’t think it’s dumbing down.”
And besides, I suggest (recalling my initial exposure to Today as a teenager 35 or more years ago), it’s a show that has always contained playful, light-hearted, even tabloid elements? Those deliciously ironic racing tips, for instance? “Absolutely,” he agrees. “John Timpson, when I started, he used to skim the papers – and he was on the right, was John, the Telegraph was his favourite paper – and he would read out clippings from the Peterborough column and describe them as ‘Timpson Ho-hos’ and go, ‘Ho ho ho’. And Brian Redhead would go, ‘Ho-ho-ho’ as well. Imagine getting away with that today!”
Indeed, I say. It’s a middle-brow show, right? Always has been? Proudly so? “Yes. And I don’t have a problem with it being middle-brow. I don’t regard middle-brow as a term of abuse. It means intelligent, but also entirely accessible.” Obviously, Humphrys continues, “if you want dumbed-down stuff, you can find it. There are 8,000 channels where you can get it. But that’s not dumbing down, that just means there’s more stuff.”
Even so, he adds, if a show wants to remain relevant, it is necessary to strike a balance between “really horrible, deeply serious, deeply depressing news” – Isis, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and so forth – and those lighter items that can amuse or entertain or inform the listener. “You’ve got to engage people, haven’t you? Otherwise you lose your audience.” Today has emphatically avoided that mistake. Seven million or so people tune in every morning. Enough said.
Which leaves just enough time for us to cover the much more important subject of bread. Bread? Yes indeed. Humphrys is, you might be surprised to learn, a novice yet ultra-keen, baker. “There are very few things more important in the world,” he declaims, “than good bread. I really mean that. Bread is the prince of foods.”
He has, it emerges, recently discovered the delights of home baking. “I’ve started with sourdough, and there isn’t a bakery in the land who would dare to sell it – I could probably market it as ammunition, if you drop it on your foot, it hurts. But I am getting better, and it’s so satisfying.” I’m glad to hear that, I tell him, because I’ve got a little quiz here for you. “Oh God,” he groans, “I hope it’s not about baking bread…” It’s precisely about baking bread, I say. “Oh no,” says Humphrys, “I’m going to fail!”
Turn over the page to see how John fared with his specialist subject…
RT Right. You have two minutes on the subject of sourdough bread starting… NOW! What is the ideal length of time to leave a sourdough starter before using it?
JOHN HUMPHRYS 48 hours.
RT Yes — two to four days. I’ll give you that. ✔
JH What do you mean, “You’ll give me that”? Don’t be so patronising!
RT Shut it, Humphrys. What do bakers mean by ‘the window pane effect”?
JH Er… I might have to pass… No, I always tell people it’s stupid to pass… Is it when you criss-cross the bread with a knife before putting it in the oven? ✘
RT No, it isn’t.
JH It was a wild guess.
RT Whatever. It’s dough being stretched too thinly.
JH Oh, of course! Yes, I knew that, yes.
RT Good for you. When was sourdough bread discovered?
JH Bloody hell. It must be hugely long ago! For ever really…
RT It was 4000 BC.
JH There you go! That’s it. 1/2
RT How does a maker know when a starter is ready to use?
JH I suppose when it starts bubbling. ✔
RT That’s right. You’re doing well. Where was leavened bread first used?
JH It’s awfully tempting to say the Middle East.
RT Ancient Egypt.
JH There you go.1/2
RT You’re storming it! Last one. Which of these vitamins does sourdough contain most of — calcium, iron or magnesium?
JH Calcium’s not a vitamin, is it? (Long pause) I’m going for magnesium.
RT It’s iron. ✘
JH Damn! I was going to go for iron! Can I take that one again? I was going to say iron… Well, I wasn’t bad, was I?
RT John Humphrys, you have scored three points with no passes.
The Mastermind Grand Final is on BBC2 tonight (Friday 27th March) at 9.00pm