By: Michael Buerk
Clive Myrie is, by common consent, a nice bloke. Television news is a notoriously b**chy world. The stag-like rivalries of yesterday’s alpha-males have not gone away now they’ve largely been replaced by women – they’ve just got more complicated. But Clive stands out.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’ll never hear a word against him; that would be expecting too much. But even those beside themselves with envy at his current success struggle to find anything bad to say. That, believe me, is one step from sainthood in New Broadcasting House. And perhaps a problem when it comes to his new role as question master on Mastermind.
The whole idea behind the BBC programme is surely a kind of competitive torture. It depends on your definition of cruelty, of course, but the whole thing: the long walk, the deadly drumbeat (the music is actually called Approaching Menace), the spotlit chair, the rapid-fire questions, are all meant to crank up the pressure to see if you’ll crack. I know. I’ve been in that chair on Celebrity Mastermind. I’ve never been so nervous.
It was dreamt up by a BBC producer called Bill Wright, who’d been an RAF gunner, taken prisoner in the war. He wanted to make it feel like being interrogated by the Gestapo. The three opening questions – Name? Occupation? Specialist subject? – were meant to echo the three questions prisoners of war were allowed to answer – Name? Rank? Number? Perhaps even the catchphrase “I’ve started so I’ll finish” was the equivalent of “For you, Tommy, the war is over”.
Almost 50 years ago, the first question master, Magnus Magnusson, was actually called “the Interrogator”. He was encouraged to be stern; fair, but as chilly as somebody who came from Iceland could manage. When John Humphrys took over, he was warned against any appearance of softness.
Clive sees it differently. “I hope that I’m a friendly face when the contestants walk in,” he says. He’s even going to wish them luck. When I ask him whether he shouldn’t be forbidding, he tells me I have it all “completely wrong… the questions are forbidding, the chair is forbidding. I’m not going to be forbidding. I’m there as a friend and we could, potentially, have a drink afterwards.”
He says the audience don’t want to see contestants “squirming”. Yes, it should be a tussle, or “battle royale”, as he puts it, “but that is more likely if I’m smiling”.
He cuts a dashing figure in the half-deserted palace of meeting rooms that is today’s Broadcasting House – olive green T-shirt, pressed khaki jeans, baseball boots, trademark brown chiffon-ish scarf – all carefully co-ordinated and the kind of outfit that’s probably called “combat chic” in the fashionable corner of Islington in north London where he lives.
It’s all a long way from Bolton where his Jamaican parents settled in the 1960s. Clive was one of seven children in a family he describes as working-class. Certainly, both parents had jobs in factories, although his mother (her Jamaican teaching qualifications weren’t then considered sufficient for her to teach in the UK) became a “brilliant” seamstress, running a whole department making clothes for Mary Quant and Marks & Spencer. They ended up owning two houses and putting five children through university.
Clive had wanted to be a broadcast journalist since first catching sight of Trevor McDonald on ITN “for obvious reasons”. His parents wanted him to do something more serious, so he studied law at Sussex University. But when he graduated, he applied for the BBC’s news trainee scheme.
“I’m assuming they saw potential,” he says. “Being a Black man in a white world was never a problem for me. What was an issue was the sense that people might think, ‘He’s only there because he’s Black.’ There are a hell of a lot of public-school white men here – some of my closest friends were picked precisely because of that. What matters is the final product of this sausage machine… If it’s a fat, beefy, Cumberland that is tasty – what’s the problem? And I haven’t done too badly, have I?”
No, indeed. He’s had an enviable career, thanks to ability, hard work – and good timing. He was lucky that, when he’d done his early stints in local radio and regional TV, the world opened up in front of him. The launch of its 24-hour TV news channel in 1997 meant the BBC needed lots of low-cost reporters based abroad, rather than the handful of gold-plated TV foreign correspondents when the Ten o’Clock News was all that mattered.
So Clive, young and relatively inexperienced, went off to Tokyo, Los Angeles, Washington, Paris, Brussels, eventually reporting from 70-odd countries, with more than his fair share of rough stuff in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It probably helped to be blessed with a wife who has a portable career (Catherine renovates antiques), as well as not having children.
After nearly two decades abroad he came home to be a presenter on the BBC News channel – partly, he says, because they didn’t want to become another expat couple who had “gone native”, partly for the money (“Funny how you get paid a lot less to be shot at in Afghanistan than sitting in a studio reading autocue,” he notes), and partly to give the latter stages of his career “some oomph”.
And now, at 56, someone has lit the blue touchpaper. He’s all over the bulletins on the main channels. He did a series of reports for the Ten o’Clock News on the COVID crisis in the Royal London Hospital that were a bit too emotional for me. (He thinks a reporter should “care”; I prefer them dispassionate. Maybe it’s a generational thing.) But they were beautifully produced mini-documentaries, made to show how it felt to work, and suffer, there. The impact was profound. The Royal Television Society named him Television Journalist of the Year, praising his “measured” commentaries, and, on top of that, made him Network Presenter of the Year as well. After 35 years in TV, he’s an overnight success.
It’s brought a lot of hate. Racist emails, vitriolic messages to the BBC switchboard, cards with crude drawings on the front and even death threats. “Yes, it’s upsetting, but I feel an overwhelming sense of pity for these people. The idea they’re superior to me because of their skin colour is so pathetic.”
He clearly has a stake in the cultural politics of race but treads very warily. He writes of “shaking his head” when he comes across cases of discrimination in the States, for instance. Personal journalism, but the comment is carefully calibrated. With me, he passionately defends “taking the knee”. “People misunderstand what it means. It’s got b****r all to do with Black Lives Matter. It’s a gesture of humility, a moral gesture of shared humanity.”
Yet, when I ask him if he’d take the knee, he refuses to say. “Because I work for the BBC. I’m not supposed to have a view.”
Few expected him to get the Mastermind job. The odds were on a woman, with Samira Ahmed (a Celebrity Mastermind winner) seen as the frontrunner, just ahead of BBC Breakfast presenter, Naga Munchetty. Ahmed would have been even more of a favourite if it had been known she had been secretly contracted as Mastermind’s understudy, to take over if anything happened to John Humphrys.
In the event, it’s not clear who else, if anybody, was even auditioned. Clive did his on Zoom, all togged up in one of his Armani suits, from his study at home. That’s where he’s been practising, trying to get the words and pace right.
He’s now recorded 28 programmes in six days (Clive’s a victim of Humphrys’s workaholism).
“I thought I’d be flagging on the fifth show of the day,” he says, “but then you see the contestants. It’s their Olympics, the top of their mountain, and the energy level goes right back up.”
One of the nice guys. A rarity, according to his old Foreign Editor who told me if he wrote a book about managing reporters and presenters it would be called They All Turn Out Monsters in the End. “Clive was the exception,” he says, “enough ego to be a good reporter, not enough ego to be a pain in the a**e.”
Clive, himself, says he has no ambitions beyond Mastermind, and what he has achieved. “In the beginning, I didn’t want my colour to define who I am, now I don’t give a stuff. But I do hope when the viewing public see me, they don’t think, ‘It’s that Black guy, Clive Myrie.’ They’re just going to say, ‘That’s Clive Myrie.’”