John Humphrys: goodbye to Today

John Humphrys. Photo: BBC

Britain’s politicians will sleep more easily after this week. The interviewer they fear most, John Humphrys, is leaving Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years.

Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was about to win her third term. People were starting to get concerned about global warming. And Radio 4’s Today programme had established itself as the show that set the nation’s agenda led by legendary broadcaster Brian Redhead.

I was a fan of Today from my early days. While school friends in the Seventies tuned in to Radio 1’s breakfast show, my bedside radio was set to Radio 4. I timed my morning routine to the schedule. I loved Redhead’s wit and the way he switched between caustic treatment of shifty politicians and kindness towards ordinary people who found themselves in the news.

John Humphrys quickly established himself as Redhead’s successor after Brian’s tragically early death in 1994. I thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke in the 8.10am interview in the run up to the 1997 general election. The Conservatives were clearly going to lose by a landslide to Tony Blair’s New Labour but the two impresarios of the Tory party had a compelling presence that few current politicians of any party can match.

My family shares similar roots to the famous broadcaster. Like me, he was born in Cardiff, not far from my grandmother’s birthplace in Splott, and went to Cardiff High School – in its grammar school days, as did my father. (It had become a comprehensive by the time I started in 1975.) Like Mum and Dad, he started his journalism career on the Penarth Times. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, and later said that nothing in his career compared to the tragic landslide that overwhelmed the Welsh village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

For me, the most unforgettable Humphrys interview in recent years was the one that cost the job of his ultimate boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle, in 2012. Humphrys interviewed Entwistle at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The BBC boss came across as utterly out of his depth and ill-informed. I described the interview in my blog as the director-general’s exit interview and so it proved: he resigned hours later.

Photo: BBC

John Humphrys is right to go now. He has been criticised as being out of touch with the times. That may be true – the 76 year presenter appeared uncomfortable with the understandable backlash against the fact that he and other male presenters are paid more than their female peers. And Today itself can feel heavy compared with the livelier offering from the BBC’s 5 Live breakfast show. But John Humphrys has been an essential part of the national debate over the past 32 years. I will miss my fellow Cardiffian on my drive to work.

The Independent: goodbye to print

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The Independent’s first edition, 1986

The death of the printed newspaper came a step closer today with the news that The Independent and Independent on Sunday’s print editions are to close next month.

The Independent was Britain’s first new broadsheet paper for a generation in 1986. But it has been struggling for years. Its early success was torpedoed by a hubristic decision to launch a Sunday edition to compete with the highly regarded, but short-lived, Sunday Correspondent. Later, Rupert Murdoch’s price war cut even deeper.

I found the daily paper rather dull, but loved the Saturday edition in the late 1980s. (The Independent was one of the first to recognise that Saturday would become a day for leisurely reading of a multi-section paper, as Sunday had been for years.) An excellent magazine helped. In time, The Guardian, its closest rival, took the hint and created a worthy Saturday rival.

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It’s the Sun wot fudged it

The Sun endorses Tories and SNP

Vote Tory! And SNP!

Newspapers love to think they have influence. Tony Blair grovelled to Rupert Murdoch to win The Sun’s endorsement in the 1997 election, after the paper claimed (wrongly) to have won John Major the 1992 poll. Yet this week’s decision by Murdoch to back two utterly opposing parties north and south of the border reveals the nonsense of such self important, cynical posturing.

I take exception to papers telling me how to vote. Democracy suffers through the massive bias in favour of the Tories. I also objected to the Guardian’s campaign against Boris Johnson in the 2008 London mayoral election. Yet the Sun’s laughable decision to back both the Tories and the SNP surely suggests the days when anyone paid attention to eve-of-election endorsements are coming to an end.

It’s an election, not a war, Polly Toynbee

It's an election, not a war

It’s an election, not a war

I expected better from Polly Toynbee. The Guardian’s columnist is usually a wise commentator on politics, and a passionate voice for the deprived. But today’s column indulged in childish war cliches. I assumed a female commentator to be more sensible.

What on earth has a ground war and an air war got to do with an election? Please grow up.

Don’t get me started on ‘retail offers’. Political reporting gets more ridiculous by the day.

Leaders debate: in praise of the women

Follow my leader: #leadersdebate

Follow my leader: #leadersdebate

The 2010 #leadersdebate series electrified that election campaign. It was a first for a British general election. It made Nick Clegg famous, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron competed to agree with Nick.

Women on top: Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon at #leadersdebate

Women on top: Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon at #leadersdebate

Tonight’s debate was very different. There were seven leaders crowding the stage. Refreshingly, three were women: the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon; Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett. Most of us thought they won the day, with their good manners, willingness to listen and different approach. At one point the men got into a shouting match – showing they care nothing about voter disdain for such hooligan tactics. (Just as they’ve not changed PMQs.) And the three women weren’t English. Diversity in action.

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Cameron’s clanger: the great election debate fiasco

2010 leaders debate: Cameron cannot veto the people's right to 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

2010 leaders debate. David Cameron cannot veto the people’s right to a 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

There are weeks when I despair of Britain’s politicians. And there are weeks when I really, really despair of them. This was one of these weeks.

David Cameron’s attempt to torpedo the 2015 general election leaders’ television debates is beneath contempt. It shows the Old Etonian at his very worst: arrogant, tactical, self-serving, inconsistent and above all wrong. What was he thinking? Three cheers for Britain’s broadcasters for insisting the debates will go ahead. They must ’empty chair’ the prime minister if he is so foolish to refuse to take part.

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Cadbury’s and the supersonic Seventies

Three years ago, I blogged about Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC series The 70s. I reminisced about Cadbury’s Supersonic Seventies TV advert and lamented that it was sadly missing from YouTube.

Happily, it’s now there. It was pure nostalgia watching this over 40 years later. Curious how I remembered the ending so accurately: ‘One of today’s great tastes, ooh ooh!”

Costa Coffee takes over Captain Mainwaring’s bank branch

Captain Mainwaring at The Crown

The Crown as Martins Bank, Walmington-on-Sea

I don’t imagine that Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring ever tasted a frappucino. (They came long after 1940.) But the Chalfont St Giles, Bucks pub that posed as Mainwaring’s bank in the Dad’s Army film is about to open as Costa’s latest coffee shop.

Costa Coffee Chalfont St Giles

The Crown becomes a Costa

Sadly, the much loved Crown closed last year, as I blogged in May. It was one of our favourite venues for anniversary and birthday dinners. (I took my very first iPhone photo on one such occasion in 2008.) Losing a pub is always a sad event, but if we have to swap dinner for coffee a Costa is a good choice. (Make mine a skinny latte and tiffin…)

The Crown Chalfont St Giles pub sign

Sign of the times

PS: we paid our first visit today, 20 December. They’ve done a very nice job converting the pub. The coffee’s great too!

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles

Goodbye to Guardian’s Media Talk podcast

The Guardian Media Talk podcast

Media Talk silenced

Fridays will never be the same again. The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast has ended after eight years.

It’s not a huge surprise. The Guardian has been losing money – like most newspaper groups – for years and has been making cutbacks for some time. (The venerable separate Media section of the print edition was merged with the main section in 2011.)

I’ve been a regular listener from the beginning. I loved the mix of wit and insight into the changing media scene from the likes of Matt Wells, Emily Bell and Maggie Brown in particular, as well as final presenter John Plunkett.

Media Talk has chronicled one of the most dramatic eras in media history. The digital revolution has led to what many see as print’s terminal decline. Rupert Murdoch introduced a paywall – the opposite approach to The Guardian and Mail Online – then was laid low by the phone hacking scandal, which the Guardian played a big role in breaking.

Media Talk was off air when the paper’s revelations about the News of the World hacking Milly Dowler’s phone became a major scandal in 2011. But I was there a week or so later when Matt Wells recorded a special edition on the subject with a panel including Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger.

Ironically, Emily Bell herself said in the farewell podcast that there are signs that podcasts are enjoying a revival. All is not lost: John Plunkett and team are hoping to revive the show as an independent production. Please subscribe to make this happen.

PS: Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff writes critically about the Guardian’s US expansion in GQ.

 

 

In praise of David Abbott

The Economist management trainee advert

Simply brilliant: classic David Abbott

Back in the 1980s, many people said the best thing on British television was the adverts. It was a tribute to the work of adland legend David Abbott, who died this week.

Abbott created some of the most memorable, wittiest ads ever conceived. It ranged from the clever – the brilliantly simple Economist ads quoting the 42 year old management trainee who never reads the paper – to the tender “Good Old Yellow Pages” TV commercial featuring elderly author J R Hartley using the directory to track down a copy of his book about fly fishing. He also overturned the assumption that only sex and sexism sold cars by brilliantly selling safety to as a benefit of buying a Volvo. Continue reading