I’m old enough to remember Jack de Manio. And his side-kick Monty Modlin (who did the ‘funnies’, about haunted building sites, pubs with exceptionally rude landlords, talking animals – that sort of thing): if you don’t know what I’m on about, then:
1/ You’re probably a lot younger than me;
2/ You don’t listen to the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4.
Although, come to think of it, point#2 may be wrong: ‘Today’ has changed an awful lot over the years, and those who’ve only known it in its present Humphrys / Noughtie incarnation probably wouldn’t recognise the ‘Today’ of the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, which was much less concerned with politics, and to a modern ear would probably seem dominated by trivia. The fact that Jack de Manio was frequently pissed (at that time of the morning!), regularly announced the wong time (thereby causing national panic), and on one occassion left listners in complete silence for two minutes before announcing, “I’m terribly sorry, I was on the loo”, gave the programme a certain charm, but didn’t exactly make for agenda-setting broadcasting.
It was the arrival of the outstanding political broadcaster Brian Redhead in 1975, that began the process of establishing ‘Today’ as the national institution and force in politics that has become.
Redhead was also responsible for one of ‘Today”s great moments: in 1987 he was interviewing the then-Chancellor Nigel Lawson, who lost his temper and said, “You’ve been a supporter of the Labour Party all your life Brian.” Redhead didn’t miss a beat, and simply proposed a minutes silence to allow Lawson to apologise and in memorium to his failed monetary policy. Lawson was stuffed, good and proper.
Other high points (and I should point out that I am indebted to the Independent‘s Ian Burrell for this):
1995: Johnathan Aitken accuses John Humphrys of interrupting then-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke 32 times during an interview; the next time Humphrys interviews Clarke, Humphrys gives him a calculator, saying he “might want to keep count of the number of interruptions.”
1997: Newsreader Charlotte Green dissolves into giggles while delivering an item about Papua New Guinea’s chief of staff Jack Tuat…
1998: A Tony Benn interview about US missile strikes is announced, but what listeners then hear is…a Mongolian throat singer. Then-editor Rod Liddle recalls: “That was the biggest mistake during my time, a pre-recorded interview with Tony Benn. It was introduced with ‘And earlier today Tony Benn had this to say…’ and then someone somehow hit the wrong button and it was Mongolian throat warblers. What you heard was ‘Wa-wa-hoo, wa-wa-hoo.’ Needless to say, Benn thought it was a ‘conspirashy to make me look stupid’.”
2003: Andrew Gilligan’s report on the Government’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – in a live phone interview at 6.03 am. Perhaps not a “high point”, in that it lead directly to the Hutton Report and indirectly to the death of Dr David Kelly…but nevertheless, history has broadly vindicated Gilligan and ‘Today’ and shown Blair and Alistair Campbell to have been liars.
…and a low point;
2006: Carolyn Quinn interviews Flemming Rose, the Dutch newspaper editor responsible for publishing the cartoons that caused uproar in the ‘Muslim world’. Rose attempts to explain why he did what he did, but Quinn prevents him from doing so with a series of interruptions on matters of little importance…a disgrace. You can still listen to this shameful piece of broadcasting here.
But whatever the highs and lows, ‘Today’ is an essential part of my life. I grew up with it. It probably played a major part in getting me interested in politics (now there’s something to answer for), and I can do no better than to echo Monica Ali:
“I could fill a page with all its faults…and one with all its virtues. But neither are really relevant. Like the rising of the sun and the lapping of the waves, the Today programme simply is.”
P.S. I almost forgot: how about a campaign to get rid of ‘Today”s shameful piece of religious propaganda, ‘Thought for the day’?