Quizzing John Humphrys, the most feared man in broadcasting

Miles with John Humphrys, who's interviewed them all (except the Queen). Photograph: John Illingworth
31 Mar 2014 @ 8.48 am
| Opinion

Miles with John Humphrys, who's interviewed them all (except the Queen). Photograph: John Illingworth
Miles with John Humphrys, who’s interviewed them all (except the Queen). Photograph: John Illingworth

Miles On Monday

“It’s an awfully long way off in my somewhat unpredictable life, but why don’t we pencil March 29 and keep our fingers crossed.” That’s what John Humphrys said in an email, back in February 2013, when I approached him about a possible visit to York Literature Festival 2014.

So I crossed my fingers, but half expected him to cancel. As the date grew nearer, I was worried the BBC would pull him out to cover the recent crisis in Crimea.

Originally he wanted to come for the weekend to York and include some time off, but that plan changed and the trip was scheduled between other commitments.

I met him on York station on Saturday afternoon. He looked serious and a bit grumpy, but I was delighted that he’d made it.

I suggested we get a cab but he said he would rather walk, and we set off on the yomp to St Peter’s School at such a pace that I could only just keep up with him.

En route, he said he very rarely does literature festival gigs these days, and I realised what a coup it had been to bring him to York.

Humphrys was concerned about time. He fretted about it constantly, knowing he had to get a train back to London at 8pm, and worrying about the schedule.

I did my best to reassure him: an hour for the event, 30 minutes for a book signing, then back in a car to the station in time for his 8.04pm train.

I was nervous about the interview, which I would conduct, but he had primed me about the best way to start and it felt pretty good for the most part.

He told lots of anecdotes about numerous famous people, and these had the sell out crowd laughing frequently. But he interjected during my questions on several occasions.

“Who thinks I interrupt too much?” he asked the audience at one point, referring to his role as grand inquisitor on the Today programme. A number of hands went up. “That’s quite a lot,” I reflected.

Humphrys then asked for his defenders to raise their hands, too, and turned to me triumphantly.

When it came to questions, I selected one person in the audience while Humphrys pointed to another. I shook my head. It was hardly the best way to involve audience members.

The fire that took him from a poor Welsh background to the top of one of the toughest professions in the world still burns brightly

He reflected on the infamous Aberfan disaster, which he covered in 1966, and on his coverage of the Watergate Scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

A key moment came when we played an audio clip of Humphrys interviewing BBC Director General George Entwistle in November 2012.

“How long is it?” asked Humphrys, warily. “About a minute,” I said. This wasn’t true, it was longer than that, but he let it pass and we managed to get through the next part of the interview without further irritation.

I asked him how he felt when he heard about the resignation of Entwistle, which came within hours of the Humphrys interview on the Today programme.

“Sorrow,” replied Humphrys, with genuine sincerity. “I’d known him for a long time, he used to work for me. There was a moving moment after the interview when he came in and shook my hand.”

Humphrys refused to be drawn when I asked him about UKIP’s role in the current landscape of British politics, dismissing my question in seconds.

He was more upbeat when somebody asked him who he’d like to interview but hasn’t. “The Queen,” he said, and gave some great anecdotes about a meeting with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace.

Humphrys asked her for an interview. She declined, which may be just as well, as he didn’t like her dogs, dorgis (a cross between dachshund and corgi).

It was a fascinating evening. Humphrys is a driven, tenacious man, fiercely uncompromising and disciplined. (“I’m at my desk at 4.10am,” he told me, referring to his schedule for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, shortly before we went on stage.)

The fire that took him from a poor Welsh background to the top of one of the toughest professions in the world still burns brightly, even at the age of 70.

I could have talked to him for another hour, but it wasn’t possible. I doubt I’ll meet him again, but I was very glad of this up-close encounter with one of broadcasting’s most feared journalists.

Chances like this don’t come around too often. Maybe next year we’ll get Jeremy Paxman. Now there’s a thought.