I used to laugh at the recurrence of the image in ‘Private Eye’ as much as everyone who used to regularly request it – the middle-aged man in a vest and a baseball cap arm-in-arm with a buxom beauty half his age. But the truth is that Andrew Neil, and I refrain from references to Brillo Pads, remains the best political interviewer on television, and an asset to the BBC in an age when they’ve allowed so many of their assets to cross the floor of the broadcasting house, leaving the ever-changing reporting line-up on ‘Newsnight’ often resembling the results of some latter-day YTS scheme.
This week Andrew Neil grilled Hilary Benn, George Osborne and Nigel Farage in a way that they were spared during the last General Election, when the far less challenging Evan Davis was let loose on the big players. Neil takes no prisoners in a manner that was once the hallmark of Paxman and Robin Day before him; but perhaps because he doesn’t front one of the heavyweight prime-time jewels in the BBC’s political crown, Neil seems to be short of the pompous flamboyance that his predecessors wore with such arrogant pride and is therefore liable to catch the unsuspecting politician by surprise. Somewhat hidden away both on the insomniac’s favourite twilight hours political programme, ‘This Week’, as well as the lunchtime ‘Daily Politics’ and ‘Sunday Politics’, his presence during what used to be referred to in TV parlance as ‘down-time’ means Andrew Neil could in some respects be described as television’s best-kept secret.
Even on ‘This Week’, his chummy ribbing of Michael Portillo and whichever Labour outsider Mr ‘Choo-Choo’ is saddled with can often mask his killer instinct when he sniffs blood or perhaps should that be the stench of hypocrisy. Diane Abbott was Portillo’s regular sidekick for several years on the show, yet that didn’t prevent Neil from memorably putting her on the spot when it emerged that Mrs Socialist of Hackney had sent her children to a private school. Clearly not anticipating an attack from a man she probably imagined would respectfully avoid the sensitive issue, Abbott was literally rendered dumb by Neil’s unexpected inquisition, reduced to staring at her inquisitor as he put the painful question to her, seemingly incapable of answering. I realised then that if Neil could ride roughshod over presumed immunity from interrogation on account of a long-standing association, he could tackle anyone who deserved it.
An early TV outing for Andrew Neil as a reporter for ‘Tomorrow’s World’ in a special 1976 edition looking at Scottish North Sea Oil emerged on YouTube a few years back as part of an off-air ‘Top of the Pops’ recording; but it was primarily as a newspaper man that he made his name. After a long spell at ‘The Economist’, Neil was hired by Rupert Murdoch as surprise editor of the Sunday Times in 1983; the Digger’s well-publicised hatred of the British establishment that had rejected him as an uncouth Aussie meant that Neil fitted in with the anti-Old School Tie approach Murdoch favoured. Neil often courted controversy when at the helm of the paper, none more so than when he was linked with a former beauty queen called Pamella Bordes, a relationship that climaxed with a libel case against the Sunday Telegraph, which Neil won.
A more significant relationship, that with Rupert Murdoch, eventually soured in the mid-1990s, despite Neil being prominent amongst the early figureheads of Sky Television. Rumours suggest Murdoch grew jealous of Neil’s increasing celebrity. He remained active in print media, but it was TV that gave Neil the platform to showcase his talent for asking politicians the kind of questions they’d rather gloss over. By the 2000s, Neil was a permanent fixture of the BBC’s political programming, even if none of the shows he presented were aired at a time of day when a large audience was guaranteed. It could be argued this is one of Andrew Neil’s secret weapons. Westminster wags clad in tie-less, open-necked shirts expecting a cosy chinwag on a lunchtime or late-night sofa are often caught out by the deceptive illusion of a lightweight breakfast TV ambience.
Some of his past endeavours have not been entirely admirable; even during the 2010 General Election the Beeb relegated him to a frivolous spot interviewing famous Tory supporters on a pleasure boat. But Neil’s three one-on-one grillings of key figures from both sides of the EU debate this past week have been, for me, the stand-out programmes so far screened in the recent glut of Referendum-themed shows, certainly a superior contrast with the glitzy, so-called debates starring token (if not specially-chosen) members of the public over on ITV. He might wax lyrically on the benefits of Blue Nun and Annabel’s nightclub, but politicians will receive no harder ride on TV if they’re asking for it. And let’s face it, most are.
© The Editor