For any political anoraks, it was nice to see the brief resurrection of David Butler in a ‘Newsnight’ interview last week; the one-time analytical mainstay of the BBC’s General Election night broadcasts – the go-to man if seeking facts and figures about swings in marginal seats – was asked for his opinion on the current campaign. He reckoned the about-turn in Labour fortunes was the most surprising development he’d seen in any run-up to polling day since 1945, though he was still of the belief that the Conservatives would retain power. Last night on Channel 4 and Sky, we sadly had no David Butler and had to make to do with Jeremy Paxman.
Oh, dear. If ever the old phrase ‘never go back’ had any real relevance, it was in Paxo’s return to political interrogations after a two-year absence; he was akin to the former high-school hunk turning up to a reunion with a paunch and a bald patch, yet for a good couple of decades, Paxman was a giant, simply untouchable when it came to getting blood out of elected stones. Few MPs emerged unscathed from a Paxman grilling; he could make them squirm in a way that made other political interviews seem like scripted ego-stroking on ‘The Graham Norton Show’.
He was the natural inheritor of the mantle that had so long belonged to Robin Day, possessing the same pompous vanity yet equally capable of going for the jugular like no other interviewer when faced with such meticulously coached evasiveness. It seemed he was just as frustrated as the viewers by politicians who were incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question and he attacked their spin-doctored defences like a battering ram pounding the walls of a besieged medieval castle. We cheered him on because he was doing it for us – our man in Westminster. When it was announced his successor as the main ‘Newsnight’ frontman would be Evan Davis, I remember thinking it was a bit like when Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker as Doctor Who – a lightweight for a heavyweight; but now I wonder if the Davis approach isn’t preferable.
Semi-retirement making cosy Sunday evening documentaries about Victorian paintings and British waterways appears to have blunted Paxman’s once-impeccably precise interviewing instincts, and last night he was closer to a Rory Bremner impersonation of his former self. He interviewed both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – separately, as he had with David Cameron and Ed Miliband in 2015 – and came across as someone with a vague memory of how this thing works, adopting a blustering, belligerent tone of basic rudeness without any of the subtly sneaky assassin’s nuances that had proven so effective in his heyday. I was so dismayed by his embarrassing show midway through that I actually switched over and watched ‘Coronation Street’ on ITV.
What once happened to David Frost – whose initial mercilessness when confronting crooked public figures slowly morphed into a chummy chinwag technique as a legacy of sucking-up to too many showbiz stalwarts – now seems to have happened to Paxo. The Corbyn interview was the one I saw in its entirety last night and Paxman’s refusal to allow Jezza to attempt an answer without butting in and bombarding him with another question was reminiscent of Terry Wogan’s tactics on his 80s chat-show; it was as though all those years of anticipating evasiveness on ‘Newsnight’ meant he can no longer ask a question without expecting a non-answer and doesn’t even give the politician the opportunity to be evasive – yet enabling them to be evasive had always presented Paxman with his trump card in the past.
What this approach inadvertently did was to make the viewers side with Corbyn, and for Jezza this was something of a life-saver, as I wasn’t very impressed by his performance when he took questions from the audience; he appeared unexpectedly nervous in the way David Cameron had during the first leaders’ debate of 2010. After Labour’s surge in the polls following Team Theresa’s humiliating U-turn on a key manifesto pledge, Jezza seemed taken aback by the swift decimation of the Tory lead, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his sudden advantage. However, once he sat down for a Paxo grilling, Corbyn was far more relaxed and his demeanour when faced with someone who had the air of an angry old man still coming to terms with decimalisation was one guaranteed to win the audience’s sympathy.
I suppose it made sense to employ somebody with such an impressive track record to handle the interview segment of the programme, and who has more of an impressive track record over the last couple of decades than Paxman? But there’s a clear division between mocking students on ‘University Challenge’ as they struggle with questions Paxman himself has the answers to printed on a card in front of him and giving the country’s two main political leaders the kind of interview the public wants to see when both have chickened out of sharing the podium with each other. We didn’t get that last night. Maybe they should have hired Andrew Neil to do it instead.
© The Editor