The great inquisitor of Splott
John Humphrys’ A Day Like Today touches lightly on his early career, which is a shame
More than half a century on, I can still remember the first words John Humphrys ever said to me.
“For Christ’s sake shut up”, he yelled. “Can’t you see I’m doing my piece?”
I know now it was the measure of the man, determined, professional, a broadcasting legend-in-the-making. At the time, I thought he was a jumped-up, arrogant little Welsh shit. We didn’t hit it off.
I can see him now, standing on a pile of rubble that had once been a house in a back street of Cardiff that had been blown to bits by a gas explosion. His TV crew were gathered at his feet, pointing up at him. It looked for all the world like the Adoration of the Magi. Or it would have done if Jesus had traipsed around Judea in a rather too sharp, rather too tight, sharkskin suit and the Wise Men kept shouting “action” and “cut” all the time.
I was a junior reporter on the South Wales Echo, Humphrys was with the local ITV station, TWW. I was the gumshoe and he was the star, at least in the meaner streets of Cardiff. I had a grubby notebook, he had a flashy clipboard — and girls, I imagined (accurately, it turned out), lots of girls. I wanted to be like him. Sometimes I think I always have.
His book, A Day Like Today, touches lightly on his early career, which is a shame. It would have been fun to see how his passion for the declared truth dealt with some of the gamier episodes of a hyperactive alpha male’s rise to media fame and fortune. And it would also be fascinating to delve further into the most interesting question about John Humphrys: what on earth makes him tick?
For he is a driven man, and always has been. From his early reporting days, bouncing up and down on his heels, cherubic face, framed by a big cowlick of hair, thrust forward, one or even both hands constantly stabbing the air for emphasis, he radiated intensity. Now 76, and more Gollum than Hugh Grant, a national treasure and rich beyond his childhood imaginings, that energy is undimmed. If anything he has got more focused as he has got older, stripping away life’s more pleasurable fripperies so he can concentrate ever more monkishly on work. God knows what he’ll do now he’s given up Today. Go bang, probably.
He himself puts it down to an impoverished childhood. He grew up in Splott, a rough part of Cardiff which is, or at any rate was, much as it sounds. His father was a French polisher, mostly unemployed. He says he lived on boiled bones and sugar sandwiches, at least some of the time.
He was clever enough to get to grammar school but hated it because he felt despised and left at 15. By his own account, it left him with a chip the size of a wardrobe on both shoulders that he has never lost. It’s more complicated than that, I imagine. I think he also proves a theory of mine about success in the media business. The very best manage to combine a high degree of confidence with a deep vein of insecurity. As John Simpson, definitely one of their number, said to me once: “One day, Mike, they’re going to find me out.”
Humphrys’s path to the top wasn’t altogether smooth but he was bright, pushy and, when it mattered, lucky. He was a very good television news reporter but still fortunate to be posted to America so young. The truth is that those above him in the pecking order didn’t want to be number two to the magisterial Charles Wheeler, and another chippy Welshman, high up in the management, had taken a shine to him.
His first big break came when the BBC, with its usual impeccable timing, decided to shift Wheeler to Brussels — the government wanted the BBC to concentrate on Europe, not the States — just as Watergate broke and fell into his lap. Another posting followed to Johannesburg to cover the Rhodesian bush war. He was plastered all over screen for years, working like a maniac.
Humphrys’s path to the top wasn’t altogether smooth but he was bright, pushy and, when it mattered, lucky
He was equally assiduous at hoovering up the perks of being a BBC foreign correspondent — a gravy train in those days — to such an extent he was able to buy a farm when he finally landed back in Britain. The beggar boy from Splott was a landowner now.
Luck intervened again. He returned just as the BBC, late in the day, decided the news should be presented by journalists with a fighting chance of understanding what they were reading off the autocue, rather than the patrician “announcers” who just looked and sounded as if they did. Humphrys and John Simpson were chosen to do the news on alternate days. Humphrys worked all right. Strangely, Simpson, that most lordly and accomplished of broadcasters, didn’t. The longer he did it, the worse he got. He was removed abruptly and replaced, at a few hours’ notice. By me, as it happens.
Newscasting’s not much of a job, but you get to be famous for no good reason and it threw up all sorts of corporate opportunities to keep a workaholic like Humphrys happy and even better, exceptionally well paid.
It all came to an end after I’d left to go back to reporting and the BBC decided to ape ITN and have two newscasters, “double-headed presentation” in the jargon. They chose Julia Somerville, who was undeniably lovely and nobody’s fool but had been plucked from an obscure corner of the radio newsroom and, compared with Humphrys, was an inexperienced ingenue. That would have been OK but the big issue, like life and death only more important to a newscaster, was who was going to say “Good evening” — be, demonstrably, top dog. In a moment of astonishing management insanity, they decided it should be Julia. No wonder he’s got it in for the suits.
So when the job on Today came up he grabbed it and made it his own. And now 33 years later he’s bowing out — just before he risks becoming a caricature of himself — giving the BBC one-and-a-half barrels as he closes the studio door behind him.
That’s the interesting stuff, anyway. There’s a lot about whether he interrupts politicians too much which will, no doubt, engage his fans and detractors, but his editor should have interrupted him more often. He’s got some good behind-the-scenes stories though we sort of knew Margaret Thatcher was formidable, Tony Blair plausible and Alastair Campbell insufferable. But he is riveting on what he sees wrong with the BBC. And, just because he often seems keen to win some prolier-than-thou competition doesn’t mean he isn’t absolutely bang on — indeed, the living proof of his own argument.
For, put simply, the chances of someone like him getting to the same position now, are vanishingly small. While the BBC has got its tights in a tourniquet over “diversity”, mithering about whether there are enough dark faces on the screen, and agonising over whether it’s overpaying women as much as men, it has allowed the corporation to become a woke, metropolitan middle-class reservation. Now Humphrys has gone, for instance, all the presenters on Today have been privately educated, like an astonishingly high proportion of the BBC’s editorial and production staff. Today’s presenters are all brilliant, in my view, but that’s not the point. The worldview of any organisation, particularly the BBC, is a function of the worldviews of the people who work for it. These are uniformly bright, urban, young, well-educated arts graduates who’ve moved smoothly from one liberal institution to another with little understanding of, or sympathy for, industry, business, the countryside, or, of course, Brexiteers. In one of the most telling passages in his book, Humphrys describes how traumatised the BBC newsroom was the day after the Brexit vote, which they had not foreseen and could not understand.
Humphrys may be the last of a generation who could go grow up poor, leave school early and through talent, determination, energy and damned hard work become the most distinguished and forensic BBC journalist of his day. And the most wicked and engaging of friends — but that is another story.
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