BY FRANK HAVILAND
Unlicensed alcohol sales were dealt a tragic blow last month, as BBC prohibition finally called time on This Week: the late night speakeasy masquerading as a political show. After 16 years and countless bottles of Blue Nun, the cult after-hours watering hole has closed its doors for the last time. Chief bartender, Andrew Neil, is a refined cocktail himself: part avuncular host, part rapier wit. Welcoming guests of all political persuasions, he managed to ensure they were always at least half-cut, before routinely eviscerating them once the cameras rolled.
The exact reason for axing the show depends on who you ask. The official line is that Neil stepped down voluntarily, though there was curiously no effort to recommission such a popular program. While it is clear the BBC are keen to attract a younger audience to its political shows, illustrated by its revamp of The Daily Politics, it may be Neil’s shoes are simply too big to fill. According to Neil himself however, he was frustrated that the BBC refused to give the show an earlier slot:
Either way, the Beeb is losing much more than just a popular program; it is one less regular outing for Neil – the last great heavyweight interviewer in a sea of flyweight journeymen. Like his faithful companion, Molly, Neil is a comforting old dog on the This Week sofa. At 70, he has become the Stella Artois of media personalities – reassuringly imperfect. In an age where anchors are routinely airbrushed in lieu of substance, Neil comes bedecked with unapologetic paunch and famous ‘Brillo’ hairstyle; he’s so good, you never even notice them.
From humble beginnings in Paisley, he has come a long way. Initially considered a premature and controversial appointment for editor of The Sunday Times in 1983, Neil soon put his own stamp on the paper, much as he did at The Economist, The Spectator, and at Sky during his tenure. He is now perhaps best described as chairman of Press Holdings; a multi-millionaire married to Swedish beauty Susan Nilsson, 20 years his junior, and has only had to relinquish his moniker ‘Bachelor of Fleet Street’ in the process – not too shabby.
Striking more fear into politicians than a haphazard encounter with the electorate, Neil is still the most-avoided interviewer in the business. After a thorough grilling on This Week earlier this year, writer James Delingpole quipped that facing Neil unprepared was ‘a bit like going for a dip in the river in Australia’s Northern Territory and hoping there are no crocodiles.’
Former Chancellor and Evening Standard editor George Osborne wryly observed:
‘I always made it a rule, in the 6 years that I was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, never to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, because he was too good. And I relaxed this rule once; just once during those 6 years. And within 2 weeks I’d lost a national referendum, divided the Conservative Party, split my friends, lost my job, and I end up standing here grinning, about to present awards to all my bessies.’
Indeed, Neil is currently without peer in terms of forensic interviewing – you need to go back to Dimbleby, Paxman, and perhaps as far as Walden to give him some competition. While other interviewers are often famous for individual performances (Jeremy Paxman’s sneerfest versus Michael Howard for instance), Neil regularly causes more car crashes than the M1. He was also well ahead of his time in exposing Jimmy Savile, if only anybody had been interested in following it up.
Loathe as I am to say it, Neil may be a dying breed. Toxic, white masculinity is getting a bit thin on the ground these days, and there are none keener to distance themselves from a losing formula than the media. Channel 4’s Jon Snow for instance is so eager to demonstrate his progressive credentials, he has taken to declaring a public emergency whenever ‘so many white people’ dare to congregate in the same place. The majesty of Neil ensures he’d never need to pull a stunt like that.
The networks meanwhile are content to flood their studios with feminist harpies, more famous for their egos than their work, Kay ‘Women want to be me, men want to bed me.’ Burley, Cathy ‘What you’re saying is’ Newman, and Emily ‘not to everyone’s taste’ Maitliss, while leaving the straight, white male box healthily unchecked, appear to bring little else to the table.
They are unabashedly partisan, have difficulty controlling debates, and come unstuck against tough opposition. The same can never be said of Neil. His impartiality can easily be gauged by the routine accusations he gets from both left and right, for going too hard on their guy -meaning he is doing his job.
As the recent Tory Leadership drew to a close, there was much hoo-ha about who would land the coveted tv interviews. No matter how much Kay Burley publicly cajoled, abused, and whined at Boris to acquiesce to her charms, anybody who’s anybody already knew that the job would fall to Neil, as it promptly did.
With the licence fee being increasingly shunned, and with pensioners now expected to pick up the slack, Neil was one of the last reasons to stick with Auntie. And while it is not customary to mourn the living, in the case of Neil and This Week, a eulogy, albeit way premature, is perhaps appropriate.
I hope the demise of This Week is a blip in the schedule, and that our screens will still be graced by Neil for years to come. If it transpires however, that this cutting back is symbolic of his retirement, and an understandable desire to spend more time with his wife and four-legged friends, then the BBC, like Blue Nun wholesalers, had better get a back-up plan; they’re gonna need one.