Legend grew tired of interviewing politicians and became a superb quizmaster, writes Libby Purves
Published 21/08/2011 | 05:00
Eheu fugaces labuntur anni, as Robert Robinson might have said -- alas, for the fleeing years! Or, possibly, Ou sont les neiges d'antan? Time rolls on, and the old monuments of Radio 4 erode away, like the heads of emperors outside the broadcaster's beloved Bodleian library: John Timpson is gone, and Brian Redhead and Humphrey Lyttelton; now Robinson himself.
The rising generation probably knows him only as the orotund chairman of quizzes such as Ask the Family, Call My Bluff or, for 34 years, Brain of Britain, the host who delighted some and enraged others by always ending with a flourish: "I bid you goodbye."
How he would have hated one recent controller's desperately matey injunction never to say "goodbye" because it might make people switch off before the next programme. But Robinson, with his aloof, eccentric hyper-eloquence and extreme insouciant confidence, dealt in precision: the "I" in "I bid you goodbye" bore the same weight as the other words, he might have argued.
Not that he often deigned to argue with the management. Others may remember him as the contentiously entertaining nit-picker of Stop the Week, Radio 4's long-running Saturday night magazine programme, having infuriating chatter-matches with Laurie Taylor and Ann Leslie. There is to this day a Stop the Week Appreciation Group (Stwag) on Facebook. And for some of us in the trade, a particular fondness wells up when we remember his splendidly disdainful comment when that programme was axed in 1992. He said he had no view to express on the decision as he was merely "the hired help". That's the way to do it.
Robert Robinson has a special place for me, though, because I remember him first from the Today programme in the Seventies. At university, bleary dawn hours were enlivened by the contrast between his forensic, precise, donnish humour and the more avuncular ho-ho tones of John Timpson. It was faintly apparent, even then, that he was getting tired of what on resignation from the programme in 1974 he called the "sonorous drivel" and "effrontery" of the politicians he interviewed. He observed that at least on Call My Bluff, you knew it was a game.
Robinson was a serious man but not anxiously earnest, and liked honest games, language itself being one of them. His remarks might have been long-winded at times but were never empty, and he never bought in to the manufactured froth and frenzy of modern newsmaking. This frustrated some of his producers who saw the future, the age of Redhead, Humphrys and Paxman, dimly looming over the horizon. On one occasion, Today devoted a full minute-and-a- half to a woman whose knickers had fallen off in Selfridges, and Robinson said -- aloud on air -- "If that's news, on what principle is anything ever left out?"
As a new technical trainee in 1971, friendless in London, I begged permission to watch him and John Timpson doing a live New Year's midnight edition. He gave his consent and beyond the glass screen I watched entranced the live crosstalk, the cueing of distant lines, starting of tapes and rapid, elegant accommodation of changes in the running order without daring to think that seven years later I would be doing the same thing. He came out during a break just after midnight and had a kind word with the wide-eyed kid in the corner. "It's a curious trade, is it not?" he said. "Well, good luck to you."
Years later, as a once-only panellist on Stop the Week, I felt a slight unease that the acerbic observer of the news cycle was now boxed into this mock-erudite piffle. In a brief burst of bad temper, when the regulars were going on about the ghastliness of car stickers with political or environmental views, I snapped that it was all very well for people like them, who could air their opinions on the radio or in print, but for most people frankly it was the rear window or nothing. It went down quite badly.
But there was something admirable about Robinson's determination to apply his intelligence and his hinterland of what he called Literae Humaniores to everything, and to resist the advance of the age of euphemism, jargon and timidity. His first novel, Landscape with Dead Dons -- a highly entertaining comic crime tale of Oxford -- remains a favourite read, with its artful Chaucerian solution and a set piece in which naked professors chase a suspect from Parsons Pleasure bathing place and up the High Street: "'What can you do when you have no clothes on and are running,' gasped a very thin, middle-aged don who was still wearing a pair of pince-nez, 'except continue to run? If I catch him, I may yet have my professorship.'"
His collected journalism, too -- often very funny -- has phrases still hooked in my mind, such as the description of the Radio 1 disc jockey's art as "behaving like a general favourite on mere assumption". But those who think him elitist or snobbish should read another early essay, on the rise of rock music. Listening to a boy whistling Hound Dog, sharp and acid, setting his teeth on edge, he mused that he preferred that rebellious rock 'n' roll tone to come up from the poorer streets than the mournful resignation of "It's the rich wot gets the pleasure and the poor what gets the blame".
If he had lived to see the London riots and been inclined to write about them, I bet he would have been more interesting than most. Or else said nothing. He lavished words, but never wasted them.