Robin Day was always keen to make one thing clear.
At the start of the BBC’s 1979 General Election coverage he puffed on a cigar and promised: ‘I shall be performing my usual humble function’. Four years later the now Sir Robin was ‘nothing but a humble spear carrier in the great democratic jungle’. By 1987, on his BBC election swansong, in case anyone doubted: ‘In the momentous drama of tonight I am as usual but a humble spear carrier’.
Humility may or may not have been his greatest suit (presumably topped off with a flamboyant bow tie), but Day was one of the biggest beasts in the democratic jungle of the late twentieth century. As Fiona Bruce takes the BBC Question Time conch from David Dimbleby, a veteran of many jungle rumbles with Sir Robin, it’s worth considering the cruelly bespectacled knight of the realm that established the programme in the 1980s.
By the time Day moderated the first Question Time in September 1979 with Teddy Taylor, Michael Foot, Edna O’Brien and Archbishop Derek Worlock, he had been a prominent political presenter for nearly a quarter of a century. A barrister called to the screen as one of ITN’s first ‘newcasters’ in 1955, Day found swift fame for a previously unheard-of toughness as an interviewer, and ended up at the BBC following an unsuccessful attempt win Hereford for the Liberals in 1959.
Initially a globe-trotting reporter-presenter on Panorama, as well as an interviewer, Day soon opted for the studio, where he became as much a dignified part of the British constitution as the Speaker, Black Rod or MPs having to laugh at what passes for a joke in Parliament. No major interview, panel discussion, party conference or election night could pass off on the BBC without the Grand Inquisitor’s presence. And the man himself was keen to be a part of the political process in a way that even the current host of the Antiques Roadshow is unlikely to ever match.
When at ITN he made his forensic reputation with a 1956 cross-examination of a pre-Civilisation Sir Kenneth Clark, chairman of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), on possible cuts to ITN by cash-strapped commercial channels. Sir Kenneth was theoretically Day’s ultimate boss, but in a live interview that was allowed to overrun the scheduled bulletin time, as the Evening News put it: ‘Robin Day hammered Sir Kenneth Clark so hard that an one stage a definitely worried look came into Sir Kenneth’s eyes.’
The ITA’s commitment to ITN was established by Clark’s answers, not bad for Day’s first live interview after four months on air. That was followed by grilling President Nasser of Egypt, not long over the Suez crisis, on recognition of Israel, and a live 1958 interview with Harold Macmillan on the future of foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd, the latter encounter described by the Daily Express as ‘the most vigorous cross-examination a Prime Minister has been subjected to in public’.
That interviewing style, unknown before ITN’s launch and Day’s emergence, is what he is best remembered for – but there was more to him than that, contributions with just as much influence on how politics is still covered by the media decades later. And his tenure in the chair of Question Time is a key part of that.
As his abortive political career hints at, Day considered Parliament (and essentially the House of Commons) as ‘the nation’s prime forum of debate’ in an explicit fashion. While he dropped his party affiliation after falling short in Hereford in 1959, his BBC tenure did not mean he was backwards in coming forwards with his opinions.
Day was an early campaigner for the televising of Parliament at the turn of the 1960s, when the Commons was engaged in a long series of debates about the admittance of cameras. His key argument was that, while an interview by him or his colleagues ‘can be a useful form of journalism. It is no substitute for parliamentary questioning or debate’.
Obviously in those days of just two British TV stations he was dismissive of Aneurin Bevan’s before-its-time idea of a channel devoted only to live Parliamentary coverage (‘a proposal that made even the most ardent advocate of televising Parliament blanch’), instead advocating a ‘late evening Television Hansard’, first put forward in a 1959 letter to the Times.
In a subsequent pamphlet, published in 1963, he wrote: ‘I am not concerned primarily with the interests of television, which is simply a means of communication, but with the interests of Parliament, which is at the heart of our democratic system’. He was being sincere – throughout his career he was a diligent attender in the Commons press gallery though not a Parliamentary reporter himself.
In the end, cameras did not enter Parliament until the 1980s, but Day (who died in 2000) did not even live to see another cause he ‘first propagandised for’, in David Butler’s words, from the ‘60s – televised leaders’ debates at elections. ‘Interviews …are no substitute,’ he wrote. ‘The mass-audience should be able to see reasoned argument, at length and in juxtaposition, between those who aspire to lead, or to continue leading the nation.’
But there is another innovation that should be seen as much a part of his legacy as his grand inquisitions, even if they did not provoke as spectacular flame-outs as his most famed interviews. It’s Your Call, launched on Radio 4 in 1970 and chaired by Day, was not quite the first such phone-in in the UK (and the USA and mainland Europe had already taken to the format), but in a world before Five Live and LBC, in its Tuesday evening slot, having been given technical approval by the GPO, the new programme received 8,000 calls for its launch edition featuring trade unionist Hugh Scanlon.
This was not the combative Day – Tony Benn described the chairman’s phone-in demeanour as ‘quiet and quiescent’ – but his new persona as a conduit for the interrogation of public figures by, well, the public gave him a role that was to restore the future Sir Robin to the forefront of the public imagination, following a period when he felt in the ‘wilderness’ as his preference for ‘intelligent communication’ over ‘visual effect’ fell out of favour with producers.
Initially that was when It’s Your Call morphed into Election Call, initially ahead of the February 1974 vote, described in a study of the election as as ‘a great success … a new campaign tradition’. A daily audience of well over a million at 9am on Radio 4 tuned in to hear guests, including party leaders, being quizzed by callers, and the programme was a staple for many elections to come, eventually being simulcast on TV.
If Day was becoming frustrated that set-piece interviews produced ‘a series of statements planned for delivery irrespective of the question that had been put’, callers to a phone-in, with the aid of the host’s gentle but insistent prodding, could not quite be met with the same techniques without appearing bullying or contemptuous. The most famous example of this was not in a Day-helmed programme – that was the 1983 questioning of Margaret Thatcher by a studio-based teacher, Diana Gould, over the Belgrano sinking – but his skilled chairing of the programmes established the format.
That persona was further developed in the programme that restored him to a regular place in the TV schedules as a sort of bow-tied version Fiona Bruce – Question Time, originally a short-term experiment based on radio’s Any Questions?* Day, underused under contract at BBC TV, had long pressed to present such a programme and worked with editor Barbara Maxwell to make it a fixture (though later tension including over the choice of panellists led to him quitting in 1989).
Having a well-known chairman obviously helped attract an audience, and Day’s assiduous approach to preparation throughout his career left him well-placed to press panellists if they dodged questions. Discussions were seldom dry and by the 1983 election, the now Sir Robin believed the programme had ‘revived the old hustings tradition of people face to face with the politicians’.
Whatever one makes of the programme that Question Time has evolved into, the late-night filler became perhaps the flagship political show on TV over three decades. And despite Day having been on TV for nearly twenty-five years by the time it started, it was probably the vehicle that finally really suited him and certainly ensured Sir Robin never faded from the public eye, as seemed possible in the previous decade despite his huge celebrity, his distinctive voice, intonation and garb making him an impressionists’ staple. (He wasn’t shy of taking part in a bit of light entertainment himself).
That such a fuss has been made about who presents a politics programme broadcast outside prime time ought to be seen as a tribute to the imagination of Day, whose admiration for parliamentary democracy and, in his words, ‘government by debate’ shaped how politics was covered on British TV since he first popped up on camera in the 1950s.
It would be impossible in the mature, multi-channel present for Fiona Bruce or any individual to shape matters as Sir Robin did, when he was among those with the privilege of being able to invent how the visual medium dealt with public figures and debate. And Question Time’s continued life, thirty years after Day himself left the programme he made such a huge success, is its own tribute, even to such a humble spear carrier.
* There had previously been regional ITV programmes called Question Time and Day had chaired various audience discussion programmes before, usually with a single guest as on It’s Your Call.