A multiple questionmaster calls his own bluff

We should cherish Robert Robinson as we used to cherish Evelyn Waugh, says Sheridan Morley; Skip All That by Robert Robinson, Century, pounds 15.99
When I grew up, I wanted to be Robert Robinson; others of my 1963 ITN graduate-trainee generation had their sights set on Robin Day or Alistair Burnet, but Robinson was always my man. First of all, long before it was fashionable, he had a healthy disregard for, and distrust of, politics and politicians; secondly, he had a prodigious capacity for work - at one stage I seem to recall him writing a Sunday movie column while chairing Today, Call My Bluff, The Book Programme, Points of View, Ask The Family and Vital Statistics simultaneously on BBC sound and vision; and thirdly he always managed to imply that he had really meant to be somewhere else at the time.

For years I vaguely imagined him on leave from some rather elegant Oxford or Cambridge professorship, and I was a little nervous that these memoirs would turn out to be another port-drenched anthology of favourite High Table or Garrick anecdotes; I should have known better. Skip All That works as a wondrous comic novel, as well as an autobiography. Like two other, but curiously lesser-known Radio 4 broadcasters, Paul Vaughan (with whom he shared a headmaster) and Christopher Matthew, Robinson has a perfect ear for the eccentricities of outer-London suburban life in the years just before or after World War Two.

Robinson now turns up all too seldom on the airwaves, but can usually be seen popping into the more rarified delicatessens along the King's Road in Chelsea; that is now where you'll also find Sir Dirk Bogarde, and though I have no evidence that they have ever met, they remind me irresistibly of those two little men who used to pop out of weather-forecasting huts, Bogarde severe and gloomily predicting rain and frost, while Robinson beams with the promise of eternal summer.

Only occasionally in this book can there be found a sense of waste or regret, although looking back he feels he should have done something more meaningful with his life than journalism or broadcasting. Like many of us who had Nevill Coghill as an Oxford tutor, he seems to think he has never quite managed to deliver the right essay in the right week to the right man, although I would argue that some of his documentaries, notably the quest for B Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, will live as long as arts programmes are valued or discussed.

Here too are ruefully funny accounts of trying to act with John Osborne and an increasingly recalcitrant Jill Bennett, of a pitched battled with Edith Sitwell and an unwise attack on American students published in Time magazine.

Robinson also has a dramatist's ear for great dialogue: interviewing Jayne Mansfield he asks about rumours that her bathroom has carpeted walls: "To which do you refer?" she trumps him, "I have 13". And a world of Strindbergian marital gloom is revealed when, after witnessing several decades of work, his mother asks his accountant father, "You like figures, don't you?" and he replies simply "No".

Far and away the best autobiography of the year, Skip All That is also infinitely sad in the realisation that, were you to start in television now, it would be impossible to make a living out of it as Robert Robinson has done. By the standards of today's tele-children he is politically incorrect, far too knowledgeable and ultimately not desperate enough to be allowed to earn a living in front of camera or microphone. He remains the last of the gentleman broadcasters, and we should cherish him as we used to cherish Evelyn Waugh.

Comments