Jeremy Paxman leaves Newsnight: The Big Beast interrogation will never be quite the same

He made performative contempt his own, and imitators are doomed to failure

There's a YouTube clip of Jeremy Paxman presenting the BBC's Breakfast Time in about 1988. The footage is from a behind-the-scenes documentary, and everything is going horribly wrong: an expected guest, the actress Susan Hampshire, has failed to turn up, and the producers are wondering how on earth they're going to fill the gap.

As they frantically juggle their options, Paxman – whose co-presenter is Kirsty Wark – can be heard booming away in the background. "Don't you have any respect for the fact that he's clearly managing the economy?" he asks a shadow minister. "His balance of payments forecast is about three times less than it was the last time we had a Labour government." "Well it's not, actually," the politician answers, plainly a bit irked by his interlocutor's tone. It's an up-and-comer called Tony Blair, and the face-off obviously makes for good television. The producers have a rethink. "We might not need Susan Hampshire," one says. "Let it run."

More than a quarter of a century later, Paxman still makes for great television. But he is, in some ways, a different beast today. His ties have improved. Instead of a jet-black bouffant, he has an expensive-looking silver crop. His impeccably received pronunciation has shifted subtly down the social scale. (In a clip from his first year on Newsnight, it's a treat to hear him pronounce "again" to rhyme with "rain" instead of "men".) And in the past few years there has been another noticeable shift – if not in the incredulous tone, then in the frequency with which it is adopted. No one is immune. He was always a sceptic, but of late, his ever-arching eyebrows and exhortations to "come on" seem to suggest he might have become a cynic, instead.

This has happened as he has ascended to the very uppermost tier of the media hierarchy, and it's hard to tell which is cause and which effect. The grander he has become, the more determined he has been to let us know that he hates it. We love it, of course. It's the final act of a gangster movie, in which our street-brawling hero is seen reluctantly navigating the boardroom. The setting isn't promising, but even the dullest meeting is enlivened when you notice that one of the participants is wearing a knuckleduster.

Those movies tend, too, to feature a scene in which the protagonist reflects on what he has wrought, and wonders whether it was worth it. And now that he's leaving Newsnight, the same question presents itself with Paxman. In his case, the answer is complicated. If he has become a slight pantomime of himself in recent years, he still seems an almost unmatched interrogator of people and ideas alike, never so wrapped up in personal animosity for his sparring partner that he is unable to see the larger point, always alive to the guard-lowering power of the unexpected question. His performative contempt can get a little wearing, but he has never developed the fusty grandfatherliness that afflicted John Humphrys (only seven years his senior), mostly because he's much funnier.

And yet there's an ambiguity to his legacy. That approach – "why is this lying bastard lying to me", as he so famously put it – works because he is a truly Big Beast, with one of those faces, like Blair's, that has become so familiar and so imposing that you can no longer tell if it's handsome or not. He is convincing when he treats even the grandest politician as an equal, and sufficiently intimidating for most of the rest that his mere presence can turn the best-briefed lines to a dry-mouthed chaos. (Poor Chloe Smith.) You don't lie to Paxman if you can help it, and so usually, the answer to his question is: because this bastard has something embarrassing to hide.

As a description of a one-off, this is fine. The problem is that this approach is the orthodoxy, and so Paxman is the standard-bearer – probably unwitting – for a variety of journalism that is as ineffective as it is grating. If you are not a Big Beast, there are reasons that this lying bastard might be lying to you besides a deep-seated dishonesty. He might be lying to you because you don't matter very much. He might be lying to you because the lie is easier, and the distance from the truth small enough to fudge. Or, most likely of all: he might not be lying to you at all. He might just be taking that tone, default for all politicians these days, because the bitter experience of interviews like this has taught him that it's best to keep his guard up.

Arguing about whether this is the fault of politicians or journalists is as pointful as that dispute about the chicken and the egg: the point is, it's the way things are. And so it is that the interviewers who really reveal something unexpected these days are a rather more artful, forensic bunch. Paxman's heirs, such as Evan Davis and Eddie Mair, are scrupulously polite; they draw out their subjects by degrees, and leave us to spot the omissions for ourselves. In such an interview, there may be only one difficult question – the crucial one. The rest of the discussion will be the construction of a house of cards so delicate that it takes only a puff of breath to knock it down.

None of this is to diminish Paxman. Indeed, it is a marker of his greatness that he is so inimitable. All the same, it's cheering to read that the front-runners to succeed him are the likes of Mair and Laura Kuenssberg. Their lips may not curl so high, nor their eyeballs roll so far. But imitation will get them nowhere in their quest to match the master.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence