The Week in Radio: A slightly awkward threesome with Robert Peston and Eddie Mair

The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair), Radio 4; Distraction Pieces, podcast

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The Independent Culture

There is a feeling in some quarters that the regular interview – that very basic dialogue in which one person tries to find out what makes another person tick – has got boring. That the format is past its sell-by date and it's time for something new. This, at least, seems to be the thought process behind The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair), a new series in which the eponymous presenters spring surprise guests on each other.

On paper, it's not all that promising. If, as the title suggests, it's Peston's show, then what's Mair's role? And how is the interviewee to feel, sandwiched between these two broadcasters, the third party in a potentially awkward threesome?

The programme also plays on the supposed rivalry between Peston and Mair – "the warring parties of radio's biggest feud" says the blurb – which essentially makes it plain that there's no ill-feeling and that this is merely a marketing wheeze.

Last week's episode opened with Peston gabbling about how strange and unknown it was all going to be, as if he'd been dispatched to the Bermuda Triangle rather than a studio in Broadcasting House. It was all a bit silly and indulgent. But that was before Peston revealed, via the entirely unnecessary opening of an envelope, that his interviewee was Julian Barnes, whose last book was about grief and written after the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh.

Peston himself was widowed in 2012, so the two clearly had something in common. What followed was an incredibly visceral, frank and moving account of what it is to live with grief and how the reactions of friends can help and hinder the process. Mair hardly got a word in, but it didn't matter. If it was depth and candour they were after, they got it.

 

On this week's show, the tables were turned in that Mair knew who the guest was and Peston didn't. After the daft rigmarole with the envelope (this is radio, guys, rustling paper doesn't add drama), the interviewee was revealed as Esther Rantzen.

It took Peston a while to assemble his thoughts (if the series reveals anything, it's that nerves make him laugh in all the wrong places) but Mair, having done his homework, was a calmer presence.

Rantzen talked with enormous clarity about her problems with depression and how, over the decades, she has dealt with criticism about her appearance. She also discussed the sexual abuse she endured in her early teens at the hands of a family friend and how her mother didn't believe her. She shuddered at the memory of her abuser but, of her mother, she was forgiving: "I adored my mother. She was fallible. She made a mistake," she said.

Like last week's conversation with Barnes, it was frank, in-depth and offered insight. But the format is still weird and the forced fractiousness between the presenters is silly. A good interview requires empathy, chemistry and focus. Anything else is just window dressing.

Those looking for a straightforward interview series should try Scroobius Pip's Distraction Pieces podcast, which is now on its 40th episode and has, in the past, featured Russell Brand, Howard Marks, Kate Tempest and Stewart Lee.

Pip, who has a show on XFM, has empathy in spades and, while the show could do with some editing, the vibe is relaxed and he brings out the best in his subjects.

Twitter: @FionaSturges

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