AS I LIE snug in my bunk, listening to the Today programme, I think, 'Heh, that Brian Redhead, what a genius, how does he do it, where does he get the energy from, the cheerfulness, the mental awareness, and all at such an ungodly hour of the morning?' Many among his 7 million listeners think the same. That's more than the readership of all the quality morning papers put together.

Yet some days I also think what a bighead, as he 'sets the day's agenda for the nation'. That's his phrase. There is also his other pet phrase, which you can often hear him thinking down the airwaves, rubbing his hands in intellectual glee: 'I'll now tell the nation what I think of the Budget.' Smug or what?

He hobbled into breakfast at the St George's Hotel, next door to Broadcasting House, humming tunelessly to himself, a set smile on his face, another morning over, putting us all straight. Nothing too serious about the hobble, just a touch of arthritis in the hip. His Old Methuselah beard, grey and straggly, looks recent, as if still waiting to go somewhere, but he's had it for 20 years.

We got off to a bad start. He'd happened to boast on his programme that morning that he got a first at Cambridge. Well done, I said, as we sat down to eat. In both parts? No, only in part one, he replied. Oh, come on, Brian, I don't count that as a first, it's getting a first in part two that matters - that's what you take through life.

'Look, does this matter?' he asked, looking aggrieved.

On your programme, Brian, you wouldn't let a politician get away with being economical with the facts, would you? So what did happen?

'My special paper in part two was about what happened in Britain at the outbreak of the French Revolution. When I read the questions, I thought they were all stupid, so I wrote on the top of my paper: 'It seems to me that none of the questions set is worth answering, so I will write about the following four topics.' I got alphas for my other papers, but I didn't get any mark for that paper. That's why I only got a 2:1. But I did get a first in part one. I've checked with the regulations, and it still counts as a first. Otherwise it's a double first. Oh, this is so boring.'

Yes, but interesting. It shows an intellectual arrogance at an early age. And also an ability to put his own gloss on any disappointments in life.

He was born in Newcastle upon Tyne 63 years ago this month, an only child. His father was a professional boxer, till he lost to Cast Iron Casey, the Sunderland Assassin, then went into printing and advertising. At the age of nine, Brian was sent to Cumberland as an evacuee.

He passed a scholarship to Newcastle Royal Grammar School, and did his National Service as a sergeant in the Education Corps, then had 18 months as a journalist on Tyneside before going up to Downing College, Cambridge, where he didn't do any journalism. None at all? You could have been huge on Varsity. 'I felt I'd learnt my craft already. I wanted to learn about other things, such as Plato.' His Cambridge contemporaries included Douglas Hurd, John Biffen and Tam Dalyell. 'I was chairman of the Labour Club and Tam was chairman of the Tories. He later, of course, changed to Labour.' And have you changed? Big smirk. 'Oh, I have remained what I always was - a beacon of impartiality.'

In 1954, after Cambridge, he joined the Manchester Guardian and rose to become northern editor and then editor of its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News. A distinguished provincial career, but all the same, surely he had hoped to be editor of the Guardian? 'I was in the running along with John Cole and Peter Preston. I remember the old chairman ringing to tell me that Peter had got it. No, I wasn't disappointed or upset. In my heart of hearts, I suppose I had always wanted to be editor of the Manchester Guardian, and in a way, I did that, sitting in C P Scott's old chair in the Manchester office.'

Not long afterwards, he found himself without any seat. 'Now, how can I put this delicately,' he beamed. 'I was fired.' So, aged 45, he was out of work. 'I didn't panic. I remember thinking, now, what'll I do next?' He had already done some radio work, mainly presenting A Word in Edgeways.

He had tried, some years previously, to develop a television career but was not a success. Sorry, that's more gossip, let's hear his version. 'I left the Guardian in 1963 and joined Tonight - along with Cliff Michelmore, Kenneth Allsop, Derek Hart, Alan Whicker, so they had a lot of good people. I was just a studio interviewer, rarely allowed out filming, and I felt my workload was too light. After a year, when the Guardian invited me back, I accepted. I've never had a career plan. I've just said yes when something was offered.'

The next offer, out of the blue, was from Today, giving him a three-month trial as a replacement for Robert Robinson. 'I remember his advice to me. 'Settle for your first thoughts. You'll never have time for seconds'.' For the past 18 years, he has lived two lives - half the week at home with his family in the North, half on his own in London in a small flat near the Barbican, getting a cab to the BBC on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. 'It's not a slog. I love it. My London life consists of work and sleep, so I have no distractions - and I don't distract anyone. If I was at home getting up at 4.30, I'd disturb everyone.'

He is naturally a happy, buoyant person, so he says, never getting depressed, hence his cheerfulness. The mental energy, which can be seen when you watch him at work, comes from the work itself. 'I do think it's the best job in journalism. We cover the best stories and get in the best people. Every morning I think whoopee, here we go. If you look at the lives of the great writers, and the great composers, you'll find they always did their best work early in the morning.'

Margaret Thatcher never missed his programme, but then she never slept, sometimes ringing up to make comments. John Major is not a listener, although his wife is. 'Someone in John's office does a precis for him every morning, listing the points made by every political figure. I've seen a copy. It covers only two pages, but it's a brilliant piece of work.' His self-imposed task is first to understand the issues, then ask the question the ordinary member of the public would ask. 'The best question is always 'why?'. If your questions run to more than seven words, then something is wrong.' Hmmm.

His most notable encounter was with Nigel Lawson, who accused him of being a life-long supporter of the Labour Party. In reply, Brian asked for one minute's silence 'while you compose an apology for daring to suggest you know how I exercise my vote, and I shall reflect upon the death of your monetary policy'. A clip of this interview is now used in the US as part of a course in media studies, showing how to deal with politicians.

He also had a bruising encounter with Denis Healey after which Edna Healey rang him and said: 'Take no notice of him, dear, he's always bullying people.' Off microphone, he's good friends with most of the leading politicians and, even more surprising, seems to admire them. 'I love the way they keep their youthful enthusiasm.' In talking about himself, he can be self- mocking - which is what he says he is when in his 'addressing the nation on the Budget' mode. But at the same time, he can be a right boaster, although in a carefully convoluted way.

'Dare I tell you this?' he said, tucking into his scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. 'But I am Britain's most popular broadcaster.' Slurp of coffee. 'Among women over 80 . . .

'Actually, I don't know how to put this without appearing, you know, but I get an enormous amount of letters from women over 60, often widows. Their home lives are lonely, so they like to hear a friendly male voice. When I did the all-night US election results, I got lots of letters from old ladies saying, 'It was lovely to spend the night with you, Brian'.'

He has been married for 38 years. He first saw his wife, Jenni, when she was a schoolgirl at Dame Allan's in Newcastle, running for a bus. 'I thought, boy, she can run. I didn't meet her properly till the night of my demob party in 1949.' They married in 1954 and had four children, including twins, one of whom, William, died, aged 18, in a car crash in France. One week after William's death, his A-level results came through, and a place at Imperial College. 'William is more than a memory. He is a presence. We talk about him a lot. It's part of humanity that we are not just things, but people, even in this statistical world. William was an individual. All of us are individuals.' He was interested in theology, as a subject, but after William's death he became interested spiritually. He has been a regular churchgoer ever since.

Stephen, their eldest, is now working for the Library of Congress in Washington. James is a management consultant in London. Abby, William's twin, who once had a short spell working for Norman Tebbit, acts as her father's manager.

Brian and Jenni live in a 17th-century cottage in a village near Macclesfield, Cheshire, with a five-acre garden. He spends most of his home time writing articles, speeches, books. He chairs industrial conferences - for handsome fees - and also does a lot of good works for hospices and environmental concerns. He refuses any advertising work, unlike most broadcasters. 'I like the sound of my own words and thoughts too much.'

Right, Bri, if you were PM, what would you now be doing in our hour of need? 'Not sleeping, I should think. John must lie awake with the worry. Awful job. I think I would tell myself first of all that the whole Western world is suffering from the debts of the Eighties, during our period of speculative insanity. We now have to calm things down, sort things out. But there's another worry - too many little signs of wars beginning.'

But what would you actually do? 'There are no easy answers. I remember my director of studies at Cambridge, R J White, saying that life was not about the problems you solve, because that's for crossword fanatics or mathematicians. It's about overcoming difficulties and, while overcoming them, discovering there are others lurking, and then others which you create by trying to overcome them. That's what politics is all about. It's no use having ideology in politics. All ideologies are damaging. What we want is people who can cope.'

In a sentence, Brian, would you cope? 'I couldn't do any worse - and I hope I'd be more temperate.'

Good, sharp answer, back to his best Today style. In real life, he can sometimes be pompous and long-winded, especially on the subject of himself. 'Let me quote you what I wrote at the time,' he said, starting a long story about his radio series, Plato to Nato. That was when I called for the bill.

And yet, he is not really conceited. Nor is he really a journalist, which is what he thinks he is. Deep down, he is a teacher. With age, he is no longer a sergeant in the Education Corps, but a self-appointed don, expecting us all to listen carefully and take notes. His passion is for ideas, not news. He wants to understand, then pass on to us his understanding.

This probably explains his recent decision about his future. He plans to retire from Today at the end of 1994, aged 65, although he is working on a set of radio essays about the 20th century, which will go out in 1995.

By that time, all being well, God willing, he will have metamorphosed into the Reverend Brian Redhead. Yip, he's contemplating being ordained. 'I've asked some friendly bishops, and they have encouraged me. I won't do any stipendiary work, just fill in for vicars when they are on holiday. I would be bored without reading, writing and talking. I think in my final years it would be a calming and rewarding experience to be an old cleric.' Well, he has got the beard.

(Photograph omitted)