The interview / DARCUS HOWE, TV PRESENTER TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

Channel 4 calls him the Devil's Advocate. That's a polite description for the most immaculately scary man on British TV

sometimes Jeremy Paxman has a nightmare. He wakes up in a pool of sweat, struggling to remember what the dream was about, and gradually the whole disturbing scene comes back to him - the sky was made of shredded wheat, the rabbits were wearing lederhosen and ... Darcus Howe was asking him questions.

Howe, the 52-year-old deviser and presenter of Channel 4's late-night discussion programme The Devil's Advocate, is the most immaculately scary man on British television. While other current affairs programmes go all out for jaunty graphics, ironic raised eyebrows and jokey skateboarding dog items, The Devil's Advocate cultivates an air of almost Old Testament severity. Elegantly suited, beard and hair flecked with grey, imperiously demanding "What say you?" of police chiefs, boxers and pornographers, Darcus Howe embodies a quality that has almost wholly disappeared from our public life: gravitas.

The same quality was in evidence a quarter of a century ago, when Howe successfully defended himself at the Old Bailey against charges of riot and affray in the infamous Mangrove Restaurant trial. It also shows in a letter, lying around in his production company's office, which castigates a previous interviewer for misquoting the Bible.

This former Black Panther's activist-to-TV odyssey has not weighed him down with respectability. His father died recently. Howe was in Trinidad sorting out the funeral arrangements, and when he told the woman in the undertaker's office what his name was, she said, "The Darcus Howe? You've got to pay cash."

He arrives more casually attired - and in consequence rather more portly - than he is on television, and accompanied by his wife Leila, who sits in quietly on the interview until Howe sends her out to buy him a packet of cigarettes. Even though she has asthma. There is a glint of steel in her eye at this point that rather belies Howe's chauvinistic reputation (one of his colleagues says, "His wife tells him what to do, but don't tell him I told you that"). Her husband is a much more genial figure than the avenging angel who turned inconsistent Hindu milk miracle witnesses over a slow fire on last week's Devil's Advocate.

"You never dislike somebody when I've finished with them," Howe observes cheerfully, "You feel sorry for them. You think, 'Oh, poor fellow. He tried something and didn't get away with it.' " For all his aura of mercilessness - and he proudly quotes Jo Brand's assertion that he is "feisty, but polite" - Howe does not despise human frailty: "I don't make excuses for people, but I don't like kicking them around." He describes himself, for all that, as "a serious street brawler". What, physically? "I'll fight anybody - I am known in the pubs where I live for that."

Presumably such combativeness is an asset in the lily-livered world of the media? "I don't live in that world," Howe says firmly. "I live in Brixton, among West Indian people." A pause. "And that is not a sacrifice, that is how I have always lived." No separatist, Darcus Howe asserts that the fact that "there is no completely black community in this country" is what differentiates the fraught but ,by and large, functional race relations in this country from the parlous state they are in on the other side of the Atlantic.

He often visits friends in Brooklyn who left Trinidad at the same time he did - at the dawn of the Sixties - and finds them "still Trinidadians in the most unadulterated sense. Going to America you don't have to change," Howe explains, "because they're both plantation societies: but in the US, white and black are two completely different worlds. That's why when people there try to transform themselves - Tyson, OJ, Michael Jackson - they become completely dislocated. If you grow up in the Caribbean it's easier," he smiles, "like Sidney Poitier."

Howe's given name - perhaps testament to Gone with the Wind's popularity in Trinidad - was the aptly roguish Rhett, but he preferred his nickname Darcus. The environment he was brought up in was "very rural ... it was beyond rural". His parents, an Anglican priest and a teacher, drilled him in grammar and literature, and being taught by them "was like being in a dark tunnel with a torchlight". As a seven-year-old altar boy he badgered his mother as to why they couldn't see Christ rise on Easter Sunday. She scolded him thus: "The thing about you is, you don't accept there are things you just believe."

When Howe first came to England aged 17 he planned to become a barrister. What struck him - apart from the fists and feet of teddy boys - was newspapers ... "I never knew there could be so many: I used to devour them." Journalism became his main career goal - he worked for a West Indian Big Issue prototype called The Hustler before editing his own radical journal, Race Today - but his involvement in the struggle for racial equality revealed an aptitude for making news as well as analysing it.

A dynamic agitator as well as a skilled and fervent orator, Darcus Howe seems to have spent much of the 1970s in the company of Special Branch. One day in 1982, he went into a shoe-shop in Oxford Street to buy suitable footwear for a funeral. When he came out, "A young police officer said, 'I saw you dipping in handbags.' " Howe, understandably, was not impressed. "I went clean off my head. I said, 'You're crazy! The one thing I was bought up never to do was steal. If you put your hand on me, I'll execute you.' " Howe was taken to West End Central by a vanload of police, but was released by a sympathetic desk sergeant.

For reasons even Howe himself does not seem quite certain of, this incident seems to have been something of a turning-point. From that moment on, he insists, he "ceased being a propagandist" and, as if to prove it, he now writes for the not-quite-as-reactionary-as-it-used-to-be London Evening Standard. But his loyalty to the intellectual traditions of his great-uncle and mentor C L R James is not in question.

To brief himself before playing The Devil's Advocate, Howe reads "outside the immediacy of research". For his compelling bout with Nigel Benn, it was Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali; for an encounter with the fearsome US militiaman, Norman Olsen, it is W E B Dubois' Black Reconstruction in America; "always a book which is intellectually above - not just some frivolous nonsense - so spite and malice don't reside in what I do."

But surely it's just as easy to have spite and malice on an intellectual footing? "Yes of course, but all these things are written with restraint." What makes Howe struggle to restrain himself, when he is interrogating people on television, is: "Thought not being fluent. I want people to tell the truth, and if they don't I want the entire audience to know it. That's how people discover things, by inquisition. I mean that in the inquisitive sense," he laughs, "not the Spanish Inquisition - that was a bit heavy."

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