A hard man who knows where to hit

Nicky Campbell's show on Five Live has raised the bar for political interviewing. Ciar Byrne discovers his secret
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The Independent Online

Paxman, Humphrys... Campbell. Nicholas Andrew Argyle Campbell, the one time presenter of such fluff as Wheel of Fortune and the Radio1 Roadshow live from Eastbourne, is now undeniably part of the great triumverate of hard men BBC interviewers.

When Tony Blair subjected himself to a round of interviews on the BBC a fortnight ago, it was Campbell - and not John Humphrys - who managed to prise apart the Prime Minister's guard.

Taunting him about his relationship with the Chancellor Gordon Brown, Campbell said: "Does he pick up the phone... come round for a beer?"

And when Mr Blair tried to persuade his questioner that the listeners weren't interested, the presenter could be heard waving a fistful of printed emails in front of the microphone. "Not the ones who suggested we ask you those questions," he shot back.

It was classic Campbell and reminiscent of an earlier interview with Mr Blair when he had reduced the Prime Minister to mumbling incoherence by asking his allegiance in a forthcoming England-Scotland football match.

Some Scottish newspapers later printed Blair's reply verbatim. "Well, it's not how can I do, you know. I've lived most of my life in England really, and, er, um, anyway, I think it's... you know. We agree on everything other than this one," stumbled the PM, until Gordon Brown himself stepped in to save the day with a wisecrack about Scotland goalkeeper Frank Haffey who conceded nine goals to England at Wembley in 1961.

Campbell is a cool and calculated questioner whether on his morning phone-in show or tormenting rogue businessmen on the consumer affairs television show Watchdog. He is not as comfortable or as effusive when the boot is on the other foot. In interviews, Campbell is famously cautious and reluctant to talk himself up. But the presenter finds himself under the spotlight because has just published his first book, the extraordinary story of his adoption and his journey to trace his birth parents.

Publication comes after recent professional disappointments including the loss of 270,000 listeners from his breakfast show and the BBC's decision not to continue with Now You're Talking, the replacement to the Kilroy show, which Campbell had been picked to host and had been excited about. Nonetheless, he undoubtedly remains one of the BBC's stars. Sat at the airy home in south-west London, that he shares with journalist wife Tina Ritchie and four young daughters, he is modest about how he has got to the position he finds himself in today.

Campbell has enjoyed a parallel television career, hosting Wheel of Fortune with Carol Smilie, the discussion show Central Weekend Live for ten years and Watchdog since 2001. Somewhat incongruously, he has also presented a handful of Newsnight and Panorama programmes as well as hosting the coverage of the European election with David Dimbleby for BBC2.

"I don't think I was very good at the Wheel of Fortune. I probably wasn't much good at Newsnight either. I'm probably better at something in the middle. There was a certain sniffiness when I did a couple of programmes on Newsnight. Someone like me going into news and current affairs. 'A game show host," some people said. But now all these people in news and current affairs are gagging to be game show hosts and DJs - John Humphrys and the two Jeremy's [Paxman and Vine]."

Campbell caused considerable embarrassment among BBC executives when he revealed to the press that he had been asked to replace Jimmy Young at Radio2, but turned it down. He now says that Jeremy Vine - who got the job - is "far better at it than I would have been".

He also chooses not to score points over the way his Blair interview was compared to that by Humphrys on Today.

"John's interview was brilliantly forensic. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Humpho, I think he's the best, but we do something different," says Campbell. He stresses that both interviews were collective approaches - Humphrys compiling a list of questions together with the Today editor Kevin Marsh, while Campbell sat down and brainstormed with his editor Richard Jackson and political correspondent John Pienaar.

"Sometimes in that Five Live kind of question he is as uncomfortable as he would be on the detail," he says.

Such a question, he says, was that one about the England-Scotland match. "That gave him enormous problems, because all he was thinking about was swing voters and the perception there were too many Scots in the Cabinet. Alastair Campbell was pacing up and down outside the glass like a cougar in a cage."

As a student at Aberdeen University, Campbell had ambitions to become an actor - one of his lifelong friends is Iain Glen, who appeared opposite Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room. In a bid to secure an Equity card, he started out as a DJ on a local Aberdeen radio station Northsound Radio. A stint on Capital Radio followed, before he landed a job on Radio1, moving to the key "drive time" afternoon slot in 1994, and then Five Live in 1997. His radio career to date has produced four prestigious Sony awards.

It is this exceedingly varied career that forms the chronological backdrop to his book Blue-Eyed Son: The Story of an Adoption.

Raised in middle class Protestant Edinburgh, Campbell was shocked to discover as an adult that his father was an Irish Catholic who had been involved with the IRA in the 1950s, while his grandfather had been an IRA member at the time of Michael Collins.

The book tells the story of his difficult meeting with his birth mother, an Irish Protestant nurse driven to mental breakdown after giving up two illegitimate babies for adoption, and of his more joyous relationship with his natural half-sister Esther.

He believes that he has been able to keep this very personal quest quite separate from his professional persona.

"One is what you do for a living, the other is bigger, more important. No matter what is going on in your life, good or bad, once you go into the studio it takes you away from everything else. You have to concentrate so much and your response has to be so fast that you haven't got a minute to sit back and think: 'Oh dear, what a mind fuck that was at the weekend when I met my natural father.'"

Finding out about his birth father's past only served to reinforce Campbell's existing opinions about sectarianism. "It teaches you how bigoted they are about each other's bigotry and how it's so difficult to disentangle. It's one thing interviewing a clever Republican politician who uses his words very carefully, and another talking to a man who is your birth father who is politically and emotionally very honest."

But there are times when as an interviewer he has been unable to avoid his past.

"We were doing a piece on Five Live about whether the anonymity of sperm donors should be preserved. I came steaming in. I think I rather fell off the fence on that one, because I feel very strongly about it. You have to declare an interest, like an MP. If you're in the House of Commons fighting to preserve tobacco advertising in Formula One and you're also a director of BAT you have to declare an interest."

On a more intimate level, in his first meeting with Esther, whom he describes as "more of a Radio 4 listener", she cracked a joke about the Spice Girls, who were huge at the time. When Campbell pondered over dinner whether one of the female pop group was keeping a diary, she asked: "Is there a Literate Spice?" Campbell used the gag the following day on his Radio1 afternoon show. "She heard it and that was the first bonding experience."

The presenter has always known he was adopted. In his book he speaks with great fondness of the people he calls Mum and Dad, an Edinburgh map publisher and his psychiatric social worker wife. Did his start in life propel him towards success? "I shy away from the amateur psychiatrist bit, but my mum always said: 'You're especially chosen by us'. Maybe that has a deep-seated psychological effect - 'Ooh, I'm the chosen one.' I'm going short of being Messianic, but it certainly drives you on to think you can succeed. Half of this business is self-confidence, chutzpah."

The seven-month long process of writing a book was a new experience to a presenter used to performing live, rising at 3.45am each weekday morning to co-host Five Live's breakfast show with Shelagh Fogarty, and fronting Watchdog.

"Watchdog is live and requires speed of thought. Five Live similarly. You don't really have that much of a chance to consider the bigger picture. It was a good antidote every afternoon to come back and work the bigger stuff out. It helped me as a sort of self-therapy."