A walking soundbite

Edwina Currie is many things to many people. Now she's our Sunday morning shock radio jock. How does she feel about being the one asking the questions for a change? Ann Treneman sits by her mike

It is Sunday morning - and not even a decent hour yet - but Edwina Currie is already on top form. This is her very own Radio 5 Live radio show and, for once, she is the one asking the questions. She is particularly enjoying asking them of BBC correspondent Lance Price, and wants to know if John Major knew he was going to lose the election.

"Most of the feedback was that the Tories were heading for a crushing defeat," he says. "In fact, there was even the odd MP who said something like that. One that springs to mind was - what was her name? - you know, the one for Derbyshire South."

"Well I just got cheesed off telling lies," announces Edwina.

The former honourable member for Derbyshire South looks over the half- moon glasses that she has bought specially to be able to see both the scripts and control room during Sunday with Currie and smiles. This is the second time she has stood in on the two-and-a-half hour Sunday programme normally presented by Eddie Mair, and one suspects it won't be the last. Whatever you may think of Edwina Currie - and she is someone people either hate or love - she is a natural on radio.

Her guest, Tory MP David Willetts, may not think so, though, after he was left trying to explain away some untoward comment made about one female MP. "Well, no one would ever dare to patronise you, Edwina ..." But Mrs Currie is not so easily placated. "Hmmm. Maybe the day will come when the entire Tory party will quit patronising its women, and some of us may then cheer," she states, before adding, "But let's move on now ... "

The fact that she is a bit of a self-publicist, know-it-all and gadfly all rolled into one seems to work on radio. Everyone calls her Edwina. She appears to have had dinner or lunch or at least drinks with most of the people on the show and often knows more about them than is comfortable (for them at least). Once the pleasantries are over, she tends to ask the question that the person on the street would like to know the answer to and is also rather good at the sharp aside that keeps us wanting to listen. And, as the Tory party already knows, she is fairly fearless.

"There just do not seem to be any no-go areas for her," says the programme editor Simon Waldman. Yesterday, for instance, the woman who was once called the Minister for Salmonella tackled a three-way debate on food safety. She called it a subject "close to my heart", though she could have added that it was rather too close to her career, or what remained of it, after she gave that interview to ITN about salmonella and eggs.

If she had chosen her words just a bit more carefully, I note when I call her last week to talk about the show, she may not have had to resign as Minister for Health. Does she blame the ITN interview itself? "No, no, no, no. Look, we had tried very hard behind the scenes with the Minister of Agriculture to get them to do an interview. They could not give a damn."

She then goes on to demonstrate why she herself is so much in demand as a guest: the woman is a walking soundbite. "We were talking about something that was killing people. I didn't actually say that [in the interview]. I was quite restrained really. Our alarm was that the number of food-poisoning cases was rising rapidly and, if 1989 was a hot summer, then we would have ourselves a serious epidemic with quite a lot of deaths."

She has no regrets. "I was one of those people who cared too much about a subject, which is always foolish in politics." She admits that she was "somewhat inexperienced". This is clearly no longer the case and she doesn't hesitate for a nanosecond when I ask her what she has learnt about giving interviews: "To be extremely wary! To have my answers ready even before the questions are asked. To give the answers I wish to give and to stick at it. And the point at which the question is put for the fourth time, to say: 'I've answered that, now can we go on?' In other words, to get my point of view across."

What she has described is the kind of tit-for-tat radio that can drive listeners crazy. Surely, as a presenter, she must know that: so what happens when she meets the likes of herself across the table? "There are a variety of techniques to catch someone off-guard - humour, flattery, erudition, knowledge."

As the author of a book or two herself, she is is particularly keen on the third technique, and Simon Waldman says she really does do her homework. "But that comes from my experience as an interviewee," she says. "There is nothing more depressing than turning up to have an interviewer say brightly, 'Now what's the book about?' Whenever I hear that I think, 'It's about braining you with it! How dare you spend your time earning money interviewing me when you haven't even read it.'"

So which role does she prefer? "Oh, asking the questions, definitely. It's a hell of a lot more fun. You are in a position of power. You are not a victim but the attacker. You are far better prepared and you can catch them off-guard. And, of course, you get paid for it. I've been interviewed hundreds, probably thousands, of times and you hardly ever get paid. Occasionally pounds 50 would appear."

Money is mentioned more than once, and she is clearly still getting used to not having an MP's salary to supplement her book deals. This is another subject on which she is not shy, explaining that she has a current two- book contract with Little Brown and that her new novel is out soon. It's called She's Leaving Home - "now that's entirely appropriate!" she says - and is set in Liverpool in 1963. She will soon get to work on the next one.

"I want to be mainly a writer and do some radio presenting for fun and for filthy lucre," she says. "I have said to my people in Derbyshire that I don't want to stand for the Westminster parliament again. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Fourteen years is enough. In any case, I have the horrid feeling that we may be in opposition for some time and it's not a good way of using the remaining years of one's life."

At the age of just 50, this seems a little extreme, though Edwina Currie's disagreements with the Tory party are hardly a secret. But she is a Europhile and there is always the European Parliament to consider, but her tendency to describe herself as a "card-carrying member of the Tory party" only makes her sound even more estranged.

So who would she most like to interview? "I'd love to question Gordon Brown on what his long-term plans are for the British economy. What is his secret agenda? I suspect that I would agree with almost every word of it but I doubt that I could make him laugh. I think he was born without the gland." Back in the studio, things are getting a little dicey. The plan is for Edwina to talk to the reporter in Dublin, and he is to do an interview on the Irish elections. The only problem is the satellite link with Dublin has broken down and their man in Dublin can't hear a word Edwina is saying. "We've lost him. We'll have to go to plan B," says the editor of the day. Edwina hardly pauses as she does the necessary on-air damage control.

For all this aplomb, however, Edwina Currie is still relatively new to this game. Before the show, she is looking at the script. "Just remind me what a stab is?" she asks. Now this the kind of question Tory politicians are usually too afraid to ask. "It's a very brief musical phrase," replies the control room. Edwina nods. You can't help but think that radio is a much nicer world than Westminster when it comes to such thingsn

Arts & Features are on pages 12 & 13 of the broadsheet

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