Bringing the House down

Radio 4's Broadcasting House is brilliant. But can the satirical show survive without the offbeat charm of Eddie Mair?
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The Independent Online

To the present hierarchy at BBC Radio, James Boyle, once, briefly, controller of Radio 4, is an unperson. Plucked from the provincial obscurity of Radio Scotland to mastermind reform of Middle England's favourite wavelength, Boyle has not been forgiven for doing just that. To Jenny Abramsky, incumbent boss of all things radio, Boyle is what Trotsky was to Stalin.

But the revisionist version of Boyle's reign is unjust. There were triumphs among the mistakes, and one of the most glorious was Broadcasting House, the Sunday-morning mix of news and charisma presented by Boyle's fellow-Radio Scotland refugee, Eddie Mair. When it was launched on 19 April 1998, Broadcasting House filled a gaping hole on Radio 4, one that had persuaded many loyal fans to flirt with Radio Five Live or, still worse, defect to television. Now it provides stiff competition to all comers, including Sir David Frost. The show's determination to approach news stories from oblique angles, and to entertain as well as inform, makes it unique among serious counterparts such as Today, The World at One and The World Tonight.

Now, Broadcasting House faces its most serious challenge. Eddie Mair, who took a sheep down the King's Road during the farming crisis, "to see whether townies knew what one was worth", is leaving. Toward the end of November, Mair will dedicate himself to PM, leaving Broadcasting House without the voice that has made the "Donald Rumsfeld soundbite of the week" amusing as opposed to just silly. Can the show thrive without him?

James Boyle is glowing about his former protégé. "Eddie Mair is one of the great broadcasters. He achieves a perfect balance between seriousness and humour. He is never too intelligently pompous but never too flippant, either. Guys who are low on the vanity factor actually make great broadcasters."

But Boyle explains that Broadcasting House was not created solely as a vehicle for Eddie Mair. "Eddie developed it. The talent makes it work. But Broadcasting House is part of the straight line of brickwork that we built across the schedule at nine o'clock. We knew that the churchgoing audience was at church at 9am. We went for the news audience that we knew would be around. It is very Sunday morning. Not too many pompous interviews with senior politicians, a bit of humour, too."

So, can a successor emulate Mair's achievements? Greg Philo of Glasgow University's Media Unit has no doubt about it. "It would be difficult to imagine Hancock's Half Hour without Hancock, but this is news broadcasting. There is an indefinite supply of people who could present it. There are many more people who can do the job than there are jobs for them to do."

That squares with previous experience at BBC Radio. Despite fears that Jimmy Young would prove irreplaceable at Radio 2, his successor, Jeremy Vine, has added listeners to the master's already impressive total. On Radio Four itself, the death of Brian Redhead answered a question that had long troubled management. The programme did continue to appeal without him, as it has since the departure of Sue MacGregor.

One BBC radio executive says: "There's too much concern about changes to presenters. When you have a format that works, it's usually possible to adapt it to a new personality. Broadcasting House does depend on the personality of its presenter, but Eddie is not the only journalist with character."

Other insiders question that. They point to John Peel's Home Truths show, another Boyle legacy. There's no question that Home Truths suits Peel perfectly. But when stand-ins attempt to produce an equally entertaining show in his absence, they often sound like pale imitations of Peel.

As a BBC editor admits: "Broadcasting House is more personality-driven than most shows. There's a huge amount of Eddie in it, and that does make it a bigger hole to fill."