Eddie Mair: Radio's Mr Mischief still has an answer for everything
The man who once sent a sheep down the King's Road as research for a story hasn't lost his wacky edge since becoming presenter of 'PM'
Monday 28 November 2005
It is two years since Eddie Mair announced he was leaving Radio 4's Sunday morning show Broadcasting House to become the sole presenter of the weekday programme PM. So what does he do with his weekends now?
"Just lie shivering, wishing I was back on the radio," says Mair, a master of the art of evading questions with a wisecrack.
Why did he leave Broadcasting House? "They wanted me out. I was fired." That's not true, is it? "It's not true as such, but I tried to put that out. I mentioned on air that I'd been fired. I hoped there would be a petition to save me, but there were one or two e-mails. That's it." So why did he leave? "I'd done it for five years and that was enough. It was more to do with, 'Wouldn't it be nice not to work weekends.'"
What does he make of Fi Glover, his successor at Broadcasting House? "I don't listen to her. She's awful," he says. "I wanted them to appoint someone quite poor, again with the idea of getting that petition to get me back. People seem to like her [Glover]. Which is surprising, because as a person, she is quite nasty."
Glover once described Mair as "supremely funny". He shrugs this off with a comical retort. "Fi is often heavily medicated. I'm not saying she doesn't make any sense at times, but you've got to make allowances."
Let's try another tack. In November 2003, when Mair was handed the reins to PM, which he had been co-presenting since 1998, the show was rebranded to make it more distinct from the Six O'Clock News bulletin.
Two years on, PM is the second most listened-to news programme on British radio after Today. According to Rajar listening figures, 3.7m people tune in to the show each week.
"The Six O' Clock News is a wonderful, comprehensive bulletin which in half an hour tells me all the day's stories. What we do is more discursive. There's more analysis and arguably a broader range of treatment."
"You sometimes had a correspondent on PM at 10 to six explaining a story in an almost identical format to the way the Six O' Clock News would do it 12, 13 minutes later, and that wasn't serving the audience terribly well."
Born in Dundee - his father was a lorry driver and his mother a nurse - Mair started out at local station Radio Tay the summer before he was due to start university. He persuaded the boss to give him a job - "against his better judgement" - and never made it to college. Two years later he reapplied for university, but was promoted to a better job before he could take up his place.
In 1987 Mair joined the BBC, working as a sub-editor for Radio Scotland. He rose rapidly, becoming a presenter on Reporting Scotland and Good Morning Scotland.
When Radio Five Live launched in 1994, he moved to London, a member of what the Daily Mail calls the McMafia - "Well, I obviously can't talk too much about it, but there is a wider plan."
In 1998, with the then Radio 4 controller, James Boyle, with whom he had worked at Radio Scotland, and Kevin Marsh, who now edits Today, Mair created Broadcasting House.
"I'm not sure how much anyone understood what the idea was. We really did feel our way, sometimes embarrassingly badly, on air. One of the good things about the licence fee is you're allowed to make mistakes, sometimes every week. That allowed us to make a better programme than if we were subject to commercial pressures."
It took a year for the programme to find its feet, which, says Mair, "is a shame for the listener, because that's 52 weeks it could have been better".
He came up with some wacky ideas to illustrate stories, including taking a sheep down London's King's Road to find out whether townies knew the price of livestock. Although PM is more serious, Mair does not appear to miss the potential for mischief making he enjoyed at Broadcasting House.
Recently, he has branched into television, co-presenting the historical game show Time Commanders. "It was very enjoyable," he says. But he insists that he doesn't want a more permanent sideline, as Jeremy Paxman has with University Challenge.
Mair has recently done a number of stints on Newsnight and has been tipped as a future host, together with the BBC London presenter Emily Maitlis.
He insists not. "They've said they don't want to see me again. In writing, which is unusual and unnecessarily cruel...."
The Scot also pooh-poohs the suggestion that he is being groomed as the next John Humphrys. "There's still an existing John Humphrys. Plus, I've worked with Kevin Marsh before, that's him right behind you, that man in the stripy shirt.
Sure enough, the Today team are in the adjacent glass-walled room at Television Centre. "I wouldn't, obviously, say anything evil about him [Marsh]," Mair continues, "but if I was going to say something evil about someone, it would be him."
James Boyle once described Mair as "one of the great broadcasters", adding, "He is never too intelligently pompous, but never too flippant. Guys who are low on the vanity factor make great broadcasters." Would Mair agree with that assessment?
"James, I'm sure he won't mind me saying this, he drinks."
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