Mark Damazer: Brain waves

In his first interview since being appointed head of Radio Four, Mark Damazer reveals his vision of output designed to kill off its stuffy, middle-class image. John Walsh tunes in
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The Independent Online

If there's one thing Mark Damazer is good at, it's multi-tasking. One of my favourite memories of the new controller of Radio 4 is of his attendance at a school quiz a few years ago in Dulwich, south London, where our eldest daughters used to be in the same class. He and I were part of a team called the Streatham Alligators or some such thrilling gang title, and we were both frighteningly combative. Mark takes quizzes extremely seriously, but his attention was distracted that Friday evening. A national paper had picked up a whiff of government disapproval about the imminent screening of a Panorama programme. (Had it been dropped? Had it been censored?) Mark had been told to expect a call from the paper's newsdesk to answer a query, which only he - he was then a high-flying operative in BBC news and current affairs - could answer. A lesser man might have stayed at home, brooding on his statement to the press. But Mark didn't want to miss the quiz.

At about 9pm, in the school hall, we were motoring into the lead when Mark's mobile phone went off. It was the newspaper. Did he have a few minutes to give a statement about the fortunes of Panorama vis-à-vis the Government? Well, yes, he did, but really... Making an excuse, he disappeared off to the corridor beside the school lavatories. The quiz restarted with a round about famous deaths. Some were easy, some were guessable, but one stumped us: who was the only British prime minister to have been assassinated? Our faces were blank. I looked at Rosie Damazer. "Would Mark know?" For heaven's sake. Of course Mark would know. So, acting like one desperate for the lavabo, I dashed out to the corridor. There stood Mark. His mobile phone was clamped to one ear, his right hand was scribbling notes from his conversation onto a spiral pad balanced on his knee, and he was saying, in measured tones, "...You might argue that such matters do not come within the remit of a current affairs documentary, to which I would have to reply..." How could I possibly interrupt him? He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "Only British PM to be assassinated?" I hissed, feeling that this was a fine time to be interrupting the high consultations of the fourth estate with a general knowledge query. Without breaking for a second his flow of judicious rhetoric, he stopped scribbling on his pad, leant over and, across the menu I was carrying, wrote "Spencer Perceval 1812", then finished his sentence with all the words in the right order. And dammit, he was right about the hapless Mr P.

To find this genial know-all and restless intellectual in the driving seat of the country's most talkative and bourgeois radio station is not, to be frank, a huge surprise. Damazer has put in the hours at the cutting edge of news - he was deputy to Richard Sambrook at BBC News last year at the time when the Hutton enquiry briefly turned the BBC into the Spanish Inquisition - but always seemed (and sounded) like a man with a vast hinterland of interests outside news management. He seemed like a chap who needed a larger train set. But is he the right man to monitor the fortunes of You and Yours, of Does He Take Sugar? and Just a Minute, of those slightly tweedy afternoon dramas where all the women sound like Shula Archer? Will he bring a reformer's zeal to the moth-eaten corners of the schedules? Will he force Radio 4's 9.3 million regular listeners to try some new things?

Meeting him at his fifth-floor office in Broadcasting House, you're surprised by how relaxed everything feels. Damazer is leaning against a desk surrounded by a troupe of stenographical handmaidens, all chatting and making coffee. In his office, where you'd expect to find a mile-wide mahogany desk and Isfahan rug, plus some hi-tech plasma doodahs, there's a small work station, a long desk for meetings, a 6ft simulacrum of Big Ben and a whiteboard covered in runic squiggles about the Saturday morning line-up. It's noticeable that the clock hasn't yet been adjusted to British Summer Time. A copy of Happiness by Richard Layard suggests a man in the grip of a philosophical crisis. The fact that Damazer hits 50 this year may perhaps be relevant.

We have a lot to talk about, I say, but what's all this about institutionalised cannibalism at the BBC? Is it true that Damazer was in the room on the day in 1988 when Mark Thompson, now director-general, bit his colleague Anthony Massey on the arm? Had Damazer's old friend Thompson drawn blood? Did he routinely confront difficult staff by sinking his fangs into their flesh?

"It's an apocryphal story that's been doing the rounds for years," says Damazer. "And there's an e-mail that alleges I was a witness to this major incident. But in fact I genuinely didn't see it, so I don't know how deep the bite was. I assume it was no more than a light skirmish with Anthony Massey's shirt." He is so deadpan, you can't tell if he's serious - but as you soon learn, BBC chaps are deadly serious about every tiny hillock of their working landscape, and their relationships with every other Olympian figure on the rarefied upper slopes. You hear the names "Jenny" [Abramsky, director of radio and music] and "Helen" [Boaden, outgoing Radio 4 boss, now fronting BBC News], and "Mark" [Thompson] and "Greg" [Dyke] and "Gavyn" [Davies] so often, you start to feel that they're all your best friends, too.

Had Damazer always been a Radio 4 fan, or had he only recently started listening to its total output?

"I started listening to the station when I was at university, so I've been familiar with the landscape for three decades. It's true there's been a bias in my listening towards things that were professionally necessary for my job - the Today programme above all - but I've been catching up." Were there some things he actively disliked? "Sometimes I come across a piece that is below our best standards, but that's quite rare. I don't know how many hours of freshly originated programmes there are, but it's measured in several thousands. Some are wild successes, clearly defined by reason of their brilliance or their longevity, which has been sustained and renewed - like I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Then you'll hear the occasional feature or documentary that has some magical ingredient to it - Melvin Bragg's Thursday-morning programme [In Our Time], for instance, is brilliant because it sets itself genuinely high and, for the audience, probably aspirational goals of intellectual thought though it's for a mass audience, in peak time, available to all - I think that's practically a definition of public service broadcasting.

"Then you get a stack of other programmes where you think, 'That's good and could be better if you did this or tried that...' There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, of tweaking to make something that's pretty good a bit better. A certain amount of the job is nurturing the genuinely brilliant, and a certain amount is exterminating the bad when you find it."

If you find it, surely? Damazer is predictably upbeat about the huge, many-chambered, million-voiced, floating Tower of Babel now under his command. He modestly admits that comedy has had a new lease of life under his aegis, with the takeover of the 6.30pm slots by Marcus Brigstocke, Mitch Benn and their droll compadres. Though a Cambridge graduate (with a seriously impressive double-starred first in history), he is not a Footlights kind of guy but, "in the time-honoured phrase, I know what I like. I've listened to a lot more comedy, and I'm really pleased by the amount of stuff that's flying around. Oddly enough, it's because of Mark Thompson. He's a serious Stonyhurst [Roman Catholic school] boy, but when he became DG he made a huge pitch for comedy, more even than Greg - whom you'd expect to be more naturally entrepreneurial in this world. So comedy is where it's at now. Everybody wants to do it. I see Peter Fincham, the new boss of BBC1, wants to emphasise comedy; BBC3, having taken Little Britain from Radio 4 where it began, is looking for more. BBC4 is trying some comedy with Armando [Iannucci]. Everybody realises the value of comedy. What's fantastically satisfying is that, although TV is a voracious beast that will eat up any number of good comedy acts, the people who come and do it for Radio 4 still a) do it to an incredibly high standard; b) are very numerous; c) love doing it; and d) are loved by the audience."

And he's happy to trust the taste of others. "I would always back Caroline Raphael, who's our commissioning editor for comedy programmes, because she's been doing it for a long time and the current healthy state of the enterprise is a tribute to her and to John Pidgeon at light entertainment, and all the independents who are flying with ideas. It wouldn't be right for me to come in with a comic template that says: 'I want 23 per cent Jewish jokes, 15 per cent Catholic jokes, 10 per cent Blair jokes and a ban on Bush jokes...'"

Damazer has met George W Bush. It was in the winter of 2003, when the President arrived to be interviewed on Breakfast with Frost, and the grands fromages of BBC News turned out to greet him. During the photocall, Bush beckoned Damazer to come and stand beside him. ("He said, 'Get that baldy guy over here, he'll do', or words to that effect.") The President asked him: "What will London be like next week?" to which Damazer replied gloomily: "It'll rain. It always does." Bush said: "That's fine - Barney will really like that." Damazer, assuming he meant the editor of the Frost show, Barney Jones, replied: "Oh, Barney can cope with all kinds of weather, it's not a problem for him." At which, Damazer explains, "the President looked at me as if I was completely stupid, pretending I had this false relationship with what turned out to be his dog."

When I ask Damazer about the supposedly "typical" Radio 4 listener - a 54-year-old white Anglo-Saxon lay-dee living in the Home Counties and somewhat set in her ways - he replies: "Yes, the median age is 54, but the notion that the Radio 4 audience is skewed to female, that is wrong. And yes, more people proportionately listen in the South than the North, that's true, but I'm not going to wage class warfare of any kind. We exist for people who are interested in intelligent speech. There's no point in trying to penalise them if they happen to be middle-class southerners. The right way to approach it is to make sure that, if you live in Manchester or Liverpool, Glasgow or Cardiff, you won't feel excluded by the way the programmes are done. If you're not AB-managerial or successful, rich and retired, you'll still find something that appeals to you. Look" - his voice rises alarmingly; this is clearly a subject close to his heart - "I would like everyone to listen to Radio 4, not from my sense of imperial grandeur but because it's a fantastic thing. It would be good and desirable if, in those areas of the country where we underperform, we could do better. But not at the expense of running a formula that says, 15 per cent of our programmes will be presented by people with a west-Midlands accent, and 12 per cent with a Geordie accent, and tells people who live in the South or are 54 or middle-class that some programmes are not for them."

And so we move to the subject of Today, the Radio 4 flagship, 180 minutes each day of agenda-setting discussion, three-minute sound bites, stonewalling politicians, the Welsh or Scottish ferret-down-the-trousers interviewing style, Thought for the Day, sport, business, much heavy male jocularity and Sarah Montague's head-girl breeziness. Given that he'd fired Rod Liddle, Today's controversial ex-editor, was he at loggerheads with the permanent staff? "But I didn't fire him," says Damazer amiably. "I was the person who gave him the choice. Everyone was away. Greg was on a boat somewhere, Richard Sambrook was away. The choice was, he could either be the editor of Today or he could write his Guardian column, but he couldn't do both. I advised him at the time that his best move would be to leave, and he did the right thing." And your relations with the show are perfectly cordial? "Perfectly. You have to understand about the news divisions. BBC News straddles TV and radio. Anyone doing my previous job ends up having a lot of interaction with the Today programme because it's the biggest beast in the jungle. So when Today gets involved in controversy - and it's bound to, because if it doesn't, you'd ask yourself what was going on - everyone gets involved."

But wasn't it ring-fenced from any interference, even from the controller? The answer pitched us back into the first-name cosiness with which BBC panjandrums talk about (and to) each other. "I have regular interchanges with Kevin [Marsh, editor of Today] on any number of topics. If he's on an away-day with his presenters, I will chug along too. I know all five presenters pretty well because of my background, and most of the senior people on the programme. I know most of the news-gathering types. These relationships are not inhibited. If I think an interview hasn't worked, I'll say so."

I remember dining with Damazer one evening, when he was Mr Nine O'Clock News, and watching with interest as he pulled out a Sony Watchman mini-TV in the middle of the general regalement and proceeded to inspect the news. Would he now keep an eye on Today by inspecting, around midnight, the proposed running-order of items next morning?

"Never. First, because it's still run by the news management. I have a relationship with Kevin [Marsh], which comes out of being controller of Radio 4 and because I know him anyway. Kevin can't report simultaneously to lots of different people. In my old job, if we had a late-night controversy, I'd be involved in a conference call at 3am and we'd sort it as best we could. But If I start getting involved in that stuff now, it will gum up the works. There are plenty of good people who can make these decisions. If they want to come to me for advice, I'm there, but most of the time they're able to get it right without the intervention of a controller. I will express opinions and will expect some debate, some dialogue and response. When Arthur Miller died, I threw in a phone call, saying: 'Whatever you do, make sure we do a decent amount on Miller and if there's nothing else around, I'd be happy for it to be the main story.'"

The Hutton enquiry and its aftermath - the resignation of Dyke and Davies - left an appreciable scar on the BBC news department. Threats of punitive tribunals and further sackings down the management line lapped for a time around the feet of Damazer and his boss, Sambrook. Was it true to say that, after Hutton, a certain miasma of anxiety and defensiveness hung over the Today programme - a reluctance to have anything else go badly wrong at 6.07am?

"It was inevitable that whatever happened on the Today programme and elsewhere, post-Hutton, would be refracted back through the Hutton lens, that people would say, 'You only did that item this way because of what happened with the Government, and with Greg's and Gavin's departures. You can second-guess yourself into oblivion. But when I listen to the programme, and they're asking about Lord Goldsmith's legal advice, or asking Ruth Kelly about school dinners, they don't sound to me like very cowed or timid beasties."

Did he think the John Humphrys and James Naughtie interview technique was invariably an admirable thing? "Nothing always and invariably works on a programme like Today. On the other hand, do I think John and Jim are bloody good at doing it? Yes, I do. They are big beasts. It's very, very difficult to do what they do - which is to ask informed questions of people in various forms of authority, in a way that gets quickly and incisively to the root of the controversy and allows the argument to be ventilated and tested and checked through - and they do it brilliantly. Every now and then, they'll interrupt a bit too quickly, and at the end you'll feel slightly frustrated because the interview's gone round in circles. But in the limited confines of a 10- or 12-minute interview, I don't think it can be done better."

Which leads him, characteristically, into a fever of memo-to-self speculation about the possibility of an extended-interview programme ("putting Jack Straw through that kind of rigorous questioning for 40 minutes or an hour").

Damazer's mind is fizzing with future plans, both cultural and political: he is keen, for instance, to feature music that had soundtracked the lives of the fifty-something generation. "When George Harrison died, I realised that, for the Radio 4 audience, the Beatles were central to their memories and experience of growing up, and early- and late-adolescence and marriage - it was obviously central to the sensibility of a large part of the core audience. Now, of course," he smiles, "Paul and Ringo are considerably older than the median age of the Radio 4 audience, but Madonna isn't far off, and nor is Elvis Costello. We should be hitting all these bases, along with the politics and literature of the time. But because our USP is 'intelligent speech', we have to do more than play music - there must be something else in it, some greater context or understanding or subtlety or wit, something that plays with the music."

When I leave, Damazer is doing some blue-sky thinking about how to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War next month, wondering what he might say to "warm up" the Question Time audience in Essex on Friday evening, remembering a friend's birthday, dispatching a PA to find out the latest Rajar "approval rating" diaries. If Radio 4 is the most eclectic and poly-disciplinary of media channels in the UK, it may have found, in this multi-tasking dervish, its perfect match.

HIS LIFE

Born in north London in 1955, Mark Damazer is the son of a Polish-Jewish delicatessen owner and a Swiss mother. After his starry turn at Cambridge, he joined ITV as a trainee, moved to the World Service, then TV-am, before coming back to the BBC in the mid-Eighties as part of the news team that later turned a blind eye to the flesh-eating proclivities of Mark Thompson. He is married to Rosemary, a beautiful Antipodean bond dealer in the City; they met on a flight to the US, whither both were headed on Harkness Fellowships. They live in Streatham, south London, and have two children, Katherine and Hugh.

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