Talking up a good story

Jeremy Vine has helped to revitalise Radio 2. But does he have what it takes to step into Michael Parkinson's shoes? Gerard Gilbert asks him

Jeremy Vine has a habit of saying "Yeah" in a long, drawn-out way when he is thinking about a question he is not sure it would be tactful to answer. "Yeee-aaaah," he says when I ask him about his ding-dong with Jimmy Young, whom he successfully replaced last year on Radio 2. He doesn't want to rake it up again, but the spat was over something Vine was supposed to have said about Sir Jimmy not preparing his own questions. And "Yeee-aaaah," he says when I ask him whether it's true that Jeremy Paxman once called him "mini-me".

Jeremy Vine has a habit of saying "Yeah" in a long, drawn-out way when he is thinking about a question he is not sure it would be tactful to answer. "Yeee-aaaah," he says when I ask him about his ding-dong with Jimmy Young, whom he successfully replaced last year on Radio 2. He doesn't want to rake it up again, but the spat was over something Vine was supposed to have said about Sir Jimmy not preparing his own questions. And "Yeee-aaaah," he says when I ask him whether it's true that Jeremy Paxman once called him "mini-me".

"I think he probably did. I felt sore at the time, but now I'm much more philosophical about it," says Vine, who has every reason to be philosophical about any slight from his former Newsnight colleague. Not only has he recreated himself as a radio star, Vine is now also about to make his debut as a BBC TV chat-show host at a time when chat shows are very much on the BBC's mind. And I met Vine just two days after Michael Parkinson announced that he was taking his Saturday night chat-show over to ITV. Press reports have been saying for months that Vine is being "groomed" as the "new Michael Parkinson". Now surely his time has come?

"Anybody who starts off as being 'the new Parky' is going to be doomed, as there's only one [Parkinson]," Vine says. "And anyway, there's probably going to be a longer strategic thing going on about whether the kind of chat show that Parkinson does needs to go towards an entertainment sort of interviewing, or something more journalistic."

"Journalistic" certainly describes Vine's interviewing technique in a week-long series for BBC1, in which he gives a serious grilling to five rock legends of the sort of vintage that would appeal to his Radio 2 audience: Sting, Bob Geldof, Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello and Lionel Richie (Springsteen and Prince couldn't make it).

"I realised that you can export some of the elements of a good Newsnight interview - the first one of which is to be fantastically well briefed. The stars that I interviewed actually enjoyed it, I think..."

Actually, what Sting says at the end of his interview is: "I feel like I've done five rounds with Mike Tyson." Vine says he did the show because he was asked to. So is he being "groomed" by the BBC as, if not the next Michael Parkinson, then at least a chat-show host?

"No, definitely not. I think the BBC works on chaos theory, and you never quite know what will happen next, and the only thing that won't happen is what's planned. I think the only crucial lesson of my rather haphazard career is that one needs to be flexible, and to try not to have a too fixed idea of what you're going to do."

Vine briskly summarises his own career thus: " Coventry Evening Telegraph... news trainee... Today programme... the lobby... Africa... Newsnight... Radio 2." His stint as a BBC correspondent in Africa dented a Christian faith invariably described in cuttings as "devout" ("Struggling is more accurate," he says) and his five years as a political correspondent have left him with a slightly annoying habit of going "off the record" at interesting junctures. But it was his move from the weighty current-affairs forum of Newsnight to being the thinking man's Nicky Campbell on Radio 2 that raised the most eyebrows - not least his own.

"With Radio 2, it was just one of these things that came completely out of the blue, and at first I thought, 'You have to be kidding,' because I had never worked outside news, and then gradually it came to make perfect sense. I fundamentally believe that the news is serious wherever it is - if you interview Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, you do it in a serious way whether it's on Radio 2 or Newsnight. Newsnight has a million viewers, my show has five-and-a-half million listeners, and, of course, the joker in the pack is that I actually love music."

Ah, yes, the music... The first time I stumbled upon Vine's Radio 2 show was while driving through northern France last August. During a discussion on the record-busting heatwave, Vine put on "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin. Radio 2 was not only playing "Whole Lotta Love", but in its entirety.

"I played 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' by Pink Floyd the other day - all 11 minutes of it. Which other network would you hear that on?" asks Vine, who, as a 17-year-old, fronted "Cheam's one and only punk band, The Flared Generation". Vine's youthful passion for punk does hint at the broad appeal of his weekday radio show.

"I played The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' the other day - and that's 27 years old, so people who liked that when they were 20 are now approaching 50," he says.

The playlist may have changed radically since Sir Jimmy Young's day, but not the politicians' desire to get on the show. "We had Jack Straw and David Blunkett last week," says Vine, who also fronts BBC1's Sunday lunchtime programme The Politics Show, and who, post-Hutton report, added his name to a full-page newspaper advertisement lamenting Greg Dyke's departure as director general of the BBC.

"It was a crap time for the Beeb," he says now. "The guy was a brilliant leader. Funnily enough, the Hutton report was so damaging and arguably so unfair, and we suffered such a public collapse for a few days, that people have taken sympathy on us. Michael Grade will be great. He's a showman, and we need that. So I'm feeling much more light of heart than I was."

The birth of his first daughter, Martha, is also making him feel lighter of heart. Aged 38, he lives with his second wife, the Radio 4 journalist Rachel Schofield, in west London. And, despite being forever dubbed the new this or that (before "the new Parkinson", he was "the new Robert Kilroy Silk"), it's radio, not television, that is raising his profile.

"I get recognised more now that I'm on the radio. How do you explain that? Is radio so personal that you have a visual picture of the presenter? On Newsnight I was sitting in front of the camera night after night and nobody knew who I was."

Not even Paxman, it seems.

'Jeremy Vine Meets...' is on BBC1 at 9am every day this week until Friday

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