Jeremy Paxman is preparing to explore comedy and other new genres in a marked departure from the role he has held for the past 25 years as presenter of Newsnight and grand inquisitor of the British political establishment.
Paxman, 63, who will present a stage show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival called Paxo, is said by colleagues to have been impressed with the popularity of news-based comedy shows in America where many of the stars of TV current affairs are satirists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The presenter, who will continue to host BBC2’s University Challenge, is also believed to be exploring opportunities to present further documentaries for the BBC, following his work on Britain’s Great War in February.
Paxman told colleagues he would “quite like to work in different genres” and that his age meant that he needed to act quickly. The presenter has become known for his aggressive interviewing style, but according to the publicity material for Paxo it “unstuffs the man ranked by GQ magazine as ‘Britain’s 26th rudest person’.” The Edinburgh show will explore such themes as “pogonophobia, underpants and the human condition”, the former being a prejudice against beards.
Sarah Esdaile, the theatre director producing Paxo, has previously said the show will demonstrate “Jeremy’s positive mental attitude” and give audiences “a little insight into the enigmatic Mr Paxman and what makes him tick”. Colleagues believe that if the show is well-received it could be a spring board to a television format, possibly along the lines of Stewart’s popular The Daily Show.
It has emerged that Paxman blindsided BBC bosses by the suddenness of Wednesday evening’s announcement of his decision to leave Newsnight, which left colleagues shocked and some in tears.
The BBC issued a statement saying the presenter had revealed his intention to depart the flagship last summer but, while that is true, senior executives were caught by surprise as Paxman chose the day of his departure and called Newsnight staff around him on the third floor at New Broadcasting House where, sitting on a chair, he gave a warm and informal address.
The BBC hoped Paxman would remain until the end of the summer, when his latest contract expired, or until the next election. But the presenter, who is required to host 100 shows a year and who likes to take August as a holiday, calculated that he would complete his annual workload by June and then leave. He wanted to announce his departure on a day when he was in the office.
Although the BBC tried to give the impression of a well planned announcement, issuing tributes from director general Tony Hall, director of news James Harding and Newsnight editor Ian Katz, its statement was drawn up “on the hoof”, sources said.
Paxman angered senior BBC figures with comments in an interview in April in which he described the BBC as “smug”, dismissed its new headquarters as “ghastly” and said: “There’s a pile of stuff on the BBC I can’t stand.”
His presence on Newsnight was such that the late-night programme will have to fight hard to persuade viewers to tune in. But the show has enjoyed a year-on-year uplift in ratings for the past two months and is attempting to find a more distinctive tone. Paxman’s departure will allow for greater flexibility and additional budget, although money was not a factor in him leaving.
Laura Kuenssberg, Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitlis will share presenting duties with a further presenter being appointed during the summer. Tim Luckhurst, Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and a former BBC journalist, said Eddie Mair, host of Radio 4’s PM, or Evan Davis, of the Today programme, would both make fine additions to the Newsnight presenting team.
The former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett MP, said: “I’ve always enjoyed my clashes with Jeremy Paxman. His style is what he is – sardonic, sometimes downright rude but always forensic, incisive and doing the job he was paid to do. He’ll be sorely missed and I shall be sorry not to cross swords with him in this particular theatre in the future.”
David Lammy MP said Mr Paxman was “so integral” to the BBC and Newsnight that “he has almost become an institution in himself”.
“His name and style have become inextricably linked to that of Newsnight and for over two decades he has been a leading figure in a new era of political journalism. It is always a pleasure – if one can call it that – to be interviewed by him and I’m sure viewers will miss his straight talking and tough interviewing, although I suspect a number of MPs will be quietly breathing a collective sigh of relief,” he said.