John Timpson

'Today' programme presenter who established a formidable partnership with Brian Redhead
Click to follow

John Harry Robert Timpson, writer and broadcaster: born 2 July 1928; reporter, Wembley News 1945-46, 1949-51; reporter, Eastern Daily Press 1951-59; member, BBC News Staff 1959-87, deputy court correspondent 1962-67, presenter, Newsroom 1968-70, Today 1970-76, 1978-86, Tonight 1976-78, Any Questions 1984-87; OBE 1987; presenter, Timpson's Country Churches, ITV 1995-98; married 1951 Patricia Whale (one son, and one son deceased); died King's Lynn, Norfolk 19 November 2005.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 has been a broadcasting institution almost from the time it was launched in the 1950s on the old Home Service; but since then it has gone through several changes of personality. In the early days, with the ebulliently endearing Jack de Manio as ringmaster, its tone was gentle and quixotic as it tried to ease listeners tenderly into the day ahead, with little to raise the blood pressure as they dipped their soldiers into a boiled egg.

Nowadays it is the very opposite, as the irascible John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie pick fights with anyone who dares sit across the studio table from them, hoping to make us choke on our porridge. John Timpson's tenure, from 1970 to 1986 with a short gap in the middle, marked the transitional period between those two contrasting styles of current affairs radio.

During much of that time he shared presentation duties with Brian Redhead, and they made a splendid combination. Timpson, with a deep, rich voice, perfect for radio, was the natural heir to de Manio, though slightly less eccentric and better at telling the time. He shared his predecessor's gentle manner and his partiality for the quirky and the ridiculous; but as a former reporter he took a rather more rigorous approach to the news.

Redhead, the former editor of the Manchester Evening News, was equally loved by listeners but was capable of introducing a sharp tone into political interviews, laying the groundwork for his terrier-like successors. As a pair, he and Timpson were the classic hard cop, soft cop combination, as compared to the hard cop, hard cop regime that rules in these more combative times.

Their different personalities meant that relations between them were not always cordial. Timpson once described Redhead as "the walking image of every garden gnome you'd ever seen" and revealed that they often quarrelled "like two spoilt kids", even sometimes on air.

Timpson became a journalist in 1945 when, at 17, he joined his hometown paper, the Wembley News, straight from Merchant Taylors' School. He left after a year to do his National Service in the Army but rejoined the paper afterwards and stayed there until 1951. That was a critical year in his life, for it was then that he married Patricia Whale and moved to Norfolk to join the Dereham & Fakenham Times, soon switching to the Eastern Daily Press.

He did not take instantly to Norfolk. "To a born-and-bred suburbanite, on a wet Sunday in January in the early 1950s, it looked like the end of the civilised world," he wrote. Yet he soon warmed to it and his love of East Anglia, and of rural life in general, was reflected in several of the books he would later write.

Indeed, it was with some reluctance that he relocated to London in 1959 to begin his broadcasting career with the BBC, as a news reporter for both radio and television. He was appointed deputy court correspondent in 1962 and made several tours abroad with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1968 his easy, confident manner persuaded the BBC that he would make a natural presenter and he did a stint on Newsroom, one of several short-lived attempts by the controllers of BBC2 to produce a news magazine before they hit on the successful Newsnight formula a decade later.

In 1970 he was poached by Radio 4 to present Today. The immensely popular de Manio was a hard act to follow, but Timpson and Redhead very soon gained the loyalty of the programme's two and a half million regular listeners. They became household names - so much so that after six years Timpson was lured back to television to present Tonight. This was not Cliff Michelmore's legendary early evening programme of the Sixties, but a less successful late evening version whose other presenters included Sue Lawley and Donald McCormick.

After two years, his BBC bosses decided that he was more suited by radio than television. His slightly moon-faced appearance was seen as a drawback at a time when chiselled film-star features were becoming a must for on-screen newsreaders and current-affairs presenters. So he went back to the invisibility of Today, this time for an eight-year stint. And from 1984 he combined this with taking the chair of Radio 4's weekly discussion programme, Any Questions.

On leaving Today in 1986 Timpson was presented with a Sony Gold Award for outstanding services to radio, and the following year he was appointed OBE. From then on, he devoted much of his time to writing books. He had already produced an autobiography Today and Yesterday (1976) and an account of his adventures in radio, The Lighter Side of Today (1983), but from 1987 he began a popular series of travelogues about England, beginning in 1987 with Timpson's England: a look beyond the obvious.

For a time he wrote a column in the Daily Mail and in 1995 returned to television, presenting an ITV series called Timpson's Country Churches, which spawned one of his most popular books. His last, published in 2002, was Timpson on the Verge, about road signs in Norfolk villages.

In his later years he took an active part in the life of his own Norfolk village, Weasenham St Peter, near King's Lynn, as secretary of the parochial church council. In an interview last year he said he loved the peace and quiet and the absence of tourists - deterred, as he thought, by Noël Coward's laconic description of the county as "very flat". He said he still listened to part of the Today programme, but then switched over to "the real world" of Radio Norfolk.

Michael Leapman

Comments