Robert Robinson: Journalist, author and presenter of many popular radio and televison shows
Monday 15 August 2011
It is hard to pin down with precision the quality that made Robert Robinson such a compelling broadcaster.
"Acerbic" was an adjective often used to describe his manner but that was only one element of the mix. Beyond it was a combination of affability, supreme self-confidence and a sense of disengagement suggesting that whatever role he was playing at the time – be it quizmaster, panellist or current affairs presenter – it was all something of a sideshow, incidental to life's more meaningful aspects.
The list of programmes in which he featured incorporates many of the key strands of radio and television in the second half of the 20th century: Today, Brain of Britain, Stop the Week , Picture Parade, Points of View, BBC-3, Call My Bluff, Ask the Family, The Book Programme – along with others that made less impact. It was on BBC-3, a late-night hybrid between satire and cultural debate, that in 1965 the drama critic Kenneth Tynan, in a discussion with Robinson, became the first man to say "fuck" on British television. Robinson was unshocked and unimpressed, telling Tynan caustically – and prophetically – that he had chosen an easy way to make history.
Robert Henry Robinson was born in 1927 in Liverpool, the son of Ernest Robinson, an accountant with a shipping company. A few years later the family moved to Mitcham, a south London outer suburb, and Robert attended the newly-established Raynes Park Grammar School. Although this was a council school, its high-profile and well-connected headmaster, John Garrett, recruited most of his teachers from Oxbridge, persuaded the fashionable literati of the day to address the pupils and engaged WH Auden to write the school song. Robinson's air of intellectual superiority, which some listeners and viewers found irritating, stemmed in part from this unconventional education.
Garrett, clearly seeing a boy of great promise, persuaded him to apply for a scholarship to his old Oxford College, Exeter. There was a hiccup in 1944 when Robinson moved with his mother back to Liverpool, to escape German flying bombs, but he eventually won the scholarship. Before going up to Oxford he performed his national service as an officer in the West African Army Corps, spending most of the two years in Nigeria.
It was at Oxford that Robinson made his first foray into journalism, editing the student magazine Isis in 1950. One of his contemporaries there was Robin Day, the future hard-hitting television interviewer. In his memoir Grand Inquisitor, Day wrote of standing with Robinson on the steps of the Radcliffe Camera as they were about to be awarded their degrees and saying to him: "We will never rise to such heights again." When the two men recalled the encounter 35 years later, Robinson commented: "You were absolutely right," and added a quotation from Twelfth Night: "Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges."
He used his time at university as the setting for the first of a handful of novels he wrote, Landscape with Dead Dons, published in 1956. On leaving Oxford he joined the Kemsley newspaper group, working first in London for the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, before moving rapidly from the Daily Dispatch to the Sunday Chronicle and then the Sunday Graphic, where he wrote principally about the cinema and the emerging medium of television. In 1956 he joined the Sunday Times as its radio critic and in 1958 married Josephine (known as Josee) Richard, an actress he had first met at Oxford. They bought a large house in Chelsea, where they remained for the rest of his life, and had three children.
In 1960 he was appointed editor of the Sunday Times's Atticus column, which in those days was a mixture of gossip and wry reflections on the events of the week. After two years he was given a signed column, Private View, in which he developed an engaging style of idiosyncratic reportage, until in 1965 he was hired by the newly-launched Sunday Telegraph as its film critic.
His first regular television engagement came in 1959 when he presented Picture Parade, a magazine programme about current films. It principally involved interviewing the film stars of the day. In doing so he moved away from the benign style of interviewing that had been the norm, by which actors had been allowed to promote their films without being asked questions they might have found intrusive. His more astringent approach occasionally offended his subjects but went down well with viewers. And sometimes he met his match. In his 1996 autobiography Skip All That he tells how, interviewing the actress Jayne Mansfield, he asked her waspishly about rumours that her bathroom had carpeted walls. "To which do you refer?" she replied. "I have 13."
Then in 1961 he was asked to front Points of View, the BBC's first stab at giving viewers the chance to say what they thought about its programmes. It began life as a five-minute slot just before the nine o'clock news bulletin. His assistant on the programme was a young man named Adam Clapham, later a prominent programme-maker. In his memoir, Blood on the Carpet, Clapham described Robinson as "like a formidably well-read teddy bear". He wrote that although the programme had been envisaged initially as "a convenient fig-leaf to suggest the BBC cared what its viewers thought", the presenter "made it a most entertaining interlude, with his witticisms directed at the viewers who had written in and the mandarins who paid his salary".
Another young man who began his BBC career as a factotum on Points of View was Will Wyatt, who would later rise to become Deputy Director General under John Birt. Wyatt remained a firm friend for the rest of Robinson's life.
The launch of the BBC's second channel in 1964 expanded the demand for inexpensive studio-based programmes such as game shows, and one of the first on the new channel was the enduring Call My Bluff. In 1967 Robinson replaced Robin Ray as chairman and stayed with the programme for more than 20 years. Over on BBC1, also in 1967, he began presenting the quiz show Ask the Family, which ran until 1984. Some friends detected in him a sense of disappointment in the turn his career took at this point. They felt that he found the role of quizmaster unfulfilling, even demeaning for someone of his intellect. However, nobody did it better; and the money was welcome to a man who had no private fortune to call upon. Far more challenging and satisfying were the dozen or so documentaries and travel programmes he made for BBC Television from the 1970s to the 1990s.
His first important radio assignment came in 1971, when he was asked to present the early morning Today programme on Radio 4, alongside the softer-edged John Timpson. The partnership lasted for three years until Robinson, after being named Radio Personality of the Year by the Radio Industries Club, was replaced by Brian Redhead, partly at the instigation of the Director-General, Sir Ian Trethowan, who saw Robinson as something of a loose cannon. In the meantime he had begun his longest-running radio role, as chairman of the cerebral and studiedly polite quiz, Brain of Britain. He retired formally from it only last year, although since 2004 his appearances had been spasmodic due to recurring heart problems.
His other principal radio work was on Stop the Week (or "Stop the Rot" as he self-deprecatingly dubbed it). This was a Saturday magazine programme that he created very much in his own image in 1974 and which ran for 18 years until BBC executives thought it was sounding old-fashioned. His cultured voice made an effective contrast with the rougher tones of Benny Green, the jazz musician. Other regulars were the Irish psychologist Dr Anthony Clare, the sociologist Laurie Taylor and two journalists, Milton Shulman and Ann Leslie, who describes herself as the token woman. She remembers that at one of their regular get-togethers after the programme, at a pub near Broadcasting House, Robinson declared that women had no capacity for the competitive cross-talk that the show demanded. She reminded him that she was a woman and had been taking part in it for some time; but he would not concede the principle.
He was elected to the Garrick Club in the 1970s but, rather surprisingly, proved not to be a natural clubman, according to fellow members. They recall him as diffident and somewhat aloof to those outside his close circle of friends - the opposite of his broadcasting persona. Members who lunch without guests are expected to sit at the central communal table. A club legend has it that, on one of Robinson's early visits, the only empty chair was between Sir Alec Guinness and Sir John Gielgud. He introduced himself to both in turn and received terse responses. ("I know who you are," was Gielgud's sole reaction.) Robinson had yet to realise that, with actors, you are expected to talk about them rather than yourself. After that he made a habit of arriving late for lunch, not long before 2pm, possibly to avoid similar embarrassments.
For the last three years or more he was seldom seen at the Garrick. The last major event that he attended was a lunch that Will Wyatt and Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4, hosted on his 80th birthday. Guests observed that he was in an uncommunicative mood. Subsequently, when old friends invited him out, he would tell them with real regret that he did not feel well enough to join them.
Robert Henry Robinson, writer, journalist and broadcaster: born Liverpool 17 December 1927; married 1958 Josephine Richard (one son, two daughters); died London 12 August 2011.
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