Robert Robinson: Journalist, author and presenter of many popular radio and televison shows

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.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment