Obituary: Brian Redhead
Monday 24 January 1994
NOT GIVEN to false modesty, Brian Redhead would occasionally irritate colleagues on Radio 4's Today programme by claiming that he was the only real journalist among them. This was not always taken in the teasing spirit he intended and in any case, if you equate 'journalist' with 'reporter', it was far from true. His broadcast work contained too much of himself to conform to the rigid precepts of impartiality laid down by CP Scott for the news columns of the Guardian, where Redhead spent the early part of his career.
You do not have to accept the charges of political bias, regularly levelled by Conservatives in the fevered run-up to general elections, to acknowledge how much of his own view of the world was woven into all his work, even routine reports on weather and traffic. Indeed that was what made him such a compelling broadcaster. Although Today listeners heard his precise, lilting voice - Geordie with a touch of Lancastrian, laying emphasis on the final consonant - three or four days a week for nearly 18 years, they were never quite sure what to expect from him. There was a whiff of danger, of improvisation, of flying by the seat of his pants.
This ensured that the programme he conducted was never routine or dull; as it could not afford to be if it was to gain attention at such an unsocial hour. But that unpredictable quality, combined as it was with a studiedly flippant manner, would occasionally land him in trouble. Interviewing a former pilot before a Farnborough Air Show he confessed that as a young reporter he had looked forward to such events eagerly, in case there was a crash. The ex-pilot did not see the joke. And in covering the natural disasters that are an inescapable part of Today's agenda, Redhead never assumed the required solemnity with complete conviction.
Yet he was held in great affection by listeners and received voluminous fan mail. Thousands wrote to offer their sympathy when, in 1982, his 18-year-old son William was killed in a car crash in France. The tragedy had a profound effect on him and reawakened an old interest in the Church. He studied for confirmation and subsequently wrote several religious programmes for radio and television, as well as books on the subject. 'It stopped me in my tracks,' he said of his son's death, 'but I emerged stronger.'
Last year he announced that he would retire from Today this March and spoke of seeking ordination into the Church. Later he changed his mind about becoming a priest, partly because in June he was elected Chancellor of Manchester University, where he had planned to study, and partly, so he said, because the first two books on the list of required reading were written by him - a characteristic piece of self-advertisement.
As a man fond both of talking and of public attention, it was natural that he should be drawn to broadcasting and surprising that his full-time radio career did not begin until 1975, when he was already 45. In effect, he arrived at Today on the rebound from a career in journalism that had, by his own high standards, been a disappointment.
The son of a Newcastle upon Tyne printer who had earlier been a professional boxer, Redhead won a scholarship to the Royal Grammar School there. After National Service he became a reporter on the Seaside Chronicle in Whitley Bay and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, before going to Downing College, Cambridge, to study history.
There he interested himself in politics rather than journalism, becoming chair of the University Labour Club. He was a good student and gained a first in the first part of his finals but only a 2:1 overall. The reason for that comparative failure was an early manifestation of the arrogance that he never truly outgrew. He explained of the exam: 'When I read the questions (about the response in Britain to the French Revolution) I thought they were all stupid, so I wrote on the top of my paper: 'It seems to me that none of the questions set is worth answering, so I will write about the following four topics.' I got alphas for my other papers but I didn't get any mark for that paper.'
Yet, although he had wilfully sacrificed the highest award, he liked to claim the glory: 'I've checked with the regulations and it still counts as a first,' he told a recent interviewer. 'Otherwise it's a double first.'
If it seems a silly thing to fuss about now, it had been important when he left Cambridge to join what was then the Manchester Guardian in 1954 - the same year he married his wife Jenni after a five-year courtship. He was one of a clutch of clever and ambitious young men who joined the paper at that time, and he wore his ambition on his sleeve, telling intimates that he would one day be editor.
The game-plan began well: within five years he was features editor, a role that took on increasing importance in the early Sixties, as the quality papers started to respond to demands for better coverage of social and lifestyle issues, in part trying to draw women readers into what had hitherto been essentially a club for men. Redhead's energetic taste for experiment was apparent not just in the content of his pages but in their appearance: he pioneered the use of white space to alleviate the dense greyness of the serious papers of the time.
In 1962 his desire to be in the public eye overcame his better judgment and he accepted an invitation to be a reporter on Tonight, the popular early evening BBC television programme hosted by Cliff Michelmore. He was not a success, partly because Michelmore and his closely knit team did not take at all kindly to his bumptious manner. 'He behaved as though he invented the programme,' a friend was quoted as saying. His relations with colleagues were often strained: he never got on especially well with his Today co-host John Humphrys.
Within a year he had left Tonight and was back at the Guardian, first in the reduced role of planning correspondent but soon as Northern Editor, a post created when the Editor, Alastair Hetherington, moved to London along with the main editorial departments in 1964. In 1969, when made editor of its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, Redhead still seemed on course to fulfil his principal ambition.
Yet by 1975, when Hetherington left to join BBC Scotland, Redhead was effectively out of the running for the succession in nearly everyone's mind but his own. In part this was due once again to his desire for the limelight. His appealingly intimate voice and loquaciousness made him a sought-after broadcaster and his Radio 4 programme A Word in Edgeways acquired a cult following. But it kept him out of the office rather a lot and staff began making jokes about the absentee editor. This was no help to his cause, but the most serious drawback was that the process for selecting the Guardian's new editor included, for the first time, an element of staff consultation. Since he was in Manchester and most of the staff in London, he had no base of support.
Dismayed, he left the group after an argument with management and joined the Today team in November 1975 for a three-month trial. On radio, his natural jauntiness, his inquisitiveness and self-confidence went down well with everyone except politicians, who thought they deserved more respect. He affronted scores of them but, characteristically, his two best-remembered on-air clashes occurred when ministers affronted him. After Nigel Lawson's 1987 budget Redhead interviewed the Chancellor and challenged him over unemployment. Lawson dismissed the criticism as that of 'a lifelong Labour supporter'. Redhead asked for a minute's silence 'while you compose an apology for daring to suggest you know how I exercise my vote, and I shall reflect on the death of your monetary policy'.
A similar clash occurred in 1991 with Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who said the economy was 'regaining the ground we lost under the party which you support, Brian'. When Redhead replied that it was his own business how he voted, Lilley accused him of being better at handing out criticism than taking it.
With his Guardian background it would have been surprising if his views were not left of centre. He supported environmental causes - becoming president both of the Council for National Parks and the Cat Action Trust - but was not an automatic subscriber to fashionable liberal thinking. In 1964 he wrote a memo to Hetherington about the paper's 'Mainly for Women' pages, then beginning to espouse the latent feminist movement. 'There is something seriously wrong with the women's pages,' he wrote. 'All those jokes about Mainly for Unmarried Graduate Mothers are not far from the truth.'
He professed to enjoy the punishing routine of the Today programme, which meant getting up at 4am and leading a bachelor existence during the week at his flat in the Barbican in the City, going home to Macclesfield at weekends. All the same it cannot have been good for his health. At 9am, after the programme, he would drink a glass of whisky, then typically do a morning's work, enjoy a large lunch, a nap, a drink and supper at his club, the Garrick. While this life-style was not the cause either of his diabetes or his painful arthritis, it cannot have helped relieve them.
He seldom complained about his health: an attractive feature of his self-absorption was that it concentrated on his achievements rather than his weaknesses. He claimed that, at the end of his career, he felt perfectly fulfilled; but some friends thought that behind the cheeriness lay a sense of regret that things had not turned out differently.
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