Andrew Neil: An audience with the broadcaster

When Deborah Ross arranged to spend a day with Andrew Neil, she got all the thundering aggression, naff jokes and bad hair she'd dreamed of. No wonder she was intent on spending the night at one of his old haunts...
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I meet Andrew Neil because of This Week, BBC1's Thursday late-night politics show, which I love. It may be the regular pundits, Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo, who are so off-message I often want to scream with pleasure. Or it may be the 20p graphics that give the programme a kind of Countdown appeal.

Or it may be Andrew, with his knowingly (I think; I hope) naff jokes and rather good interviewing style: thunderingly aggressive when he has to be, but never disdainful. This Week now gets as good an audience as Newsnight, if not better, so - and even though this will pain some -I do think it's fair to say Andrew has arrived as a broadcaster, at last.

We meet at the BBC's Westminster studio on Millbank at around 11am. Andrew is already at a computer, tweaking his script for BBC2's daily lunchtime show, The Daily Politics, which he also hosts. He does not, by the way, regard this as the day job. That is as chief executive of Press Holdings, the Barclay brothers publishing stable that includes the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, The Business and, until it was sold off recently, The Scotsman.

I introduce myself. We shake hands. I start nattering nervously, as you do, or at least as I do. What's on the programme today? Who is the next editor of The Spectator? Can you cook? ("Only eggs and bacon. Burrrrrrrrned," he growls, Scottishly). Eventually, I sense I'm annoying him quite considerably. "Shall I be discreet?" I ask. "Quiet would be better," he barks. He can be frightening. Apparently, when he was editor of The Sunday Times (1983-94), it was not unusual to find men weeping in the gents. He's the sort of man, in fact, who looks like he'd sack you even if you don't work for him.

"You're sacked."

"But I don't work for you!"

"You're still sacked!"

"Oh, all right then. I'll just clear the desk I don't have."

Actually, now I think about it, I do write a restaurant column (after a fashion) for The Spectator, so maybe I do work for him slightly. Best suck-up. As you do, or at least as I always do.

He moves into make-up. There's a make-up artist who is earning her money today, some might say (although not me! No way!). Many have been rude about his appearance. He looks like he's been "boiled". It looks like his face has been "assembled from a butcher's counter". I later ask him why he thinks he attracts comments such as these. "I think," he says, "that in the early years at The Sunday Times I made a lot of enemies. It's better than it was. I think some of my enemies have died off."

As for the hair, well. You look at it and think: how does that work exactly? It's quite like Anne Widdecombe's body in this respect. His teeth, however, are dazzling. "I get them done in America," he says. He then says: "Ow!" "I'm only trying to pluck you," says the make-up artist. "Hey," says Andrew, "enough of that. This is a family show!"

He laughs. He has a surprisingly full, hearty laugh and, perhaps just as surprisingly, he laughs a lot. I think, over the years, Andrew may have worked at taking himself less seriously. He does not, he will admit, have an easy charm. He says he is useless at parties.

"I'm not good at working a room. You see some people gliding around - hello there; nice to see you - but it's not the sort of skill I have. I talk to people but then I don't know how to say: 'I've talked to you enough, I need to talk to other people.' We should never meet at parties," he says.

Still, you don't need an easy charm to, as he did, break the unions and transform The Sunday Times into a multi-sectioned, bestseller, do you? That takes something else entirely.

Into the TV studio for The Daily Politics, which covers Iran, Ruth Kelly, the Lib Dem leadership. He times himself on a little Winnie the Pooh clock. He does have an unexpected, rather touching, childlike streak.

He has 14 godchildren but no children of his own, which he agrees is a shame. "I'd have liked children but that's one of the casualties of not being married," he says. You could have had a little bastard, I suggest. They're all right. I've got one. He does the job. "I employ a lot of them," Andrew replies.

He comes off air. He's not meant to say what he thinks of politicians but seems unable to not give an opinion. Why is Ruth Kelly so spooky? "I wouldn't want to mention Opus Dei, but I just did." "How has she got into this mess?" "Because she's an idiot." David Cameron? "He is the first Tory leader since Thatcher that hasn't made you think: 'Pass the sick bag'."

Andrew's first career plan was to work in journalism then become a Tory politician, but he found journalism too seductive. I tell him: if you'd stuck to your initial plan you would probably be Tory leader by now, what with the current shower. (This, even if I say so myself, is a classic when it comes to sucking up).

He says: "You might say that, but I couldn't possibly comment!" He's keen on catchphrases. "Do I look bovvered. Do I? Do I?" he will ask. When I ask if it's true he started subscribing to The Spectator at 14 he says: "Yes, you've heard of the only gay in the village. Well, I was the only kid on the Paisley council estate who read The Spectator."

He has, I think, always thought of himself as the outsider, the lower middle-class, grammar-school boy taking on the establishment, even after he became part of the establishment and was holidaying in Aspen and jigging in Tramp. This has made him somewhat ripe for Private Eye parody. Oh, that picture they keep publishing, the one of him in a vest and baseball cap and arm round a "dusky maiden".

How much, Andrew, if I could get it so you can burn it? "I wouldn't pay anything. I'd pay them to keep running it," he says. I guess, to him, it means he still matters. And I'd say things like mattering matter to him. I wonder: if Pamella Bordes (the former Miss India he dated before it was revealed she was a call-girl) was to phone and say, 'Hey, Andrew, I'm in town, let's have dinner,' would he go?

"She can't," he says. "There's a court order stopping her coming within 100 metres of me. It would have to be a big table. I have no regrets about that. In fact I regard myself as quite savvy for getting out after 12 weeks because she was the kind of woman men become besotted with and do really stupid things with. Whereas this was a fling that I ended to the detriment of several suits and shirts (she scissored them). I very much regret she turned out to be what she was, but that is all."

Anyway, we are now off to Victoria, to his day job at The Business, in his chauffeur-driven Jaguar. We talk about papers. The FT needs more character. Never take on the Daily Mail. The Express is "living off a readership that's dying and dying". And The Independent has some fantastic journalists, Andrew? "Do they?"

The car is lovely. Andrew has nice cars, nice suits (what's left) and is lavishly housed. He has three homes: London; New York; south of France. (Oh, that we might fall in love, and become Andrew and Debs, the new Conrad and Babs. More sucking up required).

OK, Andrew, as the current Daily Telegraph editor is a stand-in, why not do it yourself? "No, absolutely not," he says. "It's not because I wouldn't relish the challenge or because I don't think I could do it, but because the price of doing it would be to give up everything else you see me doing."

At The Business we go into his office, which you wouldn't know is Andrew's if it weren't for: the large, framed photo of Andrew with the Queen, the large, framed photo of Andrew with Cherie and a large, framed photo of Andrew in braces, Gordon Gecko-style for the dust-jacket of his 1996 autobiography, Full Disclosure.

He wrote it just after Rupert Murdoch had eased him out of his Sunday Times editor's seat with the promise of a high-profile job in US TV that never materialised. They haven't spoken since. OK, if Murdoch were to call right now to say: "Hey, I'm in town, lets have dinner," would he go? "Absolutely, I'd be there like a shot. But if he were to phone and say: "Andrew, I'd like you to come and work for me," I'd say: "Thanks, but no thanks. A lot of people leave Murdoch either still obsessed and in love with him, or they leave with: 'Bastard. I'm going to get him.' Both screw you up. So I was happy to walk away on equal terms ." I think what he is saying is that he was smart enough to wash that man right out of his hair. Or that hair.

I wonder about his out-of-work life. He appears to have occasional girlfriends, some that have even turned out not to be call-girls, but nothing that ever lasts too long. I don't think he has much room for that sort of thing. He may have a kind of Tramp-going, hinterland deficit. I ask if he ever feels lonely. No, he says. "Someone once said to me: 'You actually like your own company,' and I said, 'What, you mean no one else does?' Ha!"

We meet later that night for This Week. Andrew is dispatched to the same make-up lady, who is really, really earning her money today, some might say (but not me!) The show is great. Abbott and Portillo's body language is fascinating, as ever. Shirley Williams refuses to shut up. And Andrew? He only apologises 435 times for predicting, at Christmas, that Charles Kennedy would be gone by March.He doesn't hang around afterwards. He makes to shoot off. "What?" I complain, "We're not going for a jig in Trrrrrramp?" That's such an urban myth," he says. "I haven't been for at least fourrrrr years."

I don't think we will be the next Conrad and Babs. Unless, of course, we meet at a party - in which case we'll be pretty much stuck with each other whether we like it or not. I still don't think I'll be able to work out what's going on with the hair, though.

'This Week', BBC1, Thursdays, 11.35pm

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