Robert Kilroy-Silk: Here comes trouble

Punched a man? Had a love child? Are you a bully? Robert Kilroy-Silk could always answer 'yes' to these questions, but no one cared. He was a genius chat-show host. Then he went and made those comments about Arabs and, as fast as you could say 'Caused a national outrage?', he was gone from our screens. But now he's back with a new question - Will you vote for me?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Looking through my list of questions, sitting on the train to Buckinghamshire, I find my thoughts turning to the men Robert Kilroy-Silk has punched. They include, back in 1985, David Rees, a guest at a Bournemouth boarding house who reportedly kept on talking while the then Labour member was trying to watch the news in the television room ("MP Knocked Me Through Window"). Then, in the same year, there's a scuffle with fellow politician Jeremy Corbyn ("I didn't really hit him," Kilroy-Silk said at the time. "If I had, he'd have stayed down"). And, in 1991, John Edwards, a guest on the Kilroy show, who had rapped the presenter on the head with documents shortly before his host let fly. More recently, the writer AA Gill has claimed that Kilroy-Silk kicked him. "Gill is a pansy," the former presenter responded. "He is effete. He is an effeminate irrelevance." It got to the point that, when I came across an old headline in the Today newspaper - "Kilroy Hits Fifty In Spain" - it took me a mome

Looking through my list of questions, sitting on the train to Buckinghamshire, I find my thoughts turning to the men Robert Kilroy-Silk has punched. They include, back in 1985, David Rees, a guest at a Bournemouth boarding house who reportedly kept on talking while the then Labour member was trying to watch the news in the television room ("MP Knocked Me Through Window"). Then, in the same year, there's a scuffle with fellow politician Jeremy Corbyn ("I didn't really hit him," Kilroy-Silk said at the time. "If I had, he'd have stayed down"). And, in 1991, John Edwards, a guest on the Kilroy show, who had rapped the presenter on the head with documents shortly before his host let fly. More recently, the writer AA Gill has claimed that Kilroy-Silk kicked him. "Gill is a pansy," the former presenter responded. "He is effete. He is an effeminate irrelevance." It got to the point that, when I came across an old headline in the Today newspaper - "Kilroy Hits Fifty In Spain" - it took me a moment to realise it referred to his birthday.

And yet, curiously enough, I tell Kilroy-Silk, as we shake hands in the sitting-room of Beel House, his estate just outside Amersham, my respect for him was enhanced long ago by another punch - one that doesn't appear in the cuttings.

In the early 1990s, I explain, I was having dinner with the late television producer David Jones - a socialist of the old school, and maverick producer of World in Action and Alan Bleasdale's GBH - and telling him how I wasn't an unqualified fan of the Kilroy show.

"Whatever you say about Kilroy-Silk," Jones told me, "you have to understand that he does care. Passionately. I was once at a dinner party with him," he added, "when somebody made this racist remark. Other people round the table shrugged it off, or pretended they hadn't heard. Then he repeated it. Kilroy-Silk didn't say anything; he just got up and hit him."

"Is this story true?"

"Yes," says Kilroy-Silk.

"Who did you hit?"

"I can't remember," he replies, with the look of a man who can.

"What was it that he said?"

"I can't remember that either."

It's five months since the Sunday Express published his now infamous column, which described "Arabs" as "suicide bombers, limb-amputators [and] women-repressors". Under the headline "We Owe Arabs Nothing", the article began by dismissing the contribution of Arabic nations to the world, prompting journalists and contributors to letters pages to question who has contributed more to civilisation - the Arabic peoples, or Kilroy-Silk.

"It's a close one," wrote one commentator. "The Arabs have given us numbers, the modern alphabet and the pendulum. Kilroy has given us a chat show, a newspaper column and a strangely orange sun tan."

The rabid tone of his Sunday Express column precipitated one of the most dramatic implosions of a media career in history.

"When I met the BBC to discuss what had happened," recalls Kilroy-Silk, 62, "I didn't just sit there, like a supplicant. I told them they were prats to their face."

It was a candid strategy, and it got results: not only was Kilroy-Silk fired as presenter, but his company, which produced Kilroy, has not been retained to make the show which succeeded it. Kilroy-Silk is now free to devote his energies to the UK Independence Party, which he represents as a candidate for the East Midlands in Thursday's European elections.

A fearless conversationalist on the most intimate of subjects when he was on air, Kilroy-Silk is a different proposition on the other side of a microphone. He is welcoming, but very guarded. If he remembers a review I wrote, in the early days of his show, comparing his rigid posture and staccato movements to a Thunderbirds puppet, he doesn't show it.

If you thought the Kilroy show had put this man beyond caricature, you might consider visiting robert - a website you'd expect to be administered by him, but which has somehow fallen into the hands of somebody called "Dogbomb". At one click of the mouse, the site produces parodies of the startling rhetorical questions Kilroy-Silk used to pose at the start of his show. They include: "Raped a Midget? Damaged by Spoons? Thought No Meant Yes? Bisexual Neighbours? Brought up by Badgers? Suspect That You May Die? Too Fat to Walk? Living in a Cello?" and "Plagued by Big Game?"

But the man I meet at Beel House (a 17th-century property formerly owned by Ozzy Osbourne) has the urbane composure of the prime minister he once promised he'd become. (Kilroy-Silk entered Westminster in 1974 and left after 12 years, exasperated by Militant members, who had been trying to oust him from his seat at Knowsley, on Merseyside).

He makes an articulate case for UKIP - arguing that a European federal agenda has been progressed by stealth; that the EU is institutionally corrupt and undemocratic. There may be people in UKIP eager to deport anybody not born in the Home Counties, but Kilroy-Silk is not among them.

"I want us to be friends with Spain, say, and Italy. I want us to continue to trade with them. But I don't want to be governed by them. I want good relations with my neighbours..." Kilroy-Silk gestures towards the window. "I want to exchange my honey for their apples."

"Exchange your what?"

"This isn't literally true - it's an analogy."

A few years ago, I tell Kilroy-Silk, I went to a meeting with party sympathiser Norris McWhirter, who spoke on a UKIP platform only months before his death in April this year.

"I'd expected McWhirter to be barking," I say, "he wasn't - although a few of his supporters..." *

"Are," interrupts the candidate, with a frank assessment which might surprise some of his potential voters.

By joining UKIP, Kilroy-Silk becomes the most able member of a coalition which existed in the Europhile imagination as an alarming bouillabaisse concocted from the old left of the Labour Party, superannuated actors, mad jingoists, shepherds, astronomers and golf-club patriots. His arrival has given the movement focus and momentum, while offering a new platform for Kilroy-Silk's formidable ego.

To the dismay of his political opponents, this bizarre marriage appears to be working. The announcement of his candidature boosted UKIP's rating by 10 percentage points. On a recent appearance on Question Time, Kilroy-Silk - if a little over-exuberant - made Michael Ancram look like a retired accounts clerk who had stumbled into the studio by mistake, on his way to get his clothes valued by Antiques Roadshow.

Meeting him face to face, Kilroy's short fuse isn't immediately obvious. But when he mimics people he dislikes, such as the BBC executives who sacked him, or others from the "metropolitan élite" (one of the phrases - another is "sloppy journalism" - that he uses repeatedly), he affects a whining, camp accent which isn't so much amusing as plain nasty.

Anger is a recurring theme in his life. Did Kilroy-Silk consider that he could be perceived as a bully?

"Yes," he says, without hesitation. "On the show? Yes. And when I say that, I am mortified. But I was under enormous pressure. I did three shows a day with no autocues. When things went wrong I'd say: 'Why the bloody hell did you do that?' I would come home and hate myself. One thing I am relieved about is not having that pressure, and what it did to me as a person."

"He is a very peculiar man," said one former producer on Kilroy. "He had a tremendous ability to remember where guests would be sitting, and what they were meant to say. At the same time," the ex-producer added, "I have never worked for anybody who was such a bully. I have worked for... [my source names two of the most boorish male presenters on British television] but I have never experienced anything like Kilroy-Silk."

If guests deviated from what they were expected to say, the producer went on, "he would go absolutely nuts. He would shriek, and shriek, and shriek. The air was blue. 'You haven't given me a fucking programme...' He was nastier to men than women. You didn't want to go into the production meeting because you knew you were going to be publicly humiliated."

Kilroy-Silk's fatal article appeared on 4 January 2004. It was very similar to a column the Sunday Express had published in April 2003. His assistant, Kilroy says, had accidentally e-mailed the wrong attachment, and nobody at the paper noticed.

"Robert is not racist at all," the assistant said later. "He employs a black driver."

He does. At one stage Kilroy-Silk leaves me alone with him for a few minutes, having barked the warning: "He is a journalist."

"I don't like the way the press keep playing the race card with him," he says .

"Never mind that now," I tell him. "Have you seen him smoking crack? Cross-dressing? Hanging around with farmyard animals?"

"Not personally," he says. "But if I do, you'll be the first to know."

The arrangement with the Sunday Express, Kilroy-Silk says, was that "not a word, not a comma, could be changed without my permission".

But the reprise was considerably more offensive, not least because the phrases "Arab states" and "Arab countries" had given way to the generic term "Arabs".

"I recognised it as mine," says Kilroy, of the second column, which he first saw on the morning of publication, at his holiday home near Marbella. "But I said, 'This is not what I wrote.'"

"And yet you you had an agreement nothing could be altered?"

"The deal is that they don't change anything without checking with me."

The bizarre aspect of this affair, and the one which would be hardest to render credible, if you were writing all this as fiction, is the question of why Kilroy-Silk - a man who, by his own account, has never hesitated to chastise subordinates who have caused him comparatively trivial professional difficulties - should appear so indifferent about pursuing whoever illicitly altered his words, precipitating the collapse of his whole career.

"So who changed what you wrote?"

"Sub-editors, I suppose," says Kilroy-Silk. "I am blaming them. Then they said: 'It wasn't us.'"

"As I understand it, the Sunday Express journalists maintain that things happened exactly the other way round; they say that the first version of your article - the one published in April 2003 - had, when first filed, been just as inflammatory as the second, but that they, the sub-editors, had toned the April column down."

"Well," he says, "you can judge it. It's not that."

The episode, he reflects, "cost me my job".

"Did you go berserk?"


"Did you hit somebody this time?"

"No. Actually I lied to you. I didn't go berserk, at all. With anybody. I have been remarkably sanguine about it. I don't know why, but I have."

In the offending column, Kilroy-Silk wrote that "there could be few starker demonstrations of the difference between Britain and the US and the Arabs than the manner in which they treat their civilians and their dead... who says that all cultures are morally equal?"

"I hold by that."

"And yet, as I read that quote out now, the images in my mind are of Americans laughing at corpses, and naked men being dragged around like dogs."

"No, no, no. Don't tell me about it. It is vile."

"If you want an answer to that question - as to whether all cultures are morally equal - I'd say, if you are accusing the Arab world of monstrous crimes, those photographs provide an answer, in spades."

"I would disagree," says Kilroy. "As I said to a woman executive at the BBC, are you telling me that the Taliban, that represses women, that genitally mutilates them, represent a culture you'd be happy to live under? What the Americans are doing is awful. I feel really ill, and sick, about it."

Robert Kilroy-Silk was born into a poor family in Buckingham Street, central Birmingham. He failed his 11-plus but was accepted as a late entrant to Saltley Grammar School, where he met his wife, Jan. They married in 1963; she has supported him with great loyalty ever since: they have two grown-up children, Natasha, who worked on Kilroy, and Dominic, who served 10 months for mortgage fraud in the early 1990s - generating one of a series of unfortunate headlines which have dogged his father over the years. Another involved a Penthouse model, Elisha Scott. "We met on his show," she told the Sun, in 1990, "then he tried to get me into a hotel bedroom." Scott alleged that, when she declined, Kilroy-Silk (who lists his recreations in Who's Who as "Gardening") proposed "a knee-trembler in the corridor".

His father Billy Silk, a farm worker, was killed in action serving with the Royal Navy when Robert was 18 months old. His mother then married Billy's best friend, John Kilroy, creating the foppish surname which, his enemies would say, the UKIP candidate has gradually grown in to.

If his manner is genteel, his professed allegiances remain determinedly working class. Once or twice, when recalling his removal from the BBC, his received pronunciation lapses into the full-on accent of his native Midlands, complete with dropped h's. When he was a child, he says, in his row of back to backs, "There were more than six families sharing one lavatory."

"Except it wouldn't have been a 'lavatory' then, would it?"

"No," replies Kilroy-Silk. "No, it wouldn't. It would have been a toilet. Well," he adds, "more of a bog, really."

It was as a boy that he learnt how to fight, at boxing clubs and in Buckingham Street.

"I remember coming home crying because I had been bullied," he says. "My stepfather pushed me out the door. He said: 'Go back. Go back, and hit them.' So I did. From that moment, I have never been afraid. I got beaten up, but they didn't bother me again."

"Why not?"

"Because I hurt them. Because I went back."

He studied at the LSE and spent seven years as a lecturer in politics at Liverpool University before entering parliament aged 32. He became a close ally of some of the more admirable and distinctive voices in left-wing journalism - people like David Jones, and their * mutual friend the late Tony Bevins, first political editor of the Independent and one of the great campaigning journalists of the post-war period. "Bevins was a nihilist," says Kilroy and - using a word he also likes to apply to himself - "a warrior".

I've brought along a copy of Kilroy-Silk's 1983 political novel The Ceremony of Innocence; the title is from Yeats's poem "The Second Coming".

"The better-known lines are the next two: 'The best lack all convictions, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.' Which are you?"

"I have passionate intensity," he replies. "I'm the second kind."

"The worst."

"I am a troublemaker. That's why I am in politics."

It's hard to recognise the idealist who excelled as shadow home-affairs spokesman in the TV presenter who became so preoccupied with asylum seekers, adultery, acne, Arabs, and Aids (and we're still on the "A"s). Though his career might sound like a classic case of the drift to the right which seems as common an affliction of age as grey hair and liver spots, Kilroy insists he hasn't changed.

"There is a theme in my life and it is a passion for justice," he says. As a television presenter, "I was more in touch with real people that I ever was as an MP".

But prolonged periods in contact with that section of the British public who enjoy participating in talk shows - a constituency frighteningly energised by such subjects as wheelie bins, immigration and capital punishment - can do very strange things to a man. I've met at least three talk-show hosts who, after spending years orchestrating discussions on these themes, are no longer sane as the word is generally understood. Many turn to drink; almost all are privately vitriolic about their serial contributors. "I once arranged an outing for my regular callers," one radio presenter once told me. "It was like the fishing trip out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

The sense I get from Kilroy is that he went not mad but native, and has been gradually permeated by the values of what one producer termed the "crazed old biddies" who were the mainstay of his fan club.

One well-known BBC figure told me he suspected some at the corporation were relieved when the Sunday Express affair finished Kilroy, "because there was a sense that the show was already past its sell-by date". The financial loss to Kilroy-Silk personally, he added, "must have been colossal. There were Kilroy cars, which ferried all the guests; Kilroy catering. He paid excellent rates for producers and editors. His researchers," he added, "were extraordinary."

"Looking back through your Sunday Express columns," I suggest to Kilroy-Silk, "there are other things that might make some readers uncomfortable. In 1995, you wrote that: "Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery. They behead criminals, stone to death female - only female - adulteresses, throw acid into the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young women and ritually abuse animals." When you wrote that, did you see yourself as simply stirring it, in the great tradition of the columnist?"

"I can't remember."

"Because when I relate that to Islamic communities where I've spent any length of time, it isn't a picture that I recognise."

"No, no, no, no, no. But I wasn't talking about, er... I wasn't trying to say: 'This is Islamic society.' What I was saying was, those people do those kind of things."

"That, 'Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery.'"

"Perhaps it was written loosely."

"Sloppy journalism."

"OK. If it is, I put my hand up to it, yeah. I don't mean every Muslim, obviously."

We talk about some of his other Express columns, including one in which he complains about a school where children were "having all semblance of an education destroyed by politicians swamping them with Russians, Romanians, Palestinians, Arabs, Albanians, Kurds. You name it," it concludes, "they've got it."

"This is a lot fewer than the number of nationalities at my own children's north London school. Is this perhaps more polemic?"

"No. If your kids are happy at their school, that's great. I would like that too... You talk about anger. I do get angry about this," he says, or rather shouts, "because it is not me - not me, no, no, no, that has to do that, right, or Tony Blair, or Harriet Harman, who can take their children elsewhere. I can afford to pay. I am making sure my grandson is getting the best education he possibly can. It is about fairness. I want the Kurds and the Poles to be given intensive language skills, so they can catch up quickly. I want him to be a surgeon!" he exclaims. "The Kurd! I want him to operate on me!"

Kilroy-Silk feels these things passionately; he is as animated now as he used to be on Kilroy, where he was critical of none more than neglectful parents: the "Love Rat"; the "Absent Father". One show was called "My Father Let Me Down". Which must have made it doubly difficult to handle the tabloid headlines which have appeared periodically since 1995, detailing the supposed privations of his unacknowledged second son Danny, born to a London teacher.

"I'm not going to say anything about this."

"The subject is generally raised in the context of your television career," I suggest, "but I think it's also relevant to your return to politics. Isn't there a valid argument that we should admire politicians - George W Bush is a good example - precisely for the failings they have honestly confronted in public? Because when they do that, it stops other people feeling stigmatised?'

"The only people I am accountable to for my private life is my family, and my family has always known the truth."

"But why not embrace your third child into your family? Why not - in view of what you were just saying about excellence in education - send him to Cambridge? Send him to Yale?"

"I have a lot to say on that," he replies. "But not now."

"Is it fair to say," I ask, "that from your cuttings in the tabloid press, you emerge as quite a bastard?"

"Yes," says Kilroy-Silk.

"There's the 91-year-old man near your estate complaining you left him without water; Sheila Davies, the woman who looked after your villa in Marbella who claimed she fell through a rotten balustrade, suffering serious injuries, and that she was treated shabbily when she asked for compensation." (Davies was quoted in the Mail on Sunday, in February 2004, as saying that Kilroy-Silk had called her old, stupid, and "a dickhead"). "You emerge from these reports - pardon my Spanish - as an utter shit."

"Yes. All I can tell you... I am not going to dignify these stories... It's strange that they are both over two years old, and yet they surface now."

The danger is, I suggest to Kilroy-Silk, that he could end up being unfairly perceived like Sonny MacGregor, the character played by Peter Sellers in Mario Zampi's 1957 masterpiece The Naked Truth - a generous friend of the common people when on television, privately contemptuous of them off it.

"I haven't seen that film."

"Why do you think these damaging stories are surfacing now?"

"Because people like to kick you when you're down."

"There's down," I suggest to Kilroy-Silk, indicating his house and grounds, "and there's down."

"OK then, vulnerable. There are always two sides to a story. I don't recognise myself in a lot of the things I read. It is sloppy journalism."

It was all so different when he appeared in the press years ago, in his days as a Labour MP, Kilroy-Silk says. "I was bright, then. I was wonderful. As soon as I've gone into television, I am stupid. I have nothing between my ears. I have a suntan which has to have come from a sunbed. I dye my hair. I have new teeth. They wrote all that because it fitted."

I sense it's a welcome distraction to be out on the campaign trail after more than 20 years; his fearless, up-front approach to constituents, he says, is proving remarkably successful.

"I'm campaigning in a way that nobody else is," he explains. "I'm in the market squares. I'm out meeting the people."

Canvassing in Northampton, he bumped into George Robinson, an 85-year-old Normandy veteran, who was pondering whether to attend a D-Day celebration. "You should go," Kilroy-Silk told him. "It might be the last thing you do." Rather than mock him, his public smiled, then laughed, and loved him for it.

"I take terrible risks with strangers. I put my arm round them, and I say: 'Vote For Me!'"

"Do they never just tell you to piss off?"

"No. I'm sure somebody will, sooner or later."

After what he was saying about the pressures on a live presenter, it must feel hugely relaxing to have abandoned all plans to return to television.

"No, I haven't," says Kilroy-Silk.

"You want to do more television?"


"As a presenter?"

"Absolutely." He looks me straight in the eye, then says - with just a flash of the spirit that took the young contender out of his stepfather's house, to take a second beating from the bad kids on Buckingham Street - "I'll be back."