Sir Robin: The witty, courteous pioneer of awkward interviews

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Courtesy, persistence, tenacity and big bow ties. These were among the memories of friends and victims of the veteran interviewer Sir Robin Day, whose death was announced yesterday.

Courtesy, persistence, tenacity and big bow ties. These were among the memories of friends and victims of the veteran interviewer Sir Robin Day, whose death was announced yesterday.

The grandmaster of political interrogation died on Sunday night at the Wellington Hospital in central London. The 76-year-old had been taken there several days earlier after suffering a black-out and had complained of heart problems for more than a year. He had major heart surgery in 1997.

His friend Sir Ronald Waterhouse said: "He was discharged last Sunday but didn't feel well again and went back in on Friday. He was a wonderful friend. He was a lively person, generous and extremely helpful to anyone in difficulty."

Sir Robin had a long and varied career, which ranged from failing to win a parliamentary seat for the Liberal Party in 1959 to working for the British Information Services in Washington. He also applied to bedirector-general of the BBC, motivated, he later explained, by "reckless amusement".

When he returned to Britain from the United States, he became one of the original newscasters at ITN, and went on to work on television and radio programmes including the BBC's Panorama and The World at One, as well as general election coverage.

But it was with the BBC's Question Time, where he ruled as the combative but charming chairman while the great and good were interrogated, that he became a weekly face on television. He once said of interviewing: "The interviewer should be firm and courteous. Questioning should be tenacious and persistent but civil.I shudder to watch interviewers who think it clever to be snide, supercilious or downright offensive."

He took on the Question Time position in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and their exchanges were often lively by standards of the time. Once, asked if she intended to sack certain ministers, she replied: "You are going further than I wish to go." Sir Robin countered that it was part of his job to push her but the Prime Minister retorted: "Yes, indeed. It's part of my job to stop you."

Yesterday Baroness Thatcher was among those from the worlds of politics and broadcasting who paid tribute to Sir Robin's professional skills and personal qualities. "Sir Robin Day single-handedly pioneered modern political interviewing, and he excelled at it," she said. "Our paths often crossed and I always enjoyed the joust. He was tough and relentless. But he was also fair, witty and gracious. His death leaves British political life blander and poorer."

The broadcaster David Dimbleby, who took over as presenter of Question Time, said Sir Robin had constantly honed his questioning technique. "He had an obsession about the questions that you asked. He had a barrister's training, a theatrical instinct and an absolute belief in the public right to know," he said. "What he did was to set the standard. He was the first person to say, 'We are not going sit there as patsies. These people are elected politicians and they must answer the questions'."

John Humphrys, presenter of the BBC's Today programme, said Sir Robin was "the father of the modern political interview". He said: "It was more a master-pupil relationship with Robin than anything else. Most of us who were by his standards newcomers to the business were in awe of him.

"At his best there was simply nobody better. He was well informed, he was incisive. As Tony Benn says, at one stage we were all totally obsequious and a difficult question was, 'What else do you have to say to a grateful nation minister?' Robin changed all that. People like Paxman and me have a great deal to be grateful to him for."

Tony Benn MP, a friend of Sir Robin, described him as the "pioneer of the aggressive interview". But he added: "Personally he was as kind as you could imagine. He was a very ebullient man."

The former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock said: "He was unsurpassed and with his mixture of knowledge and idiosyncrasy, he gave personality and passion to the task of interviewing."

In 1989, the year he retired from Question Time, Sir Robin published his memoirs, Grand Inquisitor. His most recent publication, last year's Speaking For Myself, was a collection of speeches. His marriage of 12 years was dissolved in 1986. The couple had two sons.