Welcome to the kinder and gentler Paxman

First Morning 2; Start The Week, on Radio 4

RADIO 4 audiences yesterday found their usual Monday morning listening transformed. Start the Week was deprived of its veteran presenter Melvyn Bragg, deposed on the grounds that he is now Lord Bragg and leans to Labour, and was instead hosted by the master of the killer interruption, Jeremy Paxman.

It was obvious that Mr Paxman was trying to show that he had a softer, more intellectual side. The discussion was of religion, the Gospel according to St Matthew and the Book of Job. The author A N Wilson was contributing fulsomely, and Mr Paxman seemed to have hit the tone just right. He refrained from accusing Mr Wilson of "not answering the question", or sneering "do you really expect us to believe that?" and instead went along with the thesis, chipping in occasionally and politely.

A tricky moment came, though, with Mr Wilson's observation that most of the Book of Job was not expected to be taken as fact. "So it's allegory," said Mr Paxman. But Mr Wilson came back sharply. It was not allegory, but legend. The audience was left to wonder whether Mr Bragg might have had a keener ear for the subtle difference, or have been less ready to jump to a conclusion.

It also seemed possible that Mr Wilson, in being relentlessly erudite, was trying to show that he would have made a better presenter than Mr Paxman.

On the whole, though, Mr Paxman's Start the Week passed its basic test. He sounded fairly natural in the job, despite a vague sense that he was operating in second gear and wouldn't mind a bit of heavy confrontation after the show.

For some time Mr Paxman has tried to demonstrate to the BBC that he is more than a news man. His efforts, though, have had limited success. He failed to handle an audience well in an audition to host Question Time, and was beaten to the job by David Dimbleby. He then tried hosting his own rival to Dimbleby, You Decide, which received a lukewarm response. His performance on University Challenge, however, is much admired.

He will not be able to claim success at Start the Week, though, until he has survived a season. Radio audiences, particularly Radio 4 listeners, are sensitive to change andquick to complain if they are unhappy. The programme could provide Mr Paxman with his biggest challenge yet.

JANE ROBINS

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