Will Brian Redhead be turning in his grave?

`The Real Life of Brian' outraged many fans of the `Today' presenter. Michael Bywater (left) defends his radio portrait of a great but flawed human being
Click to follow
The Independent Online
About a month ago, Bob Carter, a BBC radio producer, rang up to say that he had been asked to produce a feature on the life of Brian Redhead, and would I like to write and present it? I said yes immediately. Because I had worked with Bob before, and liked and respected him; because I had never done a radio profile, and wanted to have a go; and because, like millions of other Britons, I had a special... well, "fondness" for Brian Redhead.

He was a regular visitor to our breakfast-tables - "dropping a word in the nation's ear", as he put it - and I thought it would be nice to find out, and share, a bit more of what sort of a man we had been entertaining for the 18 years in which he presented the Today programme.

Of course you cannot find out what someone was "really" like in a month. You probably can't find it out at all, ever. The most we could hope for was to assemble a series of fleeting glimpses of him, from friends, family and colleagues, in the hope that it would amount to a sort of walk around this immensely complex man, full of self-contradiction, aspiration, pride, vanity, self-delusion, talent, disappointment and triumph - because he was a human being, and that is what human beings are like. All of us.

Any form of biography - other than the funerary encomium - occupies a difficult mental landscape. One side is bounded by a rank, muddy ditch into which the biographer, profiler or portraitist tumbles the minute he thinks he is getting at the "real man". On the other is John Donne's even more worrying prospect: "On a huge hill/ Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will/ Reach her, about must, and about must go." And in the distance, a bell sounds; Donne's again: "And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

And there's another danger: the danger of the "story". The desire to tell a good tale is strong, and sometimes you can get carried away with enthusiasm for some tiny detail which seems to change the pace or lift the tone; and so you run away with it, and the part becomes the whole.

Journalists, with the transience of the craft and the small space available to us, are all too prone to heavy-handedness with the spice pot; and so a decent politician becomes a dullard, a lucky businessman becomes a troughing pig, an ardent and over-affectionate princess becomes a whore.

But we went into researching what I, perhaps rather fatuously, decided to call "The Real Life of Brian" without any preconceptions. We spoke to around 20 people who had worked with him or knew him well. We asked about his ambitions, his family life, his love of the north of England, his professional disappointments, his intellectual curiosity, everything, in short, which contributed to the circumstances of his life. A few people refused to talk to us; most regrettably, his widow; perhaps least regrettably, Norman Tebbit, who said he wouldn't discuss his friendship with Brian with a man who wrote for a paper "so lacking in independence as the Independent on Sunday". (How we wished Brian were alive, so we could have heard his comments on the probity of a man who, having devoted most of his life to representing the corporate views of a political party, then chose to assess the independence of others.)

From these hours and hours of tape-recordings, we selected about half an hour of speech which gave the broadest view of Brian as a man. People spoke of his enthusiasms, his ebullience, his professionalism, his self- assurance, his brave coping with severe illness, his spiritual quest following the death of his son, above all, his tremendous, effervescent urge to "communicate".

Other things emerged, too.

Brian Redhead had a quick temper, though was equally quick to forgive. He was, said Simon Hoggart, a solipsist - "not the same as being egocentric or self-centred". And, all his life, he was given to inventing or embellishing stories about himself.

Brian was, in short, a human being, with faults and flaws and quirks, but with an extraordinary ability to inspire tremendous affection in others. The interview with John Humphrys, in which he ranged over every aspect of the man he shared so many thousands of hours in the studio with, was one of the most compelling and moving hours of my life; I wish I had been able to broadcast it, entire and unedited. In the end, I felt we had done a fair job.

But on Thursday morning, the calls started. So-and-so was after me. Such-and-such a paper was demanding to know why we had undermined his reputation. Word had gone out that Bob and I would not be welcome at the Today Christmas party.

I listened to the programme that evening. During the interviews, I had asked everyone to sum up Brian in three adjectives, and we ended the programme with a montage of those words. It brought tears to my eyes. For a demi-god to have been the subject of such vivid affection and regard would have been predictable; for a man, a colleague, a friend to inspire them was humbling. The following morning I opened the first paper on my pile.

"Radio portrays Redhead as vain and egotistical," it said. Well yes, we did; he was. So am I. So, I suspect, are we all. But he was also all those other things, all those 50 or more adjectives, and we portrayed him as those, too. I wonder what adjectives I would get. I too tell tall stories about myself; worse, I do it for a living, as a columnist. Interview my friends and colleagues about me, and you will find a catastrophically discreditable man.

But that doesn't matter, because I a have no nimbus, no mythos. I do not wish to apologise for The Real Life of Brian. A friend wrote: "I had long been an admirer of his and the programme made all that affection for him come swelling back," and I, too, felt more human affection for Brian Redhead having made the programme than before.

For a few weeks, he was Brian. Now he will go back to being Brian Redhead, a great broadcaster, sadly no longer with us. If there are people who cannot bear to see a hero as a man, with a man's shortcomings, I pity the fragility of their sense of humanity. I felt differently: this was a man, take him all in all.

Comments