Captain Moonlight: Teledon at war with the world

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DAVID STARKEY is a historian. He teaches at the London School of Economics. He is also the shrill, donnishly disdainful panellist on The Moral Maze, the Radio 4 discussion programme noted for the freedom of its opinion and the vigour of its expression. Dr Starkey likens it to a video nasty of The Brains Trust. This week viewers will get, as they say, their chance to judge when it makes its television debut on BBC 2.

Dr Starkey makes his comparison with relish. Dr Starkey is the one who called the Venerable George Austin, the echoing Archdeacon of York, fat and smug. Dr Starkey is the one who sneered at Dame Jill Knight, the echoing Tory MP, saying she sounded like one of those ladies who wore hats.

He is increasingly with us, being robust, waspish, choose your euphemism. Starkey appearances are distinguished by mass audience intakes of breath followed by a hissing sound. My mother-in-law thinks he is a dreadful man. On Any Questions he questioned the Princess of Wales's ignorance of those gym photos. Listen to him, too, at home in north London, recalling the encounter with an 'extremely tedious' Labour MEP on Question Time: 'I said China had got it right by introducing economic reform before political reform, unlike the Russians. Peter Sissons asked for her reaction, and she said, 'Oooh, I couldn't think like that'. I said, 'The trouble with you is you can't think at all', for which I have not the slightest regret. People are offended by all sorts of different things. I am really offended by stupidity. There are far too many stupid people in public life and we tolerate them.'

'My public career,' he says, 'is essentially one of indiscretion.' It has been waiting a long time. In the early Eighties he had a memorable spat with Richard Du Cann QC in a televised trial of Richard III for the murder of the princes. 'A journalist saw Du Cann as the rattlesnake, and me as the mongoose. A friend pointed out that mongoose was just a polite word for a rat.' But, adds the Doctor, 'a rat with chutzpah'. He is of the belief that the public were not quite ready for someone like him then, but that now his time has come; that audiences are tired of safe, tedious programmes, when the only remotely savage criticism is cosily contained in the latex of Spitting Image. Starkey likes to see his personal attacks as caricature with words.

So, a teledon, a mediaprof, an eccentric figure to entertain us in the line of Joad and Taylor (A J P) and Rowse (A L) and Pike (Magnus). You could accuse him of being an act, of being a shameless publicity hound (mongoose, rat) but it loses its force because he admits it. 'I think for a long time there hasn't been somebody reasonably heavyweight who's been prepared to be a 'character' . . . You might say I'm a frustrated actor, but actually I'm probably a fulfilled actor . . . It's sheer self-indulgence and it's jolly nice to be paid for doing what I like to do.' He sees his role to provoke, put the antithesis, be the licensed jester, a Shakespearean fool, one with point.

Only real fools propose solutions, he says. He sees a Britain without vision, with unin spired, uneducated leaders fum bling to order a society that has not resolved the contradictions of individualism and collect ivism, like 'the women who de mand the right to have a child and then demand that everybody else help to look after it'; a government that has institution alised unemployment in a way as heartless as any Nazi policy. John Major is a man 'who has read so little, knows so little', who 'recites English like someone who's learnt it as a foreign language on an old tape'. Back to basics? A preposterous idea that morality can be rolled up and unrolled like a backdrop in a Wagner opera.

It follows that someone who gives it like this must be prepared to take it. Starkey is unconcerned. He has nothing to hide. He had a Rowsean working-class background - Lancashire Quaker - followed by Cambridge scholarship. He cheerfully admits to being both homosexual and a member of the Conservative Party. It is said that his homosexuality has held him back from a professorship at the LSE. He is clear: 'The reason I have not got a chair is that I haven't published a boring academic monograph that nobody reads, 450 pages long with 10 footnotes per page.' Mediocrities, Stakhanovites, the importance of a full life, the awfulness of Cambridge high tables: the Doctor is off again, enjoying himself.

(Photograph omitted)