Brian Viner: The rise and rise of pismronunciation

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The Independent Online

Not since my schooldays, when a boy in my year called Ian Hunt was cruelly nicknamed Isaac, even by some of the teachers, has the surname of the current Culture Secretary struck me as potentially comical. So three cheers for Jim Naughtie, whose now-celebrated clanger on Monday's Today programme unwittingly kindled the schoolboy humour that brought some warmth to a freezing winter's day.

That it was a memorably bad few hours for the BBC's news and current affairs department, though, has less to do with what the late Ronnie Barker – as president of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Suffers from Pismronunciation, for the relief of people who can't say their worms correctly – would surely have applauded, and more to do with an interview with the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Crockart on Radio 4's The World At One, in which the MP for Edinburgh West threatened to resign as a ministerial aide over the tuition fees issue.

For all faithful listeners to The World At One, with the probable exception of Naughtie, who was doubtless back at home resolving never to raise the names Mike Crockart and Jeremy Hunt in the same sentence, this was fascinating stuff, indicative of the fissures that have appeared in the Coalition Government. It transpired, however, that the man being interviewed as Crockart was actually a construction worker from Yorkshire, who had been telephoned in error and brazenly, one might even say heroically, decided to bluff his way through the interview.

This bit of mischief was later revealed on PM, meaning that clangers of one kind or another loomed large on all three of Radio 4's big current affairs programmes on Monday. It's amazing how much damage can be caused by getting a single letter, or digit, wrong. Yet for the hapless producer who misdialled Mike Crockart's number, Naughtie's pismronunciation was what we can safely call a codsend. The Labour spin doctor Jo Moore once controversially suggested that 11 September 2001 was a good day to bury bad news, and similarly, if less dramatically, 6 December 2010 was a good day to bury an interview hoax.

Nevertheless, the Crockart cock-up offered a salutary lesson, which is that live radio, far more than live television, is a minefield of bloopers even for the most experienced broadcasters. After all, we listeners have nothing to distract us from the voice, so every pause and catch takes on added significance. On telly, the newsreader Charlotte Green probably wouldn't have got the giggles reading out the name of the head of Papua New Guinea's armed forces, Major-General Jacques Tuat. But in 1997, on Radio 4, she famously did.

The other difficulty on radio, as exemplified by the fake Crockart, is that presenters often can't see the person they're addressing. I won't detail Adrian Chiles's embarrassment during his Radio 5 Live interview with the former Zimbabwean cricketer Eddo Brandes a few years ago, not least because I've cheerfully done so several times before, but suffice to say that had they been in the same room, Chiles would have known that Brandes was white, not black.

The stoicism of the Kaiser's men

The world title fight between the heavyweight boxers Wladimir Klitschko, the champ, and Britain's Dereck Chisora, which was due to take place in Mannheim tomorrow, has been cancelled because Klitschko has injured his back. This is bad news for Chisora and not especially marvellous for me, since I spent much of Tuesday holed up in a hotel in Germany's Taunus mountains, interviewing Chisora and hobnobbing with his entourage, in preparation for an article that was meant to run today.

Still, there are worse places to spend five hours than the bar and lounge of the Falkenstein Grand Kempinski, a handsome resort that was built in 1909 on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who wanted it as a convalescent home for leading military officers. Kaiser Bill also insisted on a network of underground tunnels, so that the soldiers could get from one building to another without the public seeing their wounds. Those were the days, when well-known warriors kept their injuries to themselves and their nurses. Their closest modern equivalents are celebrity sportsmen, whose groin strains and abdominal tears are made public in the most intimate detail within hours, if not minutes, of the diagnosis.

Viner's first rule of autograph hunting

Speaking of celebrities, Ricky Gervais was in the audience at last Friday's performance, at the Theatre Royal Bath, of Terrence McNally's play Master Class. This I know because my wife, Jane, was there too, and at the interval she texted me to say that Gervais had just said "I'm sorry" to her, for accidentally blocking her way to the loo. I duly conveyed this news to the children, who were most excited that Gervais had spoken to their Mum. That their Dad once interviewed him over a long lunch was deemed far less impressive: that was business, but this was social.

Anyway, our 12-year-old, Jacob, implored me to text Jane asking her to get the great man's autograph. I refused, because I knew she wouldn't want to do so. Jacob was disgusted, and refused to understand my autograph rule, which is that celebrities are fair game when they're out and about being famous but not when they're doing something privately. It's a rule I made 25 years ago, after approaching Clint Eastwood on a street corner in California. He rasped at me that he was in a meeting, which was scary, but being rasped at by Clint is better than his autograph, I reckon.