In retrospect, I suppose the growing of a beard was a clue. When Jeremy Paxman returned after his summer break sporting a new hirsute look, we should have been alerted to the fact that something was going on in his life, something more than just a reappraisal of his facial hair policy. He wanted to change his job, and he told his bosses at the BBC of his intention to step down from the anchor role at Newsnight.
They fell on his mercy: the last thing they wanted at a time of huge instability and upheaval for the corporation, and for “Newsnight” in particular, was to lose this inquisitorial colossus. Please don't go, Jeremy. So Paxman relented, saying he'd give it another year, and he did what any man does when he can't change the thing he really wants to. He changed something else. Some men buy a new car. Others get a garden shed. Paxo grew a beard.
For more than a quarter of a century of Paxman has grilled politicians and public figures on Newsnight, and feasted on their charred reputations. His thrillingly explosive encounters with Michael Howard and Chloe Smith remain high water marks in the history of political interviewing.
Prime ministers, world leaders, radicals and conservatives have all had the Paxman treatment, and only Russell Brand got the better of him. “Jeremy, don't ask me to sit here in an interview with you in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.” Paxman's disdainful tone, and his propensity to treat any guest as a lying criminal, may not have been to everyone's taste, but, in an age when homogeneity and conformity seem to be increasingly prized qualities, here was a true original, with a dangerous propensity to throw a lighted firework into any situation.
How we'll miss him, and not just for his fearsome ability to hold politicians to account. So successfully has he developed his grumpy old man persona over recent years that he has become one of the BBC's most reliable comic turns.
Forget about Michael Howard or Tony Blair, Paxman's response to Nancy Dell'Olio's barely comprehensible monologue - “I haven't got the slightest idea what you're talking about” - is pure comedy gold, and well worth another look on YouTube.
And what about his world-class sign-off from the programme back in 2006 - “Martha's being punished for some offence in a previous life by presenting tomorrow's programme.” - or his sneering disregard for having to present the weather forecast - “It's April. What do you expect?”
And the fact that he was on the BBC's borrowed time at Newsnight clearly made him feel that he had licence to speak even more freely. Thus, he went on the Graham Norton show and called David Cameron “an idiot” and then, in a newspaper interview, he bit the hand that's fed him for most of his career in spectacular style.
“There's a pile of stuff on the BBC 1 can't stand,” he said, adding that his idea of Hell is having to listen to Radio 1 Extra in the lifts at New Broadcasting House. He never was the corporate man. As he himself would say, he couldn't be arsed. There's a temptation to believe he can't be replaced. Not true. Call for Eddie Mair!Reuse content