Nick Clarke

Biographer of Alistair Cooke who impressed his own calm personality on BBC Radio's 'The World at One'

Friday 24 November 2006 01:00

Nicholas Campbell Clarke, journalist and broadcaster: born Godalming, Surrey 9 June 1948; reporter, Yorkshire Evening Post 1970-72; reporter and Industrial Correspondent, BBC North-West 1973-79; reporter, Money Programme 1980-85; Political Correspondent and Presenter, Newsnight 1986-89; Presenter, The World This Weekend 1989-94; Presenter, The World at One 1994-2006; Chairman, Round Britain Quiz 1997-2005; married 1973 Sue Armstrong (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1990), 1991 Barbara Want (two sons); died 22 November 2006.

In his 2003 book The Shadow of a Nation, Nick Clarke lamented what he saw as Britain's decline from a nation with concrete values into one obsessed by the airy phenomena of celebrity and personality. In his own career in journalism Clarke exemplified the values whose loss he mourned: modesty, decency, a persistent determination to get to grips with substantial issues, a reluctance to thrust his own ego into the limelight.

Perversely, in his long tenure as anchor of The World at One on Radio 4 these qualities made him a star and a much-loved personality - the affection he inspired in listeners was evidenced last year by the torrent of correspondence he received when it was announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and faced amputation of his left leg.

In his long career on Radio 4, and particularly the 12 years he spent at The World at One (Wato), Clarke unassumingly carved out for himself a position as one of the most trusted and admired political interviewers of the day. But he did this without ever resorting to the rottweiler or terrier tactics of a Jeremy Paxman or a John Humphrys. In an article setting out his philosophy of interviewing in 1995, he recalled an occasion on which he used a story about a court decision to award custody of a child to a woman living in a lesbian relationship as the peg to question Virginia Bottomley, then Minister for the Family, about her own underlying principles:

Her replies, shorn of statistics, were heartfelt and impressive. I hope she was as pleased with the outcome as I was.

Though he was never an easy mark for politicians, his conviction that sometimes an interviewer ought to help his subject to put their case goes a long way towards showing what set him apart.

Nick Clarke was born in 1948 into a journalistic family - his father, John, was cricket correspondent of the London Evening Standard, and passed his sporting enthusiasm on to his son; in The Shadow of a Nation, John, who died when his son was 18, is presented as the yardstick against which our decadent modern Britain falls short.

Clarke was educated at Bradfield College - then under the headmastership of the notorious disciplinarian Anthony Chenevix-Trench - and at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he read French and German, in between acting and student journalism. On graduation he went to the Yorkshire Post, where one of his fellow trainees was Mark Knopfler (Clarke later recalled the news editor telling Knopfler: "You'd better hope you make a living out of music because you're never going to make it as a fucking journalist").

From there he went to the BBC in Manchester, spending several years as reporter and industrial correspondent, before moving down to London in 1980 to work on The Money Programme, and later on Newsnight. The move from television to radio came in 1989, when he took over as presenter of The World This Weekend. The change evidently suited him; he said that radio was a better medium because you can do it in the dark. He might also have said that radio is more tolerant of depth and complexity and less vulnerable to soundbites: certainly, this was the case when Clarke was in the studio.

When he took over at Wato in 1994, the programme's reputation for hard news and tough interviewing was already long established. Over the next decade, Clarke enhanced that reputation. Reading articles written about him over the years, it is striking how often two words recur: one is "courteous"; the other is "forensic". Clarke was always impeccably polite - the overall sense of calm was helped by his marvellous voice, quiet, gentle and authoritative: "like honey rolling over his tonsils" was one description. And yet he was too well briefed and quick on his feet to let politicians get away with a glib answer, a non sequitur or evasion.

Other newsrooms, at newspapers or rival broadcasters, regarded Wato as essential listening; the Labour spin-doctor Charlie Whelan reportedly referred to the programme as "Wankers at One", while Alastair Campbell reportedly loathed it: as Matthew Parris said yesterday, paying tribute on a special edition of Wato, "What higher recommendation could there be?"

Clarke's combination of intelligence with warmth and good-humour also made him the automatic choice as stand-in for Jonathan Dimbleby chairing Any Questions? He also presented the summer replacement programme, Straw Poll, and a number of radio current affairs series. From 1997 he was chairman of the revived Round Britain Quiz. His understated astonishment at the obscurity of the cryptic questions, and the brilliance the panellists displayed in answering them, were in pleasant contrast to the mild pomposity that had formerly characterised the programme.

He was rewarded with the titles of Best Individual Contributor to Radio, by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer in 1999, and Radio Broadcaster of the Year, by the Broadcasting Press Guild in 2000.

Clarke took up writing relatively late in his career, publishing his exhaustively researched biography of Alistair Cooke in 1999, to much praise. The Shadow of a Nation, the follow-up, made less of a splash.

In late 2005, Clarke consulted a doctor about stiffness he had been suffering for some months in his left buttock - and which he had put down to the effort of carrying his three-year-old twin sons up and down stairs. The source of the discomfort turned out to be an epithelioid sarcoma, and the only possible course was the amputation of much of the buttock, along with Clarke's left leg. He took this news with characteristic grace.

The spontaneous outpourings of affection from listeners were a source of solace - one, he noted with pleasure, compared his absence from radio to the loss of the Routemaster bus; so was the good-humour of his family, who greeted him on his return from hospital with a sign reading "Welcome home, Peg-leg". The inconveniences of life as a "monopod" gave him material for a number of entertaining pieces, all remarkable for the utter absence of fear or self-pity.

Clarke returned to present Wato for two days a week from August this year; but the amputation had not been enough to eliminate all the cancerous cells.

He was married twice, first to Sue Armstrong, by whom he had three children; and then to the television producer Barbara Want, who lately achieved some personal notoriety by campaigning against David Cameron's personal wind turbine, near their home in North Kensington. She and their young sons survive him.

Robert Hanks

Nick Clarke treated his second career as an author with enormous seriousness, writes Ion Trewin. The written word inculcated into him by his journalist father had always given him pleasure as his precise scripting of introductions to The World at One demonstrated. But in the early 1990s it was suggested to him that he might write a book, and in particular the biography of Alistair Cooke.

At the first contact with Cooke he was rebuffed, but Clarke persevered and returned to his subject having made a number of discoveries about Cooke's early life and family. Cooke, realising that Clarke would not so easily be brushed off, eventually consented to his continuing and gradually began to open up.

It was not an easy ride. Clarke's first publisher went out of business. There were elements of Cooke's marriage which Clarke felt couldn't be published during his subject's lifetime. He knew he was, as he said, "ploughing up the smooth surface of Cooke's life". Clarke was, though, ever the diplomat, coping with the increasing intransigence of his ageing, often crotchety subject.

When he finished the first draft it was over 800 pages in length. Clarke quickly demonstrated his professionalism, asking a number of people, young and old, to read and tell him where they ceased to be gripped, where it could be cut. Nearly 300 pages ended up being deleted. Cooke declined to read the finished result. Asked by Clarke if he had enjoyed the experience of being a biographer's subject, Cooke snapped back with "patent sincerity", as Nick recounted - "Not for a moment."

But reviews were favourable, sales were well ahead of expectations. Nick found himself in the unusual - for him - position of being the interviewee. At the Cheltenham Literature Festival he faced an audience of 450 in conversation with another great BBC figure, John Cole, who had worked with Cooke on the Manchester Guardian several decades before. "With no BBC mantle to cover my authorial nakedness, it feels like sitting an oral exam in a language I barely understand," he wrote of the experience.

About his second book, The Shadow of a Nation, subtitled "The Changing Face of Britain", he was never entirely happy. Then, when cancer struck, as well as compiling an audio diary with Barbara his wife (broadcast as Fighting to be Normal in June), he also decided to write about it. He wrote several chapters in a period of remission.

One of his final public appearances was at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival, where he had regularly been an interviewer, often of politicians who strutted its stages to promote their memoirs. Last month, obviously fighting pain as he thrust aside his sticks, he chaired three events, including a memorable hour with Robert Fisk. Here, as ever, he showed his mastery of current events. The applause at the end was as much for Clarke as it was for Fisk.

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