MORTIFIED! Will my wife or Auntie BBC – let alone Britain’s political class, which must be heaving a huge sigh of collective relief – ever be the same again?
Jeremy Paxman’s announcement that he’s quitting BBC2’s Newsnight prog, after 25 years, has left Mrs. Ash bereft, not to say yours truly without good cause to remain awake until 23.30 (Spanish time), before dozing off in the comfort of hearing yet another political turkey suffer public humiliation by a thousand, deft, verbal cuts.
For those not privileged to have witnessed Paxman’s acerbic interviewing style, imagine the Spanish Inquisition and a Soviet show trial rolled into one, as – giving all due respect to Kipling’s immortal poem, If – he treated all as impostors deserving the same disdain.
With the possible exception of the late Sir Robin Day, who founded the post-modernist school of torture by TV, no-one but Paxman has exploded more pomposity or shattered as many overblown egos.
Media mythology claims the abrasive Yorkshireman coined his approach to interviewees by first asking himself, ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ He didn’t. It’s a quote lifted from Times journalist, Louis Heron, who admitted he’d heard it from a colleague.
However, what’s undeniable is the grand inquisitor was the people’s champion, answering their call to probe for truth and accountability by – preferably – steamrollering blusterers into a flat, mushy mess of angst.
So, if he cost £800,000 a year of taxpayers’ dosh, Paxman was worth every penny.
And even if the dreary mechanics of power is the equivalent of brewer’s droop to those disinterested in knowing how the wool is being dragged over their eyes, nothing quite rivalled the sight of a supercilious grandee being give a right, royal Paxo stuffing.
Probably the peak of his reign of intimidation was the demolition of Michael Howard in 1997, when Paxman asked the former Home Secretary the same question 12, successive times…‘Did you threaten to overrule him?’
Few recall the context – the dismissal of the head of Britain’s prison service – or knew Paxman sent Howard a bottle of champagne by way of an apology. Only the interview will live on as a shrine to big, small-screen, political melodrama.
The 2005 general election saw a similar verbal punch-up, this time with Saddam Hussein sycophant, George Galloway, in which Paxman accused the now Respect MP of threatening him, which ended with Galloway walking out of the interview.
Later that year, when David Cameron was running to be the Tory’s head toff, Paxman pressed him on his directorship of a nightclub firm and left the future Prime Minister blathering to explain the ingredients of cocktails like Pink Pussy and Slippery Nipple.
In 2011, he even called a European Commission spokesman ‘Mr Idiot’.
Accused in recent years of being – in his own words – ‘clapped out’, Paxman proved detractors wrong in 2012, by shredding Chloe Smith, then a junior at the Treasury, put up to defend a knee-jerk decision to freeze fuel duty.
In fairness to the fledgling minister, of whom nothing has been heard since, she was raw meat to a voracious rottweiler and whoever threw her into Paxman’s pit – most finger her boss, Chancellor George Osborne – was guilty of heinous cowardice.
Some, however, gave better than they got on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show.
Disgraced newspaper tycoon, Conrad Black, labelled Paxman a ‘gullible, priggish, English fool’ when questioned about his imprisonment for fraud.
And, taken to task over his view that voting was a waste of time, gobby comic, Russell Brand, actually forced Paxman to admit he’d also failed to vote in a recent election.
Whatever the hangdog presenter’s personal politics, though, he never wore his colours in action and his quality of mercilessness has never been restrained, whether it was the Prime Minister or leader of the British National Party sitting opposite.
Even Paxman’s BBC masters have felt the sharp cut of his tongue.
To wide acclaim, Paxman was never more scornful about their handiwork than over Auntie’s monumental cock-up of a Newsnight investigation into the Jimmy Savile sex-abuse scandal, which he damned as ‘contemptible’.
Recently he even panned the output of Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra as ‘hell’.
Meanwhile, Paxman’s remark that the organisation was ‘smug’ not only didn’t win rave reviews from top brass, they demanded he and the equally-forensic John Humphrys, of Radio 4’s Today programme, study an in-house report on ‘courtesy in interviewing’.
Andrew Marr’s Sunday show exemplifies that blandness, although it hasn’t gone unnoticed the former editor of The Independent tends to treat his Left-of-wing guests with greater deference than, say, the likes of UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
But, in their skewered judgements, what legions of the Beeb’s mandarins have singularly failed to appreciate is the public want exactly what Paxman and Humphrys deliver…the blood of political humbugs on the studio carpet.
Even when he side-stepped into the realms of light entertainment by becoming University Challenge’s inquisitor, Paxman’s withering chidings were no less barbed and it’s glad tidings he’ll continue with that show.
‘Come on, come on’, he demands, with undisguised irritation, as the students strain over brain-numbing questions about astrophysics or the sovereignty of South Pacific atolls.
Strangely, though Paxman is a broadcasting icon, his life’s work hasn’t had mass appeal, because Newsnight’s audience rarely tips 600,000 – including a 10% boost when the man himself hosts it – and University Challenge is hardly The X Factor.
But, earlier this year, when he grew a beard, even the social media was fizzing (for the record, my wife reckons it was to hide a nip-and-tuck job – and, believe me, she can tell a pair of bought-in boobs half a mile away).
With Panorama blown as a byword for probing journalism, the problem for news junkies like me is: who replaces the irreplaceable on Newsnight – surely not the grating Kirsty Wark or a featherweight cutie like Emily Maitlis?
But, more to the point, how is Mrs. Ash ever going to sleep tight without a dulcet ‘Goodnight’ from Jeremy, the man of her dreams?