08 April, 2006

Today's Today

I've mentioned it a couple of times before, but I'm minded to explain just what it is about Radio 4's Today programme that makes me choose it, rather than any other radio station, to wake up to in the morning.

There are the presenters for starters. Historically they have been a whimsical bunch, encompassing everything from dour, poker-faced journos (Peter Hobday, Edward Stourton) and unsettlingly kooky fishwives (basically, Libby Purves) to fair but firm matrons (Sue MacGregor, Anna Ford), bumptious raconteurs (Jack De Manio) and dominating, headstrong bullyboys (Brian Redhead, James Naughtie). John Humphrys, however, cannot be confined by any pigeonhole and surpasses all attempts at qualification, thereby making him the best ever Today presenter. He is simply his own man, conforming to no obvious stereotype, representing no agenda other than his own, and quite prepared to defy anyone's preconceptions of him as some kind of arrogant, snooty interrogator by suddenly unleashing a devastating quip, appalling pun or a shard of cutting irony. There's never been a better host of Today. His love for everything to do with the programme is evident every morning, from the care and respect he shows towards all the regular features and co-hosts, to the tenacity he demonstrates in pursuing questions and investigations to their end. He's also got a great self-deprecating sense of humour, and shows no sign whatsoever of unnecessarily conceding one inch to the anti-Beeb cheerleading lobby.

John Humphrys was co-hosting this morning's show alongside James Naughtie. This is the programme's classic line-up, and one I always look forward to hearing. Two greats, side by side, inspiring each other to greater heights of incisive cross-examination and equally cutting gags. But they wouldn't be anywhere near as good if they didn't have such an ace line-up of reports and topics with which to grapple.

Tradition has long dictated that in-between Today's heavyweight politico grilling and earnest dirt digging, something has to lighten the mood to ensure that both presenters and audience don't go spare from a surfeit of furrowed brows. Hence the continuing fondness for eccentric, off-the-wall and defiantly "sideways look at" features which regularly pepper proceedings and give the presenters a chance to talk over each other and generally see how many of those technicians silently padding about the studio they can reduce to laughter.

Recent highlights have included an attempt to recreate the entire Today studio in Lego before the end of the programme; an origami folding contest, again involving the production of paper-based doppelgangers of the show's hosts; an entire gospel choir invited in to perform the original version of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'; a mass tasting of a 150-year old jar of chutney; a group of kids asked into the studio on the day the latest Harry Potter book was published, who were then challenged to read as much as they could by 9am before giving their verdict (although they were pointedly never referred to as kids, and treated as if they were normal guests); a poet who had to record everything that happened during that day's edition in verse then recite it as the show's finale; and the annual debate over the authentic recipe for Christmas pudding which always ends in a collective sampling of various stomach-churning dishes and a phone call from Clarissa Dickson-Wright sounding pissed off.

Then there's the programme's wonderfully love-hate relationship with information technology. The show's got a fantastic website, beautifully designed, but none of the presenters seem a) to have properly visited it b) to have even looked at it on someone else's machine or c) to really know where it is. All of them write regular newsletters for the site, but you get the impression they've done them on a typewriter or in longhand and got some office junior to re-type them ready for uploading onto the internet. The attempts at interactivity, which are never plugged very convincingly, often seem plagued with technical problems. Above all, though, there's a superbly blatant Luddite streak that manifests itself in occasional petulant outbursts, the best of which was John Humphrys' announcement a few autumns ago: "...and you can read Sarah Montague's account of her time at the Tory Party Conference on the Today website. Alternatively, you could get a life." Suffice to say the next time Sarah was co-hosting with John she humorously chided her colleague for such fustiness, to which John mumbled a splendidly unconvincing apology.

Since I left home I've migrated through various radio stations at breakfast, beginning with Radio 1 (during the Chris Evans years), then Radio 5 Live (1997-1999), then Radio 2 (1999-2002), and most recently Radio 4. I switched to Today just in time to hear the whole build up to and subsequent coverage of the Iraq war, including the now legendary "sexed up" report which, after many months, led to the Hutton Report, the resignation of the BBC Chairman and the sacking of its Director-General.

No other programme on any other channel on any other network in the world would've been able to first report and then analyse criticism of itself in as calm and dignified manner as Today did the morning after the Report was published. With something of a Blitz-spirited mentality, the programme set about painstakingly and lucidly reciting each and every detail of Lord Hutton's exposition, reeling off point after point of the esteemed judge's considered conclusions that everything the Government to a man had done was right, and everything that the BBC to a man had done was wrong. Resisting all temptation to lower itself to the kind of mudslinging and offensive swaggering exhibited by certain representatives of the Government, this was stout, clinical reportage that was desperately moving in its impartiality. Quite rightly, the visceral emotion was to come later in the day, away from the programme itself and within BBC buildings up and down the country. But that one edition on Thursday 29 January 2004 was an absolute model of professional broadcasting, and a reminder why the Beeb remains the best newsgathering institution - no, the best institution full stop, in the world.


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