“This Week was often imitated, but never surpassed.”
I vividly remember the founding editor of This Week, Vicky Flind, visiting my Westminster office at the end of 2002. She came to pitch me the idea of appearing on a new late night politics show, alongside Andrew Neil and former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo. I was doubtful. Then, as now, Andrew Neil was the left’s least favourite television presenter. Michael Portillo was not only a former Conservative cabinet minister, but also an arch-Thatcherite.
But assuming that I would only be doing a couple of shows, Flind persuaded me. At the time, I would have never believed that I would appear more or less continuously on the show for twelve years. We three were an unlikely combination. Somehow it worked. To my bafflement, people often remarked on the apparent chemistry between Michael Portillo and myself.
I could never see it myself; Michael and I certainly never socialised beyond the BBC walls. But astonishingly, our trio seemed to gel. We were all, to a greater or lesser extent, Eurosceptics. We all had an interest in issues around diversity. My own interest in this issue was obvious, but Portillo, the son of a Spanish immigrant, was scarcely a narrow little Englander. And diversity was a longstanding journalistic interest for Neil.
Initially I didn’t think Neil was thrilled to have me on the programme. Partly I think he secretly felt This Week should pivot around him in the manner of one of the grander American news anchors. He also regarded himself as someone who rubbed shoulders with important cabinet ministers, not disreputable Labour backbenchers.
But once he realised that his friends were more engaged with This Week than his prior attempts at late night political television, he slowly began to warm to me, and realised I was an essential part of the mix. Although his politics may not be to everyone’s taste, Neil routinely does his own research and is one of the best prepared and briefed presenters on television.
I had known Michael Portillo since our schooldays; he had attended Harrow County Grammar School for Boys and I went to the sister school Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. He was part of a small group of boys at the school who all seemed destined to attain the glittering prizes. And they did. Among them were the future head of comedy at the BBC; a successful actor; barristers; television presenters and British ambassador to the United States. Both Michael and I went on to study at Cambridge, but our paths in life diverged drastically after university.
He left Cambridge to become one of Margaret Thatcher’s most loyal cabinet ministers. I spent years on the back benches of parliament as a left-winger. Many years later, This Week brought us back together. In the early days of the programme Michael was studiously polite, anxious to rebuild his reputation after becoming the Tory cabinet minister people loved to hate. And sure enough, I helped to detoxify the Portillo brand, and he became the housewives’ favourite, later presenting his hugely successful railways series.
The popularity of This Week amazed the BBC’s management. We routinely garnered more viewers than shows like Newsnight. Our audience included political obsessives who had watched earlier, less successful political programmes in that time slot, large numbers of young new viewers and a relatively large BAME following. People told me they liked the show because they believed Michael and I actually said what we thought. BBC executive Alan Yentob once said he thought the programme worked because we all obviously thought that politics mattered.
I loved doing the programme. My favourite episode was one we presented from New York the day following Barak Obama’s election as president of the United States. In different ways we were all thrilled by that. Andrew’s beautifully well behaved golden retriever dog Molly was always my favourite guest. So it was with a little pang I heard that, with Andrew Neil pulling out, the BBC is going to drop the programme altogether. This Week was often imitated, but never surpassed.