Monday, 15 August 2011
Robert Robinson RIP
Robert Robinson, who died on August 12 aged 83, was a broadcaster and writer best known as the wordy and erudite chairman of such popular television parlour games as Call My Bluff and Ask the Family and of the long-running radio quiz Brain of Britain; in the early 1970s he co-presented Radio 4's flagship Today programme until he fell out with the BBC over the show's increasingly political agenda.
Robinson was a performer about whom opinion was sharply divided. His air of aloofness, his oracular and anachronistic verbal style, and taste for polished epigrams irritated many. One journalist voiced the suspicion that he once arranged for weak tea to be served during an interview so that he could pronounce: "You could spear a shark in sixteen fathoms of it", and he had, indeed, been quoted as saying just that on an earlier occasion. (Of strong tea, incidentally, he would say: "It's thick enough for a mouse to trot on".)
His detractors were driven to apoplexy by his habit of finishing the genteel quiz shows he presented with the words: "I bid you goodbye". To them, Robinson's pale, stolid face signified smugness and complacency. They found his hair annoying too, even though there was not much of it – or possibly there was too much, for Robinson concealed his essential baldness by having the two hanks that grew out of the area above his ears wound around his head and ferociously plastered down.
Yet Robinson took criticism in good part, simply stating that he found the single word "goodbye" lacking in moment, and never dissembling on the subject of his hairstyle. Indeed, he admitted that the man who came to his house to arrange his coiffure would despairingly mutter: "I have created a monster" as he packed away his implements.
Robinson had tremendous self-confidence, and with justification. He was well-paid for what he did, and there were those who found his asperity and carefulness with words very welcome in an ingratiating, slang-ridden era. A reviewer once praised one of his programmes by saying that "it was a place where words were measured by the ounce rather than the job lot". This could have been said of any Robinson project, and he was not merely elegant in his speech, he was frequently very funny too.
In 1971 Robinson was persuaded to join Radio 4's early morning Today programme. In hiring him, the BBC took a gamble. Robinson had never been heard regularly on radio before. Neither, as it turned out, had he ever actually heard the programme himself, being an habitual slugabed who always slept through it. His co-presenter John Timpson had his doubts. "Nobody could know whether listeners would tolerate the company at breakfast-time of an intellect so lively and at times exhausting," he recalled.
Robinson, who once listed his favourite place as "bed", had grave qualms about a 4.30am reveille, confessing that he had never been up earlier than 9.30am since his National Service days. His predecessor, Jack de Manio, wired advice: "Don't, repeat don't, give up booze or go to bed early unless absolutely worthwhile, otherwise life becomes hell." Nevertheless, Robinson found his first programme nerve-racking. "You've no idea how brutally spontaneous it all is," he told a journalist afterwards. "I was fluttering like a lavendered old lady."
But Robinson quickly hit his stride, striking up a winning on-air camaraderie with the avuncular Timpson. In Robinson's hands, the 30-second cue (introduction) to an item became an art form. "Bob learned to use words to fashion lexicological objets d'art," Timpson observed. Visiting pundits were invited not to speculate but to "cast the runes"; a dull discussion on the economy would be embellished with a homily from Horace or a Balzacian bon mot.
One critic spoke of Robinson's "battering ram personality", describing him as the hare of the programme compared with Timpson's tortoise. But even Robinson's verbal pyrotechnics sometimes failed to make the programme sparkle. On dreary news days, the programme team dubbed Robinson and Timpson the Brothers Grimm as they waded through a gloomy 1970s swampland of strikes, a decaying economy and plummeting pound.
On one particularly threadbare morning, the programme devoted a full minute and a half to a woman whose knickers had fallen off in Selfridges. "If that's news," mused Robinson aloud at the end of the item, "on what principle is anything ever left out?" The BBC director-general Ian Trethowan fired off a testy memo about this and other examples of Robinson's perceived Maoist tendencies.
One that mired him in much deeper trouble was an item he had introduced about the torture of IRA prisoners, abuse which had been dressed up by an official committee as "sensory deprivation". Robinson felt he had been censored when he tried to complain on air about such Orwellian distortion of the language and, although voted Radio Personality of the Year shortly afterwards, continued to resent unwarranted editorial interference.
He also deplored the programme's growing obsession with politicians, their "never-ending effrontery" and "sonorous drivel", whose every word, he believed, was spoken for advantage. In 1974, despairing of the ritualised political interviews he was called on to conduct each morning, he quit.
"At least with Call My Bluff," he commented later, "you knew it was a game."
Robert Henry Robinson was born on December 17 1927 in Liverpool. His accountant father soon moved the family to the Surrey suburbs however, and Robinson grew up in Malden, or "Wimbledon", as he sometimes called it, "if I was feeling posh". He was a bright but diffident child. In his autobiography Skip All That (1996), which is more relaxed and funnier than his rococo novels, he blamed his transformation into a junior smart aleck on the highly competitive atmosphere at Raynes Park Grammar School, which he found suited him.
He identified Oxford University as "the original source of the high anxiety I had become hooked on", and applied to read English, which he referred to as "Literae Humaniores" when filling in the application form. He went up to Exeter College, became the editor of Isis and moved in a bookish, liberal set, getting to know Shirley Catlin (later Williams), Peter Parker and Robin Day, all of whom he would later – stoking the ire of his detractors – refer to as his "chums".
After National Service in Africa with the West African Army Corps, and dressing, as he later admitted, "like a prat" (bowler hat, fancy waistcoats), Robinson got his start in journalism with The Weekly Telegraph, a satellite of the Sheffield Telegraph, published in London. His job involved making up readers' letters which he signed "with a variety of distinguished names humanised by more humble addresses: George Moore, Chingford … JE Flecker, Scunthorpe".
After the Weekly Telegraph imploded, Robinson brought his insouciance and elephant hide to the writing of showbiz columns. He asked Rita Hayworth to jog his memory as to which husband belonged to which child, and was dragged away by a minder. Diana Dors walked out on him when he said he preferred her real name: Fluck.
In 1960 Robinson became editor of the Atticus gossip column on The Sunday Times. By now he was also established in broadcasting and he gradually became a presenter first, a print journalist second. Although he had made his first radio broadcast in 1955, it was BBC Television's early 1960s film review programme Picture Parade that first brought him to the public eye. This led to an even more popular programme, Points of View. Originally a five-minute gap filler before the news, Robinson briskly and amusingly conducted the presentation of viewers' letters about BBC programmes.
On November 13 1965 he was hosting the satirical show BBC3 when Kenneth Tynan spoke the word "f-ck" on television for the first time, but even this did little to disturb his sangfroid; as thousands of elderly female viewers presumably reached for the smelling-salts, Robinson disdainfully remarked to Tynan that it was a very easy way of making history.
He became best-known for much less incendiary stuff – as the host of three long-running quiz shows. On television, from 1967, there was Call My Bluff and Ask the Family. (The first, a wordy parlour game for mid-league celebrities, he satirically renamed Call My Agent.) On radio, from 1973, he hosted Brain of Britain, which he referred to as Brian of Britain because so many of the contestants were middle-management, Brian-ish people.
Robinson would often be quite rude to them on air. One contestant, asked to name the special property of a certain liquid used in industrial processes, hazarded that, if poured into a machine, it would flow into every nook and cranny. "No, no, no," chuckled Robinson, "I mean, you could say that of Tizer."
As his observational talents became recognised, Robinson applied his educated, articulate, lofty (if sometimes disdainful) persona to numerous television programmes; The Book Programme did for literature what Picture Parade and later Cinema did for films, while in 1977 he conducted an extraordinarily successful literary investigation in B Traven – A Mystery Solved, produced by Will Wyatt. He also presented The Fifties, Word for Word, The Book Game, and was proud of his two series Robinson's Travels and Robinson Country. In 1984 he co-devised and presented Our House, about families who had lived in the same house for more than 50 years.
On radio Robinson's satirical side was given freer reign in his role as chairman of the incestuous but acerbically droll Radio 4 programme Stop the Week, which ran from 1974 until 1992. Here Robinson and friends such as Professor Laurie Taylor, the theatre critic Milton Shulman and the journalist Anne Leslie, discussed "minuscule" subjects such as "Does it matter if people say: 'Different to... '?" or "How do you know when you're grown up?", or attempted to name six famous people called Stan, while other, more irregular panel members attempted to get a word in edgeways.
Robinson was invariably speaking as the programme ended, and the producers would be required to fade him out in mid-flow. The show attracted a good deal of flak, but, to Robinson fans, everything else on radio sounded worthy and witless by comparison.
All this broadcasting attracted to Robinson two sorts of criticism. Firstly he was accused of being simply too full of himself, but he was also charged with failing to live up to his potential, which was a sort of backhanded compliment. In 1956 he had published a detective novel called Landscape With Dead Dons, on the typically cerebral ground that, once you had started with these plot-driven stories "you had to go on". It was a success, and was given the lead review in The New York Times. "I was glad, but naive as ever, I was expecting it; Mummy never says No."
Alongside collections of essays, Inside Robert Robinson (1965), The Dog Chairman (1982) and Prescriptions of a Pox Doctor's Clerk (1990), two further, more introspective novels, The Conspiracy and Bad Dreams, followed in 1968 and 1989. Robinson conceded that writing novels was a "magical" vocation, and averred that the thought of, say, Graham Greene as a quizmaster was grotesque. But, with apparent sanguinity, he would offer the defence that he had written as many novels as he wanted; he also said of his television and radio work: "I used the medium rather than the other way around – that's my story and I'm sticking to it."
With the spoils of broadcasting he bought a succession of big cars, a 16th century cottage in Somerset, and an exquisite and conspicuously grand main house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. ("People say: 'I suppose you got it for a song' but not so. Not at all. Blood came out of my ears.")
He was once asked whether his ready wit would ever dry up. "Not really," he phlegmatically replied, "one is constantly renewing oneself, but all things come to an end, and one day I will be down to the canvas, the silence rolling like thunder."
He admitted to no particular interests beyond his work and family, considered watching television "a conscious decision to waste time" and resorted mainly to sport, especially horse racing, having a love-hate relationship with his bookmaker.
Robert Robinson married, in 1958, Josee Richard. They had one son and two daughters.