Robert Robinson 

2 October 2011


Robert Henry Robinson was born in Liverpool shortly before Christmas 1927, the only child of a Mancunian accountant who worked in the export trade and his wife, a daughter of the Liverpool Irish. Robinson Senior was transferred to his company’s London branch a little while after and the family settled in Malden.

It was whilst attending Raines Park Grammar School in the late 1930s that the bookish, slightly aloof boy came under the influence of the school’s eccentric headmaster John Garrett, a graduate of Exeter College Oxford and a man well connected with some of the major figures in English letters at that time (he persuaded W H Auden to compose the school song). Garrett was highly ambitious for his pupils and, obviously sensing fertile ground in the accountant’s son, encouraged and guided him towards a future place at his own alma mater.

Two obstacles to his progress intervened, both of them military: firstly, the buzz-bomb attacks on London, which led to Robinson and his mother being sent to stay with her extended family back in Liverpool, thus disrupting his education at a crucial juncture; and secondly, his being called up for National Service with the West African Army Service Corps in what later became Ghana and Nigeria.

His two-year tour of duty done, Robinson duly achieved his ambition (and that of Garrett) by going up to Exeter College to read English. At Oxford, he threw himself into the social and literary aspects of varsity life with perhaps more enthusiasm than his studies, which was – in retrospect – little to be wondered at when one considers who else was there at the time. For his contemporaries included the director John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson, Robin Day, Shirley Williams (née Catlin), Paul Vaughan and Derek Cooper.

Two non-academic fields particularly engaged him at that time: the theatre and journalism. Robinson was a regular member (as both performer and writer) of the University’s Dramatic Society (OUDS), and actually took part in a short tour of the US which brought Shakespeare into the auditoria of agricultural colleges in the upper Mid-West. It was here too that he first met his future wife, Joseé Richard.

But it was as editor of the student magazine Isis that he embarked upon his career’s true path. It was a job for which, by his own admission, he had been angling ever since he had gone up; yet he described many years later his reaction on finally taking the position in 1950. Realising that it was now his responsibility to actually get the magazine filled, he felt, “…my guts turn to water, as they say in the novels… I had to run to the lavatory”.

This may have been nothing compared to the loosening effects of his most infamous act as editor; a disrespectfully waspish article about the University Operatic Society’s forthcoming production of Edith Sitwell’s Façade; this succeeded in getting so far up the (not insubstantial) nose of the famous poet that she all but demanded the young editor’s expulsion from Exeter altogether. Despite being required to make a grovelling – if merely strategic – apology, Robinson professed himself secretly pleased at having being noticed.

After getting a good Second-class degree in English, he started working for the newspapers of the Kemsley group, firstly for the Weekly Telegraph (doing a variety of jobs under a similar variety of pseudonyms), then for the Sunday Graphic where he wrote mainly about the cinema and – increasingly – about television, subjects to which he was to return regularly throughout his working life.

By 1956, he had not only moved on to the Sunday Times (another Kemsley organ at that time) as its radio critic, but had published the first of his three novels, Landscape With Dead Dons, which used Robinson’s experience and impressions of Oxford to comic effect, although the author was mortified to discover later that he had unconsciously taken elements of the plot from Kipling’s short story Dayspring Mishandled. By 1960, he was editor of the Sunday Times’ up-market gossip column Atticus, following in the footsteps of the likes of Sacheverell Sitwell and Ian Fleming, but which Robinson took into a somewhat lighter and more satirical direction.

It was during his time at that still-august paper that he took his first steps in appearing on the broadcast media rather than simply writing about them. During a newspaper strike, he was one of a number of scribes and scribblers who were invited to talk on television about what they would have been writing that week had there been any outlet for them in print.

A few odd jobs on television followed before the BBC decided that Robinson was sufficiently ‘telegenic’ (to use a term which mercifully hadn’t been invented in that more innocent age) to be employed before the cameras in a more regular capacity. This meant a formal audition at Lime Grove studios before two of the giants of the medium, Donald Baverstock and the formidable and fearsome Grace Wyndham Goldie. As with his first day in the editorial chair at Isis, a panic attack led him to flee onto the fire escape before finally calming down enough to take his place before the camera to conduct a mock interview with the ever-eccentric Woodrow Wyatt, then a reporter on Panorama.

Having succeeded in persuading those two Pillars of Hercules of contemporary broadcasting that he could not only interview but talk extempore to camera, Robinson found himself getting work for Panorama, for Monitor (where he was passed over for the presenter’s role for Huw Wheldon, whose positive enthusiasm was what the new arts programme needed, rather than the more diffident Eeyorism which Robinson had to offer) and Picture Parade, which took him back to the world of cinema.

It was in this rôle where some indications of the presenter’s real nature started to appear. As one might expect from a devotee not only of Beachcomber but of Timothy Shy (nom-de-guerre of D B Wyndham-Lewis), there was a touch of the surreal and the subversive about Robinson, and this caused him to be far less saccharine and deferential to the movie people he interviewed than they probably had been used to.

But it was the inauguration of Points Of View – as nothing much more than something to fill a five-minute gap in the schedules that the BBC hadn’t realised had been lying like an old rake in the long grass of early evening programming – which marked Robert Robinson’s rise to the status of one of the first genuine television ‘personalities’ in Britain. The basic premise of the show was, in itself, quite insubstantial; just get people to write in with their opinions of the week’s offerings. But the presenter was clearly determined not to allow himself to be shackled to so basic a format. He expanded it to become a way of demonstrating people’s idiosyncrasies. So those who tuned in found themselves watching the Swiss ambassador to the Court of St James humming his country’s national anthem (after a viewer had claimed no such thing existed), or of seeing film footage smartly re-edited by Jim Franklin (later to reach greater eminence with The Frost Report, The Goodies and Ripping Yarns) to produce surreal montages of, for example, Maigret and Inspector Barlow apparently having a telephone conversation with each other, or of Sir John Barbirolli appearing to conduct The Beatles.

(Robinson’s near neighbour in Chelsea Richard Ingrams later admitted that that element of the programme was a template for the type of humour subsequently exhibited in Private Eye).

His new position brought him an enhanced public profile, but there were some by-products of his celebrity status which were quite frankly bizarre. Many years later, he recounted a sequence of letters he received during his Points Of View days from the same (allegedly female) correspondent in a variety of different-coloured inks and peppered with phrases in Italian, French and Latin. He came to the conclusion that someone had been doing a dry-run for Henry Root.

All this brought back insecurities from earlier in his life, too. Who, he pondered later in his autobiography, was he? The family man? The journalist? The television star? Or any combination of the above, a sort of ever-shifting Venn diagram of the personality? These musings also provided him with the hook upon which to hang his 1986 TV documentary The Magic Rectangle.

His journalism career was still in full flight during this period. His editor at the Sunday Times was quick to take advantage of the star he had on his books by removing Robinson (somewhat to his chagrin) from the safe, anonymous world of Atticus and giving him his own by-lined column. It is from this period that most of the pieces featured in the Penguin paperback Inside Robert Robinson (1965) are taken (a book whose cover features a close-up of the author apparently trying to poke his own right eye out). The pieces, mostly little more than vignettes, show a strong ability to capture characters and scenes from real life – be they or it high or low – in a way which was entertaining and enlightening without necessarily being patronising either to those thus portrayed or to the reader (Alan Coren – another writer with a firm grasp of a character type – was to do something quite similar in a more fictionalised context to great comic effect later). They constitute highly-polished short-form journalism which he was to revisit in his opening monologues for Stop The Week and for its junior partner and partial replacement Ad Lib.

It was 1965 which saw two changes in direction for Robinson. Firstly, he moved to the Sunday Telegraph to reprise his rôle as film critic; and secondly, somewhat incongruously to many, he abandoned Points Of View to become the host of BBC-3, the last of the triptych of Ned Sherrin-produced ‘satire’ programmes of the Sixties. It was here where he almost met his nemesis, for it was on one edition of the show – during a discussion on censorship along with Mary McCarthy – that Kenneth Tynan became the first person ever to (deliberately, at least) utter the word “fuck” on television (Tynan’s stammer led Willie Rushton to describe it as “the first thirteen-letter four-letter word”). The Nation (or, at least, that small part of it which would have been watching an open-ended show after midnight, and the smarter Fleet Street hacks who had stayed up for it) Was In Uproar. The irony being, of course, that those newspapers who entertained real or faked outrage had to refer to the word without using it, and so Tynan had, in effect, won. Robinson emerged more or less unscathed from the experience, and once BBC-3 had faded into nothingness after one series, went on to present the arts programme The Look Of The Week, and Divided We Stand, a sort of Nationwide/That’s Life funny-regional-people-slot in embryo. He was also now a freelance writer, contributing to Punch, the (pre-Rupertine) Sun and the Observer amongst others.

Then came Robinson’s two most enduring contributions to television and, for the first time, the vocation of Quizmaster To The Nation came calling. First there was Ask The Family, in which a mother, father and two standard-issue children competed against another such domestic unit in games of observation, mental arithmetic and other well-regarded spheres of thought familiar to the suburban middle classes. The second strand was his taking over as the chairman of Call My Bluff, in which waifs and strays from the orphans’ wing of the Oxford English Dictionary were defined in three ways by each of the teams in turn, with the other side having to work out which was the true definition.

(It may not come as a surprise to anyone who has read my articles for Transdiffusion or my own website that I was an avid fan of ‘Bluff‘ from the moment we got our ‘BBC2 aerial’ in about 1972. I would write down the words which Frank Muir, Patrick Campbell and their teams had had defrosted for them alongside their true meanings. I would keep these lists for months on end, before throwing them away without ever having adopted a single one of them for further tender care).

And there was still more to come, as in 1972 Robinson took over at short notice as question-master of Brain Of Britain upon the death of Franklin Engelmann, and he remained chairman of ‘Brian‘ (as he called it, in deference to the occasions when his BBC cheques in payment mis-titled the programme ‘Brian Of Britain‘) for over thirty years.

This was not his first major foray into radio, however. In 1971, he was picked by Marshall Stewart, editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, to replace the eccentric Jack de Manio as the second anchor alongside John Timpson. The programme had been a rather uncomfortable combination of hard news and whimsy, in which the amiably hapless de Manio had been the gaffe-prone sole presenter, but which had gradually morphed into an almost totally news-orientated broadcast, something with which de Manio felt increasingly uncomfortable, and which precipitated his departure.

Robinson’s arrival was not greeted with universal acclaim: not by many amongst the listeners, who had got used to de Manio’s ‘g&t’ style over many years; nor by some amongst the senior executives, who regarded Robinson with suspicion as having that peculiarly British weakness – being ‘too clever’ – and of possibly having left-wing tendencies. It was also on the face of it a slightly incongruous appointment in that Robinson was more often seen (when not chairing quizzes, of course) as primarily an interviewer of people involved in The Arts.

Nevertheless, he was duly enthroned and became the final part of the picture which led Today to become the premier radio news programme of its age. This was due in no small measure to the high intelligence which he brought to both his scripted pieces and to his interviewing of politicians, who had not been used to so searching a type of interrogation on radio as they had by then become accustomed to on television.

Not that he found this – or other aspects of the programme – invariably to his taste. For a start, the thought of having to get up in the middle of the night to get from his home in Chelsea to Portland Place in time was troubling to someone for whom – National Service apart – 6.30am was something which happened to other people. This led to the famous incident where Robinson woke up in a cold sweat to find that his bedside clock said six o’clock. A desperate phone call followed in which the presenter apologised profusely for the lapse, only to be gently informed by the duty editor that it was indeed six o’clock – in the evening.

What really stuck in his craw however, as a fastidious communicator himself, was the emptiness of the responses he received from politicians, trade union bosses and other members of the ranks of the insolent. The emptiness of the bluster, the formulaic nature of the rhetoric, was always going to get under the skin of a follower of Dr Samuel Johnson (Robinson was later to become President of the Johnson Society of Lichfield), and his responses to the latest cascade of cant or flurry of flannel was often a subversively satirical flight of fancy, such as the time – whilst interviewing a particularly oafish MP, who had claimed that everyone had a public duty to round up stray dogs – the interviewer went into a rhapsody of speculation as to how – in the first instance – good, active citizens were to distinguish between stray and non-stray; and secondly, whether butterfly nets or lassos would be the preferable instrument of their capture.

But then there was a far more serious issue of language and its abuse which almost led to Robinson’s premature departure from Today. This occurred when a committee looking into the treatment of detainees in the then-highly-charged situation in Northern Ireland concluded that the techniques of forcing prisoners to stand with their hands pressed against the wall, with bin-bags over their heads and white noise playing for hours on end was not ‘torture’ but ‘sensory deprivation’. Robinson, a passionate liberal as well as someone who cared deeply about language, wrote an introduction for a news item on the subject which pulled no punches. “1984 is at hand and Newspeak is upon us. Torture is a word that […] is no longer acceptable…We remember that Orwell warned us – those who wish to distort reality first distort the language”. The duty editor refused to allow these prefatory remarks to be aired and, although Robinson backed down and – amongst other things – won the Radio Personality of the Year award (with Today itself winning Best Programme at the same event), his increasing unease at asking real questions, only to hear them being batted away by something close to a ritual, nay litanic response, led to him quitting the programme a short time afterwards.

Not that this left him underemployed, however. For in addition to Call My Bluff, Ask The Family and ‘Brian’, he had fronted The Book Programme on BBC2 from 1973, which had followed his chairmanship of the literary quiz Take It Or Leave It. In these two series, Robinson found a more amenable niche than simply being a quiz-show presenter, although he continued to suspect that ‘books’ was a subject you couldn’t really do properly on television. He nonetheless felt that he had entered into his inheritance, and he took full advantage with a range of interviewees from Hammond Innes to Heinrich Böll, R D Laing to Vladimir Nabokov. But perhaps the most famous edition was where he and producer Will Wyatt decided to tackle one of the most alluring mysteries of twentieth-century literature: who was B Traven, elusive author of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre? Many had tried to track the story, but such a secretive character had always evaded any sustained investigation. After a long chain of research and travel, from Mexico to the US, Germany and Poland, Wyatt and Robinson thought that they had their man in the form of a refugee political activist from eastern Germany called Otto Feige. Their conclusions seemed to be decisive, and many scholars of the matter accepted them as such but – as they say in the press – controversy still rages in some quarters.

Radio still had its place in Robinson’s activities however, and it was on that medium that he spent most of the rest of his career. In 1974, shortly after leaving the Today programme, he was given the opportunity to launch a new programme to complement Richard Baker’s Start The Week. The new venture (to be called – with ineluctable logic, if with a similarly inescapable lack of imagination – Stop The Week) would run on Radio 4 early on a Saturday evening, and was intended to be a magazine of satire (whatever that was intended to mean in a post-Frostian world), topical guests and music.

Robinson was chosen because he had proven himself on Today to have both the experience and force of character to hold the whole edifice upright. The programme’s producer Michael Ember was, however, equally aware that the chairman needed others around him to keep him in check. And so, regular contributors in the early years included Edward de Bono and the journalist Dennis Barker. The programme’s initial brief seemed to be honoured more often in the breach than the observance, although serious matters were discussed, often heatedly although not necessarily with as much light.

As time went on, however, de Bono, Barker and notions of ‘satire’ (however defined) were gently ushered out of the basement studio in Broadcasting House, and the programme settled into a pattern which was to last – with minor changes – until the programme’s demise in 1992.

I have gone into greater detail about Stop The Week as a programme elsewhere at Transdiffusion, but for the purposes of this essay it is worth dwelling a little more on Robinson’s rôle as its chairman and pivotal figure. Once the countervailing presences envisaged by its producer had been removed, Stop The Week became – even more so than was stated in the programme’s full title as announced at the top of each edition, “Stop The Week with Robert Robinson” – very strongly the domain of the chairman himself. In Ember, Robinson had found a foil, a co-conspirator and a blood-brother, and the closeness with which they worked from the programme’s inception to Ember’s retirement (shortly before the show itself was turfed out into a field like Black Beauty – or Tony Blackburn if you ever saw that episode of The Goodies) meant that the chairman became the centre of attention, at times to the detriment of the other participants and even sometimes the subjects under discussion. This led to accusations of Robinson hogging the limelight, to which he countered that it merely sounded that way, and that he only did it to goad the other contributors into a response; “Charging the particles”, he called it.

Others had different and far less flattering descriptions: “I usually switch off shortly after this patronising, supercilious bore comes on”, complained one listener. There were certainly times when – even as an avid listener and unabashed fan – I wished he would shut up for a minute, or not behave in so overbearing a fashion; but Robinson’s style had been dividing listeners and viewers for many years prior to this. Whilst he may have garnered plaudits for his chairmanship of Ask The Family – in which he appeared in his guise as a clever but amiable uncle – and while his stewardship of Brain Of Britain is fondly remembered for its well-mannered joshing, his performance in other programmes just seemed to rub some people (particularly that sub-genus of media people loosely called ‘critics’) up the wrong way. This had been evident from the time of the Tynan incident, when William Barkley of the Daily Express described Robinson as having sat there wearing “a lecherous leer” on his face (Robinson – who said that he was wearing a face as long as High Wycombe because he had just had confirmed what he had long suspected; namely that ‘satire’ was merely music-hall with aesthetic pretensions – was dissuaded from suing by his lawyer for fear of giving the description an extended life-span). Private Eye – which tended to be written by people who weren’t quite as clever they thought they were – habitually referred to him as ‘Smuggins’, and took delight in putting some of his more sententious remarks into Pseuds’ Corner (Robinson on one occasion complained of this treatment over lunch with Graeme Garden, to which the comedian replied that it was, indeed, unjust, adding gleefully: “I’ve heard you say far more pretentious things than that.”). The Sun (long after his departure, naturally) took to calling him ‘Bob The Boffin’, which (he said) made him feel as if he were a penguin.

That his style and manner divided the audience should not perhaps be too much of a surprise. Despite the self-doubt that he felt, Robinson was able to at least pass himself off as being in command of his situation. Unfortunately, some clearly felt that this led to an over-compensation which caused him to come over as florid, orotund or patronising. It also did not entirely help him that – the first decade or so of his broadcasting career aside – his style seemed increasingly at odds with the tendencies and trends of what was going on around him.

For his career spanned the entire period when the typical broadcasting ‘voice’ changed from the barely-disguised patrician of Reithian times, via the grammar-school-and-Oxbridge meritocracy of the sixties and seventies into the more demotic style of the thrusting Thatcherite age and beyond into the bloke-and-blagging age of Clarkson and Co. Viewed in that light, what started out as a cutting-edge style came – as a result of Robinson’s maintenance of his own approach come what may – to seem passé, almost archaic.

His interviewing technique, listened to from a distance of forty years or more, now seems stilted, over-formal, a set piece almost like a quadrille or a game of Statues. But it must be remembered that this was not long after the time when an interview – be it with a politician, a pop star or a poster girl – ran invariably on the lines of, “And what do you have to say to the people of Britain, Prime Minister?”, whereupon the PM would be given the opportunity to say in extenso whatever he had had prepared for him to say without interruption, concluding with an effusive, “Thank you, Prime Minister”, from the interviewer. By comparison, an interviewing method which actually did seem to be more of an interaction or engagement between the two parties was a sign of a loosening of the old formalities, which led to at least the possibility of finding out something of use or interest to the listener. Robinson always claimed that he had never asked a question of an interviewee to which he was not interested in getting an answer, even if that answer revealed little more than the vacuousness of the person being interviewed.

But it was, of course, his oratorical style which became his trademark and the jumping-off point for a hundred impressions. As for the origins of that style, then perhaps we need to take into account the fact that he was a child of the educated English middle-classes of the Thirties and Forties who had – as it had become genuinely possible for many scions of that stratum of society to do by that time – progressed via grammar school to Oxford or Cambridge. This greater access tended to bring with it a sense of insecurity in some of those who were its beneficiaries, and the tendency towards showing off one’s knowledge and erudition – which had previously been used to proclaim one’s superiority over the common herd – was often adapted in order to demonstrate that it was indeed one’s own intrinsic merit rather than ‘daddy’s money’ which had got one to the position of advantage one now occupied. There was also the not inconsiderable matter of cleverness at that time not being quite the besetting sin which it has been perceived as being in more recent times. Certainly, ‘intellectuals’ – whether actual or merely self-styled – were still regarded by the masses as figures of fun, although the quiet jeering was usually commingled with more than a little genuine respect; but there was little of the outright sneering and scatter-gun deprecation of intellectual capacity and erudition we tend to see now, where the viewing public only truly likes clever people if they have obvious flaws or eccentricities which can easily be used to make them seem ridiculous (what might be termed the ‘Pyke-Sewell Syndrome’).

It may ultimately be possible, however, to trace Robert Robinson’s own particular style back to those he took as his exemplars in expression, not least of whom was Samuel Johnson himself, the compiler of the great Dictionary which stood for generations as a landmark in its field. For Robert Robinson was – in his style of address, his mode of expression and his concern for precision in (and respect for) the right use of language – essentially an Eighteenth Century Man, a throwback (and I use the word in an entirely non-derogatory sense) to an age where balance and moderation were the watchwords (indeed, one could easily imagine him turning up in the pages of a Henry Fielding novel, perhaps as an unusually sane judge). The tenor of that time was that of clarity of expression (if sometimes tending towards the euphuistic), and the use of the full resources of the English language in all its diverse forms; but not in a careless way, using ‘long words’ merely for the sound they made, or the impression they gave of the capacity of the person using them, but rather utilising them for the sake of expressing what you wish to convey more precisely than you otherwise could. If your audience was not quite sure what the words you used meant, then encourage them to remedy that deficiency in themselves rather than patronise them by only using words that you think they already know. Clarity of expression should not imply a sort of white-tiled room containing only a sterile, featureless environment; it should be a room furnished with the rich patterns and accoutrements of an accumulated culture.

A key element in this is that Robinson spoke – as a broadcaster – in the same way that he wrote, as Ann Leslie pointed out in her tribute to him (in which she said that he spoke in whole sentences; you could hear the semicolons). Anyone who has read the (alas, all too few) collections of his prose journalism will hear the unmistakable voice of their author, something which can also be encountered in the written works of Alastair Cooke and John Peel among a handful of others.

Not that this style was beyond reproach. As I mentioned earlier, Robert Robinson could be overweening, lofty, even obtuse (this was particularly true on Stop The Week, although it could be said somewhat in his defence that there he was, to a large degree, boxing at his own weight). He was disdainful of the women who contributed to what he called ‘Stop The Rot’, claiming that they were not capable of upholding that programme’s competitive conversation (he exempted Leslie on the grounds that he didn’t ever think of her as a woman, a comment which didn’t go down as well with the doyenne of Fleet Street correspondents as he would have expected). His orotundity would oft-times run away with him a little, which led to him being justifiably ripe for parody, along with his trademark comb-over.

But there was an essential humanity in his writing and his broadcasting, and his grasp of the essentials of someone’s personality or of a scene or tableau which is to be witnessed in his journalism also informed his broadcasting. In the 1980s, no doubt as a result of his support for Television South West’s franchise application, he made a number of series of Robinson Country for them and their successor franchise Westcountry. Prior to that, he had made a number of episodes of Robinson’s Travels for the BBC – one of which (to India) had featured in its early minutes a clear (and brain-bleach-resistant) sight of the presenter’s buttocks – injections, for the use of). For nearly a decade from 1989, he made sixteen series of Ad Lib. In all these, the programmes involved going around the UK (and beyond) talking to so-called ‘ordinary’ people about their lives and work, and in them we can see and hear his ability in getting interesting and entertaining talk from people not by – as someone once put it – “getting down on all-fours and playing with them” – but simply by being himself, knowing what to ask and knowing equally not to get in the way of the answer. His interest in people shone through, and allowed the people to shine through too.

Essentially, we may see Robert Robinson as the last truly erudite broadcaster (although some may rightly claim Attenborough for this accolade, although his is a much narrower field of endeavour), the final figure in a sequence of such losses to our cultural life in the last decade or so. For just as Cooke had his deep historical knowledge of the history and popular culture of his adopted land; just as Peel had his thorough immersion in the hinterlands of rock and roll and its dizzyingly bizarre offshoots; and just as Nick Clarke had a true journalist’s eye and ear for what was going on; so Robert Robinson had his insatiable curiosity, his overarching intelligence, his feel for what made people interesting and his vivid clarity of expression, each facet informing and reinforcing the others.

It is this that we have lost, and the loss may be more grievous because – ‘Brian‘ apart – he was scandalously underused after the axing of Stop The Week. Sure, we had Ad Lib for some six years thereafter, but I can’t help but feel that a five-minute talk from him once a week, a sort of Letter From Chelsea (or from his second home in Somerset, where he gained notoriety by trying to get the village pub closed down because of the noise) would, at the very least, have enabled us to savour that style, that intelligence, for a little while longer.

Instead, we are left with three novels, three collections of short journalism, and an all-too-slim and self-effacing autobiography to remind us of a writer and broadcaster who, although perhaps not reaching his fullest potential, regularly reminded us of how communication should work – to inform and to entertain.

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