Peter Hennessy’s Reflections
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st August, 2016
British broadcasting’s political interviewing used to be a very gentlemanly affair; the taciturn Clement Atlee was given a very easy ride by the BBC when he finally agreed to appear before the camera. But Robin Day later added edge to TV interviewing, probing with what some stuffier government Ministers considered to be impertinence. Audiences loved it. Then Jeremy Paxman got the knives out, famously asking Michael Howard the same question a dozen times, like a matador tormenting a bull, and flooring many interviewees with his sneer. But Peter Hennessy, who has presented a series of political interviews on Radio 4, produced by Robert Shepherd, strikes a happy median, polite, but not deferential, inquisitive rather than inquisitorial, and always making one aware of his vast knowledge of modern British history without in any way showing off. He teases information gently out of his subjects, knowing the sort of question to ask that will bring out some interesting revelation or clarification that will be use to future historians, political scientists and those who like to follow politics closely. Eleven of these interviews form the content of the nicely-produced collection, Reflections: Conversations with Politicians (Haus, £20). They range from Shirley Williams (once predicted to be likely to be Britain’s first woman Prime Minister) to Margaret Beckett and John Major, to cite but three examples, each gently coaxed to tell listeners a little about their private as well as public selves, their triumphs and their regrets. Hennessy is good at making his subjects feel that they really are talking just to him, in a delightful, cosy atmosphere of the kind that is redolent of after-dinner drinks in the senior common room at one of the better universities. He and his producer are not afraid to let interviewees talk at some length (for example, Nigel Lawson on banking); there is no jumping in impatiently, as so often happens with John Humphrys on the Today programme. But Hennessy knows the ins and outs of post-War British politics so well that he is able to give a little nudge with a quick intervention, sometimes just a few words, when necessary. A true professional, and worthy of reading and rereading for all those who want to know what makes front-line politicians tick.