Lynn Barber: Interviewers need to be a cut above

LYNN Barber has just published a memoir, A Curious Career, about her days as Fleet Street’s greatest interviewer. Nobody can get to the nub of a celebrity like "the demon Barber".

Lynn Barber: Interviewers need to be a cut above

She has all the necessary attributes. She’s competitive, admitting that what drives her is a thirst to throw out the questions others are too embarrassed to ask, a fearlessness that was honed at her first press job with Penthouse magazine where she used to interview fetishists about their sexual peccadilloes (“You could say I started at the bottom”).

She once reduced the English presenter Chris Evans to tears, defending her right to be combative in interview because, she argues, blunt questions serve the interviewee well, as they force the person to come back strongly. And she asks intelligent questions: at the end of a legendary, four-day interview with Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter begged her to go on: “More! More!” She has a novelist’s eye for detail, and the ability to capture a person with a telling observation, like the way Richard Harris used to grab his groin every time he spoke about his sex life, or how Luciano Pavarotti was effortlessly charming with her yet unnecessarily rude to her newspaper’s photographer.

She uses her lack of tactlessness as a badge of honour, and is unapologetic about being judgemental about her subjects because that is what her readers want. We don’t, alas, have a figure like her in Irish broadcasting or journalism.

In his heyday, Gay Byrne had many fine interviewing traits. He was invariably impartial except, of course, for his cruel remark at the end of an interview on The Late Late Show in 1993 to Annie Murphy, the woman who bore a child to Bishop Eamon Casey: “If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.”

He lacked the vanity of one of his successors, Pat Kenny, who has a masterful command of detail but can’t help himself sometimes from answering questions before they’re asked, just as he can’t guard against letting slip his sense of self-love.

Seán O’Rourke, another successor on primetime radio, shares Byrne’s surefootedness but lacks his lightness of touch. There is something about O’Rourke’s voice that makes it difficult to relax. Gaybo’s greatest tool was his laugh, the way he used to swing in his chair, throwing his head back, guffawing with infectious vigour at his guest’s humour. Byrne also had unshakeable confidence. He commanded the kind of respect from his interviewees that eludes, for example, the chirpy Ryan Tubridy, who was embarrassingly ridiculed by the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans a few years ago on The Late Late Show, a joust that was in marked contrast with the way Byrne buttonholed a drunken RD Laing back in the 1980s.

I guess it was The Sex Pistols who paved the way to un-shockability with their infamous, 90-second interview on the Today show with Bill Grundy in December 1976. The band’s appearance is remembered for their insolence and rat-a-tat swearing, and the moral panic they unleashed among middle class parents, but arguably the most shocking moment from the interview, from today’s vantage point, was Grundy’s quip: “They are as drunk as I am.”

It’s remarkable to re-read John Waters’ famous Hot Press interview with Charles J Haughey from 1984. It’s hard now to understand what all the fuss was about. Haughey was in opposition at the time. “What in the name of Jaysus do you want to talk to me about?” was his opening remark to the young reporter.

The interview caused waves because of Haughey’s unguarded use of foul language. He didn’t realise that the full transcript of the interview would be published, but he needn’t have worried. He comes across as considerate and, as a parent, admittedly, almost endearingly out of touch with the yoof of the day. You get no sense from the interview of Haughey the bully, of the menace he was capable of in his dealings with underlings.

Perhaps Waters should have done the favourite thing that the novelist Anne Enright likes to do to a man: ask him about his mother.

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