Lynn Barber on interviewing skills and asking Jimmy Savile that question

Journalist Lynn Barber tells Richard Fitzpatrick why interviewers shouldn’t be afraid to look stupid and how she asked Jimmy Savile ‘that question’

Lynn Barber on interviewing skills and asking Jimmy Savile that question

LYNN Barber has, as the title of her memoir says, A Curious Career. She has been interviewing celebrities for London’s main broadsheet newspapers since the 1980s, and is currently with The Sunday Times.

Her first joust with a celebrity came in 1969, when Penthouse sent her, as a 25-year-old, to Paris to interview Salvador Dalí. She worked for the magazine for seven years, before taking a break to raise her two young daughters.

The interview with Dalí lasted four days. He was so pleased with her questions that he kept shouting “More! More!” She had hit the jackpot with her first: She had asked him about his habits, which sent him into a spiral of ecstatic broken English. “Ha-beets! Ha! First masturbation. Le mast-urb-ation, you know? Zee painters are always zee big masturbators — nevaire make love, only watch, and some-times masturbation! Zat is one good habit. Zee other is foot.” “What?” she asked.

“Foot! Zee heating,” he replied, gesturing to his mouth.

Barber’s book, which she will speak about at next weekend’s Mountains to Sea book festival in Dún Laoghaire, is a trove of dos and don’ts of interviewing, and full of riveting titbits about celebrities.

It reprints her most famous interviews, among them Rafa Nadal, Tracey Emin, a drunken Shane MacGowan, and her favourite: an enthralling encounter with Marianne Faithfull (needlessly rude, but likeable “in some ways”) in a London restaurant in 2001.

Barber found her voice as an interviewer, which has brought her a string of British Press Awards, by switching from the third person to the first. It released her to make interviews more personal and combative, and thrillingly entertaining. When dismissing a peer, Michael Parkinson, as an “exceptionally dull interviewer,” she says that being unafraid to seem a fool is good for an interviewer. The debonair Parky doesn’t do uncool.

“He’s never been an interviewer that I’ve admired, because he wants the interview to be so controlled that there isn’t much room for spontaneity or something wild to happen although, having said that, he did once get attacked by an emu.

“A lot of good interviewing is being prepared to look stupid yourself, or to be put down yourself, from the interviewer’s point of view. Interviewers like Michael Parkinson, who wants to emerge looking good, isn’t necessarily the best way of finding out about the person they are interviewing. I’ve got a lot of time for Graham Norton, because I think he is much more spontaneous, and he takes more risks.”

Barber says enthusiasm — “the more interested you are, or seem to be, the more willing they are to divulge” — is one of the keys to disarming her interviewees, but laughingly says that she tries not to be “too suckered” by a subject’s charm… although it has happened.

“I’m afraid the first time I interviewed Boris Johnson, I was over-charmed, and possibly Nigel Farage. He didn’t charm me, but I thought it was impossible to dislike this man, but then thought, afterwards, there was all sorts of reasons.

“I wouldn’t say there is any particular kind of type, but, obviously, it helps if they say they know who I am or get some sense of me, rather than just treating me like another journalist — that disposes me in their favour a little bit more.

“I don’t want to be charmed. There’s something phoney about it, but I’m always well-disposed towards people who have come from a very bad background, either economically or in terms of having grown up in a children’s home, like the musician Goldie, or something.

“Jonathan Ross comes from a working class family and yet all four brothers went to university, as well. That’s impressive. Caitlin Moran comes from what sounds like a wild family in Wolverhampton, with eight kids, home-schooled by her mother, and obviously she did an incredible job.”

Barber says one of her favourite question is “what do you think is your worst fault?” If the response is turned into a self-compliment, like “Oh, my worst fault is that I’m too giving,” she’ll ask for an example, while fighting back the urge to ask how much the generous star pays his or her cleaner. And if someone drops in a give-away phrase like “I must be honest with you”, it begs the question has the person been lying the rest of the time.

Barber dreads a physical crisis during an interview. She once had such a coughing fit in front of Robert Redford that it sounded like retching. He sat motionless while she was in distress, with a bottle of water beside him, his face betraying a disgusting fear that she would pass on her germs.

She has earned the moniker ‘Demon Barber’ among her peers on Fleet St, for what some perceive to be her hatchet jobs. She has never, however, been sued for libel for any of her interviews: an old colleague advised her to couch potentially libellous allegations as questions. It was a ploy she used when interviewing Sir Jimmy Savile in 1990.

“I said something to him like, ‘People say that you like little girls.’ That was a question. I wasn’t accusing him of liking little girls, but I was just waiting to see his reaction. I was able to slip that idea in.

“I wasn’t in a position to say that he liked little girls, because I didn’t have any evidence, but it was a rumour that was much around.

“I would have had a period of about a week between when I’d arranged the interview with him and the interview. Anytime I mentioned to another journalist that I was going to interview Jimmy Savile, they would say, ‘Oh you know he likes little girls.’ Every time, of course, I asked if they actually knew this, and also if it had ever been in the press, and the answer was ‘no’. It seemed to be something that all journalists said to each other, but didn’t impart to their readers.”

When Barber did impart the insinuation to her readers, they were shocked. “He had just been given a knighthood! He was a friend of the Royal Family! He had raised zillions for charity! How could I ask him such a terrible thing?”

-Lynn Barber will appear at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, 4.30pm, Saturday, September 13, Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. For more information, visit: Mountain Sea Website .

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