The BookBrunch Interview: Jim Naughtie, Radio 4 Bookclub presenter

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Friday, 25 May 2018

Radio 4’s Bookclub celebrates its 20th anniversary in June. Presenter Jim Naughtie talks to Tim Relf about his role, how he gets writers to open up - and the day he mispronounced the name 'Hunt' live on air


It all started with Sebastian Faulks. He was the first author, but there was a problem. The audience felt intimidated, they didn’t relax. When they did ask questions, they stood up, awkwardly. The whole thing didn’t quite work.

Jim Naughtie is recounting the first-ever recording of Bookclub - the Radio 4 show he’s presented since its 1988 launch. The programme makers responded by getting Faulks to come back, this time giving the audience wine and allowing them to mingle with the author beforehand. "That made a huge difference," Naughtie recalls.

And so the formula was set: a small room, a distinctly informal atmosphere, and a limited number of invited readers, encouraged to consider what they’d like to ask in advance, but with the provision: no reading out of long, prepared questions like in a classroom. "We want it to feel like a book group and not an audience," says the former anchor of R4’s flagship news programme Today.

"We want people to behave as if they’re in someone’s living room on a Thursday evening - not broadcasting to a million people. We make sure they feel comfortable and at home."

This approach also seems to work for the authors. "They really like to meet their readers in that kind of setting - not in a tent at some literary festival with 400 people, but with 20 or 25 people. It’s a seductive atmosphere." The result, he says, has been some remarkable conversations - whether Alan Bennett talking about his sexuality at a time when he was still reticent to do so, or Clive James opening up about his difficult relationship with his mother. "It wasn’t as if he did it deliberately. It just emerged."

The 66-year-old regards creating that atmosphere as a big part of his role. "I’m really only there to get the conversation going, encourage it, let it flow and occasionally steer it. My job is to bring the most out of the author and the audience - to find out what makes the author tick and allow the readers to tease out the story behind the book.

"What I’ve discovered is that authors, even ones who have a reputation for being difficult or reticent, really like the presence of a literate and interested audience. They don’t actually care if somebody complains about some aspect of their book."

So, no difficult authors then?

There have, he insists, been remarkably few. There was one who was furious about a question they considered too personal - a reaction that was "ridiculous", according to Naughtie. "It was obvious to anyone who’s read the book that it was based on a family story."

Other moments stand out for other reasons. There was the recording with Wendy Cope on September 11, 2001, a TV screen visible as they were talking, broadcasting pictures of the Twin Towers falling. "There were a couple of Americans in the audience who were deeply upset. It was an extraordinary atmosphere, a surreal experience."

Then there was the conversation about "rumpy pumpy and bonking" with Jilly Cooper, recorded in a polo club in Gloucestershire, at which the writer arrived with lurchers in tow. "They gave us a musical accompaniment through the whole recording."

In a typical week, the show (which airs on Sundays and is repeated on Thursdays), gets 1.1 million listeners - and every episode is also on the website. To mark its 20th anniversary, the Sunday June 3 episode (the 242nd) will feature Margaret Atwood, talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. She’ll be the only author to have ever appeared twice.

Together with producer Dymphna Flynn and the station’s books editor, Di Speirs, Naughtie and the team target a mix of established and up-and-coming writers. Other abiding rules include never to feature books that have been just published ("we resist the temptation to get on the merry-go-round for new releases") and to include some that have been around for many years.

This can mean that the author has not have picked up the book for a decade or more. "They might say they didn’t remember it was so good - or that they didn’t remember there were three plot howlers!"

Juggling all those episodes with his Today commitments resulted in some "hairy moments" - including a couple of mad dashes from America and a frantic journey back from Cairo - but Naughtie always made it.

Naughtie’s news career has seen him cover events ranging from presidential inaugurations to party conventions in Blackpool and riots in the Middle East. "I loved every single minute of it," he says.

There was also, famously, the "almighty clanger" when he badly mispronounced the-then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s surname. "Occasionally in live broadcasting these things happen," Naughtie said on air shortly afterwards. "I'm very sorry to anyone who thought it wasn't what they wanted to hear over their breakfast - neither did I."

"Everybody brings it up," he says now. "Even sweet little old ladies at book festivals."

After 21 years on Today, Naughtie hung up his boots in December 2015, and is now a BBC special correspondent, while working on a non-fiction book about America. Mingling personal experience with a historical dimension, it’s due to be published in 2019, and will follow his two novels, The Madness of July and Paris Spring. Both were partly inspired by his experiences covering events in Westminster and Washington.

"I have a great affection for politics and political people," he says. "I’m still fascinated by what drives and sustains them. I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about political events, but if you stop believing in the process, you’re inviting disaster.

"I’m a natural sceptic because I’m a journalist, but I’m certainly not a cynic and never have been."

David Cornwell (better known as John le Carré) once told Naughtie, when the pair were trying to arrange lunch, that he was about to 'disappear'. The conversation clearly resonated with him. "He said: ‘I’ve got to disappear for a while. I’ve been arguing with a novel for six months.'

"I know exactly what he means. He means he’s got this idea, he’s got this project that has to be completed."

That’s exactly how Naughtie feels about the America book. It’s been bubbling away inside him for a while - it’s the project he now has to complete. It’s a place that’s always fascinated him, having "seen it from Nixon to Trump.

"It’s got a shining vitality that is irresistible and wondrous to experience. But there’s also a wildness and a darkness about this huge, diverse and frequently troubled country."

He’ll certainly have more time now he’s not following Today’s gruelling schedule - the 3am alarm call about the only predictable aspect.

Presumably, though, however hectic life’s been, he’s read every one of those 242 books? Never once been tempted to cheat?

"Some I’ve read more quickly than others!"

Quickfire Q&A with Bookclub’s producer, Dymphna Flynn
What makes a good book club book?
It can be any genre, but it’ll linger in your mind after you’ve finished the last page and you’ll find yourself itching to talk to somebody about it. It also shouldn’t be too long, so everyone has a good chance of finishing it, and it should be available in paperback.

Why do people join book groups?
To read books they otherwise wouldn’t, to discuss ideas and to make and keep friends.

Share one particularly memorable location you’ve recorded at
Linen Hall Library in Belfast. This houses an extraordinary private collection of artefacts - posters, statues, balaclavas, even beermats - from the Troubles, from both sides. Our guest author was Patrick McCabe.

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