Andrew Marr is reading a new book by the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – research for his Monday-morning radio show Start the Week – and about to eat a bacon roll when I arrive at the cafe near his home in Primrose Hill, north London. The photographer, an honourable man, has promised he will not do an Ed Miliband on Marr, who in any case eats his roll with great decorum. The cafe is part-owned by the writer Andrew O’Hagan, and its walls are decorated with framed covers of the London Review of Books. A few doors away is the house in which WB Yeats lived – a blue plaque commemorates the fact – and Sylvia Plath died. The book-loving Marr lives in the rarefied heart of literary London. Political journalism may be his profession, but art and literature are his life.
We are meeting to discuss his new book, Elizabethans, although the debate swirling around the future of the BBC in the face of a hostile government is never far from our minds. He describes Elizabethans as an “attitudinal history” of the past 70 years, told through the eyes of 60-plus individuals he has selected as exemplars of the age. Many of his subjects are unexpected: the actor Diana Dors, twinned with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, with whom Dors appeared in a film; the union activist Jimmy Reid; the Monty Python comic Graham Chapman; the anti-permissive society campaigner Mary Whitehouse (who gets surprisingly sympathetic treatment), and the rightwing Tory politician Enoch Powell (ditto). It is rather like The Crown in book form: a stream of intriguing stories producing a mosaic that the reader, with expert steers from Marr, can glue together. There will eventually be a three-part TV series based on the book, but it seems to be stuck in the scheduling works at present.
“I had an overarching thesis into which I hope everything fits,” he tells me once the bacon roll has been safely dispatched. “Which is that by the early 1950s the British had two big projects: to build the world’s most successful and generous welfare state, and to replace the empire with a powerful new role in the world.” The first of those objectives was of more interest to the left; the latter to the right. “Both of those projects failed,” he says, “and we are left with the result. The reason they failed is that throughout the period we were never able to earn our way in the world sufficiently successfully to give us either the status or the living we thought we deserved.”
This is by no means Marr’s first crack at 20th-century history. His dozen or so previous books include A History of Modern Britain and The Making of Modern Britain. The productivity is ridiculous for someone who was the BBC’s political editor for five years and for the past 15 has fronted both its flagship political discussion programme, The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings, as well as Start the Week. He said in a recent Spectator Diary that he worked “ferociously” hard on the new book, but why is it important to produce these doorstoppers on top of his broadcasting career? “Because I’m a writer, not a broadcaster,” he says. “The broadcasting is what pays the rent, but I’m really a writer and always have been. Writing is what gets me excited.” Then why not give up the broadcasting and become a writer with a capital ‘W’? “I would have to sell a lot of books,” he says with a deep chuckle.
“My life is divided into different bits now and so long as I can potter from one to the other …” He doesn’t finish the sentence because his quick mind takes him somewhere else. “Later on this afternoon I’m going to go down the road where my painting studio is, because that’s the other thing that obsesses me. I write, I paint and I broadcast; and, in the uncertain media world in which we live, being able to do more than one thing is important.”
Will he be like David Dimbleby, still broadcasting in his 80s? “Who knows?” he says. “I’ll carry on for as long as they want me, but I certainly won’t get my exit right. Nobody does. I will be tapped on the shoulder one morning and somebody will mutter that the director general is standing outside with a lethal injection and that will be that. Doing The Andrew Marr Show has been a bit like riding a restive and troublesome horse on a greasy saddle with no stirrups. You’re constantly worried about falling off and constantly about to fall off. I’ve managed to stay in the seat for 15 years, and I’ll carry on trying to stay in the seat.”
What makes the fact he has produced the book even more remarkable is that, following a devastating stroke almost eight years ago, he now finds it difficult to type. He uses dictation software to produce a first draft and then starts moulding the text with his right hand; his left is wellnigh useless. He cannot tie his own shoelaces, he says, pointing to the slip-on canvas shoes he now favours.
When Marr, who is 61, had the stroke, he said he was going to slow down, stop and sniff the flowers occasionally, “suck the juice out of life”. Has he? “The stroke has made me even more aware that time is short,” he says. “What I want to do, I have to get on with and get done. I don’t, however, put myself under the same kind of pressure as I did before. I don’t do lots and lots of air travel and charge around the world.”
Does he divide his life into pre- and post-stroke? “Yes,” he says firmly. Does that mean he is a different person now? “No, but I am different in some ways.” He says he tries to enjoy the moment more. He blames himself for the stroke, the result he believes of the pressures he was pouring on himself: “I was overworking grossly and piling on more and more and more.” The professional pressures were exacerbated by personal entanglements in the form of an affair he had tried to keep secret, and, as he puts it, “eventually the lid blew off”.
How is he now, physically? “I think it’s probably not going to get any better,” he says. “There are lots of things I can’t do and never will be able to do. I’m basically semi-paralysed down this [left] side. I can walk, but it’s a kind of uneasy lurch. I can cycle, but I can’t stop safely, so I can’t cycle, really. I can’t swim. It is a constant bugger and one’s aware of it every day, all the time. I was very hyperactive and very fit, and I miss that, but you fill your life with stuff that makes you feel good, and for me that is painting and reading and music and work.” As if the effects of the stroke were not enough to contend with, in 2018 Marr was also treated for a malignant tumour on his kidney, but he tells me a recent checkup gave him the all-clear.
It surprised me he did not put more of himself in the book. He is, after all, a distinguished Elizabethan who has had a ringside seat on politics for almost 40 years. “I wanted it to be objective, a book of history rather than a personal book,” he explains. “During the course of writing it, the big thing that happened to me was that my dad died. I’ve dedicated it to him, and that has led me to think a lot about my place in all of this. But I’ve got to be very careful these days. I work for the BBC and I really believe in the impartiality business. The BBC is in a dangerous place at the moment, and people like me have a special duty to be careful about what they say.”
Is that not frustrating for someone who cut his teeth as a political commentator in newspapers before becoming editor of the Independent in 1996? “It’s very frustrating,” he says, “but I really believe in the BBC. I’ve had to become more and more BBC, and my colleagues and friends rein me in. Every time I step into the studio on a Sunday morning, I remind myself that the people who are paying for it and who are watching include people who voted for Ukip and people who are passionate members of Momentum and everything in between. If I can produce a show where they all feel: ‘Well, we may not like him, we may not agree with him, but at least he’s trying to be fair’, then I’ve done my job.”
His determination not to breach impartiality rules reflects his fear for the future of the BBC. “The Murdoch empire and others are trying to push us towards a world in which the BBC is pretty marginal and people are getting most of their news and their views from privately funded television companies, as in America,” he says. “There is a drive on to destroy the BBC. They’ve clearly got supporters in the government, and it’s a very difficult moment for the new director general Tim Davie.”
Those anti-BBC forces were having a field day when we met, spreading stories that Charles Moore, the former Telegraph editor and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, was being lined up as chairman of the BBC and the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre would become chairman of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. That really would be a case of putting two hungry foxes in charge of the broadcasting hen house. In 2010, Moore was prosecuted for non-payment of his licence fee because he objected to a BBC programme, and he has consistently attacked what he sees as the corporation’s metropolitan bias and its funding model.
Marr, though, urges the BBC hens to remain unruffled for the moment. Moore and Dacre “are both highly distinguished journalists, and one wonders what it is about them in particular that excites No 10,” he deadpans. “I just have the sense of the bait being floated in front of my nose, and I’m fairly determined not to take it. Clearly both appointments have to go through a proper, transparent process, and putting aside any personalities the danger is the perception that this is friends-of-friends. When a story like this appears – unsourced, during a period of great political turmoil – you have to ask what the purpose is and where exactly it came from. I don’t know that, but that’s why I say I just have the slight smell in the water of a bait being trailed over our collective noses.”
He reckons that Davie has made a good start as DG by stressing the need for impartiality and asking staffers to rein in their tweeting, but as Davie is the potential administrator of lethal injections, perhaps Marr’s warm words are to be expected. Marr’s BBC salary is £360,000, a sizeable reduction on previous years. Has the high level of presenter pay – an issue Davie was taxed on at Tuesday’s meeting of the media select committee – damaged the corporation by giving ammunition to its enemies? “It has always been a marketplace,” says Marr. “It may not be the case now, but certainly in the past I’ve been aware that I could have been paid quite a bit more by going somewhere else.” He suggests newspaper executives publish their own salaries. “Frankly, we are being denounced as being greedy by people who are paid much more than we are.”
He defends the BBC against charges of bias. In the 2019 election, Labour was very exercised over the fact that Jeremy Corbyn allowed himself to be grilled by Andrew Neil but Boris Johnson did not, implying that the BBC had let the Tories off the hook. “There is no obligation on any politician to be interviewed by me or Andrew Neil or Emily Maitlis or anybody else,” says Marr. “We can only ask. No 10 are absolutely clear that they never agreed to the interview in the first place.” He says the mistake was for Corbyn’s handlers to assume Johnson would agree.
Johnson did eventually agree to be interviewed by Marr rather than Neil. “It put me in a very difficult position,” Marr says. “Everyone was saying: ‘He’s gone for the soft interview’, which would never have been the case. It meant I had to be particularly tough and that became a very cantankerous interview; I don’t think very good for the viewer, frankly. It was so scratchy and shouty that neither of us did very well.”
He brushes off suggestions that the BBC’s current political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, is too well disposed to the government. “She is an absolutely straight, neutral, fair-minded reporter,” he says. “I don’t think she has been captured by anybody – Dominic Cummings or No 10 or anybody else. People say: ‘She shouldn’t have tweeted this or that without double-checking’, but part of her job is to break stories and be ahead of the competition, and that pressure shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Are journalism and politics too cosy? “It is one world,” he says. “There are too many journalists in politics and too many politicians in journalism. I don’t think politics is greatly enhanced by the arrival of so many journalists in politics. Our kind of skills are not the kind of skills you want to run things. We’re great at vivid phrases, just making deadlines, provocation, simplification. After many years of knowing lots of politicians, I don’t have political friends. My friends are journalists and writers, not politicians.” Was he ever tempted to enter politics himself? “Absolutely not,” he says. “I was once offered, very informally, a government job by Gordon Brown, and said no. Society works best when we all stick to our roles and our trades.”
Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged is published 1 October (William Collins, £20)