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Day, Robin (1923-2000)

Journalist, Presenter

Main image of Day, Robin (1923-2000)

It would not be entirely absurd to suggest that the 'grandmaster of political interrogation' may have been solely responsible for the growing up of 1950s British television news when ITN and, later, the BBC were forced to get off their knees to politicians. Robin Day transformed the television interview and changed forever the relationship between politicians and the media.

Following boarding school education at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, he went up to St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read law and, at the age of 27, was president of the Oxford Union. Called to the Bar in 1952, he resigned after two years and spent a year with the British Information Services in Washington before returning to Britain in 1955 to become one of the first TV news presenters (and parliamentary correspondent) at ITN. The other presenter was the former international athlete Christopher Chataway, and it was said that Day was chosen to balance Chataway's popularity and good looks.

It was the age of the respectful, often insipid, television interview when Day became the first interviewer to cast aside the deferential broadcast style by being firm yet courteous, tenacious but civil. The turning point came in a January 1956 broadcast when he subjected ITA chairman Sir Kenneth Clark (his employer) to a cross-examination about ITN's decreasing budget and threatened abridgement of the news bulletin. There followed a number of historic interviews, establishing Day's reputation: with President Nasser of Egypt in Cairo in June 1957, at a time following the Suez crisis when Britain and Egypt were technically still at war; the vigorous 1958 interview with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan concerning criticism of Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd. It was perhaps the first time that television became a serious part of the political process.

Although greatly enjoying his work as parliamentary correspondent of ITN, his passionate interest in British politics led him to resign and stand as a Liberal candidate for Hereford in the 1959 general election, but he failed to win the seat.

Invited to join Panorama (BBC, 1953- ) in late 1959, during the momentous Richard Dimbleby era when the team of reporters consisted of Robert Kee, Jim Mossman, Ludovic Kennedy and John Morgan, Day's role was to conduct major (live) interviews or make filmed reports from some overseas hotspot. He remained with Panorama for twenty years, alternating with Newsday (BBC, 1974-78) and Tonight (BBC, 1957-65; 1975-79) as presenter. However, the BBC, rather short-sightedly, never really made the best use of his talents, except at election times (where he displayed his full talent as grand inquisitor).

It was soon evident that his most satisfying work in television came with Question Time (BBC, 1979- ), a home screen version of the long-running radio series Any Questions. Though slotted late at night, initially as a six-month 'filler', the programme was, at long last, his own show, and instantly became one of the most effective current affairs series on television. By now a national figure, the bow-tied, bespectacled inquisitor (occasionally hunched forward with narrowing eyes to target his question) began his new career at about the same time as that of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Their exchanges were often lively, a tough and relentless, fair and witty joust enjoyed by both parties.

While displaying a presence of immense authority, Question Time also revealed his peculiar, somewhat offbeat charm and an amusing sense of showmanship. His questioning technique was finely honed by the time the programme was launched and, while often criticised for appearing to be aggressive, acerbic and generally unpleasant, he stuck firmly to his belief that an interview should be a constructive contribution to the democratic process, clarifying and illuminating. Reminiscent of Winston Churchill recounting his 1930s, he once described his pre-Question Time period as "10 years in the wilderness".

In October 1982 came the infamous walk-out interview he attempted to conduct with Defence Secretary John Nott (for Nationwide, tx. 5/10/1982) regarding defence cuts during the Falklands crisis in which he called Nott a "here-today, gone-tomorrow politician". The outraged politician stormed out of the studio while Day was heard saying "Thank you, Mr. Nott".

Subsequent to his decision to leave the series after some ten years, due to his health, the BBC's decision to replace him with a younger man, Peter Sissons, on Question Time in 1989 seemed a mistake on both sides. Day later regretted abandoning the programme.

His awards include: Guild of TV Producers and Directors Award, Personality of the Year, 1957; the Richard Dimbleby Award for factual television, 1974; the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Question Time in 1980; the Royal Television Society Judges' Award for 30 years in TV journalism, 1985. He was knighted in the New Year's Honours, 1981.

Tise Vahimagi

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