Heard It on the Grapevine ~ by Jake Taylor
He’s one of the BBC’s highest earners – a broadcaster who has spanned the realms of radio, TV and politics. As Jeremy Vine prepares to release his memoir What I Learnt… he chats to Sorted about how he’s balanced his personal faith with his reputation for impartial interviewing and a radio show
that covers all sorts of current affairs.
“The first was Power of Attorney and worries over that. The second one was: ‘Have you ever given the kiss of life to a tortoise?’ The third one was that we revealed a ninth Strictly celebrity, who was Susan Calman. And then the fourth one – hang on, let’s just make sure I’ve got this right… ‘What were the Corn Laws?’”
Jeremy Vine has just determinedly cycled home following a midweek slot at Wogan House for his eponymous BBC Radio 2 show. The bizarre list he now reels out as he grabs a cup of tea and a muffin represents the topics he’s just spent the last two hours dissecting with the help of a 7.5 million-strong army of devoted listeners.
Power of Attorney, tortoises in mortal peril, dancing celebrities and agricultural legislation from the 1800s? It is, says Vine, “a very good example of the joy of BBC Radio 2”. It is also the bedrock upon which The Jeremy Vine Show has gone from strength to strength since the Surrey-born broadcaster took the hot seat some 13 years ago. Now boasting one of the biggest audiences on BBC Radio – and a recently revealed salary to match – Vine has steadily made his way into the top tier of the corporation’s available talent.
In light of this, he’s often the man called upon to go where no other BBC broadcaster dares. Be it presiding over a giant Swing-o-Meter or charging around the country interviewing farmers from Felixstowe and builders from Bognor come Election night, or fronting flagship programmes such as Newsnight and Crimewatch, Vine is somewhat of a multi-genre media marvel. But his journey from regional journalist to one of the nation’s favourite radio hosts began in earnest some 40 years ago.
“There was this particular thing that happened when I was 12,” he explains. “I wrote to Maggie Norden, who was the presenter of a Capital Radio show called Hullabaloo. They had a young DJ slot which was introduced by Kenny Everett, who was my hero, and she had me on. I played records for ten minutes; terrible choices when I think about it now. I played James Galway’s ‘Annie’s Song’. I can’t believe I chose that – kids now at the same age would choose Kanye West or something. So my child is much cooler than I was at her age, which is always a worry. But I just remember walking into Capital Radio, this big studio at Warren Street in Central London, and thinking: “Oh my goodness, I want to work here.”
“I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be a DJ and my mum said: ‘You may find that when you’re 30, 40, 50 you don’t actually want to play records. You might want to think about something else.” But she was very gentle about it. I then sort of went towards journalism as a student and so on, and then I ended up when I was 38 joining Radio 2 and playing ‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen. So I rang my mum and said, ‘Well, here we are now, I’m playing records. I’ve finally arrived.’”
Music may be Vine’s first true love – his admiration for Elvis Costello in particular knows no bounds – but The Jeremy Vine Show doesn’t really revolve around the records played; rather, on the eclectic conversations that take place between Vine and his outspoken, endearing – and sometimes utterly outraged – audience, the length and breadth of the UK.
These calls, all 25,000 and counting of them, also form the focal point of Vine’s latest written effort, entitled What I Learnt: What My Listeners Say – and Why We Should Take Notice. It’s a humorous and heart-warming collection of on-air anecdotes and Vine’s own memories, underpinned by the seismic shifts in world politics that occurred last year both at home and abroad. And then there’s his concept of ‘i-Power’ – or the way in which individual human experience is outweighing expert insight.
“It all started because in 2015 I was in a café and I was just wondering how many calls I had taken on Radio 2,” he says of the origins of the book. “I worked it out with this formula, which I have put in the book, and it ended up as 24,908, I think, and I thought, ‘Oh … that’s quite significant,’ so if my show’s taken that many calls, we are soon going to hit the 25,000 mark. That started getting me thinking about what I had learnt from taking that many calls, because I’ve got to have taken something from 25,000. I think I’m the only person who has heard every call – excluding my own holidays.
“The producers are sometimes busy, the audience is listening on Monday but maybe not Wednesday, but I have heard every call. So in the end what it came down to was reflecting on the power of the smallest voice and then, what was so interesting was we had Trump and Brexit after. I thought, ‘… This is now quite a thing.’ People start talking about the post-truth world and I thought that all of this ties in together. It’s like the listener Phyllis Capstick from Sheffield, who says that experts built the Titanic and that’s why she is voting for Brexit, because experts think that we should stay in and she says that they built the Titanic. That logic is really powerful.”
Of course, not all of Vine’s listeners make him sit up and take notice … : “The 25,000th was just a guy who shouted ‘sperm bank’,” he sighs. “That wasn’t particularly useful.” But there’s no doubt that The Jeremy Vine Show represents a microcosm of real life in all its irregularities and uniqueness. With an audience of millions, this midday slot on Radio 2 certainly carries with it a certain influence, but Vine is quick to point out that it is in fact the listeners – and not himself – who bring this influence to bear.
“The strange thing about my job is that as soon as I express an opinion I am dead, in a way,” he laughs. “So I always think that I can have values but not views. I can certainly think that litter is terrible, and that a car crash was a terrible tragedy, and look at what happened to that family – that’s awful. But I can’t have views on party politics and stuff. So in a way I don’t preach and in fact, the whole thrust of the book is that it’s not the people listening to me, it’s me listening to them. So bizarrely, it’s a radio show presented by its own listeners and I am just lucky to be able to listen to what they say.”
Vine’s decades-long career in journalism has seen him interview a host of high-profile figures, from Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to the infamous incident in which he played then Prime Minister Gordon Brown a recording of Brown calling a female voter “a bigoted woman”. The latter – a moment described by Vine as a “lightning strike” – won him the Sony Award for Interview of the Year.
When it comes to his own show, however, there’s a new balance of power. With a central place in conversations that cover every facet of life from reptilian resuscitation to paedophilia, murder and animal cruelty, Vine is often tackling the dark and the light-hearted in the same two-hour slot. As a practising Anglican, is there ever a time where his faith conflicts with his radio responsibilities?
“No, I think people misunderstand the whole impartiality thing,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t have any values. I think that the thing that links us through our own humanity is that these things are not very easy to pin down. But there is something that connects us all, which is something about breathing the same air on this planet at this time in human history, probably no more than that. I don’t think I’ve ever had to say anything that I disagreed with, because I’ve had to be balanced on stories which I don’t think there’s another side to. But I think for me it is a very small price to pay – for the best job in the world – to not put your own views out. I can’t think of anything recently where I have had a view which I’ve had to stop myself saying.
“I would always challenge politicians because they are used to it and that is their job. If they leave the studio without being challenged, they will think: ‘What’s wrong with him?’ But I think you should work on the principle that the listener is always right.”
It’s not just on-air that Vine has to be aware of this concept. An avid user of Twitter, the 52-year-old has embraced the connectivity which the internet affords us – even if he does hold some major reservations when it comes to the oft-publicised negative aspects of social media.
“It’s a complete minefield,” he agrees. “I think that social media is very dangerous for some people. I’ve just actually read Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed [Picador], which is all about people who have done one silly tweet and literally their life is over. Social media is very judgemental and I’d love to say that it’s all here today and gone tomorrow, but it hangs there as well and it’s then searchable. It scares the living daylights out of me, to be honest.
“Every time I think about it, I wonder why I am on Twitter, given that every single tweet has the power to end your career. But I have managed to do 40,000 without having a disaster yet. I’ve changed my own social media rules a little and I’ve promised myself I won’t criticise anyone on there, even if it is just criticising Arsenal’s goalkeeper. I just think: ‘Let’s spread a little love.’”
This ambition to give something back using the medium of the internet has even led Vine to write in What I Learnt… that “social media is the opposite of the Bible”. It’s a phrase that sounds almost contentious from a man who trades in impartiality, but in truth the reasoning behind Vine’s bold statement is far simpler.
“The Bible says it’s better to give than receive and on Twitter it’s better to receive than give,” he explains. “A lot of people ask me why I am on it or why they should be on it and the answer is: if you’re not a public figure, the reason to be on it is to hear what other people are saying. People think that you’ve got to go on it to make public statements and actually you could just sit silently and follow the Dalai Lama or follow your five favourite film stars or whatever, and that’s just as good a reason.”
In a sense, Vine has occupied a unique position in British current affairs since assuming his midday start on Radio 2. As the show’s audience has grown, he has been party to the views and opinions that some may consider too outlandish, or even irrelevant, to pay attention to. This quasi-aloofness is clearly one of Vine’s pet peeves – he credits this world view as being influenced by the inclusive attitude of his parents – and in the midst of his curated maelstrom of public opinion, Vine could have been among the first to have seen the distant rumblings of discontent that would one day manifest themselves on a global stage.
But this perceived wresting of power from the supposedly learned minority back into the hands of a vocal majority isn’t such a controversial idea in some cases. He is, of course, an individual whose views so often correlate to the instilled neutrality of his employer. But Vine’s take on the social shifts that have dominated his radio waves under the very noses of those who seem surprised by their appearance in the spotlight is a vision of a world where, perhaps, to have these conversations is a far better option than to keep strong views suppressed.
“I feel that we’re not so much institutionalised; maybe that’s part of the ‘i-Power’ idea,” he concludes. “OK, as crazy stuff emerges, someone says, as they did on my show a couple of years ago, that they think the whole world is run underground by a conspiracy of lizards. I think that if somebody said that to you, you would probably say: ‘No, I’m sorry, you’re wrong,’ but it’s not for me to say that it’s wrong.
“People can shape their own truths a lot more, and the only place where that is safe is probably with religion because obviously that doesn’t hurt anyone else. So I think in a way we’ve become much more respectful of people’s choices and what they believe in.”