A student hurrying through Oxford on his way to a lecture saw his professor pumping energetically away on the front tyre of his battered old bike. He asked if he could help as the elderly don was getting breathless. As he did so he felt the front tyre. It was fully inflated. The back tyre however was clearly flat. He pointed this out to the professor who gave an airy wave of his hand. “I’m well aware of that, young man.” Then why, the student inquired was he expending so much effort on the front tyre. The old man looked at him in puzzlement. “Are they not connected?” he asked.
That unlikely tale was told (as far as I can remember) on the BBC radio show Stop the Week which was on Radio 4 on early Saturday evenings from 1974 till the plug was finally pulled in 1992. It was almost certainly delivered by the show’s presenter Robert Robinson whose time at Oxford in the 1950s had provided him with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of such stories as well as material for his 1956 crime novel novel Landscape with Dead Dons.
Robinson is one of those personalities who – at the time – most people would recognise, by their voice if not their face, and yet a few years after their death they’re almost forgotten. At one point Robinson was one of the best known broadcasters in the UK yet he is rarely mentioned now. On television he hosted Call my Bluff and Ask the Family and he was the presenter of the original version of Points of View.
But radio was his favourite medium and as the chairman of the cerebral quiz game Brain of Britain for most of its life, he brought a rather droll 1950s formality to the proceedings. The contestants were always addressed by their full names, Mr Jones, Mrs Smith and a wrong answer was often greeted by the catchphrase: “Ah, would that it were, would that it were.” After his death, Stephen Fry (as verbally eccentric as Robinson himself) echoed that phrase on Twitter: “I’ve just heard the sad news of the passing of Robert Robinson. Would that it weren’t, would that it weren’t.”
His mannered way of talking was, it has to be said, an acquired taste, like Marmite or Lapsang souchong tea and non-fans were irritated by his habit of signing off with the words: “I bid you goodbye”. He claimed that he felt a simple “Goodbye” was too austere a way to end a programme.
When Stop the Week began he had just ended a three-year run on the Today programme. The news was unremittingly gloomy: strikes, a collapsing economy, and a fragile pound. Clumsy attempts to add light relief didn’t appeal to Robinson. Following an interview with a woman whose knickers had fallen off in Selfridges he muttered grimly: “If that’s news, on what principle is anything ever left out?” He also wearied of ritualised – and pointless – political interviews with career politicians, and in 1974 he quit – to the relief of those BBC directors who were constantly on edge about what he might say on air.
He had much more fun as chairman of Stop the Week, which ran on a Saturday evening from 1974 until 1992.
In the early days of the show we enjoyed listening in to the ‘sophisticated dinner party’ chat between Robinson and friends such as Professor Laurie Taylor, the theatre critic Milton Shulman (who had a nice line in Jewish jokes) and the journalist Anne Leslie. It was a lot more interesting than talking to our young daughters. Embarrassing to think of now, but we once wrote and asked Robinson to dinner! He didn’t reply….
Maybe he was busy that night.
I do remember those early shows with affection – Robinson himself could be very engaging – but by the early 80s we stopped listening to it regularly. Perhaps it’s true that Stop the Week became swallowed up by its own self-indulgence, an excuse for media folk to cluster in their own enclosed little world where unchallenged they could bring out out their well-rehearsed anecdotes on any subject they chose. Whether we came up with an analysis like that at the time, I don’t know. I tend to think we just got a bit bored with it and only listened when there was nothing better to do!
The last show went out at 6:50pm on the evening of Saturday 25 July 1992. I’m pretty sure we didn’t listen to it. Robert Robinson presented Brain of Britain, until he was too ill to carry on. He bid the world goodbye on 12 August 2011. He was 83 years old.
Brain of Britain is now the BBC’s longest running quiz programme.
If you’re interested in getting a flavour of Stop the Week there’s one below is from 1987.