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Interview: John Waite, broadcaster

09 June 2017

‘My days of doorstepping rogues are gone’

Since I received my first “tranny” in 1962, when I was 11, I’ve been fascinated and entranced by the power and the intimacy of radio. It took you into your own new world. We had the Light Programme, which I listened to mostly, and then the Home Service — which was a bit stodgy, it has to be admitted — and then the crushingly intellectual Third Programme, to which about three people listened.


I grew up in Kidsgrove, in the Potteries [north Staffordshire], in a small flat above the corner shop that my parents ran. I remember the world then as very grey — until I switched the radio on, and there were David Attenborough’s zoo pro­­­­grammes, Toytown, and Winnie the Pooh. I was determined to end up in this fantastic world.


As a teenager, I started making dummy programmes, and intro­­duced and chaired debates at our local youth-club forums; I was try­­ing to hone both my presentation and editing skills. When I came finally to apply for a job with the Beeb, on graduation, I was quite an experienced, if amateur, broad­­caster. And whether I adopt a softer approach, as I used to with You and Yours, or take a more confrontational tack on Face the Facts, I’ve always enjoyed trying to be a truly “broad”-caster.


I loved doing comedy and serious programmes. I’ve presented the Today programme, classical music, and so on. I think it’s wonderful that so many stations have sprung up to serve individual tastes. People watch less and less TV. Radio 4 and Radio 3 are growing, and Radio 2 is the most listened-to station in Europe. It’s in pretty rude health.


I do worry about just how much of a consumerist society we’ve be­­come. I’m one of those who would like our Sundays and holy days back. I don’t find that at odds with presenting Radio 4’s daily consumer-affairs programme You and Yours for ten years. Giving good advice is a perfect public-service remit. But there’s so much more to life than shopping.


As I’m semi-retired these days, I teach postgraduate classes at uni­­versity. I teach the investigative-journalism strand of an MA in journalism at the University of Westminster. It’s how to look for stories, how to check them out, how to make contacts: how to find out the truth. In the end, it’s a very personal thing. Investigative jour­­nal­ism comes down to nous. The stories they come across, their own discovery: that’s true journalism. It’s bringing to public attention some­­thing that’s been hidden.


I was regularly alone and in danger when I did Face the Facts. Perhaps it was Dr Theatre: if you’re ill, you still go on, and adrenaline makes you forget your circumstances. I was representing the audience, and that made me forget my personal cir­­­cumstances. Sometimes, I think I ran foolish risks, and had the BBC discovered it would have stopped me; but, at the time, I felt that they were risks worth taking to expose the truth.


I did get beaten up on a fairly regular basis — my clothes dam­­aged, concussion, I got punched — but I knew that by hearing the recording of me being beaten up, the public would know who the villain was. That was the proof. One gentleman who did seriously assault me did a seven-year prison sen­­­tence.


I now do some media training, and provide voice-overs for the likes of The Economist and the National Trust. I present Pick of the Week regularly on Radio 4, but my days of doorstepping rogues and investig­ative reporting are probably gone.


Radio 4 is unique, and one of the glories of the nation, as is Radio 3. There’s nothing like them in the world. But the BBC is undoubtedly suffering with round upon round of cuts, and, with radio’s budget being a fraction of TV’s, those cuts bite deeper on the wireless.


It was radio that took me to High­gate Cemetery. I first visited in 1976, to record a piece for the Today programme, when the cem­etery reopened to the public for the first time in 50 years. I instantly fell in love with the place, and have been associated with it ever since.


The people I don’t like very much are the Goths or vampire-hunters, or those who want to know about monsters and what’s it like after dark. It’s the least spooky place in the world. Highgate was very badly abused while it was locked up for 50 years. It was thoroughly vandalised, graves were robbed — in the 1960s — and there were crazy people and a weird satanic cult in there. Now, it’s been rescued, and people look after it. I sense that the cemetery feels loved, and it’s a very reposeful place.


Renovation on the Grade I listed gem is constant. We’re currently restoring the arcades in the main courtyard, and looking forward to the completion of a new mausoleum — the first to be built since Vic­torian times.


We became a charity in 1976. We’ve developed a real expertise in how to manage a cemetery steeped in rules. I sit on the board of management — all are volunteers — and we’ve sought to recruit specialists in charity law, charity accounting, landscaping, and so on. The prestige of Highgate Cemetery draws quite a supply, but these people are crucial. We pay a chief executive, Ian Dungavell, who was head of the Victorian Society, and he runs a small team. Volunteers do the research, guiding, and landscaping. There are 181,000 people buried there, and not all of them are Karl Marx; so the research often starts from scratch.


It’s nothing like as crumbly and wobbly as it was. Over 40 years, we’ve restored the most dangerous tombs. We take our guided tours on routes where people won’t be im­­perilled, and don’t allow them to wander on the west side, which is dangerous.


Keeping Highgate Cemetery going costs £400,000 a year — most of which comes from visitors and grave sales. We have about 300 graves, and never sell more than 30 a year; so we have a financial plan for the next ten years based on that income.


In 1986, our first child died, and we were bereft. We wanted somewhere special to bury her; so we became grave-owners, and I’ll end up in Highgate. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. We’re all so relieved that our loved ones will spend eternity in such a special and reposeful place.


One of my favourite sounds is when I walk through the cemetery at night: the animals rustling in the undergrowth, and the wind in the trees and the tombstones.


Recently, I cannot stop listening to Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, about a man preparing for death. I don’t think I’m really preparing for death; but, if I was, I’d try to put all my relationships in order — the people you’ve fallen out with, or you haven’t tried hard enough to link up with. I’d want to finish any un­­­finished business.


Choral and vocal music — mostly Masses, oratorios, requiems, and Lieder — is my favourite type of music. At the moment, I’m reading History on Trial, on which the recent film Denial was based; and Ian Bostridge’s book on Schubert’s Lieder, Schubert’s Winter Journey.


I’ve been angered recently by what’s been happening in America. I studied there, have many friends there, and have visited on almost 100 occasions. What is happening to that great country and the wider world drives me mad.


Teachers have influenced me. One, Dr Stephen Smalley, the former Dean of Chester, pretty well started my cultural life by introducing me to opera and classical music. My cousin Terry’s been a huge hero. Graham Ellis, my former colleague at the BBC — now Deputy Director of Radio — is the finest and fairest journalist I’ve ever met, and I’ve tried to live up to his integrity.


Yesterday, I was sitting on a bus filled with children going to London Zoo. Most of them had never been to a zoo before, and chatting to some of them, with the excitement and wonder shining in their eyes, gave me great hope that, amid all the cynicism and anxiety of modern life, the true human values are still there, and always will be.


I’m not a religious person, but I can never pass a church without trying to look inside. I mean to take up really looking at architecture as another hobby, and, as I’ve just finished reading yet another bio­­graphy of Sir John Betjeman, whose family are buried at Highgate, who better to spend a night in a church with than that grand old man of great old buildings himself, the much-missed Poet Laureate?


John Waite was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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