Talking to himself: Mark Lawson meets Mark Lawson
Mark Lawson has interviewed thousands of famous people throughout his career in print, radio and television. And only a handful of them have walked out. Ahead of the new series of Mark Lawson Talks To... on BBC Four, he talks to himself about the art of the interview:
Mark Lawson: To make this easier, should I call you Mark?
MARK: Absolutely. Although - because my mother taught me always to greet strangers formally - I tend to say Mr, Mrs, Dame, Sir, Professor at the start of an interview. It can actually sometimes be revealing whether they urge you to use something more informal or not.
ML: And they usually call you?
MARK: Well, Americans use your first name a lot generally, although the really big stars - Clint Eastwood, Stephen King and so on - do so many interviews that, quite understandably, they have no idea who you are.
Bob Geldof - in the first of the new series - addresses me intermittently as "Lawson!". The only other person I can remember doing that was the writer Frederick Forsyth. That interested me - an upper-crust Englishman and a working-class Irishman both using the same device, the surname, as a sort of jocular way of putting you in your place.
ML: I've noticed that you often pick up on the language that someone uses.
MARK: Yes, well. Vocabulary and manner of speaking are very revealing. The writer Martin Amis, for example, will often, in interviews, reproduce long verbatim stretches from something he's previously written on the subject. Which, I suppose, tells us that he trusts the written thought more than the spoken one and so is biographically revealing.
Another novelist - Julian Barnes, who features in this new series - doesn't quote his own work in the same way but there's a sense that he has carefully composed each sentence in his head before speaking it, which, again, is typical of a literary sensibility.
And you, Lawson, you often begin questions with "I've noticed", which I suppose is a way of getting in - in a conversational way - bits of research and things that have occurred to you during the interview?
ML: Yes. Just as you will often begin a response with "Yes, well", which I'm guessing is a way of gaining time without committing to yes or no?
MARK: Yes, well, you're always very aware - even during a recorded interview - that saying the wrong thing can haunt you forever.
ML: I've noticed that you have a list of typed questions on blue paper on your knee during the BBC Four interviews. Where does that list come from and do you always stick to it?
MARK: I type it out myself very early - starting around 5am - on the day of the interview, having finished reading the relevant books or articles or watching DVDs or tapes before going to sleep the night before.
End Quote Mark Lawson
Almost all interviews fail or disappoint in some way”
I've written novels and radio and TV dramas and I find increasingly that preparing the questions for an interview feels like writing dialogue: If I say A, then they will probably reply with B or C, to which I'd come back with D or E. But, having prepared that, I think it's important to follow the conversation and go where it leads.
Sometimes, I see or hear interviews in which the guest will end an answer on something like "which I've regretted for the rest of my life" and the interviewer, instead of following that up, says: "The second biggest influence on your life was Nanny Phipps?" That's the risk of going in with a rigid 1-2-3-4 structure.
In a corridor at the BBC, I once overheard a news presenter say: "It was a complete disaster. He gave answer five to question two and I couldn't get him back on track." But proper conversation doesn't work like that. Although I'm fully aware that - in the BBC Four interviews - we have the luxury of recording for around a couple of hours and then having a one-hour slot and so nuances and follow-ups are easier to pursue.
ML: You've mentioned the importance of research and then listening to the answers. Does that guarantee a successful interview?
MARK: Not at all. I've done well over 100 television interviews - from The Late Show on BBC Two to this BBC Four series - and I calculate at least three thousand of them for Radio 4's Front Row, plus many hundred for newspapers or magazines.
As a result, I've occasionally been asked to give "Masterclasses" on interviewing. I always say, though, that they should bill it as a "Disasterclass" because almost all interviews fail or disappoint in some way.
The reason is that there is an inevitable tension between the interviewee's desire to sell something - whether a book or a film or simply the image they wish to leave to posterity - and the journalistic duty to be sceptical and not become the tool of a publicity machine.
It's interesting to me that people often commiserate with me about a fairly notorious radio encounter with Russell Crowe as an example of an interview "going wrong" but, for me, it went right. We weren't just selling tickets for his movie, and people got a sense that his accent in Robin Hood was dodgy and that he was sensitive about the fact.
ML: Apart from Crowe, has anyone else ever walked out on you?
MARK: On Radio, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jeffrey Archer and Robin Gibb. The publicists recently brought my radio interview with Naomi Watts about Diana to an abrupt close, but that can't be called a walk-out.
In the BBC Four interviews, pretty much everyone turns up knowing that their whole life is on the record. One guest once asked us to remove a detail about one of their children and we agreed because I think there is sometimes a responsibility to people who aren't there but get caught in the crossfire of anecdotes.
ML: I read that Piers Morgan likes to bet his guests on ITV's Life Stories that they will definitely cry during the interview. Do you do that?
MARK: What? Cry during Piers Morgan's Life Stories?
ML: Don't be clever with me. Try to make your guests cry?
MARK: I'm always uneasy - both as a viewer and interviewer - with tears on TV because it is one of the most private of reflexes becoming public. Many of our guests have been terribly bereaved and, in such sensitive areas, I try to be guided by a sense of how far they want to go. Unlike some in newspapers, I don't believe that any attempt at privacy from a celebrity is hypocrisy.
ML: You seem quite agonised about interviews. So what is the point of them?
MARK: One of the first ever series of celebrity interviews - in an American newspaper in the early 20th century - had the title: So What Are They Like At Home? And I think you want to try to give a hint of that.
I also think that there is a responsibility to historians and students in the future to build up an archive of the most interesting people of our time.
I wouldn't use the word pleased in the circumstances, but our BBC Four interview with Sir David Frost was repeated on the weekend he died and it felt right that there was access to him reflecting on his life in this way. Our Sir Patrick Moore interview also went out as a tribute to him.
ML: An obvious question but who have you not interviewed that you would like to?
MARK: Oh, so many. Sir Elton John, Pope Francis, Zadie Smith - to mention three people who probably never expected to appear in the same sentence.
Mark Lawson Talks to Bob Geldof is on BBC Four at 21:00 BST on Sunday 6th October. It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.