I’m told that only a couple of months ago, ITV executives were pulling their hair out over Peston on Sunday. No one seemed to have the faintest idea what the programme should be, let along its contents. The only certain thing was that Peston on Sunday was its name and the star would be Robert Peston. The offer of a live Sunday morning programme was the one thing which made Peston realise that ITV were willing to bet the bank on luring him from the BBC. Who in their right mind would turn that down?
For ITV to re-enter the Sunday morning current affairs arena is a big thing, and a very welcome development. Those of us who grew up with Brian Walden and Jonathan Dimbleby remember their very different approach to interviewing senior politicians – very different to anything available on the BBC. The key to their success was the time they devoted to interviewing one politician, and only one politician. In today’s political interviewing world, ten minutes is considered a long interview. I love doing 20 or 30 minute interviews, but I rarely get to do them nowadays because a drivetime radio show inevitably has to be quite fast paced and newsy. There’s a lot of pressure to get a “news line” out of a politician, even if you’re talking to them for only five minutes, but often you need to warm them up, lull them into a conversational mode before you deliver your killer question. So I was glad to see Robert Peston devoting a long time (around 15 minutes) to his headline interview with George Osborne.
The set is bright and breezy – maybe a bit too Good Morning Britain, but then again the show is probably based in the same studio. I like the different vantage points and it isn’t too awkward when Peston walks between them. The set did have the faint whiff of a cookery programme studio which led one wag on Twitter to suggest the show should be renamed ‘Pesto on Sunday’.
I also like the fact that he has two guests who are with him throughout the hour. They’re not there to review the papers, but to comment on what happens on the programme. The combination of Alastair Campbell and Esther McVey worked well too. It’ll be interesting to see whether they continue to use people who have been active in politics, rather than just the punditerati who have no experience of getting their political hands dirty.
Allegra Stratton was there to provide a bit of social media input, although whether in a show like this we really need to know what Kenny in Dumfries thinks is arguable. But she was very good at setting things in context and was a natural in front of ‘screeny’.
The only thing that didn’t work was the ‘book club’ slot. As someone who welcomes more airtime for books (for obvious reasons!) I thought it had far too little time devoted to it, and it was a rather strange book to start off with. Peston himself looked as if he couldn’t move on quickly enough.
The Louis Theroux interview worked well, even if Robert Peston failed to follow up any questions which didn’t really elicit a full answer. I felt we could have learned far more about his relationship with Jimmy Savile, for example. But it felt totally at home within the format of this show, compared to Marr, where the artsy interviews sometimes jar with the more political content. Theroux is also not the kind of typical lefty-liberal luvvie which seem to infest the Andrew Marr Show. It will be interesting to see which guests fill this slot in the weeks ahead. Less Emma Thompson, more Bear Grylls, maybe.
From an OfCom compliance point of view, this show had three guests who were REMAINERS and not a single LEAVE voice. Next week Jeremy Corbyn is the main guest, also a REMAIN supporter (sort of). If I were media monitoring for Vote Leave I might have something to say about this apparent lack of balance. Or is it one rule for radio and another for TV?
Robert Peston started off the programme by admitting he was nervous. He shouldn’t have been. He emerged from the programme having shown a human side and much more fluid and fluent than his critics may have expected. His autocue reading was flawless and there weren’t as many of his word-elongations or pauses that we’re so used to in his reporting. As someone who interview people on a daily basis, I certainly recognised a few moments when he clearly couldn’t think of what to ask next, but each time he recovered almost immediately. He bonded with each of his interviewees and his conversational style put them at their ease very quickly. This conversational style got some good lines from Osborne, who gave the most relaxed interview I’ve ever seen him deliver. I don’t think politicians will ever get an Andrew Neil style interrogation, but there are not many interviewers who are capable of that style of interviewer. The worst thing Peston could do is change his naturally relaxed and conversational manner. One minor point, though. I wasn’t sure it really worked to split the interview with the Chancellor before and after a commercial break. If it doesn’t interrupt an interview’s natural flow, maybe that can work, but the last thing you want in a big set-piece interview is to worry about having to go to a commercial break. In radio, I have flexibility on that. I’m not sure that network TV has the same degree of latitude.
Is there room for a fourth political show on a Sunday morning? I absolutely think there is. Marr, Murnaghan and the Sunday Politics are all very different in their different ways. And so is Peston on Sunday. You do have to wonder if there are enough big names to share around on a Sunday morning, though. I do fear that after an initial burst of big names, Peston might struggle to get a stellar name every single week. Murnaghan, given in mind its very small audience, has always punched above its weight in attracting big names and they will certainly need to up their game if they aren’t to lose viewers to Peston.
So, all in all a really good start for Robert Peston. I’ll certainly be watching. The big question is, though. Will I watch it live, or Sky Plus it in preference to Murnaghan? In the end, it will depend on who has the biggest and most newsworthy guests. Put it this way, I’m not sure I’d want to be Murnaghan guest-getter. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Just think of that email from John Ryley on a Monday morning asking why you only managed Lucy Powell, when Peston had Donald Trump…