24 October 1923|
|Died||6 August 2000
|Alma mater||St Edmund Hall, Oxford|
|Occupation||Broadcaster, journalist, lawyer|
|Spouse(s)||Katherine Ainslie (1965–1986;divorced)|
|Years of service||1943–47|
Day's obituary in The Guardian by Dick Taverne stated that "he was the most outstanding television journalist of his generation. He transformed the television interview, changed the relationship between politicians and television, and strove to assert balance and rationality into the medium's treatment of current affairs".
He was born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, the son of a telephone engineer who became a telephone manager. He attended Brentwood School from 1934 to 1938, briefly attended the Crypt School, Gloucester, and later Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight.
After the war Day attended St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and, while a student, was elected president of the Oxford Union debating society. Day also took part in a debating tour of the United States, run by the English-Speaking Union.
He was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1952, but practised only briefly. In his memoirs he recorded that he secured the acquittal of a lorry-driver accused of indecent exposure by persuading the magistrates that the man had been "shaking the drops from his person" after urinating, and by getting the man's young wife to testify, wearing a tight sweater, that she and her husband enjoyed a healthy love life.
Day spent almost his entire working life in journalism. He rose to prominence on the new Independent Television News (ITN) from 1955, when he was the first British journalist to interview Egypt's President Nasser after the Suez Crisis.
On television, he presented Panorama and chaired Question Time (1979–89), and on radio was presenter of The World at One from 1979 to 1987. His incisive and sometimes – by the standards of the day – abrasive interviewing style, together with his heavy-rimmed spectacles and trademark bow tie, made him an instantly recognisable and frequently impersonated figure over five decades.
He became known in British broadcasting as 'the Grand Inquisitor' for his abrasive interviewing of politicians, a style out of keeping with the British media's culture of deference to authority that prevailed during the early days of his career.
In 1958 he interviewed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in what the Daily Express called: "the most vigorous cross-examination a prime minister has been subjected to in public". The interview turned Macmillan into a television personality, and was probably the first time that British television became a serious part of the political process.
In the early 1970s, Day was involved on BBC Radio, where he proved an innovator with It's Your Line (1970–76). This was a national phone-in programme that enabled ordinary people, for the first time, to put questions directly to the prime minister and other politicians (it later spawned Election Call). He also presented The World at One, from 1979 to 1987. In 1981, he was knighted for his services to broadcasting.
In October 1982, during an interview with the Conservative Secretary of State for Defence John Nott, pursuing cuts in defence expenditure, he posed the question: "But why should the public, on this issue, as regards the future of the Royal Navy, believe you, a transient, here-today and, if I may say so, gone-tomorrow politician, [a reference to Nott's announcement that he was to stand down at the next General election] rather than a senior officer of many years?" Nott rose, removed his microphone, and said "I'm sorry, I'm fed up with this interview. Really, it's ridiculous" and walked off the set. Nott's autobiography in 2003 was called Here Today Gone Tomorrow: Recollections of an Errant Politician.
He was a regular fixture on all BBC Election Night programmes from the 1960s until 1987. After leaving Question Time, he moved to the new satellite service BSB where he presented the weekly political discussion programme Now Sir Robin. When BSB merged with Sky Television, the programme continued to be broadcast on Sky News for a while. On the night of the 1992 General Election, Day resumed his role as interviewer, this time on ITN's Election Night coverage, broadcast on ITV.
In the mid-90s, he regularly contributed to the lunchtime Channel Four political programme Around the House and also presented Central Lobby for Central TV, the ITV franchise in the Midlands. The show was sometimes broadcast at the same time as his old programme, Question Time was being shown on BBC One.
For 25 years he campaigned tirelessly, and eventually successfully, for the televising of parliament – not in the interests of television, but of parliament itself. He claimed that he was the first to present the detailed arguments in favour, in a Hansard Society paper in 1963.
Monty Python's Flying Circus often used Day as a reference, including the 'Eddie Baby' sketch in which John Cleese turns to the camera and states: 'Robin Day's got a hedgehog called Frank.' In another sketch, Eric Idle said he was able to return his 'Robin Day tie' to Harrods. He was also spoofed (as "Robin Yad") on The Goodies' episode Saturday Night Grease. Day appeared as himself on an instalment of the Morecambe & Wise show, in which he berates Ernie Wise in character. Then Eric Morecambe, acting as a TV presenter, says, "Sadly, we've come to the end of today's "Friendly Discussion with Robin Day".
He was also frequently lampooned by the satirical TV programme Spitting Image. In this, his most famous examples of lampoonery were his interviews with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher and how she would always give an answer somewhat vague to the question, and his breathing difficulties which affected him later in life. "My name is Robin (deep breath) Day!"
Day published two autobiographies; 'Day by Day' in 1975 and 'Grand Inquisitor' in 1989.
In 1965, Day married Katherine Ainslie, an Australian law don at St Anne's College, Oxford, and they had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1986. One of the tragedies of his life was that his elder son never fully recovered from the effects of multiple skull fractures he sustained in a childhood fall.
In the 1980s, Day had a coronary bypass, and he suffered from breathing problems that were often evident when he was on the air. He had always fought against a tendency to put on weight. As an undergraduate, he weighed 17 st 0 lb (108 kg; 238 lb), and claimed that, in the course of his life, he had succeeded in losing more weight than any other person.
Day had problems relating to women. The broadcaster Joan Bakewell recalled that whilst he was professional when in the office:
"Socially he was a menace. There was no subtlety in his manner: at office parties he would attack head on. 'Do the men you interview fancy you? Do they stare at your legs? Do they stare at your breasts? Do you sleep with many of them?' ... Whenever he loomed in sight, I made myself scarce"
His funeral was a cremation service at Mortlake Crematorium. His ashes are interred near the south door of Whitchurch Canonicorum parish church in Dorset. The memorial stone has the words: "In loving memory of Sir Robin Day the Grand Inquisitor" upon it.
- "The Guardian – Obituary by Dick Taverne, 8 August 2000". London. 8 August 2000. Retrieved 1 September 2008.
- List of Old Brentwoods Retrieved 10 March 2009
- Robin Day, (1963) The Case for Televising Parliament (London: Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government)
- Joan Bakewell The Centre of the Bed: An Autobiography, 2003, Sceptre, p.234-5
|Programme Created||Regular Host of Question Time