Andrew Marr’s decision to leave the BBC after 21 years was a huge surprise to the 2 million viewers of his Sunday morning TV show.
Was he forced out in the Beeb’s latest woke purge of white, middle-aged men? Was he too old at 62, too male and too stale, for its obsessive drive for inclusivity?
The answer is far simpler. He just got tired of the muzzling of his opinions, the agonisingly early Sunday starts, having to toe the line on impartiality — and so he quit. Just like that. He says he wanted to be able to speak in his own voice.
It had something to do with another voice, too. That of his father Donald who died in 2020.
Andrew Marr’s decision to leave the BBC after 21 years was a huge surprise to the 2 million viewers of his Sunday morning TV show
‘There is no doubt my dad’s death affected me a lot,’ he says. ‘Like my stroke, it made me realise life is too short to not do the things you really want. We’re not here for a very long time.’
Which is also why, just two months into a two-year contract he signed in October last year, Marr (who suffered a debilitating stroke nine years ago) decided to quit.
He seems to well up a little when talking about the father who had such a powerful influence on his life and whom he misses so much. Or is it just the bright winter sunlight streaming through the window that’s causing his eyes to smart?
‘I think of him every day, I talk to him. I hear his voice every day. He used to say: “You’ve only got one stomach”, which was a warning not to be greedy, especially for money, and most importantly to live a purposeful life.’
This is the first interview he has given since he decided to leave the Corporation. Never in his time there did he feel able to speak his mind publicly as he does here on matters ranging from the Royal Family to Boris Johnson, migration and, of course, the BBC. He talks, too, with disarming frankness about the massive stroke that nearly killed him.
Many would think that, having survived it, Marr would be contemplating a quiet retirement. The thought never crossed his mind.
He wants another ten years working full pelt, another big chapter in his life — as big, he says, as the last chapter of one of his favourite books, Tolstoy’s War And Peace. And that’s big.
‘I want to go back to being a gum-shoe reporter with a pen and a notepad in my pocket wandering the halls of Westminster, and finally be able to say and write what I really think,’ he says.
‘My leg might not work as well as it used to, but my brain still does,’ he laughs. Which is another thing about him: he has a quick, often wicked and not-very-PC sense of humour.
In truth, the left side of his body is still deeply damaged. Viewers will have noticed that, on his show after the stroke, he never turned the pages of the newspapers with his left hand. Because he couldn’t.
We’ve been friends of his for years, and when we go to restaurants with him for dinners full of gossip and laughter, one of the party will ask the waiter to cut up his food.
He admits he has an awkward and clumsy gait — which is why he was no longer filmed walking onto the set of his show.
He’d hate to be described as tenacious but that’s what he is — despite the problems with his left leg, with iron determination he will walk for miles.
When out and about, he’s often greeted by strangers — and he’ll respond without any sense of ego.
This is the first interview he has given since he decided to leave the Corporation. Never in his time there did he feel able to speak his mind publicly as he does here on matters ranging from the Royal Family to Boris Johnson, migration and, of course, the BBC
Most likely that’s down to one of his financier father’s favourite sayings: ‘There is a cure for everything, except a swelled head.’
We meet at Marr’s North London terrace house where his family moved after the stroke, to be closer to BBC HQ, Broadcasting House.
The walls are hung with his modern art collection and some of his own paintings self-effacingly tucked away in darker corners.
His wife of more than 30 years, Jackie Ashley, also a journalist, is at home and they’re constantly joking and laughing together. Marr says he feels ten years younger since leaving the Beeb just before Christmas. He looks it, too.
As for speaking his mind, he’s true to his word. Prepare for Marr unleashed.
This is a man who had a ringside seat on the royal court, having travelled extensively with Her Majesty in 2011 while filming his three-part BBC series The Diamond Queen. He is a biographer of the Queen and tells us that the monarchy faces an existential crisis when Charles III comes to the throne.
‘There is a sense that the whole issue of the future has not been discussed for a very long time, because the Queen is so admired and so revered,’ he says.
‘When that terrible day comes that the Queen is no longer with us, the country will go into a state of shock.
‘It will be like an ethical earthquake and I do not think it is fully understood or appreciated how this is going to be an absolutely massive moment in all our lives.
‘It will shake the whole country in a way that will be hard to explain until we actually live through it,’ he adds.
‘I know the Prince of Wales has plans for reforming the monarchy; it appears Charles and William will orchestrate a clear out. It won’t be the same: the modern monarchy under Charles has to earn its place every day, every week and every month in people’s affections.
‘I’m sorry to say some members of the Royal Family have been behaving like free riders.
‘They assume the monarchy — the institution itself — can never be questioned. But the reason it is not being questioned is because of the Queen herself.’
Who are the free riders? The Sussexes? Prince Andrew? ‘I think you can judge for yourself,’ he says with a mischievous smile.
Asked if Camilla will be queen, he replies: ‘I think so, yes. If that’s what Prince Charles wants, that is what Prince Charles will get.’
Turmoil ahead for the future king and no future for the Sussexes and Prince Andrew. We’d never have heard those opinions on The Andrew Marr Show.
Soon, he’s back talking about the joys of leaving the BBC, saying he and his wife have got their weekends back: no more going to bed at eight on Saturday nights, no more 4am rising on Sundays.
They went out for dinner together last Saturday and joke that it’s the first time they’ve done that in decades, rolling home just before midnight. We suspect alcohol was imbibed. Marr is partial to a good Scottish whisky.
But before long he’s moved on to another contentious subject: immigration, on which he has strong views.
‘This is going to be perhaps the single biggest political issue of the next 20 or 30 years,’ he insists. ‘It is not because of anything Britain is, or isn’t, doing at the borders or even because of our poor relationship with France.
‘It’s due to climate change that millions upon millions of people are walking across parts of the Middle East and Africa towards Europe in search of a better life. And it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.’
What’s his solution? Well, his views will surprise anyone who thinks he’s an unreconstructed Leftie, but he’s keeping his powder dry for when he starts his new career as a columnist for The New York Times, The New Statesman and his political show on LBC.
This is a man who had a ringside seat on the royal court, having travelled extensively with Her Majesty in 2011 while filming his three-part BBC series The Diamond Queen. He is a biographer of the Queen and tells us that the monarchy faces an existential crisis when Charles III comes to the throne
Asked about Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s announcement on freezing the BBC licence fee, Marr laughs: ‘She should be very, very careful — of Daleks,’ a reference to their tendency to ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ their enemies.
And if he were director-general of the BBC, what would he do? ‘In the long term, it might have to have a subscription model. But it is odd to announce the end of the licence fee without a replacement.’
As to the timing of the announcement when the PM was facing calls to resign: ‘It’s hard to resist the suspicion that it came at a time to save the Prime Minister’s skin.’
Of Partygate, Marr, who’s interviewed every PM since John Major, says ‘it’s possible Boris Johnson can continue as Prime Minister but it’s hard to see how he can now be an effective PM’.
Expressing such a view as a BBC presenter would have meant him being the one risking his job.
While refusing to defend the salaries of BBC stars such as £1.3 million-a-year Gary Lineker, Marr does justify the £400,000 paid to the new director of news, Deborah Turness. ‘Whatever the cuts, and some big salaries have to go, her most important job is to ring-fence news and current affairs. The BBC is nothing without that.’
And he thinks one cherished institution must be protected at all costs and that’s Strictly Come Dancing. The Marr family are fans and watch it together. ‘We love Strictly, I love Strictly.’
‘And we all love Craig [Revel Horwood],’ Jackie shouts from the kitchen.
He also defends the BBC’s coverage of Brexit, which millions of voters believed was blatantly biased. ‘The BBC was endlessly attacked from all sides and sometimes those from the Left were more vigorous. Working during that time it felt like being constantly hit from all sides.’
None of us, even those who have known Marr for decades, know how he voted in the referendum although we suspect Remain. And yet he says he predicted that the Brexit vote would triumph.
Privately, he confided his thoughts to Boris Johnson. ‘I told him I believed he’d win. He looked slightly surprised and very concerned.’
All very interesting, but what really made him quit the BBC’s most prestigious political show?
‘After 21 years of minding my Ps and Qs, I got bored of it. These are exciting and momentous times and I want to speak more forthrightly.’
He adds: ‘I understand that at the BBC you have to keep your mouth shut and be very careful. Every time I went into the studio I reminded myself I was broadcasting to people who were paying for the BBC and they have the right to as neutral and fair-minded interviews as we could manage. It was very frustrating.
‘Self-censoring is frustrating. I’d also been doing the same job for too long, there’s a danger of getting stale. People in big jobs should be aware that they can become bed-blockers. That there comes a time to make way for younger talent.’
So what else will life post-BBC be like for Marr?
Certainly, there will be more travelling and more time spent with Jackie and their three grown-up children.
Above all, doing the things he loves, such as painting. He has a studio near their home and an exhibition of six large abstract paintings at the Eames Gallery in Bermondsey in the spring.
‘I’m lucky to still be alive,’ he says. ‘I spend huge amounts of time painting at my studio and walking around London as it’s the only exercise I can do.’
The family dog, Baxter, a gorgeous slobbering golden Labrador, is often with him.
Their excursions trigger a particular pet-hate: people who don’t clear up their dog mess. If he sees an offender, he’ll chide them or fix them with an icy glare. And as countless politicians know to their cost, the Marr stare can be withering.
He will miss the team he worked with on The Andrew Marr Show. ‘Just the people, those brilliant journalists, that’s all I’ll miss,’ he says.
Marr seems at peace with himself and excited about life no longer tied to the apron strings of Auntie. Few could have survived the aftermath of that terrible stroke without, at times, descending into despair or even self-pity. Those who know him say they have never once heard him say: ‘Why me?’
Perhaps his stoicism is part of his Scottish heritage and the values he learnt at his mother Valerie’s and father Donald’s knees.
Asked if he thought his father was proud of him, he says: ‘We are a Scottish family, we didn’t talk about those sorts of things — but I hope he was.’