'My ambition is to make sure I don't become the first Any Questions presenter to last only six months'
Rising star Chris Mason has replaced Jonathan Dimbleby in the hotseat on the cult Radio 4 show. He talks to Phoebe Luckhurst about broadcasting, Brexitcast and going viral
As Chris Mason recalls it, he was wielding a nit comb and listening to a tinny bathroom radio when he decided he "wouldn't mind a crack" at hosting Any Questions, the probing weekly BBC Radio 4 panel show/cultural institution in which politicians are interrogated by a live studio audience, which he inherited from broadcasting patriarch Jonathan Dimbleby last month. "I just thought, 'That sounds fun!'" Mason says gamely. "It was probably just after I'd been soaked through bathing my daughter, and I thought there was probably a better way to spend a Friday night."
Now, there is. After flinging his hat in the ring, there followed months of auditions, one notably involving a fake broadcast in the radio theatre at Broadcasting House, in which Beeb staff were bribed to attend with free pizza - "I think they were offered an extra slice of Margherita if they stood up and shouted something to see how I'd handle a heckler." Then Radio 4 controller Mohit Bakaya called. "As I answered the phone, I thought, 'I don't think he'd be ringing the people who haven't got it'. And then he offered me the job."
Duly, we've met at Four Millbank, the nerve centre of the BBC's Westminster operation (there is a resplendent portrait of golden woman Laura Kuenssberg in the reception, spotlit from below), on a Thursday in October to discuss the new gig, which Mason says, cheerfully, offers "nowhere to escape".
Certainly, it's a tough role, wrestling a panel of combative politicians while simultaneously fielding questions from a boisterous audience, and keeping an eye on the programme's pace to ensure it doesn't exceed its 47-minute slot at 8pm on a Friday (it's repeated on Saturday lunchtime). But Mason is a warm and intuitive broadcaster (with a easy-listening Yorkshire brogue) and his first shows - this week's will be his fourth in the chair - have been well-received. So far, so good.
Presumably his predecessor looms large. Dimbleby was in the Any Questions chair for 32 years, and, as Mason acknowledges, "of all the surnames in British broadcasting since broadcasting was invented, if you had to think of one, it would begin with a D and end with a Y". Still, the new guy is ambitious, and went for the gig because, "bluntly", he wanted his own show. "I thought, here's a programme I think would be a huge hoot to present, and see what you can do with."
The augurs look good. Dimbleby tweeted an eloquent, enthusiastic endorsement after Mason's appointment, calling him a "great choice for great job" and a "fine political journalist... tough, clever and witty". The broadcasting oracle also offered his advice. "When I got the job, Jonathan emailed and said, 'You probably won't need this, but if you wanted to speak to me…'" Mason recalls. "I was like, Do I ever?' I rang, and we chatted for an hour."
It marks a symbolic changing of the guard. If for decades Dimbleby's was the last name in news broadcasting, now there's a new crew of BBC upstarts bringing the conversation to new audiences in new mediums. The gang includes 39-year-old Mason (Any Questions gets an audience of roughly 1.5 million), Beyond Today presenter Tina Daheley and BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, who's just been announced as part of the crack team for the broadcaster's election night coverage.
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While Mason has been a political correspondent with the BBC since 2004, this new status, besides Any Questions, is largely down to his other gig on (surprise) hit podcast, Brexitcast, in which the lively, wonkish quartet of Mason, Kuenssberg, Europe editor Katya Adler and Brussels reporter Adam Fleming, digest Westminster machinations for a broad audience.
The podcast - which started during the 2017 snap election under the name Electioncast, and has been rebranded temporarily as such for the Brexmas election next month - is a regular Apple podcast chart-topper. At the time of writing it is steady at number five and hasn't dropped out of the top 20 for a month; it won a Listener's Choice Award at the British Podcast Awards in May.
In September, the format was also turned into a TV show, attracting one million viewers on its debut.
On the show, Mason's role is to cue up Kuenssberg and Adler ("the stardust"), and he has a good intuition for asking the questions the listeners want asked. Or, as he puts it, "chivvying things along, switching a topic or demanding an explanation if we've gone even nerdier than we should have done".
He adds: "The show is the thing I'm most proud of doing in the last couple of years. The extraordinary thing about it is people saying, late at night, 'When's it coming?' That sense of connection - the show being demand-driven - has been wonderful."
Still, even the most fervent political nerd must be suffering Brexit fatigue by this point? "I get out of bed some mornings and think, 'This is the most incredible story of my career, and it is'," he says. "Of course, I'm human. I also sometimes get up and think, 'imagine reporting something else?'"
Midway through our conversation Mason's phone pings and he is momentarily distracted: it's John McDonnell's PR. Still, while he's got most of Whitehall in his phonebook, his modus operandi is to bill himself as the approachable "insider's outsider", regularly referring to Westminster in alienated terms as "this postcode". Besides an impression of Theresa May dancing, his most viral moment remains a clip from a broadcast on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament last November, when Mason concluded he "hadn't the foggiest" what was going to happen regarding Brexit. Viewers were delighted.
Any clue now? "What I was struck by then and frankly it's still the case now, is that you can be as well informed as it is possible to be about the here and now, but you can't actually answer the question. We've got to be honest about what is unknowable. I didn't have the foggiest then, and I don't now to be honest."
So, assuming Any Questions is just the start, what does he want to do next? Newsnight? Strictly? He laughs. "I have all sorts of ludicrous ambitions - as we all have." Still, for now, "my ambition is to make sure I don't become the first Any Questions presenter to last only six months".
He also has two children under five - his son was born earlier this year and Mason returned in September from a stint of shared parental leave - and while he is careful to emphasise that his wife is the "usual wielder of the nit comb in our house" (he texts me hours after our interview to reiterate it), he'd like to spend some time with the family.
Plus there's the rest of his job, which for the foreseeable future means Electioncast bulletins, keeping his eyes trained on the comings and goings at Number 10, and standing in sheet rain on College Green. "There's never been a better time in my lifetime to do the job I do. And that is one hell of a privilege."
Electioncast will broadcast weekly on Radio 4 and on the BBC News Channel, with all episodes available on BBC Sounds
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