Andrew Marr: ‘I’ve had an incredibly good decade since my stroke’
I was brought up in a very warm, traditional household in a Scottish agricultural village near Dundee. My dad was an investment trust manager, my mum was an intellectual doing Open University degrees while looking after us. It was a very arty, bookish household.
I wanted to form a cell of the Chinese Communist party at boarding school. I’d been reading about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which I thought was a fantastic idea, so I wrote to the Chinese embassy in London. They sent back a huge box of Little Red Books, which I distributed everywhere. My teachers were a little bemused.
At school I was always on stage. I played the head teacher in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, and the main role in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. I remember that vividly because my opening line was something like ‘shitter bugger’, which as a small boy is a great opening line.
I was nowhere near good enough to be a real actor. When I went to Cambridge I realised that very quickly – all around me were people who were going to be proper actors. It was the era of people like Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, the writer Robert Harris, who all went on to do extraordinary things.
I’ve interviewed seven prime ministers: Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May, Johnson, Sunak. I interviewed Liz Truss, too, but not as prime minister. Almost nobody did. There wasn’t time. I’m sure we’d have got round to it in due course.
I fell out with Tony Blair over Europe quite early on, but I knew him well – he was at university with my wife. I understood Gordon Brown better because we came from the same Scottish Presbyterian background; we would have more cerebral conversations. I came across Boris Johnson a long time before Westminster, when he was a journalist whose copy from Brussels was, to put it politely, dodgy. We’ve had perfectly amicable, affable conversations about all sorts of things, but he’s not a politician I admire.
Politicians like Denis Healey and Margaret Thatcher were intellectually self-confident. They knew who they were and what they thought. Given a question designed to cause them a bit of trouble, they were likely to confront it directly and win the argument. Too many politicians these days think getting through 15 minutes on a political show without making a ripple is a success. They’re incredibly risk-averse.
The amount of factual inaccuracy from British politicians has increased exponentially in recent years, and I do think Boris Johnson is culpable. It’s always gone on, but he’s taken it to a new level. To directly assert things that are so untrue is new, and I think has caused enormous difficulty and pain to the whole political ecosystem.
Putin is very sharp intellectually, but has a menacing presence. Elton John once asked me to give him a kiss on the cheek and a Donna Summer album. I’d interviewed Elton in Sochi before the opening of the winter Olympics. I didn’t give Putin the album, but I asked him if he had gay friends (he does) and whether he was homophobic. He said he wasn’t, but that he enjoyed Elton’s music very much.
I’ve had an incredibly good decade since my stroke, given at the time my wife was told I might not make it, then that I might need a wheelchair and be unable to communicate. I’ve been largely vertical and communicating for the past 10 years. It’s been pretty good, though I’ve still got deficits: I’m hemiplegic, my left arm really doesn’t work much, my left leg only works a bit, I walk in a sort of jerky way. I can’t do my laces. I can’t cycle. I can’t run. I can’t swim. But I focus on what I can do, which includes painting and drawing, and I try to walk five miles a day.
I spent the first 20 years of my career in newspapers, because I was sure that somebody with my looks would never get to broadcast. I’ve got many vices, but vanity isn’t one of them – I’ve always looked weird, huge ears, not enough hair. When I first became political editor of the BBC I was followed around Waitrose in East Sheen; the man eventually caught up with me and said, “’Ere, ’ere! You look just like that Andrew Marr, you poor bugger.”
Andrew Marr will be speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival, 19-23 April, cambridgeliteraryfestival.com