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The formidable Emma Barnett is becoming the BBC's most valuable interviewer

Is Emma Barnett one day bound for the Today programme?
Is Emma Barnett one day bound for the Today programme? Credit: BBC

What is it about the young, female, dazzlingly clever Emma Barnett that winds some politicians up so much? I can’t possibly imagine, but it makes great radio. Barnett, formerly Women’s Editor of this newspaper, has been playing a blinder in the Tory leadership race. On The Emma Barnett Show (Radio 5 Live, Monday to Thursday), she’s been conducting the kind of interview that makes me linger open-mouthed by the kitchen radio, the washing-up forgotten.

In the knockout stages of the Tory leadership race last week, she elegantly dismantled all the proxies that candidates sent to appear on her show. Mark Garnier, for instance, came on to defend Jeremy Hunt’s plan to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. “So you’re saying the proposition is to find a proposition that both sides will get behind?” said Barnett.

“Yes,” said Garnier.

“So you don’t know what Jeremy Hunt’s proposition is?”

“Well, you’ll have to find out…”

“We’ll have to find out? So it’s a blind leap of faith?”

“I was a trade minister for 18 months and I understand how these things work,” said Garnier, pompously.

“I’m finding that rather patronising and I think our listeners will too,” said Barnett, correctly. Soon afterwards, Garnier let out a sigh of exasperation. “Sorry, if I'm boring you,” shot back Barnett, dangerous as a head teacher about to hand out a detention. 

On Thursday, she asked Roger Gale, another Jeremy Hunt supporter, why Hunt seemed to be scrupulous with filing his expenses claims but managed to breach the Companies Act over the purchase of seven luxury flats. “You are being incredibly petty,” said Gale. No, she was just being a thorough journalist.

Barnett asks straightforward, unavoidable questions and is equally tough on politicians from the Left, having been responsible for the mortifying Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 in which he couldn’t answer her question on free childcare and resorted to leafing desperately through his notes.

Being interviewed on the radio by Barnett is like being “interviewed” by a basketful of cobras. She should be on the Today programme, given that she is single-handedly rebuilding the BBC’s reputation as the home of the heavyweight political interview.

Lauren Laverne and Emily Eavis on Desert Island Discs

Emily Eavis, organiser of the Glastonbury Festival, was this week’s guest on Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Sunday), and proved to be another woman who takes no nonsense. Eavis is in charge of a festival which up to 200,000 people expect to be the best weekend of their lives. She spoke with quiet authority and understated cool, which is probably exactly what one needs to run Glastonbury, relating meetings with record company executives where she was the only woman in the room, and memories of breastfeeding her newborn daughter at 3am during one festival before police required her to deal immediately with a crisis.

Ever pushing for the power of music, she asked if she could accompany The Complete Works of Shakespeare with “the Complete Works of The Beatles”, calling them “the Shakespeare of pop”. She was a remarkable woman and the best interview of Lauren Laverne’s tenure as host of the show so far, steely and endlessly surprising. Eavis asked for a carpenter’s toolkit as her luxury item on the island so that she could build herself a veranda.

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen Credit: Jay Williams

In that case, I hope she was listening to the most joyous radio I heard this week, The Age of Emulsion with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen (Radio 4, Saturday), an archive-strewn history of how DIY seduced us all. There were some fantastic archive clips illuminating class, politics and British decorating anxiety, including from Margaret Thatcher on the satisfaction of hanging her own wallpaper. The post-war dawn of DIY was the most fascinating bit, as we heard of women who took home the drills they’d learned how to use in factories during the war, and approving Fifties TV voice-overs detailed householders ripping out original Victorian fireplaces and replacing them with practical cupboards. 

Llewelyn-Bowen was the ideal guide, and much more likeable on radio than he is on TV. He was knowledgeable, funny, and with an infectious sense of the absurd (he described his time on Changing Rooms as “design meets panto”, with genuine respect for anyone’s desire to improve where they live. He expressed sadness that, in recent years, DIY has faded and been replaced by GSI (“get someone in”), and DIY stores have been struggling. “Today the Age of Emulsion seems like a distant dream,” he concluded in wistful tones. I may repaint the wardrobe in his honour.

Do you agree that Emma Barnett is becoming the BBC's most valuable interviewer? Are there any other BBC interviewers that you think are already extremely valuable? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.