Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Who watches Newsnight these days?

Stephen Smith with Richard and Judy
Newsnight counts TV hosts Richard and Judy among its diverse audience

By Stephen Smith
Newsnight culture correspondent

Who watches Newsnight these days? Despite appearances, that is not a headline from a mid-market tabloid.

No, it's a question that's been running through my mind in the build-up to our 30th birthday this month.

I'm convinced I can tell when Jeremy has had a bad day
Richard Madeley

If you believe some reviews of the programme, you would think it was an austere and forbidding 50 minutes, watched in the line of duty by cabinet ministers and captains of industry, but otherwise enjoyed only by lonely lighthouse men and lock-keepers who can't get decent reception on their glamour channels.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing there's you, the Newsnight-friendly, (or at least-tolerant,) web denizen.

For another, we have it on good authority that members of the Royal Family enjoy the programme, gathering in a drawing room just before half past 10, when servants open the doors of a large walnut-effect plasma TV.

A change of scene

I have now discovered that our viewers also include celebrities, comedians and household-name chefs. As demographics go, I don't know that it's any better or worse than cabinet ministers and captains of industry - or indeed storm-lashed wick-trimmers - but at least it's unexpected.

Hermione Norris, star of Spooks
Spymistress Hermione Norris tunes in for 'measured' news pieces

Not only are these noted Newsnighters happy to be outed, but they've kindly agreed to appear in our birthday special on BBC Two this Saturday evening.

And so it was that one day last week found a Newsnight crew in the fragrant Hampstead home of Richard and Judy. And I do mean fragrant - the air was heavy with the perfume of scented candles.

Simple good manners prevent me from going into further details about the house of TV's former first couple, but suffice to say that it was neither too fussy, not too lived-in.

I realised later what it reminded me of - a television set, albeit a rather different one from the bluish cockpit where Mr Paxman holds the ring.

In the kitchen, Richard elaborated on his Newsnight habit:

"People used to say when Judy and I did This Morning that they could tell if we'd had a row that day. And we'd go, 'You know, we did.' And I'm convinced I can tell when Jeremy has had a bad day."

Between us, we couldn't think of a way of telling when Jeremy had had a good day....

Confession time

Hermione Norris is ice-cool on TV as the blonde spymistress from television's Spooks.

But when I interrogated her in a dingy basement room under a single harsh bulb - we really must cheer up that Newsnight Green Room - it was the work of a moment to secure a full confession.

"I think a lot of the news that we're barraged with is scaremongering. But I know that if I tune into Newsnight, I'll get a measured piece," she said.

Chef Clarissa Dixon-Wright
Find out about Clarissa Dickson Wright's Newsnight role on Saturday

"I will understand what's happening, who is accountable, what the solution could be. And it makes me feel like a sentient, responsible member of the public. It makes me feel smugly good about myself."

"Take her away," I murmured, wiping away the last traces of the peppermint tea I had plied her with. "Sometimes it's just too easy."

Not so in the case of comedian Chris Addison, best known as the hapless spin doctor Ollie Reeder in The Thick of It. He told listeners to his Radio 5 Live radio programme last weekend that Jeremy sometimes looks a little weary.

Chris went on that he would like to see him presenting the programme while getting ready for bed, before signing off as he snuggles under the duvet with teddy bear and quilted eye-mask.

The funnyman maintains that he first watched Newsnight at college. A "friend" had a crush on Kirsty Wark - or at least that's his story.

Voice of dissent

Of course not everyone is a Newsnight fan. There's not much love lost between the programme and the former Fleet Street editor Kelvin Mackenzie.

Although he has appeared on Newsnight many times, he adopted the role of party-pooper with alacrity:

"I just don't think Newsnight understands that it's no longer a major brand. It has turned into rather dull and dusty stuff. If it is on the shelf, no-one is taking it off."

We all know that people at parties gravitate to the kitchen. In our case, that is where we find Clarissa Dickson Wright, the chef and one half of the Two Fat Ladies.

No bumper blowout is complete without a few surprises, but to discover what Clarissa has got to do with the nightly ritual of the Newsnight team takeaway, you will have to bag your place among our eclectic company of viewers this coming Saturday.

A special programme to mark Newsnight's 30th anniversary will be broadcast on Saturday 23 January 2010 at 8pm on BBC Two.




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