Bernard Levin: former Times columnist, TV interviewer and parliamentary sketchwriter

Born in 1928, Levin had a humble Jewish immigrant background and was brought up in Camden Town. He won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital – a boarding school in West Sussex – and another scholarship took him to the London School of Economics.

He considered entering the legal profession, but instead joined the North American service of the BBC, where he had the job of cutting newspapers and magazines for quotes to read on air.

In 1953 he answered an advertisement for editorial staff in a small weekly magazine called Truth. At the time, Truth was said to have a rightwing reputation that editor George Scott wanted to lose and Levin’s Jewish background is said to have counted in his favour.

From 1955-57 he wrote a weekly column about ITV programmes in the Manchester Guardian – the Guardian’s regular TV critic was reportedly living in Manchester and couldn’t receive the channel. According to The Times: “Levin took out his shotgun and let loose with both barrels.”

In 1957, Levin joined The Spectator, where he would stay until 1962, and he began to make his name as an irreverent parliamentary sketch writer under the pseudonym Taper. He invented comical names for MPs such as Sir Reginal Mullying Manner for Sir Reginald Manningham Buller.

Between 1959 and 1962 he was deputy editor of The Spectator under Brian Ingliss and also theatre critic of the Daily Express. From 1962 to 1965 he had the same job at the Daily Mail, later becoming a feature writer and winning the 1969 What the Papers Say columnist of the year award.

In 1963 he began working on TV show That Was the Week That Was, where he was one of the first interviewers to use rudeness as a technique.

While on the show, he was famously punched by the husband of an actress who had been savaged in one of his theatre reviews.

Levin resigned from the Daily Mail in 1970 after refusing to change a comment piece that told its readers to vote Labour. He turned down the offer of a job at The Guardian, opting for The Times because, he said, he would rather “write against the grain” of the paper. He would remain the paper’s chief columnist until 1995, penning well over 2,000 pieces – in 1997 he stopped writing for the paper altogether because of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

He was What the Papers Say columnist of the year again in 1972 and won the same prize in the British Press Awards in 1975, 1987 and 1989.

Bernard Levin on his own abilities:

“I am a journalist because I have no other talent for any other job. I am not exaggerating. I couldn’t teach, I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t compose, I couldn’t be a businessman. The only possible exception was the Bar. Otherwise I am totally useless.”

Robert Thomson, editor of The Times:

“Bernard was one of the most influential columnists to write for The Times. The beauty of his language and the originality of his thought ensured that he had an enthusiastic audience far beyond the borders of Britain.”

From Simon Jenkins’ comment in The Times, “A master matador in the bullring of opinion”, Wednesday 11 August 2004:

“Bernard called himself a journalist, though I am not aware of him ever covering a story. He once told me that in 1968 on holiday in the South of France he overheard a scoop that Jackie Kennedy was going to marry Aristotle Onassis. He was so appalled by the professional responsibility laid on his shoulders that he went petrified into his room and stayed incommunicado until the furore passed. Was this really his calling? “No it was not, thank God. Bernard was a man of opinion. He took the essay format – Johnson’s “loose sally of the mind” – and made it fit for time and place. Britain has no New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. It has brisk weeklies stuffed with comments of the moment. But above all it has newspapers. It was to them that Bernard devoted his career. He was ever the newspaperman, a judge of layout, form and location, not to mention remuneration.

“Bernard knew how to pace an article. He knew when to break step, when to use a quote and when to call in aid the twin gods of humour and malice. Many writers seem obscure behind their bylines. Bernard was vividly present.

“Bernard’s pieces reminded me of a bullfight.

His picadors were quisling lawyers or daft bureaucrats who came on to warm up the crowd.

The came the banderilleros, bits of Hazlitt, Shaw or Mencken. Then would arrive the matador himself, with a tremendous flourish of the cape, a glass of Bollinger in his hand and a rose tossed ostentatiously in the crowd. The bloody business would begin with thundering passes by subordinate clauses and sharp-horned metaphors. Then the sword would be unsheathed and phttt! Dead in the dust lay the Soviet Communist Party, Lee Kwan Yew, the North Thames Gas Board or a disappointing sole Colbert.”

Friend of 40 years Angela Huth:

“Bernard’s enthusiasms were the most infectious of anyone I have ever known. To listen to Bernard talking about music or literature was inspiring. He was a terribly funny man and I am honoured to have been his friend for 40 years. He faced his illness with great courage and didn’t know the meaning of self-pity.”

A London Underground passenger, overheard by former Times correspondent Hazhir Teimourian:

“The only reason I buy The Times is for Bernard Levin.”

Obituary in The Guardian:

One of the most famous as well as one of the most controversial broadcasters of the second half of the last century. His ever-restless pen provoked emotions that varied from rage, even hatred, to affection and admiration.

Obituary in The Times:

Prolific, controversial, passionate, versatile, maddening, enthusiastic, sometimes irresponsible, always courageous, he was recognised instantly in the street by people of all ages.

For years, his was the essential newspaper column. Forthright and punchy, it was much indebted to an American columnist of an earlier era, his beloved H L Mencken, but also spiced up with Shakespeare, Dickens and the poets.

Levin was a stylist par excellence. Famous for long sentences, he once produced a 1,500-word column with only one full stop. His notice of a very dull play consisted entirely of a description of the scenery. And he could always knock out opponents with a turn of phrase, as when he mocked an argument as “the thin end of a slippery slope”, or wrote of the songwriting team: “In the rich cornucopia of their art it was always Mr Rodgers who supplied the copia and Mr Hammerstein the corn.”

Press Gazette 1998:

The first sketchwriter to watch politics as a performance. He established the style in which it is appreciated and understood today.

Obituary in The Daily Telegraph:

Levin added a ferocious wit and disdain for politicians, long before such iconoclasm became commonplace. He had moved from youthful Marxism to the Right of the Labour Party (later he became a devotee of Mrs Thatcher).

His style was a mixture of wit, sharpness and schoolboy sarcasm, with large shots of Wodehouse and Beachcomber.

London News Review:

Bernard Levin, the former child-communist, tour guide, newspaper clipper, TW3 interviewer and Times columnist, is dead. He had a packed life. He was punched in the face on stage, was thrown to the floor by a female journalist, loved Wagner, never learned to drive and caught Alzheimer’s. They should make a film about him. Perhaps now Pierce Brosnan is looking for a new gig…?

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