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Giving it some Humph – Humphrey Carpenter

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Broadcaster, author and musician, Humphrey Carpenter’s ‘amiable inquisitiveness’ was a constant source of pleasure and education for his audience. Susan Elkin remembers the much-loved stalwart of BBC radio

How I miss Humphrey Carpenter who died earlier this year, tragically young at 58. His intelligent, witty but never patronising, presentation of Listener’s Choice on Radio 3 gave me incomparable pleasure. And his jokes about the missing apostrophe in the website address for Listener’s Choice became almost a gentle running gag. His obituarist in The Times commented on Carpenter’s “dual talents for scholarship and merriment” and, yes, that’s how he was.

When I was still teaching part-time it was always a delight too to switch on the radio as I drove away from school for my 45-minute run home to find that smooth-voiced Carpenter was covering for Sean Rafferty and presenting In Tune at 5pm. Everything he did was elegant and entertaining and his In Tune interviews were in a different class from Rafferty’s.

It takes a workaholic to recognise one – and I can assure you that anyone who can broadcast regularly on the radio, write a best-selling series of children’s books, direct high-profile literature festivals, write a whole series of respected biographies along with hundreds of sharp book reviews and still find time to found and run a children’s drama group and to play in a professional jazz band is not sleeping much. Not only was he endearingly eclectic, he was also outstandingly hard-working. The very fact that he got obituaries in all the national dailies as well as in The Stage, Press Gazette, the literary press and music publications tells its own story about his range.

No wonder Libby Purves (another workaholic), who cut her broadcasting teeth with Carpenter at BBC Radio Oxford in the early seventies admired him so. She fronted a ‘celebration in words and music of the life of Humphrey Carpenter’ at the recent Oxford Literature Festival. He directed the Oxford festival for several years and his absence there this year was sorely felt.

Carpenter was born, brought up and spent most of his life in Oxford where his father eventually became bishop. His first biography was of JRR Tolkien, another Oxford man. It was published in 1977 and it did well. Later he wrote lives of Benjamin Britten, Dennis Potter, Robert Runcie and Spike Milligan among others. He certainly was not a man whose interests could be pigeonholed. He once played the tuba at a press conference at Cheltenham Literature Festival. “Why shouldn’t one be able to enjoy Proust and Benny Goodman?” he demanded of a Cheltenham regular who complained.

That “amiable inquisitiveness”, to quote The Times obituarist again, is also probably why he conceived and was the first presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves, an all-encompassing – quite uncompromising – arts programme. Night Waves began in 1992 and is still going strong 13 years later. Thanks, Humphrey.

He turned disingenuousness into an art form too. He was criticised for revelations about the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury’s knowledge about Prince Charles, Diana, Princess of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles in his 1996 biography of Robert Runcie. When abrasively interviewed about this by John Humphreys, Carpenter nearly disarmed his interviewer by agreeing with everything he said. Game, set and match to Carpenter.

I once appeared briefly on television with him. He and I both took part, by invitation, in a discussion on London ITV. The Harry Potter books were a new phenomenon and we were both arguing that they were overrated. Carpenter shambled into ITV’s South Bank studios premises looking pretty scruffy. Then he held court, quietly smoking. He drank only coffee though. Like me he wanted a clear head for the forthcoming live grilling by Nicky Campbell. His unkempt appearance belied the incisive intelligence that lurked beneath all that geniality and he gave the Harry Potter fans a good run for their money.

On another occasion, instructed by the education pages commissioning editor at The Sunday Times, I rang him on his mobile to talk to him about his Mr Majeika books which were made into a popular TV series with Stanley Baxter. It was a Thursday afternoon and I left a message. Within a few minutes he called me courteously and gave me all the opinion and information I needed. He was at the BBC pre-recording that weekend’s Listener’s Choice and conscientiously dealing with his messages in the gaps. I could hear the music running in the background.

Although Carpenter died of a sudden pulmonary embolism on January 4 this year, he had been fighting Parkinson’s disease for several years. He could no longer manage a keyboard but was still working hard. His 2003 Spike Milligan biography, for example, was written entirely with voice-recognition computer software. Indefatigable to the last, he was hurt and annoyed when the BBC failed to renew his contract a couple of years before he died because he believed he could still broadcast successfully. He vented this particular frustration in a rather sad 2003 newspaper article.

Yes, we will be hard put to find Carpenter’s like again. There aren’t many who achieve so much in so many spheres.

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