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April 12, 2023

Lynn Barber interview: ‘Being untactful comes naturally to me’

The Demon Barber on the art of the interview, her career and her favourite (and least favourite) modern-day interviewers.

By William Turvill

“I’ve never claimed they’re important!” I’m half-proud to report that it took the best part of an hour. But eventually, inevitably, Lynn Barber found cause to call me out on my background research. My offending question: Why did she think celebrity interviews were important? “I think I explicitly say in my book, they are absolutely not important.” No? “No,” she insisted, laughing off my question.

Why do it then? Why make a career out of being an interviewer? Surely Barber saw some importance in her vocation? “No,” she says, now sounding exasperated. “No, I don’t – I don’t want to be important. It’s good money. It’s fun,” she added, breaking into an incredulous laugh. “Important – I have no desire!” So it was just the money and the fun? “Well, yes,” she said, simmering. “Plus the fact that it’s more or less the only thing I can do.”

Is it possible to adequately prepare for an interview with Lynn Barber, a woman thought by many to be Britain’s greatest living interviewer? I’d read dozens of her profiles and two of her books. I’d watched An Education (the film version of her memoir). I’d listened to her Desert Island Discs at least twice. I’d scoured through several other profiles of Barber written by other journalists. But still, standing outside the front door of her large house in Highgate, north London, before the interview, I’d felt vulnerable, exposed and far from ready to take on the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at her own game.

I’d even taken some special measures. Camilla Long told me that Barber, her former Sunday Times colleague and firm friend, would often take her interviewees gifts to soften them up. But what to take Barber? Long recommended some chocolates or a nice bottle of Italian red wine. I went with the latter because, although I had some deadlines fast approaching back at the office, I thought it would make for an irresistibly good life story if I ended up staggering back into work later that day having had a session with Lynn Barber.

My second trick involved downing a litre bottle of water. I’d read somewhere that Barber was an advocate of rummaging through the bathroom cabinets of her interviewees to uncover their secrets. I don’t think I was ever planning to go through with this – blame a millennial respect for privacy – but I thought I might as well ready myself for the occasion in case it felt right at the time.

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Needless to say, I’d built Barber up a bit too much. And soon, my best-laid plans backfired. Greeting me in a high-ceilinged hallway, I found a pleasant, hospitable and posh-sounding* 78-year-old woman who seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. (*Barber, whose mother was an elocution teacher, has what she has described as a “classic elocution accent” – to me, it sounds very 1950s BBC.)

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She seemed touched by my gift, and did offer me a glass, but suggested, perhaps with a touch of judgement, that 11am was a bit early for her. I agreed that a cup of tea would be best. As Barber busied herself in the kitchen – “How many sugars?” – I made my way through into her long living room, which stretched from the front of the house to her back garden. I found a space on a sofa next to a coffee table that was stacked high with books. Barber, in slippers, baggy black trousers and a brown woollen jumper, returned to her spot by the front window on a sofa that was half covered by more books and magazines.

“Do you smoke?” asked Barber as she lit up the first of four cigarettes that she would make her way through over the following hour. I said no and asked how many she smoked a day. “30.” Seeking to earn some early brownie points, I noted that this was down from 40 when she’d done her Desert Island Discs interview in 2010. “Oh, is it?” said Barber, sounding mildly impressed. I asked if she still drank a bottle of wine a day. “Yes,” she said shortly, with no shame but evidently with little desire to discuss her vices any further.

When I asked Barber about her bathroom cabinet trick, her brow furrowed. “It wasn’t particularly me who said that,” she said, quietly blowing another hole through some of my background research. “It was some other journalist who said that to me.” Ah, I told Barber, in that case I would certainly not go rooting through her bathroom cabinet. “Well, you can’t,” she said matter-of-factly, “because it’s upstairs.” It became clear to me then that I would have to hold my bladder – if I asked to use Barber’s facilities now, she’d surely think that I was planning to snoop.

‘I tend to be quite blunt’

Barber lives alone. Her daughters and grandchildren live in Brighton. Her husband, David, died in 2003, aged 59. Barber recounts, in harrowing detail, the heartbreak she endured over his final days in her 2009 memoir, An Education. In the same book she told how, as a teenager, she was duped into a relationship and an engagement with an older man who turned out to be a con artist. (This story was turned into a film, also called An Education, by Nick Hornby.)

After ending her engagement, Barber studied English language and literature at Oxford before starting her career at Penthouse magazine. She went on to work for the Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times and The Observer, winning six Press Awards along the way. Many credit her with inventing British journalism’s modern celebrity interview, written in first person. “I sort of developed my own style,” she told me. “Gave up all these daft rules that you weren’t supposed to say ‘I’, you weren’t supposed to put yourself in it, which is crazy with interviews because it’s a transaction.”

Barber remains a freelance journalist today. But she doesn’t care for column-writing (“it’s not my skill”) and her profiles have become few and far between. “I’m too picky,” she said. “I was asked to interview a couple off the Gogglebox or something, and no – I’m not that interested.”

Her last interviewee was David Dimbleby for The Telegraph. Barber is convinced that Dimbleby went out of his way to be boring. “And indeed, he didn’t tell me anything,” she added. “So he won, as it were. But the result was a very dull interview.” I asked Barber if she had liked Dimbleby. “No.” Did he like her? “No. There was no great meeting of minds. He is such a champion of the BBC, and to be provocative I said I don’t see why my daughters should have to pay a licence fee when they don’t even have a television. And he said: ‘But if you don’t have a licence fee, you don’t have the BBC!’ And I said: ‘Well…?’ I was trying to be annoying to get a rise out of him. But I maybe overdid it.”

Barber is not one to pull punches. Harriet Harman? “Thick.” Chris Evans? “Smug git.” Martin Clunes? “Bitter.” Barber’s list of skin-crawlingly awkward interviews goes on. “Being untactful comes naturally to me,” Barber explained when I asked how she dealt with awkward moments in interviews. “Obviously I try to be polite. But no, the fact is I wouldn’t say, either as a writer or a person, does tact feature in my life. I tend to be quite blunt.”

Why? “God. Well. My father was the rudest person I’ve ever met in my life. He was just outright rude to everyone the whole time. And so, I suppose, I’m just used to that. I suppose I don’t go out of my way to be untactful. I’m just trying to think – when I interviewed Harriet Harman, I asked her: ‘Are you thick?’ – because somebody said she was thick. Whereas another interviewer would say: ‘How would you rate your intellectual prowess?’ I cut to the chase, as it were.”

Barber is well known for probing her subject’s relationships with their parents. So I decided to park Harman and pursue Barber’s angry dad. Really, I asked – the rudest person you’ve ever known? “Including Alan Sugar. Including Roald Dahl. Including – oh, I can’t remember. But yeah. He was terribly rude. Shouty too.” I asked Barber if that was helpful to her career and whether it had made her a better interviewer. “Well, I think the whole thing of growing up with my father means that I’m never afraid of people shouting at me or getting cross. Which maybe quite a lot of interviewers are. I just sort of think: ‘Oh, yeah – now I can get stuck in,’ as it were. So I’m not daunted by the thought of annoying someone.

“Occasionally in interviews, I kind of think: ‘Oh, this is a bit sweet and sugary – how can I get them riled up a bit?’ I think you actually often see a lot more of a person then. Somebody once gave me a good tip, which was that if you ask somebody what they like, say apropos pop singers, you get a fairly good selection. But if you ask, ‘What pop singer do you really hate and despise?’, you get a much more interesting answer. Because then you get to the nub of what their values are – and I think that’s true actually.” I asked Barber to name a pop singer she hated and despised. “Phil Collins,” she answered with a cackle and no pause for thought.

Barber’s parents, who are portrayed in a mainly negative light in An Education, lived into their 90s and witnessed their only child’s rise to the top of Fleet Street. Were they proud? “Ughm. They might have been a bit,” she offered. “They didn’t take journalism very seriously. I think they probably would have preferred me to be a top lawyer or something.” Barber said she was annoyed that her mother seemed not to have read “a serious book” she’d written called The Heyday of Natural History. Was Barber driven by a desire to make her parents proud? “No. No. I mean, no. Err. I mean, I didn’t want to make them ashamed or worried, either. But I had my own career.”

I soon got my comeuppance for attempting to delve into Barber’s psyche. Later, when I asked an innocuous question about her next holiday, she seamlessly turned the interview tables. I soon found myself wasting valuable interview minutes gushing about my childhood in Cornwall (“ooh, whereabouts?”), growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere (“and why were you there!?”) and how my dad had gone to a posh school and disliked it (“wow, that’s interesting!”) If nothing else, it was useful to experience Barber’s superpower for making people want to open up to her.

‘I never think people’s opinions are very interesting’

Although most of Barber’s profile interviews would not be considered hatchet jobs, it was always the negative pieces that attracted the most attention. This begs the question: why did celebrities continue to submit themselves to the Demon Barber’s interview chair? “Oh, loads have refused,” said Barber. “But the thing is I’d say that the ones who refused because they’re afraid of me are almost invariably actors who I don’t want to interview anyway, so that’s fine. Whereas I think some people regard it as a sort of challenge.” I asked Piers Morgan what it was like to be the subject of a Barber profile. He said: “Lynn is the best kind of interviewer: incredibly well prepared, genuinely fascinated by her subjects, and beguilingly devilish in the way she lures interviewees into reckless indiscretion.”

Still, I wondered how Barber’s abrasive interview technique might go down among younger celebrities. “I think we’d regard each other with absolute horror, probably,” she said. When I asked her to name the youngest person she’d interviewed, she offered: “Dominic Cummings? Is he young?” Note to commissioning editors: Barber was intrigued by the idea of a young interviewee – although 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch remains top of her hitlist.

Reflecting on how celebrity interviews had changed over her career, Barber said that the time given to journalists had generally shrunk, as had the length of the write-ups. Also: “I was always interested in a lot of psychological probing and asking people about their childhoods and things. There doesn’t seem to be very much of that going on. It doesn’t matter, but I mean it was just that that happened to be what I was interested in. And I was told that, nowadays, you always had to ask a woman interviewee whether she’d had work on her face.” Just to check, I asked Barber if she’d had work on her face. “No, not at all,” she responded with a hint of a laugh.

Barber named Camilla Long, Hadley Freeman and Ginny Dougary as being among the best interviewers on Fleet Street today. In broadcast, she likes Graham Norton, but dislikes the approaches of Louis Theroux (“can be quite slack”) and Nick Robinson (“discontented if he doesn’t manage to talk about ten times more than the interviewee”).

I asked Barber if she liked people. “In general, I like people… I hate being at a dinner party because there’s always somebody banging on and there’s always somebody telling anecdotes, and you’re stuck – you’re trapped… I never think people’s opinions are very interesting. I like to know facts about them or some background.” Instead of dinner parties, Barber said she enjoyed socialising with people at pub quizzes.

I asked Barber about Covid-19 and the lockdown. She still had masks hanging up on her front door, but she said she didn’t mind the isolation of lockdown because she was used to spending time alone. I asked if she’d ever felt lonely. “I do sometimes, yeah. I think because I was an only child I sort of feel that I’ve gone back very much to my growing up when I read an awful lot but longed to have more social life. And well, yeah, I do get lonely.”

The time was just after 12 and I remembered, from our earlier email exchanges, that Barber liked to “snooze in the afternoons”. When I asked if I was intruding on her naptime, she said: “Oh, yes, I have a nap. But before that I have lunch. So I think actually you’ll have to go quite soon. But anyway, I’m glad to have met you.”

I managed to squeeze in a few more questions. Had Barber ever regretted working too hard? “No. Possibly when I was at the Sunday Express, when the children were still small and – well, we can argue the toss with them – they remember if I missed a birthday and things. And I did a couple of times. But I haven’t worked very hard in my life. I’ve always been quite lazy, actually. What about you?” I told Barber I felt it was too soon for me to judge, that I didn’t have children, but that I did have a wife and – and then caught myself. Nice try, Lynn.

My final question for Barber: what made her a good interviewer? “I think I am genuinely very, very nosy and very curious about people,” she said. “People say ‘fearless’ – I mean, that’s just daft. But I don’t get embarrassed. I can ask questions up front. I don’t hover on the edge of them.”

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