Broadcaster and former Labour MP

Born: July 8, 1932

Died: May 9, 2019

BRIAN Walden, who has died aged 86, was a Labour MP from 1964 until 1977, who resigned in order to embark on a new career in political journalism. He worked across print and television, but it was in the latter field that he became a household name, particularly during the 1980s, when his work on ITV’s flagship Sunday politics programme, Weekend World, and then on his own marquee show, The Walden Interview, earned him a formidable reputation as a political cross-examiner.

His accent was distinctive, hovering somewhere between his working-class upbringing in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, and the received pronunciation of an Oxford University graduate whose work placed him at the heart of Britain’s establishment. Similarly, his own political centre of gravity was hard to pin down in his later career, which gave him the sense of being both a familiar confidante and a lurking ambusher of any political interviewee who might have let his or her guard down around him.

“After one interview with her, she asked me if I could guess what she hated most,” Walden once recalled about one of his many on-screen encounters with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “I confessed my ignorance. ‘Wishy-washy people,’ she said.” It seems appropriate that she might make this unsurprising confession to Walden, because his demeanour and professional manner was anything but ‘wishy-washy’. His gaze was steely, his tone deliberate, his manner disarmingly relaxed.

In 1980, Thatcher described Walden as her favourite interviewer, but in 1989, following the resignation of Chancellor Nigel Lawson from her Cabinet, Walden had her on the ropes with a combative interview which has endured more than any other single broadcast moment in his career.

“You come over as being someone who one of your backbenchers said is slightly off her trolley, authoritarian, domineering, refusing to listen to anybody else… why?” he wanted to know. Wounded but angry, Thatcher rounded on him: “Brian, if anyone’s coming over as domineering in this interview, it’s you.”

At a time when political debates on television were more concerned with sober critiques of policy, rather than the hyper-accelerated point-scoring sessions which rolling news and the internet have now fostered, the frisson of personal antagonism was thrillingly unusual.

Born Alastair Brian Walden in 1932, to William, a glass worker, and Dora, Walden had a thoroughly working class upbringing in the town of West Bromwich, near Birmingham. He attended the then-West Bromwich Grammar School before going to Queen’s College, Oxford on a scholarship to study history during the 1950s. He was elected president of the Oxford Union and later became a university lecturer following postgraduate study.

His first brush with politics came in 1961, when he stood as Labour by-election candidate in the safe Conservative seat of Oswestry. Although he finished third, there was no harm to his reputation in losing to the Conservative John Biffen, who held the seat for decades to come; in his autobiography, Biffen describes Walden at that time as “a first-class speaker and [he] combined this skill with an easy manner and the shrewd use of populism.”

These skills were eventually put to good use when Walden was elected to the seat of Birmingham All Saints in 1964, during a time when immigration was a hot political issue in the area. He addressed the issue in his maiden speech to Parliament, arguing thoughtfully for more government spending to alleviate pressures on housing and education, and on training people to mediate disputes in a racially sensitive manner.

Walden served Birmingham All Saints and Birmingham Ladywood for 13 consecutive years, winning five elections and campaigning for the relaxation of laws surrounding cannabis and gambling, before taking the Chiltern Hundreds and moving straight over to Weekend World in 1977. Despite his great promise and high profile, he remained a backbencher for his entire political career, reputedly because of clashes with party leader Harold Wilson.

As a broadcaster he was a substantial enough figure to later have his own Spitting Image puppet and to appear as himself in Rik Mayall’s series, The New Statesman. Following the end of The Walden Interview he presented Walden in the early 1990s, as well as a series of profiles of figures from history in the second half of the decade.

Walden was revealed in Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs to have written speeches for her. He presented a BBC Radio 4 show entitled A Point of View in the mid-2000s before retiring.

He died at home in Guernsey of complications surrounding emphysema.

He was married three times, most recently to Hazel Downes, for 43 years, and is survived by four children, including the actor Ben Walden.