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The Secret Lives of BBC Today Presenters: What John Humphrys and Sarah Montague Get up to Off Air

Breaking news: Surprise, surprise, Mishal Husain and John Humphrys are just mere mortals like all of us | BBC

BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme has captured the nation’s attention for six decades. Ever wondered what its presenters get up to when they are not reading the news or grilling the nation’s politicians? It turns out household names like John Humphrys, Mishal Husain, Justin Webb, Nick Robinson and Sarah Montague live ordinary lives and have to perform mundane chores away from their high-pressured studios.

Artist Nigel Shafran’s 14-minute film lays their lives outside the studio walls bare. He uses his trademark observation-led vision in the simple narrative which begins with the presenters’ early morning routines. Montague talks about looking at her children sleeping with the light from her mobile phone. It then leads on to breakfast habits, coffee, everyday chores. There are panning shots of the studio, which is dark and quiet apart from screens flashing a steady stream of news. The film ends with Humphrys’ touching recollection of his earliest memory, the death of his sister.

The video portrait of the five regular presenters is on display at the National Portrait Gallery to mark the programme’s 60th anniversary. Filmed by in and around the Today studio over three days in July 2017, John Humphrys, Sarah Montague, Mishal Husain, Nick Robinson and Justin Webb were questioned by artist Nigel Shafran about their daily lives, domestic habits, shopping lists, conversations and memories.

Their recollections are juxtaposed with scenes of empty studios and office spaces. The audio content of the new portrait, Today Everyday, provides a change of context for the presenters’ voices, which for Today listeners are normally heard discussing world affairs.

The 14-minute film has a simple narrative beginning with the presenters’ early morning. In this opening section Sarah Montague talks about looking at her children sleeping with the light from her mobile phone. It then leads on to breakfast habits, coffee, everyday chores. Technology is discussed in-terms of how it assists tasks; how it can provide connections between people.

There are panning shots of the studio, which are dark and quiet apart from screens flashing the never-ending news. The film ends with Humphrys’ touching recollection of his earliest memory, the death of his sister.

Shafran’s photographic work is celebrated for a perception of moments, figures and objects that appear incidental, but can be revealing, significant, and sometimes humorous and often tender. He says: ‘‘My thoughts were concerned with how the Today presenters bring world events into our homes, but what is of interest to me are the details of people’s lives, the day-to-day domestic, the personal, non-events often overlooked, which include details such as eating habits, shopping lists, relatives talked to, memories.”

BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme Today is broadcast Monday to Saturday mornings and is the most popular programme on Radio 4 with over seven and a half million listeners a week. Launched on the BBC Home Service on 28 October 1957, it is edited by former Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands.

Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “The arc of the film moves from seemingly mundane insights into the everyday lives of the presenters, moving to reflections on technology and communication, and concluding with explorations of family and loss. It portrays the announcers sympathetically, providing a window on their personalities, whilst at the same time offering a touchstone to bigger issues about how the Today programme itself, and broadcast media, affects us all. All of which is achieved with humour, insight, and seriousness of purpose.”

Shafran is best known for his independent work, which makes subtle narratives from everyday life. His books includes Ruthbook, Dad’s Office, Flowers for _____, Ruth on the phone, Teenage Precinct Shoppers and Dark Rooms (2016). Shafran has exhibited internationally and his photographs have been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Arts Council amongst others.

EVERYDAY AT TODAY

John Humphrys (b.1943), is the longest serving presenter on the current staff; he joined the programme in 1987. During his career with the BBC he has also worked as a foreign correspondent in America and Africa, a diplomatic correspondent and presenter of the Nine O’Clock News. He has presented Panorama and presents Mastermind on BBC Two.
Mishal Husain (b.1973) began her career in news and journalism at Bloomberg television before joining the BBC in 1998, soon becoming a presenter on various news programmes. She was BBC’s Washington correspondent during the invasion of Iraq. Husain presents the weekend news on BBC One and became the second regular female presenter in the current line-up in 2013.
Sarah Montague (b.1966) began her career in journalist with Channel television in 1991. She joined the BBC in 1997, presenting Newsnight, BBC Breakfast and various news programmes. She joined the Today Programme in 2002.
Nick Robinson (b.1963) began his career in broadcasting on Piccadilly Radio, before becoming a political correspondent in 1986. After working for ITV News he returned to the BBC in 1996 as political editor, a role he kept for ten years. He joined the Today programme, taking over from James Naughtie in 2015.
Justin Webb (b.1961) is a journalist that has worked at the BBC since 1984. As a foreign correspondent he reported on the Gulf War, the war in Bosnia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He presented BBC One’s Breakfast News and The World Tonight before becoming the channel’s Europe Correspondent, Washington Correspondent and the North American editor. He joined Today in 2009.
  • Today Everyday by Nigel Shafran, Room 32, National Portrait Gallery, London, from 31 October 2017. Admission free.
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