Boris Johnson went on Radio 4’s Hoy dia programme for the first time in two years last week, y podrías decir. El primer ministro estaba tan emocionado que el entrevistador, Nick Robinson, Difícilmente podría decir una palabra en. In the end Robinson started talking over Johnson. “Prime minister, are you going to pause?" él dijo, irritably. “Prime minister, stop talking.” It’s the presenter’s equivalent of the footballer’s professional foul: not pretty, but sometimes unavoidable, the calling card of a battle-scarred veteran.
Getting prattlers to shut up is an age-old dilemma for broadcasters. Politicians are trained from birth to prevaricate. By the time they reach maturity they have an arsenal of time-wasting tics: “this is important” and “if you’d just let me finish,” and “well, I’m glad you’ve asked that, because as I’ve said many times to my constituents and the prime minister has said often in parliament and in interviews, this is exactly the kind of vital question on which our voters have every right to expect clear answers.” Impartiality rules mean interviewers can’t be too brusque, so every political interview turns into a version of Just a Minute where the interviewee tries to get through the slot without getting themselves cancelled.
Civilians can be almost as bad. Often they have at last been invited to speak on their special subject after a lifetime of toiling in obscurity. They can be forgiven for seizing their moment, but the audience can be forgiven for switching off. This is why celebrities are Goldilocks guests; aware of the need to fill the airwaves interestingly but also desperate to be invited back.
Depending on where they sit on this spectrum, interviewees will be more or less sensitive to the dark arts of interruption. On the radio, interviewers can put up a hand, or raise their shoulders and draw breath as if they’re about to hit the descant. In extremis, they can run a finger, very slowly, across their throat while staring directly into their guests’ eyes. Melvyn Bragg is said to favour this on In Our Time.
It’s harder on TV. Some favour a slightly raised finger. If you shape your mouth as though you are about to say “w”, as in “would you please shut up?” people will subconsciously prepare themselves for another question. Other interviewers will smile, or nod, with increasing intensity until their subjects get the idea. It’s ironic that during an era with more interviews than ever, interviewers are becoming more patient and informal. I blame podcasts, which are a bloviators’ dream. If you listen to old Sue Lawley Desert Island Discs, she sounds like a customs officer. The guests don’t seem to mind.
Real-life interruptions are difficult, también, despite the benefit of body language hints, like shifting from foot to foot, looking anxiously at the fire exits or putting your coat on. A Harvard study earlier this year found conversations tend to go on for too long because people are too polite to end them. Adam Mastroianni, who led the study, explained there is generally a “coordination failure” about when to end conversations. “People feel like it’s a social rupture to say, ‘I’m ready to go’… Because of that, we are skilled at not broadcasting that information.”
If that’s what it’s like for Americans, it’s even tougher for the British. We are meant to pride ourselves on small talk and not being rude. From Tony Hancock to Alan Partridge, the abrupt conversational departure is a comedy standby. Much as we might want to, we can’t copy Isabelle Adjani‘s Subway character who interrupts the woman next to her at dinner and says “Stop! Tell your story to someone else, because I don’t give a fuck about all this bullshit.” In England the unspoken agreement is that everyone tries not to be too boring, which ironically puts us at the mercy of bores.
A quick Twitter survey yielded some promising conversation breakers. Start humming under your breath, slowly getting louder until the person you’re talking to wonders what the matter is. Or tell them they have something stuck in their teeth. Or say “I, también, have lost people I care about.” Surrealism can work. One idea was to ask the group whether anyone had bought their Christmas tree yet, irrespective of context. Then there’s farting, llanto, fainting and faking a heart attack. Extreme, quizás, but it’s important to have a few options.
Some tactics are so well known that they are ruder than wandering off. "Bien, I mustn’t monopolise you,” is as subtle as pouring a drink on someone. Better to look over their shoulder and suddenly beam with delight, as though you’ve just seen their lottery numbers come up. “I’m so sorry,” you say, but I’ve just seen X is here – have you meet X? You’d love them.” In this situation, X is the second most boring person present.
However polished your methods, escape remains easier than intervention. Phones and fags are enduring standbys. Best of all, a friend’s father taught her always to have two drinks in hand. If conversation drags, you have a ready made excuse to leave; if not, you have two drinks.
It’s what most of us needed after listening to Boris and Nick.