Behind the scenes of Radio 4’s Today with Sarah Montague, Justin Webb – and David Cameron
April 14, 2015 | By:
Radio 4’s flagship Today programme is one of the BBC's most-listened to. York Membery is lucky enough to sit in, and finds himself inches from the prime minister in full General Election mode
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Sarah Montague and Justin Webb have a 3.25am start when presenting Radio 4’s Today programme

The minute hands on the dual electronic clocks in the control room strike the hour marker in unison.

“Good morning, it’s six o’clock. This is the Today programme with Justin Webb and Sarah Montague,” says 49-year-old Montague in her crisp, clear English, from the adjoining studio.

Outside the streets of London’s West End are still uncharacteristically quiet, but despite the hour, co-presenters Justin and Sarah have been up and about for a couple of hours preparing for the day’s show, which is broadcast six days a week from the BBC’s iconic Broadcasting House building, a stone’s throw from Oxford Circus.

The duo both set their alarms for 3.25am on work days – but Montague reveals that she hit “the snooze button twice this morning which is why I was a bit late!”

Nearly seven million people tune into Radio 4’s flagship news programme, which not only plays an important part in ‘the national conversation’ but is one of the most listened-to radio shows in the UK.

This morning’s running order includes items about an appeal to find homes for abandoned horses and the Eurovision Song Contest. But the big interview is with the prime minister, David Cameron, who’s now in full election-mode.

Just after 8am, he strides confidently into the studio, slips off his jacket and sits down a few feet away from me, albeit it on the other side of the glass screen dividing the studio from the control room.

The programme’s keynote 8.10am interview can often set the day’s national news agenda, particularly if a public figure lets slip something indiscreet or gets caught out by a question.

And while Montague, who’s interviewing the PM, might not go for the jugular with quite the intensity of her veteran Today colleague John Humphrys, her interview with Cameron is still pretty full-on.

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Sarah Montague has been presenting the Today programme since 2002

She quizzes him about everything from his ‘personal’ attacks on Ed Miliband to the reorganisation of the NHS.

After Cameron deflects one question and starts reeling off a list of the government’s achievements, Today’s editor Jamie Angus whispers through the headphones to Montague: “Do the £3,000 tax bombshell!”.

She changes tack, but the media-savvy prime minister bats that one away too.

“Move on,” whispers Angus through the headphones.

A couple more questions follow but Cameron neatly sidesteps every potential booby-trap.

“Final question,” the editor tells Sarah – and a minute later the interview is over.

My verdict? A points draw.

Half-an-hour later, at 9am, the show draws to a close following an interview with the American humorist P.J. O’Rourke who provides a suitably light note on which to end the programme. A relieved Justin and Sarah slip off their headphones and stretch out their legs. Then we adjourn to an adjoining room for a chat.

The duo readily admit that the unsocial hours they work can place stresses and strains on family life.

“I’m usually in bed by 9pm the night before presenting the show,” says father-of-three Justin, 54, who’s wearing a tie-less dark shirt and black trousers.

“And I never get to eat dinner with my wife and children in the evening if I’m on the next day.” Then he adds jokily: “That’s probably why my wife and I have never been happier together!”

In contrast, Montague likes “a bowl of pasta” in the evening with her husband and their three children, the youngest of whom is just eight. “By 10pm though, I’m panicking because I know I need to go to sleep,” she admits.

One of the best tips that Webb says he was given when he started work on Today in 2009, by fellow presenter John Humphrys, was to get enough sleep.

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Justin Webb: “The moments of drama when you’re doing a big interview make it all worthwhile”

“It might sound obvious but you can spend the entire day preparing for an interview the next morning, but as John pointed out, without sleep, your brain just won’t function properly,” he says.

That said, starting work so early in the day also has its advantages: both Webb and Montague, for instance, get to pick up their children from school in the afternoon.

After working on Today for so long, the two appear to take their broadcasting duties in their stride – although Montague (who joined in 2002) admits she was “a bit more psyched up than usual” on the day I joined them because she was interviewing David Cameron.

“There’s no doubt that the mercury rises some days more than others,” laughs the presenter, who’s wearing a grey silk top, lightweight charcoal cardigan and stylish dark slacks. And both she and Webb admit to still feeling “a bit wired” when they come off air after their marathon three-hour radio stint.

Most of the time, Today runs as smoothly as a finely-tuned engine, but every now and then things can go wrong. “We put the wrong David Davies on air once!” laughs Montague.

However, despite the unsocial hours, “which leave you feeling slightly jet-lagged all the time without the advantage of having been to Antigua,” observes Justin wryly, the early starts are clearly a price worth paying for the privilege of presenting one of the most prestigious programmes in broadcasting.

“The moments of drama and tension when you’re doing a big interview make it all worthwhile,” says Webb, who’s quizzed everyone from Barack Obama to Rolling Stone Keith Richards on the show.

Montague loves the show’s variety, observing: “You’re interviewing a senior politician one minute, and the next you’re talking about something that sounds absurd but is nonetheless interesting.”

Adds Webb: “It’s simply the best gig in broadcasting – and it matters.”

And with that, they’re both off – and no doubt looking forward to grabbing some well-deserved ‘shut eye’… before preparing for the following day’s 3.25am alarm call.

The Today programme is on BBC Radio 4 Monday to Friday, 6am-9am and on Saturday, 7am-9am.