HE is a famously bristly inquisitor of the powerful, feared for his sharp tongue and withering expressions.
But seldom has an encounter with Jeremy Paxman been quite so hairy. The long-serving anchor of the BBC’s Newsnight has sparked a torrent of online social media debate after returning from his holiday complete with a full beard.
Online discussion of the irascible presenter’s silvery whiskers, which relegated the natural phenomenon of a meteor shower to a mere sideshow, proved divisive.
While supporters of the 63-year-old’s new look suggested the facial hair lent him an added gravitas and earthiness, other observers proved less charitable, with one likening his look to Ben Fogle after being stranded on a desert island for four decades.
The spirited discussion over the newly hirsute Paxman was largely played out on Twitter, where the topics presented for debate on Monday evening’s edition of Newsnight were drowned out by voices from each camp.
Within minutes of the programme going on air, a flurry of irreverent Twitter hashtags – #paxmansbeard, #newsnightbeard, #paxobeard, #beardypaxman – acted as the vehicle for debate.
Rebus author and music aficionado Ian Rankin was among those to have some fun at Paxman’s expense, tweeting: “It is 1973 and I’m really digging the new album by Paxman’s Beard.”
Television presenter Kirstie Allsopp said she could not envisage Paxman as anything but clean-shaven, appealing: “Paxo with a beard is like me going blonde, there are just some things that are not meant to be.”
Political blogger Guido Fawkes offered the most damning appraisal of them all, tweeting: “Paxo looks like he’s making one of those ‘hostage pleads for release’ videos.”
Others, however, offered more favourable critiques for the silly season’s main talking point. Comedian Jenny Eclair said: “I like Paxman’s beard, looks like he might ride a Harley come the weekend”, while the broadcaster’s fellow presenter, Emily Maitlis, tweeted: “Right that’s it. I’m working on a moustache for Thursday’s Newsnight.”
In the aftermath of the reaction to his first show since the summer break, Paxman said yesterday that he was undecided whether to persist with his new appearance but, in typically acerbic fashion, accused his employers of pogonophobia – a fear of beards.
“I have grown a beard for the last few summers, and suddenly wondered whether I really needed to shave it off to present Newsnight,” he said.
“Unless you’re lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic as the late, lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha.”
Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader of Albania from 1944, banned beards claiming they were unhygienic.
Paxman added: “I may keep it or I may shave it off, but I think I’ll make my own decision.”
The whiskers were hailed by the Beard Liberation Front, which describes itself as an “informal network of beard wearers”. It issued a statement yesterday, claiming the presenter had made “broadcasting history”.
The group said: “It had previously been thought that the BBC had an informal beard ban on news anchors after Michael Buerk was told that he could not present the Nine O’Clock News with a beard. He promptly shaved his beard. Paxman’s beard is a blow against pogonophobia in public life.”
Whatever the future of the bristles, they had already sprouted their own Twitter account by yesterday morning, and bookmakers have faith that Paxman’s stubborn approach will apply to the new look, confidently predicting that the hair will remain for at least the rest of this week.
Ladbrokes make him odds- on at 4/5 to see out his Newsnight duties without going near a razor, with odds of 4/1 that he will trim it into manageable designer stubble come Friday.
But for the beard’s long-term future, the prospects are dim. The firm is offering odds of 1/2 that it will be a distant memory by the end of the month, against 33/1 that Paxman ends up retiring without ever shaving again.