Neither Darcus Howe, the Trinidad-born social commentator, nor Joan Rivers, the formidable New York comedienne, is known for stepping away from an argument but no one could have predicted the furious row that erupted when the two clashed on Radio 4 yesterday morning.
Listeners to the morning Midweek programme were being quietly soothed with the usual decorous chat when, in the words of one guest, “all hell broke loose” over the issue of race.
Ordinarily, Rivers is noted for self-deprecating lines such as: “I guess I’m the hardest working woman in the world, if you don’t count the hooker on the corner.” And, ordinarily, Midweek, hosted by Libby Purves, is a model of civilised discussion.
But yesterday Howe hit a nerve that led to Rivers summoning up one of the coarser phrases from her Brooklyn childhood, screeching, before anyone in the BBC could push the mute button, that Howe was a “son of a bitch”.
Jackie Collins, the Hollywood novelist, had set the tone by talking about Liberty, a mixed-race character in her new book. She spoke of how Liberty’s mother, who was black, put her in front of a mirror, saying: “Don’t you ever forget you’re black.”
Howe went on to talk about his Channel 4 documentary Son of Mine, detailing his relationship with his 20 year-old son, Amiri, and whether it was racism or his faults as a father that were to blame for the difficulties his child had been through.
Rivers, 72, broke in, saying: “I’m so, so bored of race. I think people should inter-marry. Everybody should be part this, part that and part everything. Race doesn’t mean a damn thing. Everybody should just relax, take the best of their cultures and move forward.”
Purves suggested that was a “very American approach” but Howe disagreed, saying: “That’s not an American approach. America is one of the most savagely racial places in the world.”
And then he later suggested: “Since black offends Joan . . . ”
This drove Rivers into a complete tizzy. “Wait!” she cried. “Just stop right now. Black does not offend me. How dare you? How dare you say that? ‘Black offends me!’ You know nothing about me. How dare you.”
Their exchanges culminated with Rivers shrieking: “Don’t you dare call me a racist. I’m sorry. How dare you.”
As a somewhat harassed Purves tried to calm the situation, Rivers said to Howe: “Now please continue, but don’t you dare call me that. Son of a bitch.”
The uproar subsided when Howe, after insisting he had no idea if Rivers “was a racist or not”, relented by saying: “No, she’s not a racist.”
Rivers, who has just arrived in London for a UK stand-up comedy tour, snapped a thank-you, adding: “Now please continue about your stupid film.”
Purves tried to steer the conversation into calmer waters by turning to another guest, the photographer Andrea Jones, and saying: “Andrea, shall we talk about plant photography while Joan and Darcus glare at each other?”
Jones recalled last night that Howe had arrived at the studio late. “It was all terribly relaxed. Jackie Collins was extremely pleasant. None of us had seen Darcus, and had no idea what to expect. I just assumed he was this kindly, wise person. When the fireworks occurred, Libby sort of looked at me, as if I was the calm person. I did think at one point that it might end in fisticuffs.
“Joan was shaking with rage. She was genuinely offended. I sympathised with her. I don’t think it was appropriate for him to jump on her.”
She said that Howe swiftly left the studio as the show ended. “He just went. I didn’t even see him go. He didn’t stay around for a chit-chat.
“It was quite an upsetting situation but Joan didn’t stop laughing from the moment she walked into the Green Room afterwards. She had her entourage with her. They obviously loved her—and were quite happy to laugh it off.”
Howe, 56, the son of an Anglican priest, is one of Britain’s leading black commentators, noted for his Channel 4 programme The Devil’s Advocate, a studio debate that featured his polemical style, as well as a weekly column in The New Statesman.
Rivers later appeared as a guest on ITV’s Paul O’Grady show, and, again, seemed happy to laugh off the encounter. She said that if Howe had shown some humour, things might have been a bit different.
A Radio 4 spokesman said the station had received about 20 calls from listeners. She said: “A few complained about the swearing but most said they enjoyed the debate. Midweek is a live show and we have lively and engaged guests, so sometimes things like this will happen.
“Obviously, we apologise to any listeners who may have been offended by the language. The situation soon calmed down, thanks to Libby’s cool head.”