SHOW PEOPLE / The queen of cultural chat: Sarah Dunant

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The Independent Culture
SHE'S the one who pops up last thing at night and beams out this hip urgency about the arts. Not the lanky blonde, the other one, the blue- stocking brunette with red glasses. Tomorrow she hosts a late-night chat-show, The Salon (11pm) on Radio 4, on political correctness: the sort of conversation that takes a sharp look at remarks like the last one.

She's just edited a book about PC, The War of the Words (rounding up the usual suspects - Christopher Hitchens, Lisa Jardine, Melanie Phillips, and so on), and next week she hosts another discussion on the subject at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

Initially she wasn't going to take on PC. 'Who needs it? Who needs to make more enemies in their life? Everyone rows about that.' But then Sarah Dunant doesn't mind a row.

Next week on The Late Show on BBC2 she tackles the Booker Prize with Tom Paulin, Germaine Greer and A S Byatt. She promises that knives will be sharpened. 'In the old days of the Booker Prize they'd say' - and she does a hushed voice - ' 'Here are the six books, I have the tablets of stone from the literati', as if they were so fragile. If literature is going to be influential it has to be robust. It does no service to be sweet about books. That's why I'm a defender of Tom Paulin to the death.'

Dunant has been broadcasting about the arts since the mid-Seventies. For the last five years, conspicuously, she's been one of the founding presenters of The Late Show, which draws half a million arts junkies, or people who don't get round to turning off after Newsnight. A generation down from Joan Bakewell - seemingly less Oxbridge, more perky redbrick, more at home with multiculturalism, genders and agendas - Dunant is one of the new queens of cultural chat.

We sit out in the garden of her house in Tufnell Park, north London. Her daughter's rabbit nibbles at grass in its hutch. It's a nice house, but really they and the rabbit should move a few streets south-east. Living with her partner and their two young daughters, Za and Georgia, with a well-paid job in the media, left-wing, feminist, issue-driven, this is Islington Person Incarnate.

She's small, more feminine than on TV, but just as quick-talking, with those emphases in strange places. Everything is up for discussion. 'There is an argument that says . . . Then you get to the argument that says . . . The jury is still out over . . .'

Her thriller Fatlands - the issue there is animal rights - is out in paperback and she has just handed in her latest, Under My Skin - the issue there is cosmetic surgery. 'You're not meant to call them cosmetic surgeons, they call themselves aesthetic surgeons now.'

In a world dominated by youth and image she's focused on 'the point at which you get old and start to look different, and don't trade in the world so well, sexually, socially, professionally'. In Debrett's People of Today, she lists her daughters' ages, but not her own. Nor does she mention her partner.

Gender and image, for a TV presenter, are not idle concerns. 'I sometimes watch programmes and think if that man was a woman he wouldn't be on the box. He just does not look good enough. And I am absolutely right there. You don't see their female equivalent.' It's the same with private eyes on television. 'The screen is packed with world-weary, tubby, middle-aged (male) detectives in one shape or form. When they put Anna Lee on screen they cast Imogen Stubbs and she tossed her long hair back and wore short skirts.'

Dunant can make a debate, even, about debates: 'Sometimes you have those terrible moments when you think, ugh, another Keats-versus-Dylan debate. I've been here already. Don't do this, David Hare. I know this one. We did this 20 years ago.'

Don't you get fed up with everyone having an opinion? She stops in her tracks for 10 seconds (eternity for a cultural commentator). 'I do get fed up with people who basically like the sound of their own voice.' Do you find that people think you're a know-all? 'No. The problem you're always fighting is the problem that they'll find you out. That I'm not good enough to do this job. Whereas the version you get back is: 'How come you know all this stuff?' And so you're caught between saying: 'Oh no, you don't understand, I don't know anything,' and saying: 'Phew, got away with that.' '

Oxbridge-conspiracists will draw unexpected comfort from her career path. Her father worked for British Airways, she went to Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, then read history at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her interest in history was romantic rather than political ('less Marx, more Jean Plaidy'), but she got an upper second. The rest, of course, is showbiz. She acted, playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret (good casting) and the aloof, bored Yelena in Uncle Vanya (lousy casting). She was 'the girl' in Footlights, too. 'My generation were people who were doctors, did Footlights, then went on to become doctors.'

She wanted to be an actress, got her Equity card, appeared as the Fairy Dragon Flower in The Sleeping Beauty at Oxford, and then unemployment set in. A couple of months of that was plenty. She took a free flight off Dad, went to Japan and worked as an English teacher and a hostess in a nightclub.

Her first success in fiction came with her job applications, 'more and more outrageous', one of which got her into the BBC. From there progress has been steady: Kaleidoscope producer, freelance, jointly written books, singly written books, The Late Show, the kids.

She doesn't like the superwoman tag. 'It's a myth. It's not achievable. You juggle a few balls in the air and every day you're bound to drop some.' But she is proud of women of her generation. 'I don't see any point in whingeing, if having a family, having a partner, and having a career is difficult. Two hundred years ago what would we have done? We'd have had all this energy, intelligence, curiosity. If we'd been rich enough maybe we'd have had a salon, but that's it.'

'The Salon': 11pm Mon Radio 4. The Booker Prize: 8pm 11 Oct BBC2.

(Photograph omitted)