A loud mouth, coast to coast

Deborah Ross talks to Janet Street-Porter
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Indy Lifestyle Online
JANET STREET-PORTER lives in this amazing house in the London district of Clerkenwell. It's stunning. Steel spiral staircases. Diagonal windows. Doors of fat, dark wood with thick bits of rope for handles. "Gosh Janet," I say somewhat breathlessly, having climbed the long, external spiral staircase, "this is fantastic. Is it Wimpey or Barratt?" She looks at me stonily. "Neither. It's architect-designed." Janet Street-Porter is 6ft tall. But even if she were 3ft she'd somehow make you feel stupid and small. Inside, the house is all magically upside-down, with the kitchen in the roof, even the garden in the roof in the form of a concrete wedge jutting out. There are purple, triangular tables, pink benches, peach, colour-washed walls and, downstairs in the bedroom, an old British Rail parcel trolley magnificently converted into a bed. Eager, naturally, to claw my way back from that initial faux pas, I tell her that, as everything on telly these days seems to be about vets or interior design, she should think about building a series around, say, neutering toms on that purple table while talking us through the colour-washing of the walls.

She laughs. I am redeemed, but I suspect only marginally. She says she's got a piece to write for the Sunday Times. Then she has to go to Channel 4 to take part in some discussion programme. Plus, she's awaiting an important call to do with a new show for ITV. "You can't stay long," she says. "I've got work to do." Her glottals stop all over the shop. But I can't work out how to best write this down. No "T" is ever pronounced. Got becomes "go," but it isn't "go", as in "ready, steady, go" because it's sounded to rhyme with "got", only without the "t". See how complex it is? You'll just have to imagine it.

Physically, Janet Street-Porter is immensely impressive. It's not just the height or that spectacularly crowded mouth, it's also her figure. No waist to speak of, she goes straight up and down, and most of it's made up of the fabulously long legs which, today, end in these fluffy, slip-on trainer things. No, they are not slippers, she explains. They are part of Nike's new "post-exertion footwear" range. Janet, even at 51, remains a very happening, slipper-scorning sort of person. Her energy and stamina are known to be quite something.

After various incarnations - presenter, producer, BBC executive, managing director of the cable station L!ve TV - she has gone back to presenting with Coast To Coast, a seven-part series which begins on 27 February on BBC2 and essentially follows Janet as she walks across the south coast of England, from Dungeness to Weston-Super-Mare, then through Wales, from Cardiff to Conwy, a trip of more than 500 miles. She has always been a keen walker, yes. She's a former president of the Ramblers' Association. She owns a second home in Yorkshire, goes up most weekends, and walks and walks. I am not a great walker myself. I mean, if God had wanted us to walk, why did he invent cars and roads and McDonald's drive-ins? I am still having trouble breathing from that staircase. But if there is one thing more tiring and dull than going for a walk yourself, then it might be watching Janet Street Porter going for a walk.

In the opening episode, she promises to deliver "glimpses of post-election Britain" as she tramps across the countryside. Unfortunately, these glimpses never really come about. Instead, it's Janet traipsing though rape. Janet in a poncho in the rain. Janet discussing routes with other sad anoraks. Janet being joined by Chris Smith somewhere in mid-Wales, slipping in mud, and getting a dirty bottom. Chris doesn't bother to help her up. (What does this tell us about post-election Britain? Fall on your bum and New Labour doesn't give a fig?) What does she see in this walking nonsense anyway? "You know, when you start off, there are all your thoughts in your head. Have I called so-and-so? Have I left bread in the bread- bin in Yorkshire? But as you walk you stop thinking about those things." So you find it cleansing in some way? Yes, she does, she says. Plus it's relaxing, too. The only thing that ever riles her while she's walking are caravans. Caravans? "Hate them. They're dangerous on the road and they ruin beautiful countryside. Plus, people just seem to stay inside them, watching telly." Isn't that a bit snobby, Janet? "Oh, don't give me that rubbish, PLEASE!," she cries impatiently . "Independent readers don't own caravans."

The thing about Janet I would most like to work out is: has she been over-rated or under-rated over the years? Is she a great deal cleverer than most people think? Or was she lucky to get as far as she did? She came within a squeak of the Controllership of BBC2. You don't get there by fluke alone, I'm sure. But, still, what did she ever really achieve as a telly executive? There was Network 7, which she produced for Channel 4, and which was truly innovative and rightly won lots of awards for originality. But after that, when she was head of "yoof" at the BBC? Rough Guide and Reportage were fine for their particular audiences, but the one chance she was given to do something mainstream, she came up with the truly appalling flop that was Style Trial. Subsequently, her time at L!ve TV was not a great success. Eventually, she was packed off with a pay-off reputed to be between pounds 100,000 and pounds 200,000. For various reasons, this wasn't entirely her fault. But, still, when Nightmare At Canary Wharf - a fly- on-the-wall documentary about her time there - went out, I remember being quite shocked by how childish she seemed. It was all "I want" and "I want it NOW!" and "don't give me fucking excuses. Just go do it!"

Janet is clever, I think. She may even be very clever. But she is only clever in a totally here and now, Nike post-exertion footwear sort of way. She is wholly of the moment, and if her moment doesn't happen to be anyone else's, then she's not really offering very much. She will not answer any questions about her past."I don't want to go over old ground," she says. "The other day, the editor of a soon-to-be launched magazine rang me. They wanted me to write a piece on the Seventies. I said: 'You're starting a new magazine, and you want me to write about something that's 20 years old? You should be commissioning pieces on what's happening out there now'."

What is happening out there now? "Well, I'm interested in psychic vampires." Beg pardon? "People who suck out your ideas, then go off and use them themselves. She is thinking of writing a book on the subject.

Of course, Janet could be refusing to talk about her past because she just doesn't want to. For all her loudness - loud clothes, loud diatribes against male, mediocre, middle-aged BBC executives - she is quite a private person, I think. "No one really knows me," she says at one point, for no particular reason. But, still, her behaviour, on the whole, does seem to fit in with someone who has always largely lived, and is still living, an unexamined life

She's been married three times. The last marriage, in particular, was a disaster. It seems to have been a spur of the moment thing with a young salesman whom, it is said, she eventually had to ask to get out of her house. "I'm not talking about THAT!" she says.

And the future? It's not something she ever thinks about either. She spends as she earns. She doesn't do pensions or shares or investments. Recently, on a trip to Jamaica, she bought a piece of land because she just fancied it.

In some ways Janet is, if not admirable, then at least enviable. I, too, would love to live remorselessly in the present. I tell her as much. I tell her I worry about everything. The past. The future. You name it, I'll have a worry about it. She looks at me pityingly then says that, if my worries wake me in the middle of the night, I should write them down there and then. "Then, when you look at them in the morning, they'll seem piddling."

You've done that, have you?

"Yes."

And what would those worries be, I ask. I hope for something interesting here but, annoyingly, lose her again.

"Oh, you know, the usual things. Where's my waist gone? Why's my skin getting all loose. Did I leave that bread in the bread bin?"

I change tack and ask her of she's ever been badly hurt by anything? "Oh yes, like I really want to share that with the readers of The Independent," she says mockingly. I'm not telling you." She is beginning to get on my nerves now, so I persist. Did it hurt when you tried to flog off your old clothes at Christies, and no one bought them? "Nah. I only did it so I could have double glazing in the bedroom." Did it hurt when Kelvin Mackenzie was editor of the Sun, and he published a picture of you next to a horse, and asked readers to vote on who was the uglier?

"Can't remember."

Janet, do you ever cry?

"Yes."

When was the last time?

"When my dad died. I think. I can't remember."

She was born Janet Bull (She has kept the name of her first husband, the photographer Tim Street-Porter) Her mother, Cherrie, was a school dinner lady. Her dad, Stan, was an electrician. She grew up in Fulham, until, in her early teens, her parents moved to the suburb that is Perivale. She was a model pupil. She got 11 O-levels and four A-levels.

She has always been terrifically ambitious. This only comes out when, for some reason, we get onto our mutual love of Scrabble. She adores it, but is a horrible loser. Once, she was playing with someone on the beach. The moment she started to lose, she took all the letters and threw them, cursing, in the sea. This seems to connect with her childhood and, before she knows it, she is remembering something almost interesting. "I joined the Young Conservative Quiz Team when I was a kid, not because I was ever a Young Conservative, but because I wanted to do the quizzes and win. So, always ambitious, yes. Eventually, she may even have become ambitious beyond her abilities.

Certainly, she never seems to have been without a bloke. I had even read that she first became engaged at 14. True?

"I can't remember." Certainly, when there haven't been husbands, there have been lovers. Musicians. Style people. A rap artist called Normski or Sidski or something. Does she find it hard to not have a man?

"No."

You once said relationships were like gambling chips. You start off with a big pile, then bit by bit the chips go, and the pile gets smaller and smaller until it's time to move on.

"Did I?"

YES!

"Can't remember."

She has never had children. I ask her if she thinks she'll ever regret this, if only fleetingly. She gets cross. "Would you ask a bloke that question? Would you ask Clive Anderson?" Yes, absolutely, if he didn't have kids. She softens slightly. "If I had children, where would they go?," she says. She then adds: "Am I frightened there will be no one there to look after me in my old age? No! I'm going to move into a great home with my friends. We'll go about like nutters in our wheelchairs."

She went to architectural college, but gave up after the first year because she met fellow student Piers Gough - the architect who eventually designed this house of hers, the man at Wimpey being busy - and knew she'd never be as good as him. She turned to journalism, writing for Petticoat Magazine, then the Evening Standard, before going on to telly and team-presenting light-weight topical shows. She was made head of BBC "yoof" in 1988. She says the BBC "loved me' but that didn't stop them marching her up to a Portakabin in Manchester when the department was relocated. Did she mind? "I commuted," she says.

She says she ultimately left the BBC not because she was repeatedly passed over for the bigger jobs, but because she stopped enjoying it. "The job wasn't creative. Someone would come in with an idea, you'd have to take it to the channel controllers ... I felt trapped. .'

What, I wonder, is her own favourite telly programme? Casualty, she replies. I say I can't stand it. The shot of the rotating saw. The shot of the thumb. The anticipation, knowing that the thumb and the saw are going to meet, and the thumb's going come off the worst, if it doesn't come off altogether. I can't bear it. She says: "Oh, no, I love knowing the paths are going to cross. I love Charlie, whose always staring into space. What is he thinking of? It's like watching a ballet, the way it's all interwoven."

I think my not liking Casualty might have been the last straw. Whatever ground I may have made up, I went and lost it. Really, I have to go. She's got all this work to do. I am shooed back down the steel, spiral staircase which, I'm sure, didn't come flat-packed from Ikea. I find I'm quite tired by the time I get hope.

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