The Hunter Davies Interview: I've got the dream ticket. This is the best job in TV: Just six years ago, Lis Howell was sorting letters in deepest Cumbria. Now she's sorting out breakfast television in a South Bank skyscraper

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LIS HOWELL is the most powerful woman in ITV. Which doesn't say a great deal, either about women or television. Competition in television is thin when it comes to Women as Suits. But she is powerful, no question, just feel the size of her mail bag. Or male bag. In the past year she's had almost 20,000 begging letters, mostly from men, saying gizza job or please smile kindly on my project.

She is director of programmes at GMTV, a new station, whose Good Morning show begins on 1 January, replacing TV-am. The letters are now down to 50 a day, all of them too late. The station has hired 200 people, which is all it needs for the moment, thank you very much for writing.

'I went up in the lift one day, not long after my appointment, and found myself standing beside a trolley full of post. Goodness, I thought, some department gets a lot of post. Then I saw my name. They were all for me.

'I think in the last year everyone I've ever known has suddenly come up with a programme idea. They say it's usually everyone you've ever slept with. Oh no, don't write that down. It was a joke. My mother will kill me if she reads it.' She is ever so informal and chatty, small, with a strong northern accent, blonde, old-fashioned hair, open eager eyes, no lovey overtones, no power dressing, but she can wield the power when she has to. They still talk about the sackings she carried out at Sky.

They also still talk about her in the hamlet of Mawbray in deepest Cumbria. She was handling the post in those days, letters meant for other people. She was the village postmistress. Yes, that was her job, just six years ago.

Amazing. However did she get from there, selling stamps and sweeties to here, sitting in London Weekend's South Bank skyscraper, running her little empire?

Back to the beginning. Born Lisbeth Baynes 41 years ago in Liverpool, her father worked for Dunlop as a technical manager. She was educated at Liverpool Institute for Girls. In her first year, Edwina Currie, then in the sixth form, was her table prefect. Gillian Reynolds, now a radio critic, was head girl. She read English at Bristol, got a 2:1, thought about research, but headed on a hippie-type trail with five other Bristol students, including one she'd just married, John Howell.

'He was a law student, a very nice nice. You got married in those days, back in the early Seventies. I think we were the last batch who did. We toured South America in a Land-Rover. The boys were really patronising towards the girls, but we didn't have the vocabulary to defend ourselves when we were sexually discriminated against - oh you know, the girls were expected to do the cooking and the boys always criticised when a girl did the driving.'

On her return she took a Dip. Ed at Leeds, attracted by part of the course which promised media training. 'For years I hadn't known what I wanted to be, then one day I woke up and decided I wanted to be on television. It was a mad idea. Like coming home and telling your Mum you wanted to be an astronaut. I didn't know how you got into the media. I'd never even heard of the BBC training schemes.'

She did some work experience at Radio Leeds during her teacher training, and at the end they offered her a reporting job on pounds 15 a week. This was 1973. Her marriage was by then collapsing. 'There was nothing to hold it together. He's now a lawyer, and still a very nice chap. Twenty years earlier, we would have held it together, as people did in my parents' generation. We were lucky enough to realise at the age of 24 that it was a mistake. We had matured into different sorts of people with different interests.'

Five years in radio at Leeds, then wow, the bright lights of Carlisle beckoned. Well, they seemed bright to her, when Border TV gave her a chance on television. 'Being vain, I loved appearing on TV. And the work wasn't hard. I don't want to be rude to Border, but let's say it wasn't exactly staffed by workaholics.'

She worked as a local television reporter and presenter for the next few years, including spells at Granada and Tyne Tees, but with decreasing dissatisfaction. 'I'd been desperate to get my face on the telly, but I never really mastered the art of looking into the camera and making people convinced by me. I was always too excitable or too involved.'

By this time she was living with a handsome young freelance reporter from Carlisle, Ian Proniewicz, father Ukrainian, but brought up in Workington. Her career was going nowhere and she wasn't happy with it anyway, so she decided to opt out, retire to the country and be a wife and earth mother.

They bought the village post office at Mawbray. She became the postmistress and they also opened a little restaurant in an adjoining barn. She wasn't just having a break. It was goodbye career, hello motherhood.

'I decided that all I needed for complete happiness in life was a baby. When I did get pregnant, I felt so unwell. I remember going to an antenatal class in Carlisle and they told me I had high blood pressure and should rest. I said I couldn't, I had the stamp books to balance and the mushrooms to marinate for the restaurant. They let me go home for two hours, then I had to come back and I lay flat on my back for six weeks till the baby was born.'

This was Alexandra, now eight, named by Ian after a local coach company, one of whose buses happened to pass their house when they were thinking of a name.

'Nine weeks after her birth, I realised I was homesick - for a job. I felt like a transsexual, waking up in the wrong body and the wrong place. I fought this feeling, telling myself it was wrong. Being a mother, that was the thing to be. I grew jealous of Ian, going on jobs. I got depressed when he was sent off to cover a sheep sale in Alnwick, not exactly a glamorous assignment. At the age of 34, I had a baby, but no place in the world. I now say to other women thinking of having a baby in their thirties that they'll be homesick for their old selves.'

There was no local work round Mawbray, as the recession had already hit west Cumbria. She thought of writing a novel, but never started. In the end, she answered an ad and got two days a week at the art college in Carlisle. 'I taught in the graphics department, not because I knew about graphics, but because I could spell. My days in television had shown me that people in graphics can never spell.'

She then decided to go back into television, but not as a presenter. She would start from scratch, learning to produce, but there were no jobs. One of the ways for an outsider to interest the media is to persuade them you know about something they don't. All she had to offer was her own situation - a woman with a baby living in a remote country area. She put this up as an idea, and it led to a series of six called Border Babies. She did another series of six chat shows, which she says was mostly chaotic. Border, being the smallest ITV station, can't attract many star guests, so an expert called in to talk about the Royal Family might find Burns' Night and Herdwick sheep also on the agenda. Out of that, Ms Howell discovered how to do 'streamed' programmes, letting things flow, not divided into chunks.

'The most important thing I discovered was that I enjoyed encouraging other people. It was such a relief not being a presenter. I'd got the vanity out of my system. But it means I understand the anxieties presenters have, the tricks they use.'

Her success as an outside producer was immediate. Border made her head of news. Do you think, Lis, if you can take your eye off that monitor for a moment (which she was now watching, as they were doing tests in her new studio), that there is a niche waiting for all of us, hmm? 'Too glib,' she said, rather sharply. 'It's just that for certain people, certain things can all add up at a certain time, but it's very rare.'

It has also taken luck. In her case, Lockerbie. 'Terrible to talk about a tragedy that way, but it's like brain surgeons need people with sick brains to do their job. My job happened to be news.' From Border's little newsroom, she organised ITV's coverage of the disaster, putting in 36-hour shifts.

Offers came in from the big TV companies, which she turned down, or Ian turned down, saying he didn't want to move, till, in 1989, Sky asked her to be its managing editor. They both thought it might be fun. A year ago she left them, when a consortium of LWT, Scottish TV, Carlton, the Guardian and Disney won the TV-am franchise, at a cost of pounds 34.6m. I suggested her GMTV salary must be pounds 100,000 a year. 'Give over. Nothing near that. But I do hope to make a lot of money if all goes well.'

She obviously loves the work, radiating excitement, even when it's just another colour test on the early morning sofas. Yes, they will have them, but the news will be read from a table, not a desk, what a breakthrough. She'll also have the newsreaders doing ordinary human interest interviews, another first, she says, excitedly. Oh, come on, it's only breakfast TV. Surely no intelligent person is going to watch it anyway? OK, I'll never watch it, not when we've got Today on Radio 4.

Naturally, she defended it stoutly. People liked being snotty about all breakfast TV. She got used to that, at both Sky and Border. Her station is going to be topical, covering hard news, but pacy and entertaining. More middle of the road than the Big Breakfast Show. Lighter than BBC 1. 'Making serious TV is a doddle. Making popular TV - that's hard.' We shall see.

Meanwhile, back to her marriage. How was that surviving, now she's the media mogul and Ian is still a part-time freelance, spending a lot of his time at home with Alex.

'We never married, though it's been a monogamous relationship for 12 years. People assume two things. Either I should be grateful to Ian for letting me to go work, or I am somehow damaging him. Either way, it's hurtful. Ian's a self-controlled person. It doesn't worry him. It's good for both of them that Alex should spend a lot of time with her Dad.'

They have a live-in au pair, the fourth in three years from the same block of flats in Bilbao. Ian does the big weekly shop and most of the weekend cooking. During the week, they mostly eat sandwiches. She does the bills. 'There's an ironing-board permanently set up at the end of our bed. We iron when we have to, which explains why we're both a bit crumpled.

'We do have the occasional terrible row. Alex recently told a friend that I had thrown a kebab at Ian. It was true. But she missed out that he then picked it up and ate it.'

They don't socialise or give parties. She is too tired when she gets home. 'What I like best in the evening is a bottle of red wine with Ian and a good video.'

From 1 November the station goes in to full rehearsal, which means she will be working 4-4. Sorry? She meant her hours: four o'clock in the morning till four in the afternoon. Personally, I think I'd rather work the Mawbray Post Office. It will mean rising at three, to get in from their Twickenham terrace house. Will it be worth it? How about their sex life?

'I don't think that will disappear. No sex life suffers, if you don't want it to suffer. We've always worked weird shifts. You keep forgetting I've got the dream ticket. This is the best job in television. Starting your own station. What can be more exhilarating?'

(Photograph omitted)

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