Blonde ambition

They could have been made at the same factory, but they're the highest-paid women in TV. Why, asks Sheryl Garratt
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The Independent Online
In the beginning, there was Cilla. And for a long, long time, there was no one but Cilla. Not that the fairer sex did not have a role in television light entertainment. Mute, cute and ever-smiling, they would bring on the contestants, show off the prizes, spin the wheel of fortune, hand Bernie the bolt and occasionally they would sit on a stool and sing duets with men in comfy jumpers. But few stayed long enough to host a show of their own and, as time went by, most were replaced by younger models. Apart from Cilla who, with those kitchen-foil frocks and that defiantly red hair, has been allowed to mature in front of the cameras with the same dignity as her bewigged and corseted male peers.

But times have changed since Anthea Redfern came on The Generation Game to give us a twirl. Now there is Ulrika Jonsson, Dani Behr, Gaby Roslin, Mariella Frostrup and, of course, Anthea Turner, the Blue Peter presenter who took a few household items like girl-next-door charm and transformed them into a pounds 1m pay cheque using Lottery cards instead of sticky-backed plastic. Turner, the bubbly but reassuringly ordinary queen of the National Lottery, gives a simple message to the folks at home: it could be you. Except it couldn't, of course. Good presenters should always make their job look easy, as if anyone could do it, and it is this talent that ITV was paying for when it poached Turner from the BBC.

John Bishop, controller of comedy and entertainment at Carlton, was the man responsible for the move and although he will not confirm the figures (up to pounds 1.2m depending on which newspaper you read), he says she is "worth every penny" of a deal that puts her in the same league as light entertainment stalwarts such as Michael Barrymore and Noel Edmonds, or the younger Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans. "She appeals because she's a family person," says Bishop. "She's very likeable, straightforward and competent. There's no hassle with Anthea - she comes in, she delivers, and she has a feel-good factor that the public like. She's not trying to deliver any messages at all."

Turner's first project for ITV next year will be All You Need Is Love, a show "about relationships, bringing people together and trying to get people back together again who may be apart". Bishop is convinced the format will make it a huge hit, and in light entertainment the format comes first: without Blind Date, Cilla's shoulderpads could easily have disappeared from view. The rise of women in light entertainment has much to do with the popularity of such "people shows" - by empathising with the guests, they make what could be cruel and voyeuristic into something much more cosy and comfortable to watch. "They don't patronise," says Bishop, "and that's very important."

As for other formats, Bishop points out that there are still very few female comedians, and comedians are the natural choice for many light entertainment shows: "You wouldn't necessarily put a woman into an average 7pm game show. That would be very uncomfortable. You've got to go for the best person for the job, and the best person for that kind of format is a comedian."

After Angela Rippon showed her legs on a Morecambe and Wise Christmas special back in the Seventies, there was a period when women moved into light entertainment from news backgrounds: Anna Ford, Sue Lawley, Selina Scott. It failed, and though Rippon stayed with the sequins and glitter on Come Dancing, the rest have largely returned to their reporting roots. The template for the new female presenter was Anneka Rice, leader of a pack whose hair is always fair and whose names, like Cilla's, invariably end in an "a".

Most have TV experience without seeming too clever; children's TV is ideal, as is the weather; local magazine programmes are just about acceptable. They are pretty, but in an everydaykind of way - nothing too threatening that could alienate female viewers or older men. They exude good health, the kind of girls who were once captain of the school netball team. And most of all they are nice, able to mix with the public and with celebrity guests and put both at their ease in front of the cameras.

Light entertainment does something strange to these women. (Though it should be remembered that it does few favours to men, either; would you want your son to grow up like Jeremy Beadle or Matthew Kelly?) All are acknowledged to be bright, hard-working and ambitious, yet the small screen shrinks them into bland cartons. Frostrup is recognised by all who meet her as sharp, witty, smart and sexy, yet on TV only the latter shines through. Participating as a team captain in Vic Reeves's and Bob Mortimer's recent surreal parody of a celebrity quiz show, Shooting Stars, Ulrika Jonsson showed a sense of humour that has otherwise emerged only in her choice of a Gladiator as boyfriend. And there was Paula Yates, whose flirty bedside manner during her Big Breakfast interviews was such a tongue-in- chic parody of femininity that when she left she was replaced by Lily Savage, a man in drag.

Then there are the younger presenters hovering around the edges, with ratings low enough to be classified as cult but high enough for the old guard to know that the future is here. Many come from the Planet 24 production stable; these are blonde babes with attitude, women whose names have exchanged the "a" for a "y" sound: Gaby Roslin, Dani Behr and incoming Big Breakfast girl Zoe Ball. Planet 24's Charlie Parsons says they were deliberately chosen to be more than just pretty faces: "All our female presenters you either love or hate, but they've always had opinions and character."

That's as may be but, unlike their male counterparts, they are rarely allowed to be too sharp or critical. "If you're intelligent, you can't let it show too much," says one female presenter, who asked not to be named. "If a man makes certain comments, he's seen as witty, but I've had comments edited out for being too bitchy."

Roslin has just left The Big Breakfast for Channel 4 in a deal worth a reported pounds 1.5m. When rumours of TV presenters' salaries are floated in the press, they are usually greeted with a chorus of envy, yet this time we felt it could not have happened to a nicer girl. Roslin, you see, is the best mate we all wish we'd had. Professional without ever seeming cold, she laughs at your jokes, she listens when you speak, she is smart and pretty but also comfortingly mumsy.

We liked Chris Evans. too, but when he moved on to make millions elsewhere on TV and radio, we could not help but feel that Roslin had been left behind - she was less flashy, of course, less aggressive, but it was always she who kept the show together. Yet even after he left, she seemed stuck in the role of sidekick, so much so that when she is presenting The Real Holiday Show on Channel 4, you are almost looking over her shoulder, waiting for the man in charge to arrive.

It is a perennial female problem. Behr recalls her early days as a presenter, constantly asking why she could not anchor a show and being told that it was a job for a man: her role was to assist. In January, however, she kicks off a one-year stint as sole host of ITV's late-night Friday music show Hotel Babylon, while fellow Word graduate Katie Puckrick shares the honours on the BBC's Sunday Show with comedian Donna McPhail. Puckrick says this was not deliberate progress: the standard male-host-plus-female- sidekick formula was all set to run, but McPhail turned out to be the best man for the job. "TV people," she says, "are very set in their ways."

Behr also says that old assumptions linger: "People on the production side will tell you you'll get on with an interviewee because you're good- looking, you'll flirt with them and they'll fancy you. And sometimes you're like, 'Don't use me as bait!' It's frustrating, but the only way I can get over it is to be good at my job, be professional."

Based on her output so far, you might have made assumptions about Behr, too. But she is not too bothered. Instead she is working on a documentary series on tough women who are working in traditionally male fields. To be shown on Channel 4 next spring, it is co-produced by her own company, Alabama. And although those dinosaurs looking down from the heights of light entertainment will not be toppled by such a series quite yet, it is worth noting that Behr is just 21 years old.