Media families 5. The Wyatts

Woodrow Wyatt (master of the Tote) begat Petronella (feature writer)
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The Independent Online
Woodrow Wyatt, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, who retires as chairman of the Totalisator Board next month, is one of the more extraordinary figures in our national life. His public persona is of the contrary curmudgeon; his pudgy, scrunched-up features exude malign intelligence and his thrust- out lips seem permanently poised to snap. After more than 30 years as a Labour MP, in 1977, he was suddenly born again as a Thatcherite Tory, and his name became a byword for treachery.

Today, appearing on a floor crowded with celebrities at a party thrown by, say, John Paul Getty II, wearing his inevitable bow tie and waving a fat cigar, he is the undisputed king of the quangocrats: he has been the master of the Tote for an amazing 21 years, the reward, enemies say, for his genius for ingratiating himself with important people. Yet this ageing ogre, who has also pursued a part-time career as a journalist for nearly 50 years, and whose quaintly named Voice of Reason column in the News of the World has been running since 1983 - has one redeeming feature: his only daughter, Petronella. "My bid," as he put it in the dedication of his memoirs, and including Petronella's half-brother, Pericles, "for immortality."

Petronella writes profiles for The Daily Telegraph and opinion pieces for the Spectator. She is probably the most drooled-over woman journalist in the country, always described as "lissome" or "attractive" or "scrumptious"; her failure even at the advanced age of 28 to find a mate is regularly raised as a topic both bizarre and too good to be true.

Older male journalists can't resist mentioning that she once expressed a strong preference for men at least 15 years her senior. Even when people try and carp about her they seem to end up simultaneously carping and fawning, which is a hard posture to maintain. One writer described her addiction to designer labels, which allegedly swallow much of her father's pounds 100,000 stipend from the Tote, as a case of "lamb dressed up as mutton".

So far so irritating for the rest of us of either sex. What makes it all far worse is that Petronella has an incredible strike rate. Perhaps it's her fabled lissomeness or her designer labels, it may be her It girl aura or her social connections; or simply that she has (in Murray Sayle's never-bettered definition of what a journalist needs) "a little literary ability, and ratlike cunning". Whatever, she brings home the bacon.

She somehow induced Janet Anderson, Labour's putative Minister for Women, to declare that "under Labour, women will become more promiscuous. That's an election pledge." She provoked Lord Healey into saying regretfully, as the interview ended, "Pity we've left no time for rumpy-pumpy." ("I look at him witheringly and call him a silly-billy," she reported.) She turned the tables on Ruby Wax, detailing the contents of her fridge and exposing the over-hyped comedienne as rude and nasty.

And in the course of a long and excruciating interview with the Prime Minister, she coaxed the unlucky man into the human equivalent of rolling on his back and waving his legs happily in the air. "Does he experience a mental and physical charge when he goes out in front of crowds? 'If you really want the truthful answer, there are occasions when that happens, yes. Norma would think that extremely perceptive.' " By such strokes does she justify the privilege, unique in British journalism, of having her picture printed in the company of the people she profiles.

Although journalism is probably more open and more full of women than most professions, typecasting still occurs, and following the success of Lynn Barber, the writing of profiles (like agony aunt) is one job deemed suitable for the girls. At times, Petronella Wyatt seems to jibe against this, writing earnest Spectator think pieces on, for example, the Balkans (her mother, Verushka, is Hungarian which helps to explain that interest), or furious hate pieces about fashion going to the dogs. But she is so good at putting prominent people at their ease that she will find it a hard destiny to escape.

As Petronella still lives with her parents, and is always going on holiday or to parties with them, it is unlikely any time soon that she will be prevailed on to write a profile of her father. That's a pity. For if anyone could induce him to unburden the secrets of his curious professional longevity, it is shen

Woodrow Wyatt b.1918

Petronella b.1968