Fiona Bruce: 'I pay my full share of tax, believe you me'
She has been attacked for her icy demeanour, an iffy knowledge of antiques – and her financial arrangements. How does Fiona Bruce cope with being headline news?
Sunday 05 August 2012
The BBC obviously thinks we can't have too much Fiona Bruce. On top of reading the news and presenting Antiques Roadshow, she has been asked to make another series of her art-detective show, Fake or Fortune?. It's the one where she and art sleuth Philip Mould investigate the provenance of a painting that divides opinion. It's a good format, but I wish they'd open it up to other controversial objects. Like people. They could start with Katie Price: fake, and a fortune. And move on to Philip Mould's tan: fake? Or has he spent a fortune on tropical holidays? Then there's Bruce's smile…
I map out the first few episodes during the 10-minute walk from Belsize Park station to a café near her house, where we're due to meet. This is London's real media village, a dreamy enclave of mega-mansions where the BBC's top 1 per cent hole up. Presumably, Bruce doesn't want me to snoop round her place, which is why we're off to the Belsize Kitchen. A pity, but as it happens, I know her house already. It's a detached, Victorian, red-brick villa, with high ceilings and whitewashed walls. On the garden side, she and her husband, Nigel Sharrocks, an advertising executive, have added a massive Modernist extension, which sweeps across the length of the building, joining a vast, clinical kitchen to a vast, clinical drawing-room. I know this not because I'm a stalker, but because you could see it all in fascinating detail in Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC's family-history programme.
Now there's a good TV programme, in which famous people reveal themselves through talking about their family. There's usually one or two skeletons knocking about, the exception being Michael Parkinson: they abandoned his episode because they couldn't find any interesting relatives. Patsy Kensit came from a line of criminals, and one of Lesley Garrett's ancestors was accused of killing his wife. When Bruce was on, they asked what she hoped to find. "Some mass murderer, or a stripper!" she trilled, knowing the drill. But the disappointment was how little we got to know her. Even Jeremy Paxman appeared in a new light, when he blubbed over his great-great-grandmother's ordeal in a Glasgow slum. Not Bruce: the smiley, breezy shell never cracked. Even when she was talking to her parents, it felt like the Antiques Roadshow, a slick London journalist talking to cosy old people in the provinces. The shots of that kitchen – immaculate, cold, expensive – were more telling.
So, what to expect? She arrives all smiles and laughter, and is taller than I had imagined. She is casual in skinny jeans and a cardigan, and orders a giant muffin with her coffee. She has two children, Sam, 14, and Mia, 10, and they have just taken delivery of a new puppy, Molly, an Irish Terrier, so we spend the first few minutes talking dog: she's thrilled, as she's always wanted one, though she apologises for being "a booore" about it – she speaks quickly but elongates certain words in a strangely posh drawl . This isn't the Fiona Bruce I've read about in other interviews: an ice maiden, nicknamed Lady Macbeth for her ruthless ambition. She is chatty, sympathetic, warm and happy to answer any question – even about her tax affairs.
She seems like a person relaxed with who she is. As a student at Oxford, she was earnest and political, and took herself very seriously. She would go on demonstrations at Greenham Common and, in retrospect, says she wishes she had "lightened up". Today, she is a successful 48-year-old TV presenter with a successful husband, two children, a London house and a country retreat, and now, a dog. It's the perfect life, I say. "Well, not everyone wants to lead the kind of life I lead," she says, brusquely. "I mean, I'm very lucky. But I work hard."
It certainly pays. Her salary is known to be at least half a million, and in recent weeks her name has been bandied about as one of the 148 BBC presenters paid through a private service company (PSC). This is the controversial system by which an individual channels their income through a specially set-up company, allowing them potentially to avoid the 50p top tax rate, and lowering their employer's National Insurance contributions. Everyone's a winner, except the Exchequer, of course. The loophole is perfectly legal, but it doesn't look good. So I ask: do you avoid paying tax?
"There are two things to be said," she says. "I formed a service company because it was a stipulation laid down by the BBC. And I pay my full share of tax." So, you pay the 50p tax rate? "Yes." So why have all the embarrassment of a PSC? "It's a stipulation that I, and a number of other presenters, have to form service companies to be employed by the BBC. It's not my choice, and it would never be my choice. But that's the situation."
It must be annoying that every time a news article appears about BBC presenters and the tax loophole, there's a big picture of her next to it. "If you're in people's living-rooms, via the television, it's what happens. You're more noticeable. But I'm not aware that anyone has said I pay a lower rate of tax. I don't. I pay my full share of tax, believe you me. I mean, that is all I can say about it. But you know, I'm not launching a crusade, and news journalists will write what they write. It comes with the territory. It's not the first time I've been associated with things or decisions I'm not responsible for, and you can't get aggravated about every single one."
She says she's "not particularly thick-skinned", though she seems quite unfazed by the usual criticisms levelled at her: that she's ruthless, that she knows nothing about art or antiques, and that, when she reads the news, her expression appears to be a fixed smirk, whether the item concerns a pantomime or a child massacre. "I can't imagine that's what I do," she says about that latter dig, with a puzzled expression, as if it's the first time anyone has pointed it out to her.
And she is quite open about her non-specialist status, despite being the face of Antiques Roadshow. "I don't know anything about antiques," she says. "I do buy them now, but I have a little knowledge, and great enthusiasm."
Her path to becoming the face of cosy Sunday evenings was, like many BBC stories, rather random and unexpected. She began presenting on the BBC2 show in 1998, and, despite being an outsider amid a field of experts, she replaced Michael Aspel as the main anchor on his retirement in 2007. Inevitably, there were complaints of "dumbing down" and "sexing up", but, curiously, ratings soared by half a million. "I would never have foreseen what I am doing now," she says, "but doing Antiques Roadshow seems to have led to the BBC offering me more work with antiques."
Last year, she presented a documentary about Leonardo da Vinci, despite having no art-history qualifications. Worse, in the eyes of some, was the cameraman's unhealthy interest in her derrière, though at least that had a qualification: it won Rear of the Year in 2010, a prize she accepted in a moment of "dreadful hypocrisy". She also presented a three-part series about the Queen's palaces, a job, some said, better suited to an architectural historian, not a newsreader. Does the sniping about her being given all the plum jobs, despite not being an expert, bother her? "I'm not aware of that criticism," she says. "There's definitely a role for experts, my goodness. Ultimately, it's up to the viewers to decide whether they want to view it. But I never go to anything not knowing anything about it! That's quite a vulnerable position to be in. I do my research. Copiously! But you can't become an art expert in a matter of months. I suppose what I would hope I do is ask the questions the viewers would ask. And lots of experts do that as well, so it's not that I can do something that they can't. But the BBC, in its wisdom or otherwise, has chosen to put me in those roles. And I love making those kinds of programmes, so I'm not going to say no."
She was, she adds, offered one arts series she turned down, because she felt she wouldn't have been right for it, though she can't remember the name. "If there's a need for an expert, I'm not going to put myself up for it."
The fiercest criticism came when she interviewed Prince Philip last year, as part of a BBC documentary to mark his 90th birthday. Although it's hard to think of anyone who could ask him about his feelings and come out on top, Bruce came across as particularly Key Stage 3. From the moment he said, "Who cares what I think?" to his frank admission that he didn't want to do the interview, the Prince was one person not easily won over by the Bruce charm. So, to ask a question she might have asked, how did it feel?
"It was an interesting experience, slightly more antagonistic than I had expected," she says, delicately. "I mean, I've met him since and he's been a delight, but clearly he didn't want to be there." Her main concern, she says, was that he might have walked out. "I really thought he might. He was getting quite agitated." Perhaps her questions were the problem? "Partly, though it's not that they were too soft… I'm not going to flatter myself, but there are a few members of the Royal Family who, well, there are certain things they don't want to talk about. And you can go along with that or not. I took a view that there were some things I wasn't going to talk about. Like, I wasn't going to say, let's talk about Princess Diana. It may have made it pretty anodyne, watching it, but for me, while those are the most natural questions in the world to ask, they may not be the questions he wanted to answer."
In fact, she did manage to get him to talk about himself, and when he refused to discuss whether he minded having to give up his job as a naval officer, it's obvious that he did. "He is a bit like a clam when it comes to his feelings. So when I asked, did you enjoy your time in the Navy, which to me seems like a pretty anodyne question, to him, it was like a red rag to a bull." Would she do it differently, if she could do it again? Long pause, then: "Probably not, because actually what I think we got in the end was truthful to the man. It was a very uncomfortable hour."
After we meet, Bruce is off to interview Boris Johnson and to host the 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock news. Throughout the Olympics, she is presenting the news from a special studio in Stratford, which makes her sound like she's speaking via Skype from her kitchen. She is taking only two weeks' holiday this summer, which she will spend with her family in south Oxfordshire, where they have a second home. When she had her daughter, in 2001, much was made of the fact that she went back to work only 16 days later. Does she ever think about doing less? "I went back to work for three hours. I wanted to go back to work and see the people I like and show them my baby. They made a big fuss of it, but that was all. But the conflict about children and work is always there. It wasn't an issue with my maternity leave, I just took it. But now that they're more grown up, absolutely. It's the kids' holidays, and I'm only taking two weeks, and I used to work part-time, but that was a long time ago. I want to see more of them, I want to make sure I don't miss their key things. So there's a lot of guilt, definitely. I'm not absolving myself, I'm sure I could be a better mother. I feel guilty about a lot of things, a lot of the time."
Her own childhood was "very stable", despite much of it being spent abroad. Her father worked for Unilever, rising from postboy to company director, and was given various foreign postings. Bruce was born in Singapore in April 1964, and the family later moved to Milan, where she learnt Italian. She has two elder brothers, one of whom is a local councillor, the other works in the wine industry. Her mother, who died of cancer last year, was a constant and reassuring presence throughout her childhood, and she describes the family as "a very close unit".
Returning to Britain, she attended the comprehensive Haberdashers' Aske's in New Cross, south London, then read French and Italian at Hertford College, Oxford, though she didn't feel especially comfortable there. "I wish I had been more relaxed about it all, but I felt I had to prove myself." Afterwards, she wanted to become a journalist but felt she didn't have the contacts, so went into management consultancy instead, which was "a disaster". She then worked for an advertising agency where, in 1988, she met her now husband, Nigel Sharrocks, who was her boss. Those who like to portray Bruce as a Lady Macbeth figure point to the fact that she targeted him at a Christmas party, and five years later, when he still hadn't asked her to marry him, she told him to, which he eventually did.
Her journalistic career began in 1989, after she met the Panorama editor Tim Gardam at a party, and begged him to give her a job, which he did, as a researcher. She later moved to become a reporter on BBC Breakfast News in 1992, and swiftly moved up the ranks. In 1999, after the murder of Jill Dando, she became a presenter on Crimewatch and started presenting the 6 o'clock news. In 2003, she was promoted to reading the 10 o'clock news as well.
For the past 10 years, she has been ubiquitous across the BBC, and it's easy to see why: bright, straightforward and utterly professional, she is a reliable all-rounder, unflappable during live events, but also warm and enthusiastic during non-news programmes. She is reaching the age at which the BBC has had a tendency to get funny about women, though she says she has never experienced any sexism. As to whether there's another, more complex, Fiona Bruce, I can't tell. You want to think there's something more lurking behind that perma-smile and the cool blue eyes, but if there is, I didn't see it. Then again, to get ahead in television, you don't exactly need a soul. You just have to be happy in the knowledge that it's all a bit fake, and get on with making a fortune.
'Fake or Fortune?' returns to the BBC on 16 September
BRUCE'S BONUS: THE ANTIQUES ROADSHOW'S UNLIKELIEST FINDS
Asked how he came to own a 4,000-year-old Egyptian bust, a man from Derby said: "I was doing some gardening when I hit it with my spade. I'm just glad I didn't do too much damage." Experts valued the bust, possibly a Roman copy, at £10,000. It now lives in the British Museum.
Just flown in
A pilot's watch bought at a bric-a-brac stall in south Wales was found to have belonged to TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). It came complete with repair bill made out to "TE Shaw" – the name Lawrence adopted to enter the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. "Good god," said the owner on being told it was worth £10,000. "I thought he was a fictional character."
A 1960s loo roll that was rejected by the Beatles for being "too hard and shiny" while recording at Abbey Road was brought in last year. The brown paper roll was stamped on each sheet with the EMI logo, and came with a letter of authentication. Owner Barry Thomas had bought it, framed and mounted, for £85, but was told they couldn't put a value on such an odd object. "A Japanese Beatles fan has offered me £1,000 for a single sheet," said Thomas, "but I don't fancy unrolling it."
Dadd's the word
A couple in Barnstaple, Devon, had no idea what they had on their hands when they brought in a painting which had been given to them, but which they didn't like. Peter Nahum, the expert who sized up the find, couldn't believe what he had seen. He knew of the existence of the painting – "The Halt in the Desert" by Richard Dadd – but he also knew it had been missing for a century. The painting was later authenticated – and valued at £100,000.
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