Michael Aspel: 'I'm just not a happy person'

He's the ultimate smoothie - a multi-faceted, velvet-voiced broadcaster. So, at 71, with a 50-year career, Michael Aspel should be a contented man. But instead, he tells Sholto Byrnes, he feels only guilt, regret and sorrow

Think of Michael Aspel, and images from half a century of broadcasting flash by: the dinner-jacketed newsreader of the 1950s; the host of
Give Us A Clue,
Aspel And Company and
This Is Your Life; and now presenter of the
Antiques Roadshow. What of his own image, though? What adjectives come to mind to describe this man whose entire adult life has been spent on radio and TV? "Smooth" and "likeable", maybe, "urbane", definitely. "Bland" possibly, too. He himself once rather harshly said of his early days on television that he came across as "inconsequential, bland and useless".

Think of Michael Aspel, and images from half a century of broadcasting flash by: the dinner-jacketed newsreader of the 1950s; the host of Give Us A Clue, Crackerjack, Aspel And Company and This Is Your Life; and now presenter of the Antiques Roadshow. What of his own image, though? What adjectives come to mind to describe this man whose entire adult life has been spent on radio and TV? "Smooth" and "likeable", maybe, "urbane", definitely. "Bland" possibly, too. He himself once rather harshly said of his early days on television that he came across as "inconsequential, bland and useless".

What the audience has never seen, though, because Aspel is far too much the pro ever to think that he has any business being confessional on the box, is the private man. Despite his decades of success, during which he was at one stage the highest-paid presenter on British television, he is also a man of sorrows, of disappointments. A man who, at the age of 71, is all too conscious of what he has done and what he has left undone, dismissive of his professional career and haunted by his three broken marriages.

Naturally, none of this is immediately apparent when he arrives at the Italian restaurant near his home in Weybridge where we have lunch. Affability itself, he is full of good tales, of being attacked by outraged mothers when he was judging beauty contests (as the presenter of Miss World, he was much in demand at village fetes), and being sexually assaulted by a champion dog. "The dog took a fancy to me," he recalls. "It was a massive creature, and this was on live television, too." What was it, I ask, his aftershave? "I was rather good-looking at the time," he replies.

He looks well, despite his recent brush with cancer (he has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but it is presently dormant), and tells stories against himself when I ask whether people of different ages associate him with particular shows. "It is interesting how these labels stick," he says. "When I took on the Antiques Roadshow, Hugo Morley-Fletcher, a very aristocratic member of the team, leaned across the table and said, 'Hor-hoow'. I said, 'Sorry?', and he said, 'Hor-hoow', again. It turned out that he was saying, 'Sequins', which seemed an odd greeting, but it was because he associated me with Come Dancing. It must have been the last programme of mine he'd ever seen. The fact that the last one I did was on my 27th birthday shows how long ago it was. But that's how he saw me, as the Come Dancing bloke."

Sometimes, he adds, elderly people come up to him and say that they remember him from their childhood. "That brings you up short." A Wogan or a Parkinson, one imagines, might not be very pleased if 40 years of their careers were so summarily overlooked. Aspel, however, is modest to a fault (and I think it is a fault) about his achievements. Raising the subject of the show that my generation most associates with him, I ask about his interviews on Aspel and Company, highlights of which included Rod Stewart taking off his shoes and throwing them into the audience, and Oliver Reed appearing almost incoherently drunk. "I'm disappointed with them, and disappointed with myself, because I thought I'd be pretty good at it, meeting the kind of people I was interested in." Instead, he found himself constricted by the format and being offered ludicrous questions by researchers. "The system sort of defeated me in the end."

I think it is because there has been something almost accidental, and, he seems to feel, undeserved, about his career, that Aspel seems to take little real satisfaction in it. Being taken on as a newsreader in London meant that he had been "OK" in the auditions. At that time, he says, "We weren't considered to be at all important, even though we were the face and voice of the BBC. We were just a nuisance; they had to have us". Coming from a poor background in south London, Aspel felt very lucky to be there, sharing the newsreaders' communal dinner-jacket. "There was just the one," he remembers. "It was huge. I had to put a peg in the back so it would fit."

As well as having little sense of entitlement to his position at the BBC, Aspel's first divorce could have cut short his career there, not long after it had started. "Every time I go into Broadcasting House, I sort of crouch from the shadow of [the BBC's first director general] Lord Reith, because I came in at the end of that," he says. "The story is that an announcer was caught embracing a secretary, and Lord Reith said that he must go. The staff begged him to reconsider; he said he'd think about it for 24 hours, and then give his decision. The next day, he said: 'The man may be allowed to stay, but never again will he be allowed to read the epilogue.' When I got divorced, they said, that's the end of your career, old boy. I was lucky that I was on the cusp of the new era."

Did he ever meet Reith? "I saw him once. He was like Wackford Squeers, very defensive and scary."

Presenting was not the occupation that Aspel had originally planned. Inspired by the cowboy films he used to go to see with his mother in Wandsworth, the young Michael wanted to be an actor, an aim that Aspel senior discouraged. (Aspiring to "anything vaguely artistic", Aspel has said, his father thought of as "a betrayal of the working class".) But apart from an appearance in The Magic Christian, a Sixties film with Peter Sellers, little came of this ambition.

So, is he happy with how his career has gone, I ask. "Oh yes, I'm perfectly content," he says. This, however, sits starkly at odds with his description of his working life as "a series of respectable jobs leading to nothing in particular". It is telling that he has hardly any tapes of the thousands of programmes he has presented. Although he hoped that The Magic Christian would be his big break into film, he has never even watched it.

If Aspel harbours regrets about his professional life, he is far more self-critical about his domestic failings. He has walked out on three marriages, which produced seven children, the first two times saying that he felt "trapped" and "claustrophobic". His first wife, Dian Sessions, had a slightly different explanation: "He was a lovely man but a hopeless hubby," she said. "He always had a roving eye. He is driven by sex and ambition." Ten years ago, he left his third wife, the actress Elizabeth Power, for Irene Clarke, a production assistant on This Is Your Life. Although the couple are still together, and Aspel is on friendly terms with Power, he remains disturbed by his inability to sustain a marriage.

"It's a measure of failure," he says. "I can't shrug off divorce the way people seem to be able to these days. I'm surprised they don't now say, 'Will you be my first wife?', because it's kind of written into the constitution that it's not going to last. But I've always thought that marriage is an excellent thing, and I'm very disappointed in myself that it hasn't worked. I've always had a highly developed sense of guilt." Is he religious at all? "I have leanings. I pray occasionally." If he was a Catholic, I say, he could go to confession. "Yes, it's a very handy religion, you can sort of clear your card along the way. Whereas if you have no organised religion and yet you have a conscience, it's fairly agonising because there's no way you can absolve it. All these things can be rationalised: I get on so well with all my children and they're such stunning kids, and you think, well, if I hadn't been divorced, then he wouldn't be there, and he wouldn't be there. So you're left with this terrible thing of feeling guilt and yet being proud at the same time."

Having survived the deaths of two sons - one died at three days old, after being born prematurely, the other of cancer, aged 30 - and dealing with another, Patrick, who has cerebral palsy, isn't he entitled to be a bit easier on himself? "Yes, there is an element of self-flagellation there, I can see that," he says. "I just regret a lot of things that have happened. Without getting maudlin, I'm basically not a happy person."

And then it strikes me: that this habit of beating himself up over all that is less than ideal in his private life is another facet of the ambition that has kept him on air for 50 years. "Yes, I think that's quite shrewd," he replies. "It's ambition in the grander sense of wanting everything to be perfect. I think that's probably right."

All this may make lunch with Michael Aspel sound rather hard-going. It's not, though, for his thoughts are delivered in the same calm baritone, now heading towards the bass section, familiar from his programmes. The years of introspection lead him to talk as easily about his supposed faults as the state of television today, a subject in which he has a keen interest.

"I'm a real shouter at the screen," he says. "What gets me angriest is the misuse of our language on journalistic programmes. The stress is getting so odd. For example, they'll say, 'Today, a 23-year-old man was arrested for murder', and the most important thing about this is that he's 23, not that a man was arrested for murder. As though yesterday they were all 27. I get so pissed off halfway through what they're saying that I don't listen to the rest of the sentence."

It's hard to imagine Aspel shouting. The polish is so even, his temper so controlled, the modulations in his voice are no more than the smallest turns on the dial. It's that pursuit of perfection again, which may be the reason he didn't become a great actor; he is always the still centre around which wild things may happen. Great for presenting, not so great for bringing another character to life.

Eventually, we turn to the reason for our meeting, Once Upon A Time, an NSPCC book about childhood for which he has written the foreword. "I must tell you about my son Patrick," he says. "He's at a school where disabled kids can learn music and put on shows. When I drove him back at the end of term once, I remarked about another driver, 'She's slow'. Patrick came back with, 'I would say she was lethargic'. So I said, 'That's a very good word, where did you get that from?'. And he said, 'It was in my school report', which it was."

He speaks with tremendous affection of his son. "Patrick is not autistic; he'll be watching television, and he'll just take my hand. It's lovely, such an innocence." Has he learnt anything from Patrick? "I learn that he's got it right, he's not got any responsibility and I suppose he never will. That's what kind of spoils people, isn't it, the pressures. What you see in him is the pure state. Everyone remarks on what a lovely guy he is, and that's partly because life comes to him."

Much of life has come to Aspel, although bringing less joy in its wake than one would expect, and he has clearly suffered from the pressures of his own conscience. He's a more layered man than he appears on television, with ravines of doubt under the buffed carapace. His modesty is too extreme, but also very disarming. At one point, we discuss the time that Oliver Reed lurched around the set of Aspel and Company, causing such a scene that it made all the papers. "We knew he was sloshed, but we didn't know how far it had gone," recalls Aspel. "Everyone said I was furious. Actually, I was delighted - it was great television." So it wasn't like Michael Parkinson being attacked by Rod Hull's Emu, an incident that is still said to irritate Parky? "No, no," he says, reverting to the unflappable lightness he exudes on-screen . "If that had happened to me," he adds, "it would have been the highlight of my life, I must say."

He smiles and proceeds to tell another humorous tale. It's a pity such jolliness cannot chase away the regrets that beset him.

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