I'm finding it increasingly hard to avoid Clare Balding these days. Not that I particularly want to, of course, because I, like everyone else in Britain, find her an wholesome adornment to our public life. A national treasure, you might say, if this wasn't such a devalued term. It's just that, in the new multi-media world, she's giving a whole new meaning to the word ubiquitous. She presents the horse racing on Channel 4, she hosts a Saturday evening talent show on BBC1, and she's got her own Radio 2 programme on Sunday mornings. And that's just the weekends!
She's quite busy on the other days, too. So far this week, she's been named by Tatler magazine as the most fascinating person in Britain and has been signed up by BT's new sports service to present a weekly magazine show. And as if that wasn't enough Clare to keep me going, I then spotted her having lunch at a table near mine in a well-known London restaurant yesterday.
Can you have too much of a good thing (which Clare undoubtedly is)? The modern media cycle is a cruel instrument, and it can be a swift and extremely painful transition from cock of the walk to feather duster (as Piers Morgan, who popularised this expression, will testify).
But Clare may have enough in her favour to withstand the inevitable adverse reaction to such exposure. For a start, she's excellent at her job, combining deep knowledge (inherited in the case of horse racing, learnt as far as rugby league is concerned) with wide-eyed enthusiasm (from Crufts to the Olympics, there's no one who conveys the partiality of a true fan better). Those who work with her will testify to her tenacity and professionalism, but, on screen, her homely, approachable persona makes her an unthreatening presence and gives her an appeal across ages, demographics and gender. And she's a lesbian! I don't mean this to sound flippant, because I think it says something relevant about modern Britain.
There is still, in many walks of life, deep prejudice against homosexuality. Young people use the word "gay" to denote something that's lame, eccentric or risible. And there are some corners of our working life where, even now, the open declaration of homosexuality is beyond the pale. Take the armed forces, or, particularly, professional football. At the present time, there are no openly gay footballers in the top four divisions of the English game, which, as the Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard courageously pointed out recently, makes no sense at all. If roughly 10-12 per cent of the British population is gay, it must be more than a statistical anomaly that there are no avowedly homosexual footballers. It can only be because, as Lindegaard said, "gay football is a taboo topic".
So to have Clare Balding, out and proud and in a civil partnership, presenting sports programmes and living the life as one of Britain's most popular personalities must help to shift attitudes in sport and beyond. Let's just hope we don't get sick of seeing her any time soon. So this weekend, make sure you catch Clare Balding! Coming to a screen, or a radio, or maybe even a restaurant, near you.
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