From 'Queen Bee' to 'Tragic Anne', Anne Diamond has measured out her life in tabloid headlines. Today, her battle for career survival is fiercer than ever, and just as public

Justine Picardie
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:01

I AM sitting on a sofa with the woman known as the Queen of Sofadom, the doyenne of daytime television: except that we're not on a brightly coloured television studio sofa, but a muted chintz one in the lobby of an anonymous motorway hotel; and Anne Diamond is the interviewee today, and not in her usual role as interviewer. The hotel is on a slip road in the middle of England - the middle of nowhere - and, just like the places where daytime television is filmed, it's pretending to be a strange, fake home from home (curiously unyielding cushions; wood panelling that might as well be plastic). Anne Diamond didn't want to be interviewed in her real home - far too intrusive - so here we are instead, attempting an easy intimacy, yet surrounded by dozens of noisy middle-English businessmen.

When she appears on BBC1's Good Morning, Diamond comes across as a cheerful, pleasantly chatty housewife and mother. And she looks the part when we meet: short and slightly dumpy; attractive, but not remarkably so - the sort of woman, in fact, who you imagine waiting patiently at home for a man who spends his days in motorway hotels. She is not really like this, of course, but she has made a career out of appearing to be so - so successfully that she now earns at least pounds 200,000 a year, which puts her into the Premier League of television presenters. A resourceful, intelligent woman, she must have worked hard to create her chirpy screen persona.

Today, however, Anne Diamond is struggling to finish a sentence, which is not something that ever happens to her on the Good Morning sofa, because she is crying. The reason she is crying is that I have asked her about the third of her five sons, Sebastian, who died on 12 July 1991 when he was four months old. The story of his cot death - she found him stone cold in the morning, "a little marble statue of a baby" - is still unbearably raw, but somehow she wrenches herself back into professional mode. Her hazel eyes blink, briefly, and she stiffens her jaw. "Sebastian still lives on with us," she says. "There's never a day when we don't think of him - never an hour. He's with us every bit as much as our living children. He is just with us in a different way." She gets through the rest of the interview without crying, and she's very good at it. For despite the sharpness of her grief, she has doubtless grown accustomed to the details of her life being public (indeed, she recently laid open the facts about her son's death in a new book, A Gift From Sebastian). Ever since she joined TV-am as a presenter in 1982, Anne Diamond has been headline news: on the front page of the Sun almost immediately after starting the job, when she broke her toes by tripping over a briefcase; a little later, for having an affair with a colleague, Mike Hollingsworth (who is now her husband, but was then living with his first wife and child); soon after that, for having a baby with the not-yet-div-orced Hollingsworth; then for Sebastian's death (tabloid covers the next day, to be followed by harrowing, snatched pictures of his funeral); for her subsequent campaign to prevent cot deaths; and now for any number of things, including alleged rivalry with ITV's daytime stars, alleged un-happiness with the BBC, and alleged tensions in her marriage.

As a result, some people tend to think that they know all about Anne Diamond's life; also, that they actually know her: the smiling face they see in their living-room every morning (more often, possibly, than some of their own friends and family). Yet just as she keeps her own house private, preferring to appear to the world in an approximation of what a home might be, so the real Anne Diamond remains elusive. Every so often, newspapers try and pin her down with a new label: "Little Miss Ordinary" when she started out on TV-am; "The Scarlet Woman" when her affair was revealed; "The Queen Bee" as her salary soared and colleagues grumbled; "Britain's Most Famous Unmarried Mother" when her first child was born; and then, variously, "Tragic Anne", "Sad Anne" and "Mother Courage". Of course, every celebrity undergoes this pro-cess; yet rarely has one so apparently straightforward taken on so many guises. An interview with Anne Diamond should therefore be approached with some caution: you ask the usual questions, but hope for some different answers.

DIAMOND skims over her early life; mainly to protect her family but also, one suspects, because her life as we now know it did not come into existence until she became a television star in the Eighties. She was born in Worcestershire in 1954, the second of three daughters in a conventional middle-class family. Her father, James, was a radar scientist who had been posted to Malvern during the war; there he had met Anne's mother, a local girl named Marguerite, and married her. A former nurse, she stayed at home to look after the children until Anne was 11, and then set up a small but successful stationery business. "She was very influential," says Anne. "She made me believe that a woman could have a job of her own, and an income."

Anne did reasonably well at the local grammar school, and hoped to become a concert pianist. But after being turned down by music colleges, "I realised that I really wasn't good enough to ever make money out of music." After leaving school, she spent the summer working at Butlins in Minehead, where she happened to meet a local journalist. "He was earning pounds 7 a week, which honest to God was a fortune then!" Inspired, she decided to become a music critic, and wrote to 47 newspapers applying for a job. Only one responded with any enthusiasm: the Somerset County Gazette, which passed her on to a tiny sister paper, the Bridgewater Mercury. There she became a junior reporter, covering weddings and funerals and other minutiae of local life (a good training, one imagines, for daytime television). When she was 21, she was invited to appear on BBC Bristol, to talk about a story she had written concerning handicapped children. Afterwards, the producer asked her if she'd ever considered working in television. "I'd never thought of it in a million years," says Diamond. "But I looked around - and the Bridgewater Mercury had lino floors, and if you were lucky enough to get a coffee, it was in a chipped cup - and this place was quite impressive." So she "pestered the life out of the producer for nine months", and was rewarded with a job as a researcher.

In 1979, when she was 25, she moved to ATV as a reporter and newsreader; it was there that she met Mike Hollingsworth, who was her boss. The two began an erratic affair, which continued when she moved to BBC's Nationwide, and then to TV-am. When she joined, the celebrity presenters had recently marched out, leaving "the unknown reporter with the chipmunk face" (as she was commonly dubbed) to take over, alongside Nick Owen (who is now her co-host on Good Morning).

Diamond was famous from the start: at first, she admits, because TV-am was already so high profile. "It was such a precocious station," she says. "It had been set up with all the glitz and fireworks, and then it had been such a mega-flop. It was perfect tabloid fodder. And I came in the wake of it - so everything I did got turned into soap opera."

She realised "what a very dangerous business" she was in when her appointment was announced. "The press officer took me to one side and said, 'Look, you're going to be asked about boyfriends. Do we need to know about any skeletons in the cupboard?' I told her about Mike, who was not yet divorced, so there was a potential time bomb." She was advised to invent an anonymous boyfriend in the army; but when Hollingsworth joined TV-am in 1984, their affair was revealed in the tabloids. "As a journalist, I could be objective about all the coverage," she remarks. "I could say, 'Well, this will be tomorrow's fish and chip papers.' But there's the other part that's the daughter of your mother and the sister of your sisters, and when you judge things from their perspective, you don't necessarily like what's happening."

The frenzied press coverage intensifed when she became pregnant with her first child, Oliver, in 1986. "I was the subject of a Guardian leader," she says, with a mixture of pride and bafflement. "I've still got it somewhere. It was saying, my goodness me, what have things come to when one of our leading television presenters is an unmarried mother? And I thought well, everyone else in the office is doing it. I hadn't judged myself as being any different."

Eighteen months after Oliver was born, she had a second son, Jamie; and 18 months later, in March 1991, her third child, Sebastian, arrived. By then she was married to Hol-lingsworth, and had left TV-am after suing them for breach of contract (the number of her slots had been reduced, against her wishes, after Jamie was born). Diamond was given a substantial settlement, and - after almost 10 years of a punishing work-life, the opportunity to spend some time at home with her children, in relative peace.

Sebastian was born a month early, but recovered quickly. Ironically, Diamond had been so fearful about cot death when her first child was born that she had attached a monitor to him, which was supposed to set off an alarm when he stopped breathing. The alarm had gone off constantly, for no apparent reason, and so Diamond had given up on the monitor for her subsequent children. She therefore had no inkling of what was to happen on the morning of Oliver's fourth birthday, when she went in to wake Sebastian just before 7am. "His left arm was dangling out through the cot bars, his face away from me... I walked over and touched his arm. It was cold. I leaned forward and touched his other arm. It was cold too. I lifted his little hand - and my heart stopped. His whole body lifted up with it. His head, shoulders, chest - everything. He was stiff."

Diamond dealt with the appalling shock of Sebastian's death in perhaps the only way she knew how: as a journalist, in public. It was not that she wanted her grief to be observed by the nation (she went to great lengths to keep his funeral private); but she became obsessed with discovering why he had died, rather than simply accepting it as another of the 2,000 or so cot deaths that occurred every year. "I can't believe it!" she says, slipping into the present tense as though the event still engulfs her. "In central London, a healthy, bonny, beautiful baby dies mysteriously in the middle of the night, and everyone shrugs their shoulders, says, 'Oh, what a terrible tragedy', pats you on the back, takes his body away and then doesn't even do a post-mortem for three days. I think it's sinful! I let them take his body away before my mother got there, because I was convinced that it was going to be a real investigation. But it wasn't."

So eight weeks after Sebastian's death, she undertook her own investigation and travelled to New Zealand, where she filmed a devastatingly emotional documentary about a medical discovery that had been made there: namely, that if babies were laid down to sleep on their backs, rather than their stomachs (as was still advised in Britain), the death rate fell by 50 per cent.

Back in London, she raised the money to pay for a television advertisement - in which she starred - telling parents to lie babies on their backs. She also, singlehandedly, forced a reluctant Virginia Bottomley to show the advertisement in a national campaign. Since then, she has continued to press the message home in countless interviews, spe-eches, and now in her new book. Given that the British medical authorities had already known about the New Zealand research, and failed to act, it is almost certainly thanks to Anne Diamond that four years after Sebastian died, the number of cot deaths in this country has been reduced from 2,000 a year to 500.

Not that this has made the loss of her son any easier to bear. She tells me about a recurrent dream she has, that having discovered the cause of cot death, she goes to an old man with a stern face, sitting behind a table in a dark office. " 'Now,' I say to him. 'Now can I have my baby back?' And then I wake up."

"I don't know if there's a God," she adds. "I know other cot death parents, who are convinced that their baby is waiting for them. I try to believe it - but I can't."

She has clearly found a measure of solace in her four remaining children (she had two more sons, Jake, who is now two, and a six-month-old baby, Conor). And she continues to work, with steely professionalism, as a presenter on Good Morning (it starts again tomorrow after a three month break). How does she do it all, I ask? The children, the career, the marriage - how does she keep it all going? "I don't!" she says. "Sometimes we only get through things by the skin of our teeth, and sometimes I don't get through it at all."

SOME days after meeting Anne Diamond, I ring Mike Hollingsworth. The original editor of Good Morning, he now runs his own agency for television presenters, and lives in London four days a week while Anne stays with the children - in between working, of course - in their house near Leamington Spa. There have been newspaper reports that their marriage is in difficulties; he talks to me, in a general way, about the problems of living under public scrutiny. "If your relationship is being constantly monitored, and your mistakes magnified, it's likely not to survive."

Has your relationship with Anne survived, I ask?

"I'm not sure," he says. "I don't know if it has survived in the way it would have done if it hadn't been subjected to that kind of scrutiny."

Later, I ring Anne, who sounds friendly but harassed. She says that she needs another eight hours in the day to get everything done. "It's the lot of Nineties women. We're fighting to keep our heads above water." This seems to me an accurate description of herself: because she is, against the odds, not drowning but just about waving. OK, so the smile on her face is occasionally false, but who can blame her? This woman has endured her own private tragedies, while seeing her public persona evolve from girl-next-door to career bitch to nation's favourite housewife. She is still not the person that she is thought to be, but she has retained a certain integrity; and for this Anne Diamond deserves another label: that hardest- won of titles, the great survivor. !

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