INTERVIEW / Oh, Joan Bakewell's 60 is she? Oh, go on]: Time has done for the phrase 'thinking man's crumpet', but the woman who inspired it still works like a whirlwind

Hunter Davies
Monday 19 April 1993 23:02

JOAN BAKEWELL, the thinking man's hot muffin, was 60 on Friday. Can you believe it?

She was just back from a week's holiday in Spain with her husband, Jack, sitting in her ever-so-elegant house in Primrose Hill, north London, fresh and fragrant despite a rotten flight. Beside her on a table was an unopened box of Carmen Curls.

'You wouldn't interview a man, would you, just because he was 60,' she said in her best and brittlest voice, tilting up her well-formed chin. Well, er, might do, if that person had survived 30 years as a television presenter and was now working harder than ever, with two prime television series on the go. A new one called Memento started on Thursday.

'Yes, but it's the fact of being 60 that's brought you here,' she sighed. 'I remember at 40, admitting I was 40, sympathising with the women's movement, wanting to be outspoken and truthful, and Cleo Laine said it was a mistake, I'd regret it. She said there's a conspiracy to stop women doing what they want as they grow older. I think that's true.

'Tell me the names of the female equivalents of Charles Wheeler, Peter Snow, Robin Day, Ludovic Kennedy? Or best of all, Sandy Gall, with his wonderful baggy eyes and his lived-in face. Interesting, isn't it, how old men survive on television?'

Joan, as an oldish female face, is almost on her own, as she was in the beginning, in the Sixties, presenting arts and news programmes. In those days, women were thought fit only for children's television. Remember her on Late Night Line-up, which ran from 1965-72? Amazing to realise it was nightly, all year round. Or perhaps you only remember Joan's awfully short skirt and the way she crossed her legs.

'It was Frank Muir who called me the 'thinking man's crumpet', and the phrase followed me for years. At the time I thought it was a nice, flattering remark. Now, in this politically correct age, you could get your face slapped for saying such a thing. So be careful.'

She comes from Stockport, born Joan Rowlands, good Lancashire working-class stock. Her father, who was orphaned, left school at 14 to work on a foundry bench, making his way up slowly to management level. Joan passed the 11-plus for Stockport High School for Girls - oh bliss, 'twas the making of her, like so many other working-class girls of her period. 'I loved it so much I hated the holidays. I loved the uniform, even the uniform shoes with straps on.'

Joan was head of house, head girl and then won a place at Cambridge, only the second person from her school to do so. Her name was up in gold lettering on the honours board in the school hall. 'I think it ended up in a skip, when comprehensives came in.'

She 'adored' Cambridge. Yes, she's that sort of gel. Getting Joan to say a bad word against anything or anybody is almost impossible. Or even just a bad word. You rarely hear her swear. She's also very moralistic. When female priests arrived, P D James told her she'd be perfect for the first female Archbishop of Canterbury. Good idea. Pass it on.

Anyway, if you adored Cambridge so much, why did you walk into the lavatory one day with your Lancashire accent intact and come out talking posh? Signs of stress, surely.

'That was a joke about me. It was true, in a way, psychologically if not literally. I did feel intimidated. This was 1950, don't forget. The accepted accent of the time was Sylvia Peters. All the other girls at Newnham were from places like St Paul's and Cheltenham with Harrods accents. I didn't even look like them. Until I was 18, my mum had chosen all my clothes, even my party frock.

'I thought, how do I join this club? So I got drunk for the first time, went to lots of parties and changed my accent. I always had trouble saying 'singing', putting a hard 'g' in the middle. My real giveaway was 'dance band'. I never knew which end to posh up, so I'd get round it by saying orchestra . . .'

Lots of fellers, Joany, at Cambridge? 'Sex was not the athletic thing it is today. I was In Love, and out of it. Mostly it was painful.' She ended up with her 'steady', as items were then called, a fellow student, Michael Bakewell.

'I remember at school our headmistress saying that it did not matter in the end the scholarships we won, the careers we forged, what mattered was that we should all end up wonderful wives and mothers. We'll see about that, so I muttered to myself at the time, but then I did exactly that, marrying young, like everyone else of my generation.

'Were we brainwashed? Perhaps, but you have to remember this was the post-war period. In all such periods, feminism fades. It's an historical fact. The men have returned from the war and the national mood requires women to return to the kitchen. I couldn't wait to buy my Elizabeth David and cook candelit suppers. Being married was also the only way to have sex and live together.'

Michael and Joan married in 1955, by which time Joan had a job as a BBC studio manager. She was lousy at it, being unable to understand electricity, and was made to do the training course twice, till eventually she was allowed to bang the coconuts together and put on the signature tune for Mrs Dale's Diary. 'Michael was also in the BBC, as a drama producer, which is where I wanted to be, but I wasn't allowed. There was a rule that husbands and wives could not work in the same department. Bad for morale.'

She left and spent a year in advertising, which she hated. One of her jobs was to Anglicise American copy for the first Tampax ads. She gave up work when she became pregnant.

'I soon got bored being at home, stuck with babies. My mother once caught me at 10 in the morning, sitting reading a novel. She thought I was wicked. I wanted to use my mind but I didn't want a nine-to-five job. I got a copy of the Radio Times, marked the name of every radio talks producer and wrote to them all. All said no. But after a few months, one did ask for ideas. Very slowly, I began to do occasional radio interviews.'

She moved to television when it came along and in the Sixties she seemed to be everywhere, doing endless religious programmes, arts programmes, current affairs - but she never read the news. 'I didn't want to, but I remember asking Derek Amoore, head of news, why there were no women. He said three reasons. One, women's voices were too shrill. Two, their clothes would distract viewers. Three, when there was a serious catastrophe, they wouldn't be able to keep their emotions hidden. Can you believe it?'

Then came the Seventies. Tougher times for our Joan. First, her career slowed down. 'I'd been around a lot. TV wanted new faces, so I was forced to do other things, like writing for High Life and a column in the Manchester Evening News - thanks to the editor, Brian Redhead. I even addressed women's luncheon clubs. I did have to struggle to survive.'

This was because her marriage had collapsed. 'Let's say we'd both enjoyed ourselves in the Sixties.' The divorce was amicable, but she refused any alimony, not wanting to be dependent. She borrowed from the bank and her father and bought out her husband's share of the house. She was a single parent for several years, till one day on a train to Exeter she got talking to a young actor-director called Jack Emery, whom she'd interviewed years before. 'I told him if he was ever up in London to give me a ring, the sort of fatal thing one says without thinking.' He did, and they got married in 1975.

Jack is 12 years younger than Joan. 'I never think about it. I believe I am Jack's age. I honestly do. The only time it ever comes up is when the war is mentioned. Jack can't remember it, and of course my two children can't. 'Oh no, here come her war memories,' they all used to shout round the table. 'What did you do in the war, Mum?' '

They have no children themselves, Joan and Jack. Was that deliberate? 'Yes. I didn't want any more. I'd had a bad time, especially with the last one, and couldn't face being pregnant again. I told Jack this, and said we shouldn't marry, as one day he'll want to be a father. He said, let me decide that one. He's been a brilliant stepfather. Now that we're grandparents, he looks upon them all as his family.'

Harriet is 32, a television researcher, married and divorced, now with a new partner, but no children. Matthew is 29, married with an 18- month son and a baby daughter. When he was 18, after doing poorly in his A-levels, Matthew ran away to sea for two years. 'I tried to stop him at the time, but he saw the world and it did him good.' He now works as a cabinet-maker.

The Carmen Curls, Joan. Don't slap me, but what are they for? 'My hair of course. I bought them today at the Duty Free. I'm a sucker for any new gadgets.' She tore open the box and produced a set of rollers and some little packets of chemicals which somehow heat up each roller.

'When I'm on location for Heart of the Matter and I'm standing in a field in a howling gale, about to pose some deep moral question, I don't want to look like a scarecrow, do I? So I'll pop one of these into my hair.'

Is it dyed, your hair? 'No, only hennaed. Otherwise I would have a few grey streaks.' Are you on HRT? 'Yes, I am.' Are you vain? 'I do take trouble not to look like a ratbag.' How do you keep so slim? 'I work out at a gym, hopefully twice a week, and watch my diet.' How's the back - surely, at 60, you must have a poorly back? 'Fine, thank you. My only trouble is bad feet, thanks to cramming them into high heels for 20 years. I loved high heels. I think I look good in them. I'm only 5ft 4in, so I liked the extra inches.

'There you are, on about my looks again. What's remarkable about me is not my looks but the energy I've got. I'm like a whirlwind, doing more than I've ever done. It started the moment my children grew up and left home. I got this sudden burst which hasn't flagged.'

Yes, but in a way you have not progressed. You are still a presenter, as you were 30 years ago. 'That's the layman's term. I call myself a TV reporter. But it is true I'm still doing much the same. I've had no career ladder. I started, then just carried on.

'Perhaps I should have tried to produce or direct. You can't go into management, if you are someone who appears. You are considered vain and self-regarding, not fit to manage other people. I'm sure that's why David Dimbleby was never considered as a Controller.'

Isn't it also a bit boring, for a grown-up, clever person? Television interviews are so short, and you're mostly asking questions to which you already know the answers. 'There are longueurs, while the director is doing his moody shots, in which case I make phone calls or write letters.

'TV is a hard medium to get across ideas, but you can get across feelings. I did a programme about people dying of cancer, and I think that helped so many people. TV is enormously powerful. I still love doing it and I hope to continue for another 20 years, till I'm 70.' Actually, you'll then be 80, pet.

'Oh God, you won't let me forget it, will you?'

(Photograph omitted)

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