So far, but yet so near

In 1947, Sylvia Peters wore ball gowns to present TV programmes. In 1997, Sara Cox sometimes wears very little at all. But they have more in common than meets the eye

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:47

It was a girls' lunch with a difference - an almost 50-year one. In one chair sat Sylvia Peters, elegant in pink, and as glamorous as she used to be when introducing post-war television programmes wearing a ballgown. In another sat Sara Cox - a Girlie in leather trousers and trainers who can be as rude and lewd as the next Nineties laddess.

Sylvia is 70. Sara is 22. Together they span the history of women in television. We know this because the BBC's look at the subject - this weekend's A Night In with the Girls - starts just before Sylvia and ends somewhere around Sara. In between are a host of women including Sheila Hancock, Janet Street-Porter, Kate Adie, Verity Lambert and Biddy Baxter. But on this particular day last week there was nothing separating Sylvia and Sara at a London restaurant except a few serviettes and cutlery and some five decades.

What would they talk about? As it turned out, pretty well anything. For starters there were clothes, television, feminism, stalkers, shoes - and anchovies.

"I knew you'd be in leathers," says Sylvia with approval. "I saw you on the show wearing that extraordinary transparent black dress with the big knickers. Bra and pants and little bits of lace."

Sarah pulls her black turtleneck jumper up to her ears. "It doesn't look so transparent in reality," she says. "I wore it to the Brit awards, too. I had to wear a frock to that."

Of course, there are frocks and frocks. From 1947 on, Sylvia wore an extraordinary collection of them, as one of BBC's on-screen continuity announcers. Wildly patterned tops - "the cameras needed something to latch on to" - and New Look dresses gave way in the evening to the full ballgown treatment.

"Did people recognise you on the street?" asks Sara.

"Oh yes, all the time, because we were on every night. There was nobody else. There were no other channels, so we were it."

This takes some time to sink in, as does the idea that Sylvia worked in the studio for four or five days a week and that she was on air live, without autocue, rehearsals or editing to save her. Sara looks aghast: "I go into the studio one day a week and I'm shattered. I think it must be the adrenalin that makes me so exhausted." Sylvia shakes her head. "Oh, you wouldn't be if you were doing it day in and day out, as I was."

Their stories have an odd symmetry that seems ever stranger given their accents (Sylvia's is perfect BBC, Sara's is pure Bolton). Sylvia was a trained dancer aged just 20 when she saw a BBC ad. "My mother thought I should apply. I was unwilling, but she had seen a television set and she was entranced by it." She had to do an interview - "I didn't even know what an interview was" - and lots of screen tests. Her perfect memory didn't hurt, and she got the job. At pounds 500 a year, the money was not great, but the work was, and so she stayed on for years, through marriage and motherhood.

Sara was 21 when her modelling agency sent her to a casting session for The Girlie Show. She almost didn't bother. "I didn't really want to go. All the girls were really nervous, but by the time it was my turn I was just bored and really bolshie." Then she had to interview people on the street - "I just ran after them into the newsagent!" - and more screen tests. She got the job. The money is great - she makes far more per show that Sylvia did per year - but she has no idea where she will be in six months' time.

Neither woman likes the idea of trading places with an executive, and perhaps with good reason. Television, as A Night In with the Girls shows all too well, is full of women who want to call the shots (the big ones) and are not allowed to. Linda Agran, head of production of ABTV, says: "I get angrier and angrier at this absolute refusal even to consider that any woman is capable of holding down a big job, particularly when you happen to know the people who have got the big jobs - who you wouldn't trust with your list at Sainsbury's." And the few that do, such as Channel 5's Dawn Airey, do not help the cause by wondering out loud whether there are any qualified women out there to hire.

"I just was not ambitious to be in a position of power," says Sylvia, and turns to Sara. "Do you want to be a powerful woman?"

Sara looks embarrassed: "No, I don't know what I want. Television is still an exciting hobby that I'm getting paid for."

So are they feminist? "No, not really," says Sylvia, smiling. "I've always thought women were superior to men, but I do it in a quiet sort of way." Sara looks even more embarrassed: "I'm incredibly ignorant of feminism, but I think feminism and frustration go together. Anyway, do we really want these positions of power? Let the men have the headaches."

Lunch is served in a flurry of lettuce, goats' cheese, croutons, slivers of vegetables - and anchovies on the side for Sara. They discuss the ugly side of television and agree that it does not do to imagine who is watching you on the other side of the box. Both have had their share of unwelcome mail, most of which they never see. "Oh, you only find out the truth when the free Lambrusco starts flowing after the show, and the girls tell you," says Sara.

Sylvia nods. She had so much press attention that she had a secret wedding. "You were the Liam and Patsy of your generation!" exclaims Sara. Since she split up with her boyfriend - "he was engaged, I was not" - the press has shown a wildly inaccurate interest in her private life, and Sara is not sure she likes that at all. "Also, they interview me and say things like: `Come on, tell us a dirty joke'," she says. grimacing. And then the woman who introduces the Wanker of the Week admits that she has trouble being rude to older guests. "I naturally have this extra respect for them."

I look as the photographer clicks away. The subject, for a moment, is nail polish, Sara's is chipped purple. Sylvia's is pink. "Oh, my nanna always has nail varnish that matches, too," says Sara. Both are naturals in front of the camera. One has made a career out of being a bit of a goody-goody, while the other is a baddie-baddie, though neither persona is believable off-screen.

The lunch is ending on a caffeinated note; the topics have been varied and many. Sara admits that she cannot wear high heels, and that, like Sylvia, she does not mind a few men around the workplace. "Sometimes going on The Girlie Show is like entering a well woman clinic."

The next topic is guilt. "Oh, I do feel a bit guilty about how easy it was for me," says Sara, but Sylvia's reply is bullet-proof: "Never feel guilty."

So would Sylvia go on The Girlie Show? "Oh no, not my style," she says with one of her lovely smiles. Sara shakes her head. "Oh, I think I could see you on the Girlie Show if you were my age today."

Soon Sylvia is gone, whisked away in a car, and a man approaches. I had assumed he was going to ask Sarah for an autograph, but instead he has a question: "Who was that woman you were having lunch with?" Upon hearing, he nodded. "Ah yes, I thought I recognised her."

Fame has its advantages over frustration, that's for suren

`A Night In with the Girls' is on BBC2 at 9.20pm next Saturday and Sunday.

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