. . . and there’s no one like Joan Bakewell. From ’60s chick to campaigner for the elderly, she’s still making news after five decades in the spotlight
It’s a measure of just how busy Joan Bakewell continues to be that it took me three attempts to schedule this interview.
Not that the 78-year-old broadcaster and writer has added inaccessible divadom to the damehood she acquired in 2008, as Bakewell remains as friendly and approachable as ever since she became a Labour peer last year. But she’s slotting me into a hectic Sunday spent reading the final proofs of her second novel, She’s Leaving Home. And when asked about her typical working day, she laughs wryly and says: “There’s no such thing.”
That’s the way she prefers it, describing herself as “a bit of a magpie because I like a little of lots of different things”. Alongside her most regular gigs – thrice-weekly sittings in the House of Lords and twice-weekly Pilates classes – she continues to relish “all the random stuff that turns up” in the life of a freelance. As one of our best-known TV presenters, she finds the offers still keep coming in – apart from in one area, of which more later.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like at my age. I live life to the full as much as I can”
Bakewell made her name back in the ’60s as a menthol-cool, mini-skirted interviewer on BBC2’s ground-breaking topical talk show Late Night Line-Up, earning herself the nickname of “the thinking man’s crumpet” from the humorist Frank Muir. She has been an arts and current-affairs queen ever since, moving on from Newsnight to such influential TV documentary series as Heart of the Matter, which ran for 12 years, and Taboo, which investigated the sexual life of the nation.
But she never forgot to have a life outside work. Now a grandmother of six, she has been married twice – to TV producer Michael Bakewell and to theatre director Jack Emery. Her private life even made headlines when her seven-year affair with the playwright Harold Pinter was later immortalised in his play Betrayal. Currently she’s single.
“Am I having an affair now?” says Bakewell (her bold choice of words, not mine). “No, but I go out with a wide variety of friends of both sexes.”
The post-war youthquake of high achievers from relatively lowly backgrounds like hers could be called the first truly liberated generation. Bakewell puts that down to the fact that “our wartime childhoods had been quite austere, so we came out roaring with enthusiasm, wanting to make the world a better place”.
That same seventy-something generation is now at the centre of an elderquake revolution, refusing to be defined by their years. As Bakewell puts it: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like at my age. I live life to the full as much as I can, and my children take my busy life for granted – I think they’re relieved I’m not a burden.”
Appointed the voice for older people by Gordon Brown’s government in 2008, she stepped down as age tsar just before the 2010 election because, she explains: “I didn’t want to tie the subsequent incumbent with having me on their books – and also because I found the job overwhelming, since it was voluntary and therefore part-time.”
Now she lobbies for England and Scotland to appoint a full-time paid commissioner instead, as in Wales and Northern Ireland, because she believes “there’s a need for a much bigger response to the old”.
She continues to campaign on other issues, too. Having criticised the way sex is commodified, she now says: “I think we will probably go through quite a puritanical phase to redress the sleazy values till we get the balance right.”
The only thing that temporarily put a stop to her gallop earlier this year has been a broken foot due to a stress fracture. “Although I’m better now, I can’t go round in high heels any more,” she says ruefully. “But I don’t do glamour any more. Sometimes I think I ought to find out about Botox, since people keep talking about it, but I don’t have the time or the need…”
She remains much in demand on radio, presenting Radio 4’s Inside the Ethics Committee and the Radio 3 series Belief. And in September she will be on TV interviewing Sir David Frost about his historic interrogation of US president Richard Nixon in a Watergate/Nixon night on BBC2.
Yet aside from being the occasional talking head on ageing issues or the ’60s, she admits: “I don’t have a TV career at all. I think the reason is because of age – the only people over 70 on TV now are David Dimbleby, Bruce Forsyth and David Attenborough. Your professional life does thin out as you get older.
“But I’ve found other avenues. I’m having to learn quite late in the day how to write novels (her first, All the Nice Girls, was published in 2009) and I’m beginning to get stuck into law-making issues in the Lords. That’s all about current affairs, so there is a parallel with my TV career.”
These days she makes her mark on television behind the scenes, it seems. In a recent New Statesman interview with Mark Thompson, she got the BBC’s director-general to take on board her arguments for more older women on screen, following Bakewell’s championing of deposed Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly
(who took the BBC to an employment tribunal for ageism and won).
“Things are getting better for women in broadcasting, but I also think many women have less single-minded, driving ambition than men. Their lives are full of other satisfactions, which makes women more balanced human beings.
“I wanted my life to encompass as many different things as possible, and that’s what I’ve done. I don’t really have any more ambitions workwise – I’d like it to be a little bit quieter really,” she adds.
“I have signed a living will, but I feel so fit that I haven’t made any arrangements for my future care,” she concludes, telling me that she’s very keen on “this new architecture, this plan for houses to be built for life so that people don’t ever have to move out”. A pioneer to the last.
Joan Bakewell’s interview with Sir David Frost will be on BBC2 in September. She’s Leaving Home will be published by Virago in November.