Selina Scott: I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees

Selina Scott on Princess Diana, walking her dogs – and why too many TV executives are still living in the Dark Ages

Once, when Selina Scott was the anchor of News at Ten, she escorted Diana, Princess of Wales, who she knew a bit, on a royal visit around the testosterone-charged offices of ITN.

Not many women worked in media newsrooms in those days, whether television or newspaper, and as they
were leaving Diana, always flirtatious, glanced one last time at the ranks of laddish reporters, uncompromising sub-editors and mannish executives and cheekily asked: “Selina, which one is your boyfriend?”

What was recorded in the privacy of the elevator taking the two out of the building was lost in a gale of girlish giggles, but this exchange was duly reported in the papers confirming Selina’s image, which she came to hate, as “The Golden Girl of Television”.

But the papers missed a more meaningful aside by Diana to Selina when they both attended a gala at the Royal Albert Hall. Selina recalls: “Diana said a little coyly to me, ‘People say you look like me’.”

Not an unnatural observation as they were both blondes, and attractive young women; very much, in their different ways, media darlings of the moment.

Selina’s reply was instructive. “I said to Diana, ‘Well, I was here first’.” Meaning that, as the more senior of the two, it was a case, if anything, that Diana looked like Selina, not the other way round. It was in its way a breath-taking declaration of Selina’s independent state of mind and quite a break from the servile manner in which commoners are supposed to speak to royalty. Not that Diana minded. She laughed. It was another bit of fun to her.

For most of her career Selina camouflaged this feisty personality behind glamorous model-girl looks and that mellifluous voice with its flute-like allure that seduced many an on-camera interviewee into surrendering confidences. Prince Andrew was so besotted when she was hosting the evening chat-show Wogan on the BBC back in the Eighties he asked on air for her telephone number.

So it was thought-provoking that when the Corporation was being attacked for outdated, ageist, sexist attitudes to women presenters, chucking seasoned professionals overboard in favour of autocue-dependent bimbos, Education Minister Michael Gove sparked a provocative debate when he said he would rather watch Selina Scott than Holly Willoughby.

In a way this debate crystallised the metamorphosis of Scott from luscious if seemingly passive beauty to fearless iconoclast. In recent years she has become not only an agitator at the barricades of social change but ironically cast into conflict with the very industry that made her a national figure.

For her pains she has been rubbished by television bosses who wished she would stop throwing a searchlight on the iniquities of the broadcasting world, as well as lickspittle scribblers in the press, and advised that her frequent attacks are no help to her television career, where presenters with controversial, outspoken views are often treated as lepers. Indeed that old gargoyle, late film director Michael Winner, compared her to one of the witches in Macbeth!

Selina was “radicalised”, as it were, five years ago, when she sued Channel 5 for breach of contract after they offered her a job which they later reneged on. She won an apology and damages of £250,000.

Selina says: “I was told if I went ahead with the action I would be contaminated and nobody would hire me. But I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees. It was the kind of rejection I had suffered at the hands of both the BBC and ITV over the years.

“I and others like me have experienced a disregarding, casual maiming which leaves women with their confidence and careers in tatters but which is done in a sly, almost Machiavellian way. It seems to be conducted by whispers in corridors. It is insidious, cowardly and unworthy of the great traditions of British broadcasting, which has a duty to reflect the way society is, not the Stepford Wives version of it. They used to say at the BBC that when a woman’s age exceeds her bra size she is history. And it was true.”

Women everywhere found an echo of this in their own lives, and wrote to Selina by the sackload supporting her stand. Her campaign ignited a groundswell of opinion which now increasingly sees more women being given responsible on-air presenter roles on serious programmes, making them role models to younger generations.

The irony is that, despite her new revolutionary image, and at an age when many former female telly stars of her generation are willing to settle for comfortable daytime TV, the work continues to pour in. She was recently offered more than £100,000 to appear in the next series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, has just been seen on ITV guest presenting the Classical Brits, and appears next month in a week’s episodes of Countdown.

Her show Treasure Houses, a glossy 3D series about the great stately homes of England, reruns on Sky and her book about Majorca, where she has a holiday home, continues to sell well for HarperCollins. “I think my most stimulating time was when I worked for one of the big networks in America,” she says. “I went undercover on one assignment to report on the killing of elephants for their tusks in Africa, which led to a world ban on ivory sales. This was back in the Eighties when we didn’t really know this was happening. The poaching nightmare hadn’t been reported. It’s my regret that this kind of programme, which was broadcast coast-to-coast in the States, was not seen in the UK. I think it would have changed perceptions about me.”

Blessed with phenomenal energy, she has in recent years poured her vitality into a parallel career as a successful businesswoman, providing socks and other woollen garments to celebrities and public alike from the adored Angora goat herd on her 200-acre farm in the old North Riding of Yorkshire. When Prince Charles stalks stags on the Scottish moors it is always in Selina’s socks. She has also found time to become a Doctor of Letters at Hull University.

Today the fresh, country-girl looks have matured into the kind of senior beauty that drives Frenchmen mad. Think of a younger Catherine Deneuve. Selina’s outdoor life has given her such a glow of health it makes you think she could take on Jessica Ennis. She’s so fit she was even offered a Playtex bra commercial recently, quite a compliment for a 60-year-old!

Like Emily Brontë she can be seen most days striding across the Yorkshire moors, with her two dogs Nip and Kiki racing ahead.

She says: “I’ve planted woods, built a lake, conserved hedgerows, protected bird life, salvaged an ancient wall and rugby-tackled my goats when they don’t behave themselves. I’m up at dawn and physically on the go all day. It’s kept me fit. I never have to go near a gym and I sleep like a log. I’ve reached an age when I know myself. I don’t have to settle for second best.”

Earlier this month, Selina starred at the Classical Brit Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, where she outshone Myleene Klass in a stunning black gown covered in diamantes by Catherine Walker. The photographers, as always, went crazy when she appeared on the red carpet looking fabulous. They know it’s where she belongs.

Roderick Gilchrist