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The Grown-Up Test: Joan Bakewell

Gemma Calvert / 18 December 2018

The journalist, Labour Party Peer and host of Sky’s Portrait and Landscape Artist Of The Year series’ turns 86 in April. But how old is she in her head?

Joan Bakewell

Is there an object that you’ve kept from childhood?

When the war ended in 1945, I would have been twelve, I got a printed document that was sent to every school child, a message from the king with the royal crest at the top and [his] signature at the bottom, saying ‘well done children, your future is assured. We fought long and hard and we won the war’. I’ve framed mine but I’ve just moved house so I haven’t seen it for quite a while!

What is your longest friendship?

I still see at least four friends who I met at Cambridge University in the fifties, so I’ve known them for 65 years. At that time, Cambridge was a very intense place because, post war, we were so excited to be there and made very strong bonds, which survived. I spent time with one friend at a house in France this summer, I had lunch with another one last week at The Royal Academy but the other place we meet are memorial services. Friendship is one of the most important things in life and it’s worth sustaining. The friends you make in your teens, are good friendships.

What did your parents teach you?

They gave me a fundamental sense of love and security. They hovered over me too much in a sense, but my father was an inspiration. He was an engineer and wanted me to get on in life. When I was doing my homework, I’d sit at the dining room table with him next to me. He’d read a book and said ‘if you ever need my help, just ask’. He was supportive every day. My mum was a housewife and taught me very old fashioned kitchen behaviour - how to bake, the right knife and fork, the right manners, not to speak when the grown ups were speaking, basic things about cleanliness and how to iron. A lot of people don’t know how to iron a shirt. I’m an expert!

Can you still remember the lyrics of the first record you bought?

Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run. Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun. He’ll get by without his rabbit pie, so run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run. I was about eight when my mother took me to the local record shop near our home in Hazel Grove, Cheshire, which was incredibly formal and old fashioned, and I bought a shellac recording of wartime song Run Rabbit Run [by comedy double act Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen]. Back then, when meat was rationed, you were told to go out and shoot rabbits to increase your meat intake.

Your biggest fashion mistake?

In 1983, I went on a delegation to Communist China representing the arts community of Britain. They had special shops for tourists that Chinese people couldn’t go to and I bought a fox fur jacket for about £30. When I got home, I put it on and my television producer said ‘you are not wearing that on screen, you’ll be sent excrement in the post. Take it off and hide it away’. It was a colossal mistake. I knew it was real fur but my consciousness hadn’t been raised. My mother and all her friends had fur coats and David Bailey hadn’t made that shocking film in which women walk up and down the catwalk in fur and as they trail the coats, blood stays on the catwalk. I’ve hidden the coat away because I’m ashamed of it.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

In my early teens, for about six weeks, I wanted to be a nun. I liked the costume and thought it would be nice to go to a quiet nunnery to read, wear a nice wimple and think my own thoughts but I gave that up because I realised I’m quite gregarious. After that, I did some acting at school and for a fleeting minute, when I was 15 or 16, thought ‘what a life this would be’ but my mother quickly disabused me. She told me to get a ‘sound’ job first and do acting as an amateur so I gave it up. Judi Dench is a friend and so is Eileen Atkins and I have huge admiration for them. Their skills are so complicated. I still have that hero worship of being an actress.

What was your worst telling-off for?

I grew up in a very repressed home, probably quite a repressed community. You were not meant to have any sex life as a teenager. I was 17 when my mother discovered a photograph of me kissing my boyfriend of six months and she was furious. She made me stand and watch while she burned the photograph and told me ‘this sort of thing must never happen again’. It inspired me to kick over the traces, leave home, go to Cambridge and kiss as many people as I wanted.

What is your most prized possession?

I have lots of sentimental bits and pieces, including my mother’s gold watch that was given to her on her 21st birthday. It’s a wind up watch so rather dated but it’s quite pretty. This was the woman who punished me for kissing and yet I cherish her watch. It’s funny. You have contradictory feelings about your parents. You know they’re a damn nuisance and very punishing but they’re the people you’re born to love.

What was your first car?

A little grey Morris Minor. It had belonged to my mother. When she died I inherited it and I couldn’t drive so I had driving lessons in it. I passed the first time! When you wanted to turn, you flicked a switch and it flicked out a little yellow object with a light in it, instead of the flash on the back.

Town or country?

It’s been town all my life, but countryside is one of the great consolations of old age. I think the countryside is beautiful and cities less and less beautiful but I need a town to be in touch with theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries, crowds and shops. I’ve just moved from one house in Primrose Hill, north London, to another. I’ve downsized and it’s quite hard to get rid of stuff. I put some out on the door step, I gave some to the British Heart Foundation and my children and grandchildren and I’ve still got a house full of junk!

Twitter – yes or no?

Yes. I’ve got over 20,000 followers. That’s not bad, is it? If something goes wrong, I tweet about how irritated I am and that elicits a response quite quickly. I tweet about Brexit quite a lot, because I’m very anti Brexit. Mary Beard and I stay in touch. I tweet about books, plays I’ve seen - it’s just a little commentary on my day.

How do you relax?

I open some wine, put on some television I like, listen to music I like. Last night I watched David (Attenborough)’s programme about the penguins. He used to be my boss, controller of BBC2 when I was on Late Night Line-Up, that’s why I refer to him as David. I’m not taking liberties! I watch dramas but don’t have enough consistent time for box sets. I can be a bit of a news junkie and am a great fan of Channel 4 News.

Which decade are you most nostalgic for?

The sixties, obviously! The music was so good. I was doing Late Night Line-Up [BBC] and the pop groups used to come in to record in the afternoon. They all came through - The Stones, The Kinks, Elton - and we all loved the music. It felt freer. When you’ve had a mother burning a photograph of you with your boyfriend, you’re going to feel quite comfy with the liberating mood that was everywhere. I was married at 22 - too young, really - but I was passionately in love and the only way you could have a sustained sex life in those days was to marry, so Michael and I had four years together, then we had our daughter. I adored having my children at 25 and 29.

Would you rather have your youth back or keep what you have now?

I wouldn’t mind going back but I wouldn’t like to be young now. When I was growing up, there were lots of rules, but it was a secure world. You knew what to expect. The world was getting a better place. The war was over, it could only get better and it went on getting better. If you’re young now, the world’s getting worse all the time. We had hope and that’s a wonderful thing when you’re a child.

Medicine or alternative medicine?

Medicine. The state of medical science is wonderful: the way it keeps people alive, rescues people and helps people like me - I’ve got a metal hip. One of the things old people do when they meet each other is compare their health. I’m fine because I pay a lot of attention to my health. I only have to have a broken finger nail and I’m rushing off to the doctors. I’m quick to medicate.

Is your glass half full or half empty?

It’s more than half full, it’s overflowing! I think I’ve always had a positive outlook on life and I think that probably does derive from the security of my childhood. Even though it was quite strict, I did know where I was and that was very important. Children need boundaries to feel safe and I did have that.

Could you run a mile?

No! I’ve been going to pilates twice a week for 25 years. I go at 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I love it. I don’t have time for the gym.

What makes your heart sink?

The chaos of Brexit and Trump. The whole state of the world is dire. I want a second referendum and I would hope that we step back from the catastrophe. I don’t think [that Theresa May can deliver Brexit], certainly not the way the Brexiteers want because they’re cuckoo, they’re mad hatters, they’re totally unrealistic. She can’t get a better deal out of Europe, they’re going to vote against her, the Labour party will vote against her, the DUP will vote against her. She hasn’t got a chance.

Your hope for the future?

To continue working and keeping busy. When I was 70, I began a column for the Guardian called Just 70. I’m 85 now and in the House of Lords, I’m sitting on two committees, I’m quite active. I also have this marvellous contract with Sky, two series a year - Portrait Artist Of The Year and Landscape Artist Of the Year. They’ve just signed me up for next year!


Joan loves to socialise, is as work hungry as ever and continues to blaze her own trail. With this much energy and spirit, she would easily pass for a feisty fifty-something.

Portrait Artist of the Year returns to Sky Arts and NOW TV on February 12 at 8pm.

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