Clare Balding talks to Saga

09 October 2017

Clare Balding is a huge supporter of women in sport, even writing a new children's book featuring a strong, sporty girl heroine as a positive role model. But the broadcaster, author and TV chat show host still admits to struggling with the fame game ... and taking a few lessons from Helen Mirren.

Clare Balding is being a complete trouper. She raises and lowers her gaze, smoulders, throws back her head with an impish grin, plays with the collar of her cashmere coat, all at the bidding of the photographer on our shoot.

As an award-winning broadcaster, who shone at the Olympics, presents sport for the BBC and Channel 4, as well as Ramblings on Radio 4 and Good Morning Sunday for Radio 2, you’d think she’d be used to having the spotlight on her, but this part of the fame game, posing for cameras, is the hardest for Clare. Yet her tenacity and no-nonsense approach – no surprise that she was head girl at her school, Downe House, before reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge – means she is jolly well going to nail it.

It turns out that her tutor in the art of avoiding red-carpet pitfalls is none other than Helen Mirren.

It turns out that her tutor in the art of avoiding red-carpet pitfalls is none other than Helen Mirren. Clare got to know the Dame when hosting the Pirelli Calendar gala dinner in Paris last November. ‘I’m OK now with this,’ she says, gesturing to the photographic studio where our interview is taking place. ‘But I haven’t cracked red carpets yet. I’m really bad at them – I hate them and they frighten me,’ she says, candidly. ‘But in Paris, I got to spend quite a lot of time with Helen [one of the Pirelli girls], which was brilliant. She’s kick-ass.’

What she has learnt, from the best, is to embrace the terror and make it her friend: ‘So be nice – do the selfies, do the quick interviews, and if they ask you a stupid question just smile sweetly and say, “Ha ha – have you been drinking too much?!”’

So Helen Mirren is her fame coach! ‘Yuh, and I’ve watched how she does it at the Venice Film Festival – and I think, “OK, I’ll do it like that”. Whereas before I would literally go in the back door and avoid it – and that maybe is not the most grown-up way to treat these things.

‘The things that don’t make me feel relaxed I’ve tried to get better at because I slightly feel…’ and here she conveys the impression of giving herself a stern talking-to ‘…you’ve got to do it – so get good at it – because if you’re good at it, it gets easier.’

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It’s the can-do, professional attitude that has endeared her to so many viewers since she first became a household name with her London Olympics coverage. And indeed, she sparkles all the way through the photoshoot.

Her eyes look very blue, matching a short-sleeved cashmere sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt – with a Day-Glo orange stripe around the neckline that suits her. As she talks, there is a chomping sound between phrases – while she dispatches several plates of Ottolenghi-style healthy salads. Her way of speaking is a combination of the Famous Five and the odd, swooping American teenage inflection at the end of a sentence (the question that isn’t a question), and her sudden laugh can sometimes startle with its machine-gun ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ delivery.

Her new children’s book, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, continues the adventures of Derby-winner Noble Warrior (to whom we were introduced in The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop) and his nine-year-old schoolgirl trainer, Charlie Bass (the family name slipped in there).

It would be fair to say that there is quite a lot of the author invested in her young heroine, Charlie, whose older brothers – Harry and Larry – tease her about her ‘thunder thighs’ before learning to respect her courage, ingenuity and leadership. In the book, Charlie’s mother points out how useful it is to have powerful legs, pointing to great role models such as Serena Williams and Beyoncé. Was that reminiscent of her own childhood? Laughing, she puts on a faux-glum expression, like Eeyore. ‘I was very aware of my thighs being bigger than I would like them to have been.’ The book’s heroine, Charlie, was bullied at school, too, and had the sense of never fitting in. Again, autobiographical?

‘I was pretty square, actually,’ Clare says. At 13, in 1984, the big hit singles were by Wham and Frankie Goes to Hollywood; it was the year of Band Aid and Madonna’s Like a Virgin; torn T-shirts, armloads of bangles, funkabilly gear. ‘I never could get it quite right. I was always just hanging out with my ponies and my dogs. I’ve never felt cool in my life. I don’t mind wearing a long coat occasionally and putting the collar up and thinking that I can get away with it. But other than that…’

‘If I were a 13-year-old girl reading this now, I would say to myself, “You’re not the only one who is struggling to find your place, your niche. It’s OK – there is a place for you.”

She continues: ‘If I were a 13-year-old girl reading this now, I would say to myself, “You’re not the only one who is struggling to find your place, your niche. It’s OK – there is a place for you.” But at that age you’ve no idea who you are and one of the reasons I continue to create these characters is that I don’t think there’s an awful lot out there where girls can say, “Well, that’s who I want to be like”.’

Clare is a passionate believer in women’s sport, partly because ‘whether you are playing football or rugby or rowing or skiing or playing tennis or gymnastics – there is every kind of body shape at a time when girls are so body-conscious so early. I think that is hugely important.’

In the summer she presented the Women’s European Football Championships. ‘The women were so eloquent and proud throughout the championships; in fact, they really put the men to shame. They are brilliant role models for girls coming through the school system and demonstrate that if these aspiring girls work hard enough they too can achieve greatness.

‘The FA banned women’s football in 1921 and the ban lasted for 50 years. So, for our women to reach the semi-final of this prestigious tournament, while also attracting record-breaking viewing figures for the sport, showcases how far women’s football has come.

‘It’s why I wanted to have a female heroine in my book who is not afraid to take on the establishment and is also a team player. The response I have received from readers and their parents has been so positive – most of whom say that it’s rare to find a sporty, strong heroine with short hair!’

Clare is not afraid of being outspoken and has been highly vocal on the controversy about the BBC’s (un)equal pay policy towards its female employees: ‘I don’t mind being paid less than a commercial rate but I do think it is hard to swallow for a lot of women if they are being paid less than a male for doing the same job.’ There are now hundreds of women involved in the campaign, way beyond the first 40 signatories to the letter to the BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall.

She has referred to women as being treated as ‘discounted items’. Her father – horse trainer Ian Balding – asked what she meant. ‘I said, “Dad, you wouldn’t know because you don’t go shopping – it’s like a BOGOF deal, buy one, get one free!’

Once an amateur jockey, she grew up in a horsey world and could ride before she could walk: her grandfather, father and brother all trained racehorses for the Queen. Indeed, Clare’s book, My Animals And Other Family, documents a toe-curling moment as a child when the Queen stayed for tea at the yard, and Clare created chaos trying to retrieve a sausage that had shot from her grasp.

But life has not been without its challenges, including dealing with her rejection from her maternal grandmother on discovering Clare was gay. That was back in 2003 and the two didn’t speak for six months – though eventually made up.

Clare suspects her grandmother’s reaction might have been prompted by her own experience of growing up with innuendoes around her own father, politician Malcolm Bullock. While taking part in BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? earlier this year, Clare discovered that Bullock, her great-grandfather, had been rumoured to have had a relationship with artist Rex Whistler.

‘My grandmother’s attitude would always have been, “You do what society expects you to do. You sure as hell don’t follow your own passion” – and my attitude isn’t like that.’

Did she find it a comfort to find out more about her great-grandfather? ‘Yes, I would have loved to have met him,’ she says. ‘And reading about him made me realise just how lucky I am to be able to get married.’

Broadcaster Alice Arnold and Clare had a civil partnership in 2006 – they are now married. Where does Balding think we are now? ‘You can’t change everything, but you can give people confidence,’ she says.

‘Sometimes the strongest and most effective message you can give is just to be together and be happy.’

‘I think that sometimes the strongest and most effective message you can give is just to be together and be happy.’

Their idea of bliss is going on a cruise: ‘I love a cruise! This is our discovery. My rule is that if you like people, you will love cruising because it’s all about people.’

They have chosen not to have children. Where other people might have their loved ones as their phone screensaver, Clare has Archie, a Tibetan terrier. Is it revealing that she has a photo of her dog – not Alice? ‘Her screensaver is of him, too!’ She shows me more photos, including a painted portrait. ‘He’s very handsome, isn’t he?’

When asked about her idea of a dream dinner-party table, she says Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

‘I would be a bit concerned about the cooking – well, I can’t cook and nor can Alice. So I would have to ask Nigella Lawson and Mary Berry to come and help with the cooking. Graham [Norton] can come too – he’s lovely.’

But these are all people you know already! ‘OK, Kate Winslet – she’s not my friend yet, but she will be. It’s just been waiting to happen. She is guaranteed to be my best friend,’ she laughs, smiling and at ease.

Those fame-game lessons appear to be paying off…

The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding, illustrations by Tony Ross (Puffin) is out now, buy your copy from the Saga Bookshop.

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