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Kirsty Wark on independence, the BBC and Savile

BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark at her home in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark at her home in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

  • by stephen mcginty
 

IT is a damp Monday in February and I’m in the upstairs study of an elegant terraced house in Glasgow’s leafy West End, listening as Kirsty Wark explains that when it comes to sex, less is more.

I should add that the conversation is revolving around what takes place between the covers of a book rather than a bed, and that the book in question is The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, the debut novel of the presenter of Newsnight and The Review Show. So what’s it like? The book, not the sex. Well, let’s imagine that I’m ensconced on one of those low sofas favoured by The Review Show, with Ian Rankin on one side and Germaine Greer on the other, and Wark is using her glasses as a pointer and has just turned to me and said: “Stephen McGinty, what did you think?”

“Well, I have to say I liked it, Kirsty. I didn’t think I would. The proof copy sat on my bedside table for six weeks and at one point I even thought of snapping the spine in various places and sticking in a few randomly scattered yellow Post-Its to give it that ‘well thumbed beat up read-it-twice’ look. But then 48 hours before our appointment I started the first page and a day later I was gasping at an ending that’s strangely macabre. It’s a surprising page-turner. Maeve Binchy goes to Arran and I’d happily give it three stars out of five.”

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle has two competing narratives; the first follows Martha Morrison, a journalist in Edinburgh who is coming to terms with her mother’s slow descent into dementia and is surprised to discover that they have been left a beautiful cottage in Arran by an elderly woman who has just died. Elizabeth Pringle, the recently deceased, was a school teacher on the island who couldn’t bear to follow her fiancé to a new life in Australia, but whose long solitary life has been full of incident, occasional romance and deep friendships. The chapters alternate between Martha’s attempts to settle into her new island home and a romance with the island’s arborist, and the memoir of Elizabeth Pringle that spans almost the entire 20th century and includes watching the speed trials of the Queen Mary off the coast of Arran and spells searching the island for downed planes during the Second World War.

Unlike her former colleague on Newsnight, Paul Mason, who had a couple having sex on horseback in his novel, Wark has opted to be rather more demure, than follow the vogue for emulating Fifty Shades of Grey. Casually dressed in black trousers and a black top and leaning on the edge of her cluttered desk, she laughs and says: “I don’t think you need to be explicit in a book like that, but I did think you needed to show passion in Elizabeth as that was another thing I wanted to give back in her life. I wanted her to have a passionate relationship and I wanted to have her remembering that.”

The idea for the novel began to grow over a decade ago after one rain-sodden holiday on Arran which Wark has been visiting since her childhood. “We had had this family holiday of a month on Arran and it rained every day and Alan (Clements, her husband) said we cannot keep coming all the time to Arran, I need some sunshine. So I had to think of how I could keep a connection with the island and one of the ideas I had was an old woman in a house that I saw every day. Elizabeth isn’t based on a real person, but there was a person who inspired her and that was my starting point.

“The next point was my great aunt, not going to Australia with her beau. She had been engaged to a young Lanarkshire farmer and he had the chance to go to a new life in Australia and so she broke off the engagement and didn’t go. She couldn’t leave her family nor her home, so she never married and instead looked after the house and her five brothers.”

A theme she was keen to tackle is how society treats the elderly, no longer viewing them as the individuals they are, but as clichés in knitted cardigans. “I do firmly believe that if you are over 80 you are regarded as a one-dimensional character now, there is an identikit older woman and yet we are now reaching the end of the generation who faced the privations of the Second World War and lots of women who have had interesting lives and so I wanted to give someone their life back.”

The original synopsis was written a decade ago followed by a rough draft, but three years ago she tackled it again in earnest, writing chapters on the train down to London where she presents Newsnight and at the family’s holiday home in Majorca, where it has never been known to rain for a month. An avid reader since childhood, Wark was keen to finally see her work preserved between the hardback covers of a book. “Writing is so different from radio and television and although I love my job it is there and gone and having the book is like having a real thing. It was a weird experience.”

The diminution of older women on television has been a matter of recent debate but Wark, who turns 60 next year, insists she has no concerns about being shunted off the screen to be replaced by a younger model. She is, she explains, on the verge of signing a new two-year contract with Newsnight and argues that the BBC has grasped the nettle and is actively dealing with the issue. “I think that ship has turned around. It does remain to be seen if a woman at the age of 76 will be presenting the General Election coverage on the BBC – (a reference to the seemingly permanent fixture of David Dimbleby) but that should be the way it is going. I think things are changing but nobody should have a sinecure. It should be about the merits of your work and how you develop and change. My view is that you have to keep doing new things.”

Yet, I ask, is there not a thought at the back of your head that I’m going to be shunted off sooner or later?

“Not now... 20 years ago, when I was younger I would have been thinking how long will my career in television be? But Newsnight can accommodate people of all ages. I don’t have any worries about that. The BBC has had to have a look at itself over this. For a while it felt like I was being held up as a human shield: “Look we have Kirsty and Martha [Kearney] we’re fine!”

Has she ever thought of cosmetic surgery? “I’ve never thought about it and do you know why? It is madness to take a general anaesthetic when you don’t need it. Why would you do it for cosmetic reasons? Women with Botox? It’s not a good look. I’ve a broken nose. (Her son James accidentally head-butted her when he was a baby) I am certainly not going to have plastic surgery, I am not condemning other people who do, but I think women who have breast surgery are mad, honestly.”

As one of the most high-profile Scots on British television, and one who prefers to commute to London by sleeper train rather than move south, it is interesting to hear what she thinks about the nation’s referendum year. Strict rules on the impartiality of BBC journalists mean it is pointless to ask in which box she will be placing her tick, but whichever the outcome she believes Scotland will change. “Whatever happens in September nothing will ever be the same again. It is just slightly bonkers that we are having a UK cabinet meeting in Aberdeen. It is like, hello, we are part of the United Kingdom wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have had one earlier? The tenor of the debate is becoming quite interesting: it is as if they have said: ‘Oh my God we’ve got to get up to Scotland!’ I don’t want that to colour the fact that there are very important questions to be asked. But I think it is fantastically exciting and examining ourselves is very important – what we are capable of? What we are not capable of?”

Clearly Wark’s many capabilities extend beyond journalism, cultural criticism and writing novels to emulating the undead as she did to the delight of some fans and the mutterings of others that Newsnight was ‘dumbing down’. The idea to end the Hallowe’en edition of the programme in a sepulchral manner was, in fact, originally hers. “My idea was that I would sign off and there would be a witch’s hat and a broomstick by the side of my desk. That was all it would be. Like topsy that grew and Ian (Katz, the Newsnight editor) said how do you feel about dancing to Thriller? I said: hmmm. OK let’s think about this. They found a group that were already rehearsing for Thriller and I only had one stipulation which was that I wouldn’t dance very much and I had to get out in time for the sleeper. We started rehearsing at 8 o’clock and I was still writing the script for the programme. It was fun and the whole thing about Newsnight is that it is a serious, serious programme but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I won’t be doing it again any time soon. There won’t be a theme.”

She said the arrival of Katz, the former deputy editor of the Guardian, as the programme’s editor has revitalised Newsnight after the crisis triggered by the programme’s failure to broadcast its investigation on the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal and erroneous reports about the Conservative peer, the late Lord McAlpine. “He never says: ‘No we can’t,’ he says ‘oh yes we can’. He has a great can-do attitude to the whole of the BBC. That has allowed us to take the foot off the brake. Savile put the foot on the brake for a time. But the energy is back.”

So what does the future hold? Does she have any ambitions to be Director General of the BBC? “Don’t be ridiculous! I don’t have the capacity for that. No. A creative leadership job would be great but, no, I don’t have the capacity. You have to be incredibly political with a small p and I don’t think I’ve got that.” What about head of BBC Scotland? “No. I think now I want to do all sorts of different things. The mixture of television, radio and writing, it gives me the freedom to go away for three or four days and that is incredibly liberating. I wouldn’t have the staying power to do that job. I think it is incredibly stressful.”

While Wark still has a long check list of people she would love to interview, with Hillary Clinton at the top, her lifelong love of the arts is an area she would like to develop. “I have been asked on Strictly Come Dancing a number of times, which I would never do, but I’d be interested in singing. I love to sing, not that I’m very good.” Then there is the quiet call of the theatrical stage. After Kirsty Wark, novelist we may yet be introduced to Kirsty Wark, actress: “I have an idea to write a two-hander for the theatre, I’m a real hostage to fortune here but with a friend of mine, Bridget McCann, she and I are talking about it. I can’t really talk about all the details, and whether or not we get round to it, but the genesis is that we look at mother and daughter relationships. I think it is an interesting area. Caitlin [her daughter] will be worried. I would like to try writing theatre dialogue, I’m not sure if I would like to perform in it but I might want to try.”

If she tries, there is a fair chance she may succeed and later as she walks me downstairs and shows me to the door, she is still fizzing with energy and enthusiasm. She’s working on a new documentary, and she’s 8,000 words into a new novel, which will be set in Galloway and New York. As she said earlier: “Life is fun.”

• The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark is out now, published by Two Roads, £14.99.

 

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