Head girl with a subversive streak

'MODEST' is probably the word that best sums up Moira Stuart. In the pantheon of female newsreaders she has neither Natasha Kaplinsky's terrifying ambition, Selina Scott's frigid hauteur, Kirsty Young's smug self-regard, nor Jan Leeming's hysterical sense of personal drama. A demure, reliable presence, Stuart eschews sass and scandal for an ageless appearance, a seemingly limitless supply of stylish wigs and a slightly nasal voice that carries a soupçon of Peter Cook as E L Wisty.

When others stumble over the polysyllabic names of African dictators or Russian oligarchs, Stuart's trademark has been unflappability even when presenting the news on a bank holiday weekend just as catastrophe hit the town of Darwin, Australia. Her lonely producer on the holiday shift had telephoned the graphics department, requesting an illustration for the news bulletin: "I'd like a map of Australia, animated to show Darwin, please." As Stuart reached the middle of the story, a bearded historical face exploded from the heart of Australia. Stuart, although aware of the gaffe, did not falter.

Now, after 26 years, she is the latest midlife TV presenter to be taken out and metaphorically shot, although, in truth, the BBC had been quietly downgrading her for years. In 1999 she was removed from the 6pm bulletins, then daytime, and now she has finally been rudely shoved off Andrew Marr's Sunday AM slot.

The BBC has said that Stuart will continue presenting "other projects", although this is standard Beebspeak for "if you don't make a fuss, we'll let you come to the Christmas party".

They needn't fear. Fuss is not part of the Stuart tradition. While a newscaster like Anna Ford would have gone upstairs to hunt for the executive concerned, armed with anger and a glass of Chablis, Stuart has merely let it be known that she is "disappointed". The understated Stuart rarely bears her soul, even though her investigation of her own past in 2004 was one of the most poignant episodes of the series Who Do You Think You Are?

Stuart's solicitor father Harold left home when she was 10 months old, amid unbearable family tensions. According to Stuart, "he did not walk out so much as be made to leave and, afterwards, my mother had a very hard time. She's a fabulous person but she's not tactile. And, as a child, I needed to be cuddled."

Her mother Marjorie, a nurse, raised three daughters on her own in London where young Moira was often the only black girl in the class and was sent to a convent school when she was nine: "It was around the time of the Notting Hill riots and, even though my mother felt the church had let her down, she thought it might be some sort of sanctuary for me. But it wasn't really. I couldn't swallow all the conditioning. I questioned everything."

Stuart's first instinct was to become an actress, with a sideline as a continuity announcer and newsreader for Radio 2 and Radio 4. As late as 1980, the two careers co-existed at the BBC, where she delivered bulletins, but also appeared on a kids show called the Adventure Game, as a quiz-setting dragon from the planet Arg who eviscerated the likes of Keith Chegwin if he failed to solve a mathematical puzzle. Television newsreading finally claimed her in 1981, when she became Britain's first black news broadcaster with a minimum of fuss and some reluctance: "My private life is not for sale, along with my gender or my race," she noted at the time. "On the radio you can keep your anonymity. I'm not over-private, but I don't think people are interested in too many facts. TV was a bit different. I was very aware that you can't shortchange people. But it was put to me by my family that maybe it would be useful, that maybe I could help open doors for all kinds of other people from different backgrounds or other minorities. If I was to get the TV job then other people would then feel: 'Well, why not me too?'" Since then, she has presented almost every news bulletin devised by the BBC, with the exception of the Ten O'Clock News.

Of her surname she once noted: "There is something so indisputably Scottish about the name Moira Stuart that in my early radio days lots of my mail went astray. It ended up in the music department because my BBC colleagues assumed the letters were meant for the singer Moira Anderson."

This month's broadcast of Moira Stuart In Search Of Wilberforce was a fair-minded documentary about the influence of the slavery abolitionist, but her interviewing skills were somewhat overshadowed when, confronted by the appalling conditions endured by slaves during a visit to Ghana, she wept on camera. Stuart regretted it almost immediately: "I was very cross with myself for having the self-indulgent reaction of tears. To be less than strong is to dishonour the memory of those who passed through that awful place."

In fact, Stuart's entire career has been a demonstration of self-control, maintaining distance and keeping zipped about her age and her private life - at least, until Des Lynam outed her as an unlikely girlfriend and "one of the best laughers I know". Stuart, 55, once admitted that on two occasions she almost got married, both times to men of Caribbean origin. She has, she says, been hurt - "very badly" - but has also made the best of the life she now leads. "I don't have any children, although I adore my sister's children," she has said. "I have come close to marriage, but I think one has to be extremely brave and gutsy to go down that path."

TV reporters are the first to point out that, like actresses, newsreaders are often strangely disappointing without a script. Yet there is something about the qualities of female newsreaders which encourages viewers not merely to fancy them, but to love them. In Stuart's case, there may also be respect for the last of the fragrant generation who used to live behind a desk, exude dignity and never make themselves the news story.

Yet, despite the head girl appeal, Stuart clearly has a subversive streak - hence her appearance in character on Ricky Gervais' Extras, where she was revealed as the main supplier of cocaine to stars such as Ronnie Corbett at the Baftas. For Stuart, though, it seems that fame was never the spur. "I don't want to go through what Sue Lawley and so many others have gone through," she once remarked, despairing of the pressure that she and her colleagues were being put under to moonlight as talk show hosts and soft-news dummies. For Stuart there is little chance of such an ignominious fate.

You've been Googled

"News reading fascinates me, but my heroes are the reporters, chasing around and ducking the bullets. My job is just the front woman."

• Awarded the OBE in 2001 for services to broadcasting, Stuart has served on various boards and judging panels, including Amnesty International and The Royal Television Society.

• In 2006 she received a degree from the University of Edinburgh, allowing her to pay tribute to her grandparents, both from the Caribbean and who met while studying there. "You make me feel like I have come home," she said.

• She has deputised for Humphrey Lyttelton on his Radio 2 Best of Jazz programme and was a narrator on a jazz-rap album by Soweto Kinch.

• "You're the most sensationally sexy lady I know. The best thing we can do for the next few hours is to make mad passionate love in the basement." John Humphrys' (inset) off-mic proposal to co-host Stuart at the end of the Six O'Clock News. The subtitling unit flashed this up for the benefit of hard-of-hearing viewers.

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