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Joan Bakewell: “I can live with death – how odd”

As the broadcaster approaches 90, she reflects on her mother, the media and “her version” of her affair with Harold Pinter.

By Kate Mossman

Joan Bakewell, 90 in April, lives in a complex of artists’ studios with the feel of a Victorian almshouse: cottages with small gardens and walls over which, during the early days of lockdown, people would drop bags of food for the older residents suddenly judged too much at risk to go out alone. She had just moved here in March 2020 – her family home was in nearby Chalcot Square, bought in the 1950s when properties in Primrose Hill, north London, were cheap because, as Bakewell puts it, “Euston station billowed with smoke and the houses were black.” Gentrification began with the 1956 Clean Air Act and the electrification of the railway. Sylvia Plath lived a few doors down, and Alan Bennett moved in round the corner.

Today Primrose Hill trembles with old BBC types. Bakewell told Ed Miliband there ought to be a windfall tax for people like her who were able to sell off their big houses at a nice price – she is self-conscious about it. There’s a red Mini Cooper out the front in which she will nip to the Lords (“Free parking!”) to vote on the Public Order Bill later, on a three-line Labour whip: “There was a message on my phone saying, ‘Be there at 3pm.’ We do what we are told.”

Bakewell is busy with a cafetière and a box of shortbread. This particular studio once belonged to Arthur Rackham; there is a lot of light, and a mezzanine from which she writes her emails on a big glass desk. On her coffee table are many books, each with a bookmark a third of the way through. The thing she regrets throwing out when she downsized is a first edition of John Lennon’s collected drawings – though her favourite Beatle was always George, the quiet one who hid his talent for more than a decade. Her family photos are kept in drawers up on the mezzanine. When she discovered she had colon cancer at the start of this year, she called her daughter and told her where the will was. “I was encompassing, in that, the fact that I might die. And then I suddenly thought: ‘Well, I can live with that idea – how odd.’”

[See also: Mirror of the nation – Andrew Marr on 100 years of the BBC]

“Write your will,” she advises. “Do you know what people always forget? To hand on their passwords! Nobody can access the laptops after they’re gone – all the information, all the bills.”

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Chemotherapy is administered through a little “port” in her shoulder every two weeks. Bakewell changes the subject with the briskness of a jolly headmistress but she does get depressions, and writing helps – “on my laptop, putting words down, changing words” – though she’s not planning any more novels. Her first came at the age of 75, about a group of schoolgirls adopting a Merchant Navy ship during the Second World War. There was another, she says, “But I can’t remember what that one was about!”

Bakewell once described herself as a hack for hire, and like all the best hacks of her generation turned life events into work, including the process of getting older: being newly single at 66; being used as free childcare for her grandchildren; being treated as “crazy” during the pandemic. She likes to broaden the personal out into a campaign: “I am a true democrat in that I think we can achieve change by talking about things.” Bakewell’s vibe, as she sits before you, says: I’ve got views on that! And her manner leads conversation subtly into areas of public interest, and away from the finer points of being nearly 90.

In 1978, aged 45, she wrote a play in response to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, his work directly inspired by the end of her and Pinter’s eight-year extramarital relationship. Pinter’s title referred less to the loss of love between the couple, more to the fact that Bakewell had revealed the relationship to her then husband Michael, Pinter’s friend. Bakewell’s answer play, written six years after her divorce, was breezily titled Keeping in Touch: you can listen to it on headphones in the British Library’s audio archive. Its heroine, Rachel, in love with an architect, tells her husband: “Three years at university and here I am stuck at home with small children. Is this it?”

There is no sense that Bakewell thought Keeping in Touch would be staged. She wrote it in a fit of intensity, as if to say: I can’t beat him, but I’ll join him. “He disapproved. Didn’t feel I had the right to write it. Oh, please,” she says, with a wither. What an unusual thing to have done with her emotions – to have answered the country’s greatest playwright in his own form? She seems not to think so.

“I was always aware that the version of my affair with Harold never referred to my children,” she says of Betrayal. “Having two children counted a lot in why our ‘affair’ never grew into a full-scale shift in my life. I wanted to have them included somehow, if only for my own sense of what had happened.”

Though parts of her life have been framed by the relationship (Pinter would rapturise, in his letters, about her “giving, taking girlness”) she says she would never have married him, even if she could have. Why not? “Harold was a very forceful person. Well, you know how he behaved. The force field around him was electrifying, and the idea of having a bond with that daily, I couldn’t have done that. That sense everyone had of his power, the extent of his identity…” You suspect that had they been married she would have had to resist the same kind of control.

Old times: Joan Bakewell interviews Harold Pinter on Late Night Line-Up in 1969. Courtesy of the BBC

Bakewell’s cult TV show Late Night Line-Up put her in the unique position of being a female host in the Sixties, four nights a week, alongside Denis Tuohy, Michael Dean and Nicholas Tresilian. Launched in 1964, it was a somewhat anarchic programme which often gave new TV shows a kicking straight after they had aired and criticised the direction of BBC policy. The department in charge of it was Continuity – it was ostensibly publicity for the shows it covered – which meant there were no guidelines, and because it aired as the last show before shutdown, discussions could theoretically go on until 1.30am. The makers of BBC Two programmes would complain that they had bust a gut to produce good TV, and then people like Bakewell would come on and say it was rubbish. But when David Attenborough became the controller of BBC Two, Bakewell recalls, he defended Late Night Line-Up and its presenters, saying: “They’re my gorillas, leave them alone.”

As a broadcaster, Bakewell captivated people, digging into the questions and controversies of the day with an expression of playful, permanent surprise: she interrogated Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famed minister of Westminster Chapel. But when Late Night Line-Up was axed in 1972, she did not become another Melvyn Bragg, with a big interview slot of her own. “All the heads of departments were men. Why would they have a woman presenting a chat show when women, you know, weren’t up to it?” she shrugs. There followed periods in the semi-wilderness – Bakewell was always freelance – before she found her own way of ensuring she was always around. There were religious programmes, travel shows and TV reviews for Punch magazine: there is even footage of her reading the news in 1983. Her presenting career was rescued, she says, by the producer Olga Edridge, appointed to the BBC One ethics show Heart of the Matter in 1985, which Bakewell went on to front for 12 years: “I wouldn’t have got it if I was a man.”

[See also: Lucy Easthope: “We are all disaster survivors now”]

She is currently presenting Sky’s Landscape Artist of the Year alongside the actor Stephen Mangan: the crew provide a mattress so she can take naps between filming. “I don’t recognise the BBC now,” Bakewell says. The last thing she made for the corporation was a Radio 4 series called We Need to Talk About Death, which finished the year before the pandemic. “I was hired as the front voice but I would never go to a meeting. I’d write a script and it would be submitted for judgement by the department. Then it was submitted to a higher-up department, and at one point I said, ‘Why don’t we all get together and have one meeting, and I come along and they can tell me what I’m doing wrong?’ They said, ‘That’s not how the BBC works. It’s hierarchical.’ That’s why they’re in this mess.”

Radio 4 vetoed the episode she wanted to make most of all, on assisted dying. “I said, ‘But it’s the most important issue,’ and the producer said it wouldn’t be approved.” Does she support the cause? “Well, yes, but I wouldn’t have proselytised about it. It’s growing in power because you can assist now with hardly any issue – you’re not causing pain, you’re not jumping the gun. All sorts of new options are coming on board because of technical developments. Meanwhile a lot of people are turning up the morphine on tubes hanging in people’s bedrooms.”

She recently watched a nurse increase the dose on a friend lying in a hospital bed – “and I thought: that was pain relief, but where is the line?”

Bakewell was relatively new to her Labour peerage when, in 2013, Baron Falconer of Thoroton introduced a bill in the House of Lords in support of assisted dying. Her friend since the Sixties Nell Dunn, writer of Up the Junction and Poor Cow, had written a play about euthanasia called Home Death. Bakewell hired a meeting room in the Lords, got a crate of wine and printed up some flyers. The play, attended by about 40 people, was accompanied by a debate, chaired by Bakewell, with Falconer speaking for one side and the chief executive of the National Council for Palliative Care for the other. “I said, ‘Now what have we learned?’” she says, always the teacher. “What we had learned was that the two sides were very close together. The palliative people want to administer just enough to make it painless. The assisted-dying people want to administer just enough to take you over the edge.” While plays have not become commonplace in the Lords, she says the chamber does need reform, but that everyone knows that. “We make notes for the Commons, saying ‘we don’t like this bill’, and they either say ‘you’ve got a point’ or they tend to say ‘we’re the government, piss off’.

“We’ve got 26 bishops,” Bakewell continues. “How strange is that? They are extremely nice people. They vote for all the right things. It’s just rather odd.

“There was a report into reform of the House brought by the House itself: nobody should be there longer than 20 years, people should resign at the age of 80, all sorts of rules like that – and then Boris Johnson comes along and creates 50 new peers.”

She recently suggested that our incumbent monarch should have an obligatory weekly meeting with the leader of the opposition as well as the Prime Minister. She voted for Keir Starmer as her local MP and has no problem with him, or Angela Rayner, whose proposed Sure Start revival she would like to see set in motion: “She’s from Stockport, like me!”

[See also: Tim Davie and Richard Sharp have lost the BBC dressing room]

When Joan Bakewell was small, she didn’t like her name, so she reimagined herself as a woman called Francesca Gascoyne: “extremely glamorous, much adored by men all over the world, and she would ride a horse across heathland. You see my tendency?” Joan, she came to understand, was a film-star name, with a glamour of its own – but in 1930s Stockport it had a plainer ring. Elocution lessons came at the behest of her mother, Rose: in class with three other children, she recited a selection of words – she recalls pronouncing bus with a “z” – and was told she was the most severe case for improvement. The family had climbed into the lower middle class and held on fiercely. At Cambridge University, Bakewell put on an “entirely bogus ‘Oh, hellooooo’ posh voice” that ruined her credibility for a time. She’s toned it down over the years. “I don’t know where accents are now,” she says. “Do people have them?”

More than 60 years after her mother’s death, Bakewell is still, she has said, seeking her approval. Rose Rowlands had wanted to be an engineer; the child of a factory worker, she won a place at Manchester’s Ardwick Grammar School but was forced to leave as there were seven other kids to help with at home. “She was humiliated. She bottled a lot of resentment. When I started passing exams and going to Cambridge, she saw what she could have done. She wanted it for me, but she didn’t want to lose the control. She was a very controlling person.” Their semi-detached house, the height of aspiration, was a crucible for her mother’s frustrated energies: “tray cloths on trays to raise the standard to gentility. Nothing could be touched.

“She became very depressed. I’ve spoken to other women of my generation – Margaret Drabble is one, and Margaret said a lot of us had depressed mothers. It fed our feminism because we thought, ‘Look at our mothers. Why are they so depressed? Why are they not working?’ I can speak of it now, but at the time, I was only aware of it in the abstract.”

Rose died when Bakewell was in her twenties, before she saw her career take shape – even today, Bakewell looks a bit stunned to say it. A latent desire for her mother’s approval is the root of that little voice that says, after each job, “Could do better…”, and is the source of her energies. She worked on, in spite of – yet for – her mother: she had an instinctive mistrust of domestic life, although she embraced it, and made an association between the traditionally male world of ideas and her freedom. She was so firmly of her time that she married her first boyfriend, Michael Bakewell, at 22, but was bothered – as was he – by the idea that you were supposed to fancy one person for the rest of your life.

Is it possible to love two people at once? “Yes, and you’ll know when it happens. If you have someone who says, ‘Well, let’s see how we can live with this,’ then you’ve got a chance of something working. I don’t think it’s a desirable state of affairs because it does create conflict in yourself. But people are attractive, aren’t they?”

In one of her quieter periods, around the time Pinter wrote Betrayal, Bakewell produced a handbook for holidaymakers called The Complete Traveller: Everything You Need to Know About Travel at Home and Abroad. With a photo of her on the cover, as tidy as an air hostess, the 400-page compendium reveals as much about Bakewell as any of her four autobiographies. There are long, deeply researched sections on disease and your legal rights as a tourist. A two-page table on air collision, with airlines ranked under “Passengers flown”, “Passengers killed” and the terrifying “Expected crashes based on world average” (a Romanian airline scored worst). There is liberal advice on sex: she provides the address for procuring the Spartacus International Gay Guide, a country-by-country handbook for gay travellers. There’s a section on personal grooming abroad. Legs: “You should keep them looking good all the time: few people do.”

Surprisingly, the book aches with a sense of real-life domestic drudgery: proof that Bakewell didn’t just talk the talk when it came to being a mother as well as a woman of the world. Writing for the middle-class housewives newly enjoying air travel in the Seventies, just as they were newly enjoying deep freezers, she provides a two-month – two-month! – Countdown to Departure Date. One month before: “Check on dental needs, review straps of suitcases and buy any extra wheels.” Ten days before: “Take stock of the family health and remedy even minor snivels and tummy upsets now!” Five days before: “Do a dry run to fit luggage into the car. Cancel coal.” Your handbag, she says, should contain spare tights, contraceptive pills, travel-sickness pills and a small flask of brandy.

She advises a sedative for a good night’s sleep before the flight, and a mild one for the children.

“I have written this checklist from a woman’s point of view,” Bakewell concludes, “in the expectation that all this will be done by the woman. I see no reason why it should be so, though I suspect in most families it is.”

In much of her work there is a feeling of getting on with one’s lot while pushing to change things. You wonder if her radical attitude to marriage was a way of allowing her to continue to go out into the world and connect with it – two small children at home, a powerful man in a hotel room in Paris, and then back in time for dinner; whether having two men was a way of keeping the door open, keeping life moving, not being one’s mother. “It’s quite good if you can manage to have a lot of life,” she concludes. The doorbell rings: a masseuse has arrived, to treat Joan Bakewell at home before the three-line whip.

[See also: Michael Parkinson: “The BBC’s future is being debated in a destructive, binary fashion”]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special