Her liberal attitude to sex, says Joan Bakewell, was formed when she was 17 and her mother burned a picture of her kissing a boy. ‘If I’m told something can’t be done, it makes me determined to prove it can.’ Nigel Farndale meets her
For 40 years, a tall Victorian house in the corner of a square in north west London has been Joan Bakewell’s home. It is painted olive green. The high-ceilinged, book-lined room we are sitting in is olive green.
The velvet party dress she made for herself from curtain material in 1960 was, I remind her, also olive green. “What?” She removes her glasses and leans forward on the sofa; a 70-year-old gamine with hennaed hair as glossy as a new conker.
“Oh, right, yes. The dress I wore for that party. Yes, yes. I’ve always liked olive green.”
As she relates in her memoirs, The Centre of the Bed, published next month, that was the party at which she first met Harold Pinter. A seven-year affair with the playwright followed. So did fame as the sultry, cerebral presenter of the nightly BBC2 show Late Night Line Up.
Then a second child with her husband, Michael. And a divorce. And a second marriage. And, in 2000, a second divorce. All good material for an autobiography, I would say.
Is the title self-explanatory?
“I wrote it at a rather cataclysmic time in my life. My second marriage had ended and I was on my own in this house. Having shared most of my adult life – been married for most of my life – here I was sleeping alone in the middle of the bed.” She smiles and widens her soft brown eyes.
“Although, as my doctor pointed out when I told him the title, there is a lot of action that goes on in the middle of a bed, too.”
Indeed. And the divorce was an opportunity for stocktaking?
“It was a space, an opportunity to populate the empty house with memories.”
Her crisp, polished vowels take on an earnest tone.
“Divorce is a very heavy enterprise, you know. You ask yourself what went wrong.”
One imagines she had to be selfish to succeed as she did in her career.
“When I was doing Line Up my social life and my marriage suffered, although I would always put my children to bed before I went on air. My second husband, Jack, had a hard time because when I was doing Heart of the Matter – 18 documentaries a year – it meant I was often abroad. He saw me and I was gone again.”
Presumably he also found it hard being labelled Mr Bakewell?
“Yes, it was hard. I minded that, too. It was tricky.”
Joan Dawson Rowlands was born and raised in Stockport near Manchester, the elder daughter of abstemious, lower middle-class parents. Her father was a foundry worker who made his way up to become chairman of the company, her mother was a “formidable smacker”, who cleaned the house obsessively every day, suffered from depression and felt frustrated about not realising her ambition to be an engineer, even though she believed a woman’s place was in the home.
Bakewell’s liberal attitude to sex was formed when she was 17. Her mother found a snapshot of her kissing a boy in a school bus. She lit a fire in front of Joan and ceremoniously burned the photograph saying: “That’s the last I want to see of such behaviour. Ever.”
Bakewell squares her shoulders. “That was about control and repressing your sexual nature,” she says. “My mother probably thought it was the way to shock me into behaving. At the time there was no birth control available and no information about birth control.
“She did tell me that the way to raise a child was to break its will. But I have an enormously strong will. If I’m told something can’t be done it makes me determined to prove it can. I’m implacable. I think I’m governed more by will than intelligence.”
She felt very angry with her mother, she says. “I felt hurt, and resolved to get away. I didn’t want to understand her. I just wanted to reject what she stood for. My mother died [from leukaemia] when I was 28 and I didn’t really begin to forgive her until I was 35.”
As part of her rejection of her mother, Joan Rowlands resolutely set out to improve – reinvent – herself when she went up to Cambridge. The apocryphal story is that one day she went into the Ladies with a broad Lancashire accent and came out sounding like a Roedean-educated debutante.
“I had a bogus identity because I changed the way I spoke. I had elocution lessons. Do they still have elocution lessons? I doubt it.”
How did her mother speak? “She had a Stockport accent. Flat ‘a’s.” She impersonates. “Down’t do thut, Jooan!”
She seems to have been a true bluestocking at Cambridge, a bit of a swot from the North Country. She also seems to have been something of a magnet for lecherous men. She found herself constantly squeezed, pinched and leered at. The same happened when she joined the BBC soon after graduating. What was it about men in those days, I ask her.
“I think it was down to separate educations. The men I met at Cambridge had been to prep school and public school and had then done two years National Service, so they simply didn’t know about women. They didn’t know where the bits were. Women were shaped differently and they were giggly. That was all they knew.
“I presume some men had sexual experience in the Forces, but it was strictly whores. There was a whole generation of men who were confused about women, so they tended to just jump on you, grab you suddenly, and you would go, ‘Oh! No! Get off!’ There was a great deal of ignorance about sexual social manners.”
Surely it was just as confusing for women?
“Yes, you would be flattered. You would think, ‘Gosh, I’m the centre of attention. This is rather nice.’ And then you would think: ‘But I don’t like it from him! He’s got clammy hands and he’s horrible!”
The Joan Bakewell of Late Night Line Up – cool, clever, televisual Viagra – gave the impression of being a reluctant sex symbol, but she did wear those short skirts.
“True,” she says with a laugh. “I’m quite vain and I like being with the swim. I like fashion a lot. Also I was quite flirty. And quite pleased with myself, I think. I felt in my element. I was happy, healthy, fulfilled. I stepped with a light tread. And when I did this on the programme people went ‘Oo!’ ”
Because the show went out nightly she became an almost omnipotent figure, at a time when television was starting to be taken seriously as a form.
“There is an illusion of intimacy when people are watching you in their homes, every night, late at night. I got some extremely nasty letters from men. It’s funny, since then it has gone from people coming up to me and saying, ‘My brother is a great fan of yours’ to ‘My father is a fan’ to ‘My grandfather was a fan.’ ”
Didn’t her sisters in the feminist movement disapprove of her using flirtation to get her way?
“Yes, but they all did it as well. Fay Weldon did not lack for flirtation skills. Germaine was enormously sexy. Beautiful. Got up to all sorts of things. What’s wrong with flirtation? Women are not the same as men. I enjoyed being a woman.”
Then the late Frank Muir called her “the thinking man’s crumpet”, a line that became so famous it now has a place in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Of course it was patronising, I say, but didn’t she protest too much?
“I didn’t like it. I think the feminists were hard on me because of it. They ruled me out as frivolous and trivial. I’m not saying I was a crusader. I just had a high profile, which I enjoyed. Well, you would!”
Did she worry that she might have been given this high-profile job because of the way she looked, as much as for her journalistic skills? Long pause.
“I didn’t give it much thought. I just considered it was my luck. I didn’t notice it much. I don’t think it would have mattered that much if a woman had been plain.
“I think women can always make themselves attractive, unless they are positively, unusually unattractive. Most women are attractive if their personalities are attractive.”
I wonder if she really believes that. On the one hand, Joan Bakewell seems to take herself very seriously: there is little self-deprecation. On the other, she has an airy manner and a certain tranquillity, tinged with melancholy.
She is an odd mixture of forbearance and indignation, perhaps the result of having had to be tough and thick-skinned in order to get on. In her long affair with Pinter she must have been pretty calculating, too.
Given her high profile, I ask her, wasn’t it risky having an affair – more risky for her than for most people, I mean?
“No, the affair started before I was on television, when I was just Michael’s wife and Harold was just a promising playwright with one play under his belt. It wasn’t a risk then but, over the years – and we always argue about whether it was seven years – it became riskier.”
Why the uncertainty over timing?
“Harold dates the affair from the party; I date it from the park bench.”
Ah yes, the bench. There is a tender description in her autobiography of how, on a cold clear day, on a flaking bench, she felt elated, panicky and then peaceful. “Harold reached for my hand and held it within his. It was the first time we had touched.”
He wasn’t a pouncer then?
“No, Harold was the opposite of the groping man. It was a very powerful moment. Very intense. It’s etched on my memory. But we weren’t anybody then, so there was no problem and we fetched up at this borrowed house in Kentish Town.”
She had had two homes, two “husbands”; she had wanted her cake and eaten it, too?
“I was married at 22 and pleased to be married, and pleased to have children, but I also feel now that when you share your life with the one person designated to be your partner, through marriage, you close down the experience of relationships with the rest of the world.
“If it is going to be exclusive, there has to be something it excludes – namely, the possibility of close friendships with other people. It is sad that it has to be that way.
“I’m not talking about sex here, necessarily, but close friendship, which is enormously challenging and invigorating. My dilemma was this: Michael is wonderful, yet here I am fascinated by Harold, so do I from now on have to say, ‘No, no, no?’ ”
Well, yes. Technically speaking. Marriage vows and all that. Besides, people get hurt.
“Yes, but we kept our affair secret. It’s cheap psychology to speculate, but I think I kept my affair secret when my mother was alive because she would have found that intolerable. I was quite used to emotional secrets.”
Yet it proved impossible to keep her affair totally secret; her whole circle knew by the time Betrayal was written.
“It was generous of our friends to show such tolerance. They didn’t ring the papers.”
Presumably Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s wife, also heard – but Bakewell insists that she didn’t. After Pinter divorced her and married Antonia Fraser, Vivien’s spirit was broken and, in 1982, she drank herself to death.
“I attended her funeral,” Bakewell writes in her memoirs. “I wondered, sorrowfully, what part I had played in bringing her to such a sad end.”
The cuckolded Michael Bakewell certainly knew about the affair, virtually from the beginning. He decided to keep quiet about it and when, years later, Pinter found out that he had known all along, he was angry, accusing Michael of betrayal.
Wasn’t that, I ask, rather conceited of Harold? She purses her lips.
“Well that’s not for me to say, really.”
The scene is recreated in the play, which is to return to the West End this autumn. I say that when I first saw the film of the play, before I knew it was based on real-life characters and events, I thought the plot improbable. “The point is, Harold knew it was possible,” Bakewell says drily.
And the account in her memoirs of how she and her husband found out about each other’s affairs through a mix-up of letters; I mean, you couldn’t get away with that in a novel.
“Yes, people would think it a flaw in your structure. How do people have affairs these days, I wonder? How on earth do they manage it? You know, with itemised phone bills, and call back, and email and CCTV everywhere recording everything. I suppose people find a way.”
A ghost of a smile. “It certainly won’t die out, infidelity.”