When Sian Williams turns up at BBC Broadcasting House for this interview, she’s just visited a slightly less dignified London landmark – Topshop. “I needed a new ‘newsreader’ jacket,” she says. Sure enough, cream fabric peeps from a carrier bag. “I’ve given the others to a charity shop.”
Williams had reason to want to refresh her working wardrobe. After 11 years on BBC1’s Breakfast, the programme’s impending move to the BBC’s new studios at Salford saw Williams tearfully leaving the sofa – and her co-presenter Bill Turnbull. But having said the BBC is “in my blood”, this week she takes up her new regular gig co-presenting Radio 4’s magazine show Saturday Live. She’ll also be reading some of the main news bulletins on BBC1.
“You’ve got to go with what your gut tells you, and my gut has always been guided by my family,” says Williams, explaining her decision not to head north. “My dad is a journalist, and I remember when he was offered a job, at the height of the Troubles, running the Northern Ireland bureau. He decided against it – and he always said that as long as you do the right thing by the family, everything else will work itself through.”
Her father influenced the Salford decision in a more concrete way, too: he is elderly, widowed in 2009, and lives on the south coast in Eastbourne. “I can’t be another 200 miles away from my dad,” Williams says simply. She did consider commuting from her north-London home to Salford. “I was quite up for seeing whether it would work.” BBC bosses – including head of news Helen Boaden and then deputy directorgeneral Mark Byford – lined up to ask Williams to go.
“They wanted me to, and were very clear about that,” says Williams. “No, they didn’t put the thumbscrews on. You can’t, can you? When somebody makes a decision based on their family, you can’t tell them they’re wrong.”
Williams has two sons, Joss, 20, and Alex, 18, from her first marriage, and Seth, 5, and Eve, 3, with her second husband, TV producer Paul Woolwich. Alex is taking his A-levels this summer, and has an offer to join his brother at Oxford, to read medicine. “I’m just a vessel,” says Williams of her clever sons. “My dad’s very intelligent. They’re very disciplined, they’ve worked really hard.”
In the end, Williams decided commuting would just be too much of a stretch. “I can’t be working in Manchester while my son is in London doing his A-level exams,” she says. After Breakfast’s move was announced in July 2010, it took Williams eight months to decide whether or not to go north. But, she says, that wasn’t because she was having tantrums behind the scenes.
“Do I look like a foot stamper?” she asks – and she doesn’t. In person, she is softly spoken and has an endearing habit of playing with her fringe as she thinks. “No, the decision’s been made and, when you’ve worked in the regions, you do think that the BBC could probably invest a lot of what’s in the centre out in other bits of the UK.”
So, for now, Williams will stay in London, co-hosting Saturday Live with the Rev Richard Coles (once of 80s band the Communards). “He is my new Bill,” says Williams. “I told Bill, ‘I’m going on a blind date.’ Bill said, ‘Who with?’ I said, ‘A gay vicar.’” She laughs.
Saturday Live has been extended to 90 minutes. Excess Baggage, the travel show that used to follow it, has been axed – but its presenters, Sandi Toksvig and John McCarthy, will present regular items on Saturday Live.
“The Radio 4 audience are passionate about their programmes,” says Williams. “It’s important for me to respect that. Success would sound like a nice, friendly, warm, witty listen – something you won’t hear on any other network.”
Williams will also front a Diamond Jubilee special of BBC1 show National Treasures Live, and will return to Breakfast for the duration of the Olympics – when it will be broadcast from the Olympic Park. “Each day, you’ll have a sports presenter and a news presenter, so it will be Bill and Hazel Irvine, or me and Chris Hollins,” she explains.
She will co-present with Turnbull for one day only, on the opening ceremony day. At 47, Williams is what Miriam O’Reilly’s employment tribunal might call an “older woman”. Would she ever have plastic surgery to preserve her TV career? “No, no!” she says flatly. She lifts that fringe again. “Look at these lines! No, absolutely not.”
But, she says, “I’m against tokenism – women shouldn’t be on TV because of their age, but because of their experience.” Williams’s own experience includes a seven-year stint as a senior producer on Radio 4, during which time she edited The World at One and PM, and produced the 1997 general election coverage.
So would she ever want to present, say, the Today programme? “Ah… that would be interesting,” says Williams. “I have produced Jim [Naughtie] and John [Humphrys]… I wonder what that would be like? I think anyone would like to present the Today programme – there would be a queue. But the thing that I liked about Breakfast was that you could do the political interviews and you could also do the other stuff – you could also do Steven Spielberg or whoever it happened to be.”
With Williams’s star still on the rise, it’s hard to predict where she’ll land next. And she has repaid the BBC’s loyalty – despite being touted in the press as a replacement for Christine Bleakley on ITV’s then struggling breakfast show, Daybreak.
So did ITV come knocking? “No. Not to me personally,” says Williams. “I wasn’t looking anywhere else.” But did ITV approach her agent? “I had no conversations with ITV.” There was no gloating at Breakfast, she says, over the failure of Daybreak.
“I had worked with Adrian [Chiles]. He and Christine are both very good presenters.” She pauses to reflect, and then adds, “You can’t wish failure on anyone. You’ve just got to do your own thing.”
Sian Williams co-presents Saturday Live on Radio 4 today at 9:00am.