Clare Balding: “national treasure? It won’t last!”

The Olympic broadcaster who won the nation's hearts talks about taking risks on Britain's Brightest and her Downton Abbey upbringing


This is the year Clare Balding, the broadcasting heroine of the Olympics, goes prime time – and she’s wildly excited about the prospect, as well as a bit nervous. “Obviously this is a big step for me and it’s something very different for 2013,” she says. “I think one has to keep finding new challenges and take a couple of risks – and this is a risk.”


“This” is a new weekly programme called Britain’s Brightest, hosted by La Balding, and featuring 24 contestants who will be submitting themselves to various challenges and puzzles to test many aspects of the brain, from emotional intelligence to co-ordination to accuracy and speed. At the end of six weeks, the champion will be the man or woman who is considered to have the best all-round mind. A concept which prompts quite a lot of questions, even if you are not among Britain’s brightest.

Balding has been staying in the BBC’s new outpost in Salford – working very long days, sometimes not finishing filming until one or two in the morning. She may have appeared on the cover of Diva, the lesbian magazine (indeed, looking very saucy in an unbuttoned satin shirt) but her behaviour, from what I could glean from her co-workers, has been far from diva-ish. There have been no moans or complaints, no flouncing or preposterous demands. But then we would expect no less from someone who is so associated with all those sprightly British seals of approval – a “good egg”, a “brick” and a  “jolly good sport.”

As our interview time was running late, I sat in on the end of a recording session. The set has a backdrop of strange geometrical shapes, a bit Flinstones, made out of what looks like black volcanic seaweed, with a red-hot metal binding.  

The show’s logo is a shimmering, almost blingy map of the UK, with Britain’s Brightest in sparkling lights. Balding, herself, looks good – simultaneously slim and statuesque, in long skinny black trousers which taper into a pair of boots with spectacularly high, stiletto heels which gives the impression that her legs are endless; black dangly earrings, a necklace, and a black lacy shirt over a burgundy top.

One of her fears, she tells me later, is that as she gets more famous, people will comment on how she is dressed – which they will, of course – but she is also quite grown-up about the realities of becoming even more of a prominent public face, and what goes with the territory.

We go down the endless shiny white corridors of the BBC’s new building and into the dressing-room next door to Balding’s. She says she’d be happy to get me some copies of her bestselling childhood memoir, My Animals and Other Family, (sell them to me, mind, because she got them cheap from a bookshop in Manchester) but her make-up lady is having a sleep in her room, and she doesn’t want to wake her up. This little story, alone, makes me warm to her.

OK, so tell me more about why this show is such a risk for you? “Because I’m putting myself into a different genre – I’m therefore saying to the public, ‘Can you accept me in a completely different format?’ and that is risky. And obviously because it’s Saturday night, I’ve got to glam up a bit. You know, there will be a few people who go, ‘Oh, I don’t like what she’s wearing.’” 

But those heels, Clare, I can’t help asking, how the hell do you not fall over? “Well, I’m not running in them, am I? Mainly, I’m just walking three steps and stopping.” They must be about six inches high, they look a bit ‘dominatrix’. “Dominatrix! Don’t you dare write that! Actually, they’re Mary Portas for Clarks – with outside zips and everything. They’re very funky. I talked to her the other day, and told her I was wearing her boots.” 

This is your year, isn’t it? Not only is Balding presenting a new show, prime time, Saturday evenings on BBC1 but she is also hosting her  first radio show (Good Morning Sunday, on Radio 2, replacing Aled Jones on the weekly faith programme): “Well, the thing is that you have to make the right choices and try things that will maximise your moment. Sometimes you want to take a risk, like this show, and sometimes you want to do something that, actually, you’ve always aspired to do that could be longer term. So Radio 2, for me, is the channel that I grew up listening to….” I bet you’d love to have Desert Island Discs? “Yes, but I can’t because somebody does it! Although that would be lovely. 

“But, actually, Good Morning Sunday has two big interview slots so that suits me down to the ground. It’s just an extension of Ramblings which I’ve done for years and years and years but….with music.”

Do you have a faith? “Do I have a faith?” she repeats back to me, as though it is a trick question. “I’m very interested in other people’s faith and I think that’s what matters.” But do you? “Not significant.”

Anything else for next year? “So far my absolute commitments for next year, are 40 days of racing – the big days for Channel 4, which is very exciting [John McCririck, while applauding Balding, accused the station of ageism for getting rid of him] – and 20 days of filming, Radio 2 on Sunday mornings, various other projects that I’m doing for the BBC, TBC, and this – which is huge.”

What are your other projects? “Documentaries.” Are you coming up with your own ideas? “I am, amazingly, yes. I’m quite good like that. Big on ideas.” 

Now she has gone from being “Lesbian broadcaster, Clare Balding…”(which, not surprisingly, she found insulting) to “Clare Balding, national treasure”, the networks must be scrabbling to find vehicles for her. How does she feel about this change of status? She says the national treasure label “makes me laugh. It’s very sweet and it won’t last.”

She is champing at the bit (oh-oh, inadvertant horseracing gag) to enthuse about the show and when she does, she talks without seeming to pause for a breath, which does rather remind me of the Grand National.

“I genuinely love it and I’m trying to forget the fact that it’s Saturday night television and just be me, and be me in a situation that is slightly different. But I’m interested in people and I’m curious and I want them to show the best of themselves. I love the little interviews with them and I’m fascinated by how their brains work in different ways and I’m interested in whether one’s an insomniac and does that affect the power of their brain? No, not really…”

At this point La Balding has taken over and appears to be putting her own questions to herself as well as answering them. “We had a woman who only sleeps two hours a night and she’s as sharp as anything, and was still going strong at midnight. Stamina comes into it because it’s a long show and I tell you what, I really have to be on my toes.” 

Part of Balding’s appeal as a broadcaster, apart from her absolute command of the medium, is how natural she seems on camera. So it’s a little bit surprising to hear what a stretch it is for her to tackle new shows. I was in the audience for her debut as host on Have I Got News For You, in October, and she was a joy to watch: utterly relaxed, or so it seemed, as well as effortlessly funny.

We met, afterwards, with her civil partner, Alice Arnold, and she was open and friendly. But, it turns out, that HIGNFY was another big decision for her: “There’s a risk hosting it, and you’ve got to think, ‘Will I take this chance?’” She’s off asking and answering her own questions again. “Say ‘Yes. Go on, it’s time to be brave.’ I did enjoy it but if I did it again, I’d definitely do it better.” 

How ambitious is she, I ask, and she slightly bridles at the word: “It’s funny, I think ‘ambitious’ is one of those adjectives which is used for women in a derogatory way – and, yet, I think ambition is crucial in life – you have to know what you might be capable of and push yourself slightly beyond it.” Balding is sensitive to the use of language and to intolerance, and has not been afraid to go into battle for her beliefs: “You come across words all the time that are everyday sexism. I was described as competently bossy and bossily competent by a male journalist and I thought, ‘Gosh, bossy is never used of a man.’”

Could that be because he usually is the boss?  “A man would be called assertive or confident or quick or bright – and that’s why I think learning how your brain works is so important [see how she did that?] because five years ago that would have really upset me – now I just think, ‘Hmm – probably his failing, not mine. Move on.’”

I get an unexpected response when I mention the curious comment she had made about her agent being relieved that Balding had no plans to do a chat show. “That’s so unfair!” she snaps. (Clare Balding snaps!) “I said all that to you off the record.” What are you talking about, I protest – I found this in the cuttings. “Oh, did you?  I thought I said it when we were chatting. Well, I think it’s quite important to have a format because if a show doesn’t work, but it has a strong format – I’m not carrying it; I’m just part of it.

“But a chat show is totally dependent on you and therefore if it fails, you’ve failed and if you look back at the history of television, you will find that it is littered with failed chat shows. Right now, I’ve got big decisions to make that are going to affect certainly the next ten years of my career, and I don’t know whether a chat show isn’t pushing it too far. Or I might be wrong and maybe I should have a go – but if I did it, it would be a bit more serious and I wouldn’t call it a chat show.”  

We talk about ambition for different things, such as a more balanced life – this prompted by her partner, Alice’s decision, on reaching 50 (Balding is eight years younger) to leave her BBC newsreading job to do other things, spend more time with her partner and write a column about her life as the national treasure’s other-half for The Guardian.

The first thing, indeed, that Balding said to me as I sat down, was to ask if I had read the first one. I had and found it funny and moving, particularly the conclusion: “Gay, female national treasures are quite rare, I think. [Although Alice’s ex was another one, Sandi Toksvig.] So we have a responsibility. If just one gay person or parent of a gay child sees us and thinks that maybe it’s not so bad, that you don’t have to live your life in fear, that sexuality doesn’t define everything and it doesn’t always need to be a struggle, then we have achieved something.”  

We finish by talking about Balding’s interesting family, who are very Downton Abbey. (She was brought up, with her younger brother, Andrew, at Kingsclere, eleven miles away from Highclere where Downton is filmed.) Her mother, Emma Hastings-Bass, with aristocratic connections (the Queen and Queen Mother were regular visitors), married the help, so to speak. “Well, they met because my father [Ian Balding] came to work for my mother’s father as his assistant horse trainer. So he was a bit like Branson, the chauffeur in Downton [who marries Sybil, the youngest of the Ear of Grantham’s three daughters.]”

Her maternal grandmother sounded formidably forthright and quite a character. “Yes, totally, if my book ever gets dramatised you can see Maggie Smith playing my grandmother and Romola Garai should play my mother.”

What still fascinates her is that when the news travelled to Ian Balding’s mother in America that he was getting married, the American mother (very Shirley Maclaine) said, ‘Which one are you marrying? The mother or the daughter?’ People find that really shocking but that’s the story to be told. If I were writing the screenplay for it, I would make quite a lot of that.” 

We will have to wait and see if this will be the next chapter in Balding’s career. In the meantime, our national treasure has to change out of her jeans, sweatshirt and trainers – which suit her so well – into her high heels and lace as Britain’s Brightest call.


Britain’s Brightest begins on Saturday at 7:10pm on BBC1