When Joan Bakewell embarked on an eight-year affair with the playwright Harold Pinter in the 1960s, she never suspected he would make a play out of it. But then he wrote Betrayal and sent it to Bakewell for her comments. Her first response was horror.
“I was really deeply shocked because it used my private life,” she says, talking to me in the upstairs sitting room of her four-storey north London home. “It was so close to our affair.”
By 1978, when Betrayal opened, both Pinter and Bakewell were happily ensconced in new relationships and had remained friends. But the play upset Bakewell because he hadn’t told her he was writing it. She asked him to change the title, which she felt was “accusatory”, but he refused. It became a critical and commercial success and was later adapted for the screen. Bakewell, meanwhile, kept her silence for almost half a century, during which she became a revered broadcaster, writer and a Dame of the British Empire. Pinter died in 2008.
Today, at the age of 84, Bakewell has decided the time is right to have her say. Keeping in Touch, a 45-minute drama that she wrote in the 1970s as an immediate riposte to Pinter’s work, will be aired for the first time on Radio 4 this week. It’s about a married woman with children who starts questioning her life, and looks at how Bakewell’s affair came about. The play was originally written, she says, “for my own satisfaction” in a fit of “intensity” and was almost a cathartic exercise. Then she put it away and forgot about it.
Pinter and Bakewell on Late Night Line-Up in 1969
It was only when Bakewell was sorting through her archives recently that she came across her play again. What does she think Pinter would have made of it? There is a pause. “Harold would not be very pleased.”
Still, in spite of everything, she remembers Pinter with great affection and considers herself “bloody lucky” to have conducted an affair for the best part of a decade while also enjoying a family life with her first husband, the television producer Michael Bakewell.
She never felt particularly compromised by the affair. “Once, I was doing a series about bridges that required occasional filming outside London,” she says cheerfully. “I said to Michael, ‘I have to get up early because I have to go to Ironbridge.’ I went to Heathrow and got a flight to Paris to spend the day with Harold, who was filming there. I was back in time to cook supper for the children.”
There’s a distinct note of pride in her voice. When I ask her what’s the most adventurous thing she’s ever done, Bakewell insists she’s “a timid person, really” but acknowledges that the trip to Paris was “quite daring because it had to be organised”.
“I had a family,” she says. “The children [Harriet and Matthew] lived here. It was a good family; a successful family. But I was having an affair with Harold. I suppose people find that very strange.”
Not strange, I say, although they might wonder if you ever felt guilt over the deceit.
The Queen presents the Help The Aged Living Legend Media award to Bakewell in 2006
“No,” Bakewell says firmly. “Guilt was something I had to deal with quite early on. I remember thinking, ‘If I’m going ahead with this, I’m not going to be racked by guilt…’
I have quite a strong moral background that I suppose I was flouting, but who’s to say people shouldn’t have affairs? As far as women are concerned, other men don’t cease to be attractive because you’ve found the one you’re married to.”
Bakewell got married again, to theatre producer Jack Emery, but they divorced in 2001 after 26 years. Emery was 12 years her junior. “The age difference did matter, but other things mattered more.”
She really is the most invigorating company. I shouldn’t be surprised that an 80-something woman has such a modern outlook, but I am. It’s partly because Bakewell looks at least a decade younger than her age (twice-weekly Pilates) and speaks with such stimulating eloquence on everything from Twitter to transsexuals to extreme pornography that I occasionally forget who I’m talking to, only to be brought up short by her saying something like, “Well, of course, I’ve lived in this house for over 50 years.”
1975: Joan Bakewell and Jack Emery after their wedding
Bakewell has six grandchildren (the youngest is 17) and she’s forever asking them questions about their life and how to use her laptop: “They’re good friends, really.”
Would she ever get a tattoo, as David Dimbleby did at the age of 75? Bakewell shudders. “No. I thought that was really cheesy.”
In her heyday, when she was hosting flagship arts and discussion programmes such as Late Night Line-Up and Heart of the Matter, Bakewell was famously termed “the thinking man’s crumpet” by her friend, the broadcaster Frank Muir. She’s since dismissed the remark as “silly”. Bakewell wasn’t insulted by Muir’s epithet because, at the time, women in TV were surrounded by sexism. She remembers asking one of her superiors at the BBC in the late 60s if he ever thought a woman would read the news, and he immediately said no. Would the men she worked with leer at her?
“Yes, of course. It was a way of life. There was no man who didn’t leer, or think of it. It was the tenor of the times, which is why, strangely enough, no one bothered with Jimmy Savile. He was just a strange man. There were plenty of them around. The mood was that there was nothing very offensive about it. As someone who was quite pretty in those days, you got stroked and pinched everywhere, and in a way, the thing was not to let it matter.”
She’s glad to have lived to see a second female prime minister and, despite being a Labour peer, describes Theresa May as “a capable woman”. Pause. “I think her skirts are a bit short. Please don’t make a thing of that,” she adds, plaintively.
Bakewell has been a feminist all her life and remembers telling her mother as an eight-year-old growing up in Stockport that she would rather have been born a boy because men “went out into the world”. Bakewell went to a local grammar school and then won a scholarship to read history at Cambridge before launching her TV career. What does she make of modern-day feminists such as Beyoncé?
“Is she the one with the big thighs?” she asks, then instantly apologises. “What a terrible thing to say about another woman!” Would Beyoncé mind? At least she hasn’t called her a crumpet.
Keeping in Touch is on Radio 4 at 3.45pm on Saturday 22 April