Clare Balding recently vowed to do less, and do it better. She may be doomed to disappointment. Do less? By dropping what, exactly? Some element of her television work for the BBC, Channel 4 or BT Sport? Not the horse racing, surely – as the daughter of a racehorse trainer, equestrianism is in her blood, and her decision earlier this month to forego this year’s Grand National was made to allow her to host the first ever women’s Boat Race to be held on the same course as the men’s and on the same day.
Next year’s Olympics in Rio is set in stone, and will be her sixth summer Games (not to mention two Paralympics, three Winter Olympics and as many Commonwealth Games). She is the face of the BBC’s rugby league coverage, while Wimbledon is saved for the beloved radio where she started her career, and where she now presents Radio 2’s spiritual programme Good Morning Sunday every weekend. Meanwhile, her landmark Radio 4 show Ramblings is entering its 16th year. Then, of course, there’s The Lord Mayor’s Show, Trooping the Colour and Sports Personality of the Year. And she’s affiliated to at least nine charities.
How to be better is more puzzling still. As long as 12 years ago, she was Racing Journalist of the Year and The Royal Television Society Sports Presenter of the Year, since when she has been knee-deep in assorted prizes for radio, television and lately writing – My Animals and Other Family was pronounced Autobiography of the Year at the 2012 National Book Awards. Her work at the London Olympics bagged her a Bafta Special Award, and then the OBE. There is no one else like her. Dame Clare is a racing certainty one of these days.
We meet, of course, at one of her many workplaces. Today that means the studios of BT Sport, within sight of the Olympic stadium in north-east London, one hour before she records the latest edition of her eponymous sporting chat show. An indication of her “in-demand” status is that BBC2 has begun airing it the day after it’s first broadcast on BT Sport.
Actually, the only way our own interview could be shoe-horned into her schedule was to do it while her make-up was being applied before the show, and continue afterwards in her car on the way home.
So Clare, this idea about doing less… How’s that working out for you?
She laughs – you get used to that sound around Balding – and says: “I mean, honestly. I do have three weekends off in May. I used to say yes to everything I was offered because I thought it would all stop tomorrow. Now I think it might stop tomorrow precisely because I say yes to everything.
“In 2014 I didn’t do a single panel show because they get repeated so much. From December 10th last year when I hosted Sports Personality until I did Crufts on March 10th, I was not on television presenting anything. Yet people still say: ‘You’re on everything.’”
The fact is that loafing is not Balding’s natural state. Even when watching television (which she readily agrees she does a lot of – Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax, Strictly Come Dancing and plenty more), she simultaneously tweets to her 574,000 followers and plays online Scrabble.
“Growing up I wanted to be a three-day event rider,” she says, eyes closed as make-up is applied to her flawless 44-year-old skin. “But if by some magic I could now have the choice of being an all-achieving three-day-eventer or be me, I’d be me. I’m really happy. I love what I do. I don’t ever wish I was doing something else.
“I mean, the other day I was walking on the Downs and it was a beautiful day and I thought ‘God, I wish I could do this more often’. But of course I could do it more often, and I don’t because I’m always working.”
A by-product of all this work is that she has acquired money-can’t-buy membership to a unique club – she has become a National Treasure. She hoots at the mention of it. “It’s very flattering and sweet, but I find it slightly… embarrassing. Besides, I do disgraceful things all the time.” What things? She pauses. “Oh, you know. Things. But I don’t think anyone who actually knows me recognises me by the National Treasure tag. I don’t, and my parents certainly don’t, nor does Alice.”
The name Alice crops up unprompted and frequently throughout Balding’s conversation. The former Radio 4 announcer Alice Arnold met Balding 13 years ago, and in January this year they converted their 2006 civil partnership into marriage. Asked if she envisaged a Conservative prime minister pushing through gay marriage legislation, Balding politely corrects: “Equal marriage.”
Then she gives a tiny sigh. “I tell you what… I’m not going to talk in this interview about being gay. I suspect Gabby Logan isn’t asked about being married or being a mother. I get criticised for two things – doing too much, and talking about being gay. But the facts don’t necessarily support that I do too much, and I get asked about being gay all the time. Every single interview I do, that ends up being the lead.
“I’m very aware that it’s important for people to see a couple in the mainstream. But it can get a bit exhausting. I don’t walk down the street saying ‘Hi! I’m gay!’ At the same time, I want to be one of the people who helps. What am I meant to do? I don’t know what the bloody answer is.”
Two points of order, m’lud: Of course Gabby Logan is asked about being married and a mother all the time; and it’s difficult to envisage outright criticism of the universally popular Balding. (“It isn’t true that everyone likes me. Lots don’t. I just don’t know them.” Laughter.)
But it isn’t hard to recognise her conundrum. Her frequent mention of 52-year-old Alice is nothing to do with being gay and all about neon-lit happiness. “Alice is much more intelligent, better read, and far more aware of the news than I am,” says Balding. “She’s so much more clued up, and way more sensible. I’m a dreamer. She’s good at coping with that.
“She’s more practical. Considerably better at golf. She can chill out in a way I can’t. We have the same sense of humour, thank goodness, or else we’d never have got anywhere. I want to make her laugh… and make her proud. I care more about what she thinks than anyone else. She’s the first person I want to tell everything to. I’m very lucky.”
Balding’s security in her home life is evident. But for all her professional status, she worries about work. “To consider myself a success, I’d want to look back on 20 years or more of consistently good work. If there’s a week when I think I’ve done something not very well, I’m going to beat myself up about it. I hate it, hate it.
“I genuinely don’t know what people think about me, and I don’t care. I can’t control it. I’m not trying to make people like me. I’m trying to do my job well, and I do care hugely whether people think I’m any good at what I do. I don’t want to let the side down. I don’t want people who saw me at the Olympics to say, ‘She’s not very good any more.’ And I want to do stuff that I think is important – that’s where my support for women’s sport comes in.”
Her decision not to have children has also, she admits, allowed her to focus on her work. “I have never wanted children. It’s my choice, but of course it’s not something that’s going to happen by accident. Yes, it could happen if I wished it to. I have two nephews, a niece and eight godchildren, and I love that. But I don’t want kids. I just never had that urge. One of the many benefits of being gay is that people don’t assume you want children, so they don’t ask you. My brother Andrew’s relationship with his wife Anna Lisa is almost as long-standing as mine with Alice, and all they were ever asked is ‘When are you getting married?’ and ‘When are you having children?’. We never got that from anybody.”
We are in the car now, crawling through rush-hour traffic towards the west London home she shares with Alice and their 11-year-old Tibetan terrier, Archie. Balding is questioning her amiable driver, Bob, on the quickest route, while contemplating how to describe herself as fundamentally as possible in five words.
“I wouldn’t want to include ‘female’ because we stereotype ourselves immediately,” she muses. “So… driven, ambitious, committed, funny – Alice always says I’m not funny, but I am! I’m funny! – and essentially kind.”
Does she have any weaknesses? “I really like Chocolate Krispies,” she sighs, as if referring to a class-A drug. “I sleep late in the mornings, until 9am. I don’t concentrate enough when I’m with my family – I check my phone to make sure I’m not missing anything. I don’t spend enough time with my friends. I’m useless at taking days off. I hate being on my own because I’m dull. I do like to read a lot, but I’d rather read with Alice sitting right there.”
Almost home now, she is touchingly thrilled at the prospect of seeing her other half again. For no particular reason I pluck a query from the questionaire devised by Marcel Proust to reveal personality – if heaven exists, what would she like to hear St Peter say when she arrives at the Pearly Gates? Balding doesn’t hesitate.
“You know the Madeleine Albright quote that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women? I have a theory that there’s a special place in heaven with a really groovy party going on, including a lot of the coolest women in the world, women who help other women. That’s the party I want to be at. So whatever St Peter says to me, I’d reply: ‘Peter, mate, where’s my party? The one I’ve got a ticket to.’ ” Would it still be a party worth going to, if Alice wasn’t there? “No,” says Balding. “But she would be there, of course.”