My meeting with Sian Williams comes at the end of the most extraordinary week of her career. Five days earlier, she ushered the Queen into a studio for a broadcast that was beamed live on TV and radio around the world. Then, the day after that, she spent 20 minutes on air chatting with Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. Two remarkable and powerful people, two characters who rarely venture into a studio. Each encounter was, in its own way, revealing.
“The monarch one day and a billionaire philanthropist the next? Yeah, it was a pretty unusual week. Introducing the Queen was the most exciting, nerve-racking, surreal moment of broadcasting I’ve ever done. First because of the amount of attention that surrounded the programme – but also because throughout it all, I was thinking about royal protocol: do I curtsey? Could I just nod? Should I sort of bob? What do you do when the Queen walks into your studio?
“I ended up doing a curtsey-bobbing-nodding thing, thinking, ‘This is absurd’ – and then you stick your hand out, which is your instinct, and think: ‘Am I meant to do that?’”
Did the Queen shake her hand? “She did.”
Williams was presenting a special Radio 4 programme, alongside James Naughtie, to mark the Queen’s official opening of the BBC’s new London HQ, New Broadcasting House. Her Majesty delivered her opening speech sitting down, speaking into a microphone normally used by whoever John Humphrys happens to be interrogating on the Today programme.
No interrogation this time. When the Queen stopped talking, Williams and Naughtie were forbidden from responding to anything she’d said. “I had to read a script which was about what the Queen had just said – to her, but without bringing her into the conversation. Royal protocol says you do not interview the Queen. She’s never been interviewed. So it couldn’t have been more surreal.” Was Williams nervous? Yes, she says. Did the Queen appear distracted (the Duke of Edinburgh had gone into hospital the day before): “There may well have been a lot on her mind but you couldn’t tell.”
A behind-the-scenes insight into how royal visits work: the Queen sat in a special chair rather than a standard-issue Radio 4 one. Her Majesty, it seems, doesn’t do wheels. “Our chairs move, they’re on castors. I think it was important that hers was solid and that she wasn’t going anywhere. Yeah, very strange.”
We’re chatting in a smart cafe round the corner from Williams’s north London home. We’re not really here to discuss the Queen, but if Her Majesty popped by your office a few days ago, you’d probably mention it, wouldn’t you?
In fact, Williams is here to talk about Your Money, Their Tricks, a new consumer show on BBC1. She’s presenting alongside Nicky Campbell and Rebecca Wilcox (Esther Rantzen’s daughter). The programme has big-name companies in its sights. In particular, the tactics firms use to make us pay more for their goods than we should. Some instances of malpractice she’s promising to uncover might be considered sneaky, some unethical; a few might even be unlawful.
Here’s the twist: the programme’s researchers have, over the past year or so, been getting jobs with companies in order to reveal the techniques salespeople are trained to use on unwitting customers. Williams says that if viewers follow the show’s advice, we might save “hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds”.
Thousands of pounds? Given that show will also be targeting misleading advertising, one hopes she’s not making claims she can’t justify…
Back in March 2012, when BBC Breakfast moved to Salford, Williams refused to uproot her family and left the show. A year later, does she think she made the right decision? “In the end you’ve got to put your family first. Are my children [Joss, 21; Alex, 19; Seth, seven; and Eve, four] grateful? I haven’t asked them. I wouldn’t put that level of pressure on them. In fact, Alex was in the middle of his A-levels at the time and he probably didn’t even notice that I was hovering around in the background making sure that he was eating well and getting enough sleep.”
Does she watch Breakfast now? “When I first came off it, I couldn’t watch without thinking: ‘Why haven’t they come out of the news? When are they going to sport? Why are they doing this interview at the top of the programme?’ So now when I wake up, I reach for the radio and Today.” Radio 4’s also become a fixture on Saturday mornings. For the past year, along with co-presenter Rev Richard Coles, she’s been at the helm of Saturday Live, which was where she got to interview Bill Gates.
Meetings with the Queen, interviews with billionaires, Secret Squirrel escapades with hidden cameras. It all sounds impossibly glamorous. But Williams tells me the most intriguing thing just as I’m preparing to leave. As I begin to pack my things, I mention I’ve seen from her postings on Twitter that she’s studying for an MSc. What’s that about?
It emerges that her subject is psychology and the reason she’s doing it is to help colleagues. After reporting the Pakistan earthquake in 2008, she suffered from survivor’s guilt: hundreds of people had died, she’d witnessed relatives dragging dead bodies from collapsed buildings – and yet, at the end, she was able to turn her back on the suffering and return to her super-comfortable middle-class life in London.
She says it felt selfish even to say such things out loud. “But people need to be allowed to say that and who do they say it to? They’re not going to say it to their boss or anyone who’s going to offer them a job.” So Williams has become a “peer mentor” at the BBC, someone to whom reporters can turn when they return from a distressing story.
“I help BBC journalists through trauma. A small team of us who have experienced traumatic environments help spot symptoms of trouble when people return from war zones or disaster areas. Post-traumatic stress disorder can take time to manifest itself. I can assess people and point them in the right direction, show them support.
“The thing about news crews is they are very reluctant to seek help because it’s part of the job to come back from something quite traumatic and be ready to go out the following day on a different story. You have to cope because it’s your job. And I think journalists sometimes don’t get the chance to talk to somebody and say, ‘Is it right that I’m not sleeping?’ or ‘I’m drinking too much.’ I think it’s incredibly important.”
She thinks the MSc will help her be a better mentor – though it was “horrible, horrible” taking an exam for the first time since her finals at Oxford Polytechnic in 1985. Next comes the thesis. She hasn’t quite settled on a subject yet. “But it’s got to be original and you’ve got to do your own interviews.”
She should do pretty well with the interviewing, I reckon. At least this time, she won’t be banned from asking questions.
Your Money, Their Tricks starts tonight at 8:00pm on BBC1.