ann widdecombe
Friday, 30 March 2012

How I became chief cleverdick

Watch out Anne Robinson! As Ann Widdecombe becomes the host of TV’s Cleverdicks, Britain may soon have a brand-new quiz-show queen.

Written by Katy Pearson
Ann Widdecombe's curious move out of politics and into showbiz has surprised no one more than herself: 'If you had told me 18 months ago that I would be appearing on prime-time television and in pantomime, I would have had to lie down with an aspirin,' she says.

I am meeting the venerable Ann at breakfast to discuss her latest foray into television. Over porridge, toast and the occasional tissue (she's fighting a nasty cold), I find myself discussing the definition of the word, 'Cleverdicks'.

Resolutely ignoring any salacious angle, Ann explains that the name of her new show refers to someone who 'combines a breadth of knowledge with the ability to answer at speed.'

'I have always wanted to host a quiz show,' she reveals. 'I grew up watching Playbox, which was made by the same people who created Crackerjack, but everyone seems to have forgotten about it now.' (I can just imagine a junior Ann shouting correct answers at a grainy TV screen.)

Ann's wish to host her own quiz show came true when she was approached to host Sky Atlantic's new show. And she's rather pleased with it.

'The quality and standard of questions really appealed to me,' she explains. 'Lots of quiz shows seem to be either impossible, like Mastermind, or so easy that they are foolish. Cleverdicks is a happy medium.'

Ann has been very vocal about her desire to move away from the celebrity culture, which she believes 'dominates' the media – and the majority of Cleverdicks' questions are very serious indeed. I mention that in a preview episode, one of the questions was about a celebrity marriage. 'There are a few questions like that in there to throw the contestants,' she admits. 'But really, who cares who Sophie Dahl is married to?' She says this with the tiniest of smiles.

That is what is so engaging about this former MP: her austerity is always tempered by a twinkle in her eye. Unlike the current tradition of quiz-show hosts (of which Anne Robinson is the queen), she does not go in for any ritual degradation. 'I can't abide all that,' she exclaims. 'The culture of humiliation, whereby you make people feel as if they've failed instead of having done very well to get that far.'

This is a situation she knows all too well. Despite her outrageous lack of ability on Strictly Come Dancing, Ann won over the public who kept voting for her, keeping her in the show for an unlikely 10 weeks. The suggestion that she was being exploited for laughs still manages to rile her. 'Apparently, some viewers thought that I was exploited. What a joke. What a joke. I knew exactly what I was doing. It's what I call an unnecessary culture of grievance – people are always looking to gripe on the behalf of older women and there is just no need.'

Whether she likes it or not, Ann is herself immersed in the celebrity culture she claims to find tiresome, the sequins and salsa of Strictly having turned her into a bona fide television star. Yet she resolutely maintains that any success has been merely incidental.

'I do not have a showbiz career,' she maintains. I suggest that many would disagree with her, but she is keen to make her point extremely clear. 'With a career, you have goals and an end in mind. That was certainly the case when I worked in politics. But with all this, I have no ambition. My decisions are based purely on whether I think I will have fun.'

It was this fun-loving approach that lead her to star in a pantomime with her Strictly nemesis, Craig Revel Horwood. The transformation of serious politician to Widdy-In-Waiting could well have been excruciating, but Ann won rapturous reviews. 'The sound of children roaring with laughter night after night was just wonderful,' she says, betraying a rarely-seen softer side.

And she is doing all this in her supposed retirement – doesn't she find the performing schedule hard work? Stern Ann returns: 'Don't be ridiculous. Nothing is hard work after being an MP.'

Despite the fact that her decisions are based purely on enjoyment, Ann is typically adamant to ensure it does not all become too frivolous. 'I would like to do at least one serious documentary per year.' She would also like to host a chat show, which, considering how she charmed the nation on Strictly, is a real possibility.

I ask what she thinks makes people warm to her? 'I suppose it is my "buck-up" attitude,' she muses. 'I refuse to take myself too seriously.'

And with that, she's off to her next showbiz appointment.

Cleverdicks is on Sky Atlantic HD, weekday nights at 7pm.

A few of widdy’s favourite things

Meal? Roast lamb with mint sauce and redcurrant jelly.
Drink? These days, I prefer a Rémy Martin.
Holiday destination? The Arctic – magnificent, unspoiled and silent.
Book? All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s a realistic portrayal of war.
Movie? My favourite film of all time is The Pianist. You must see it.
Music? I’m tone deaf but I enjoy the Surprise Symphony (by Haydn) as I can at least hear the surprise.
Perfume? Miss Dior.
Clothing? There’s a lovely little boutique called Lady Mop in Kent. When I was a Maidstone MP I used to do a lot of my shopping there.
Person? Pope John Paul II, because of his courage, compassion and holiness.

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