Can there be anything worse than sitting across the table from a man who sees you as a piece of meat, or another potential notch on his bedpost? No there can’t, says Jan Leeming. ‘Yuck!’ she says with the most glorious diction.
The former BBC newsreader — the Fiona Bruce of her day — known for her very British poise (and the small matter of her five marriages) is describing a disastrous first, and last, date she had in Argentina recently.
She was there to film the Real Life Marigold On Tour series, the BBC TV show which sends older celebrities off to exotic climes to explore how foreign pensioners ‘do’ retirement.
In Argentina Jan, 77, discovered that older men eat slabs of near-raw steak, dance a lot of tango — and source potential partners for a bit of ‘no strings’ horizontal tango, too. And she was having none of it. ‘At that stage I became the English prude, made my excuses and left,’ she says.
Jan Leeming was in Argentina to film the Real Life Marigold On Tour series and revealed how she went on a disastrous date
Now she’s rather regretting that she allowed herself to be talked into going on the date at all. It was dancer Wayne Sleep — another Marigold traveller — who egged her on, she says.
She’d met her suitor at an art class and Wayne was saying ‘go on, go on’. So she went.
But she was most certainly not up for what was on the menu: ‘To me, sex and love go together. You may think you’re in love and an affair may not last that long, but sex has no meaning if there isn’t love and affection.’
She knows this sounds quite prudish. ‘And I am not a prude. How can I be, for goodness sake? I’ve been married five times! Believe me, I’ve had a very, very healthy sex life before.’ Nor is that book closed for good, it seems, although she has a rather curious way of putting it: ‘What I can say about it now is that there’s still fire in the grate. It may burn lower, but it’s still there. I’m just not willing to leap into bed with anyone.’
Who would have thought Mrs BBC Jan Leeming would end up talking so expansively about sex, dating and the single 70-something.
When she agrees to this interview, based on what we have seen of her in Marigold On Tour, she shrieks at the idea that she’s going to be once again painted as poor Jan Leeming, who can’t find husband number six.
Jan can shriek quite terrifyingly. She didn’t acquire the nickname Screaming Leeming (said to have been bestowed on her by BBC colleagues back in 1987 when three intruders mugged her and she ran screaming into the newsroom) for nothing.
It was reinforced some years later when, in 2006, she entered the I’m A Celebrity jungle and screeched a lot during the copious trials she had to do. That year was mostly remembered for Myleene Klass’s white bikini, but Jan’s incessant whingeing didn’t go unnoticed.
Jan said: ‘I say I’m like Elizabeth Taylor but without the diamonds’
Today, she’s frustrated at how the edit of the Marigold programme has depicted her. She takes no prisoners when she is cross.
‘I am sick and tired of being this poor patsy who seems to be desperate for a man. I am not desperate. I have never needed a man to keep me,’ she objects.
‘In fact, it’s the other way round. I’m a great romantic and, unfortunately, I have sometimes gone for men who have been womanisers.
‘It does make me cross, because if I’d been born, say, three decades later, it wouldn’t be an issue. I wouldn’t have got married at all, possibly — I’d just have lived with these men. But I come from a different era. I’m old-fashioned; I’m old-fashioned about everything.’
Which is why she finds the dating in your 70s business so baffling.
The biggest drawback when you are Jan Leeming, though, is the ‘blasted internet’. The first thing Google throws up is the ‘five-times-married’ fact. ‘There was one, a retired professor, who seemed quite promising. I’d used a pseudonym in the ad, but, of course, I had to tell him. And that was that.
‘He said: “Oh, I think it’s too soon after my wife’s death.” He’d obviously read Wikipedia and thought: “Oh God, married that many times. She must be an absolute hag.” ’
And those few older men she has dated, she found ‘boring’.
What about young men? She’s been propositioned by a few, and sighs deeply. ‘When I was internet dating (she dabbled, briefly), there were a few who made approaches. They probably thought: “Older woman — she’ll be grateful.” I turned them down and said: “I’m old enough to be your granny.” ’
The biggest drawback when you are Jan Leeming, though, is the ‘blasted internet’. The first thing Google throws up is the ‘five-times-married’ fact, she says
Ultimately, her internet dating was a disaster, mostly because she got rumbled by the Press for knocking a few years off her age in her ad. ‘Women lie about their age, but you know what? Men lie, too.’
Then again, Jan isn’t happy being single. There’s a terribly poignant moment in Marigold On Tour where she says she misses having someone’s hand to hold. It will chime with every woman of a certain age who has loved and lost.
‘When I take my dog for a walk and I see couples — particularly older couples — holding hands, I feel very envious,’ she says. ‘It’s the companionship and the sharing that I miss.
‘I don’t think I could be married again. I wouldn’t want to do the 24/7. But I would like someone to go to the theatre with. To love, really, and someone who would love me back.’
Your heart goes out to her. But only so far. Somewhere in the middle of our discussion about what rotters men are — well, her men anyway — she drops the bombshell that she has been on dates with some potential gems. What has she done? Sent them packing, of course.
‘It’s a horrible thing to say, but one or two of the men I’ve gone out for lunch or a coffee with have been — I don’t know how to say this — so adoring that I didn’t feel we could have a strong relationship.’
Eh? You turned them down because they were too nice? Yet more shudders. ‘Maybe I do have a penchant for the bad boys,’ she concedes. ‘I do go for adventurous types, and look where it has got me.
‘I just need an equal. I wouldn’t want any man to adore me. I would see that as a weakness. It would be lovely to be loved, but I don’t want someone to love me . . . ridiculously. I would make mincemeat of them.’
She runs through what went wrong in each of those five marriages, which seems to boil down to the fact that she has made some rubbish decisions about men.
She makes the chronology easier because she erases husband number one (BBC sound engineer John Staple, whom she wed when she was 19) completely. ‘I don’t count that marriage. It was a terrible mistake.
‘I can say it now because my father is gone, but I only married him because I was unhappy at home and I wanted to get away from my father and stepmother,’ she admits.
‘I was young, naïve. He was twice my age. I mean the marriage lasted six months. As far as I’m concerned, it didn’t happen.’
Husband number two was estate agent Jeremy Gilchrist, whom she married in 1972 (it also lasted a matter of months), followed by Patrick Lunt, father of her only child, Jonathan. That marriage lasted for six years, from 1980.
Then came Eric Steenson, a former Red Arrows manager, to whom she was married for seven years.
These three, she loved, she says. She reckons that despite being married five times, she hasn’t loved five times.
Husband number 5? Oh Lordy. Disaster. ‘Rebound! The worst of the lot,’ she tuts, furious with herself. She wed teacher Chris Russell in 1997, uprooted her life to move from Buckinghamshire to Kent, but they divorced in 2001. That one left her near penniless, she says.
‘I paid off his overdraft, his loan, his negative equity, then put a great big lump sum down on the cottage we bought, and when he left me I had to fight for my very existence, because I had nothing,’ she explains.
‘I was left high and dry financially. It was tough, and I am just about back in a position now where I am getting by.
‘I don’t have a mortgage, but I have a very small house. People see what women and men earn on television these days and they make an assumption that if you are on TV you must be rich. That is certainly not true.’
Jan can be oddly entertaining on her love history. ‘I do pick ’em,’ she says. ‘I say I’m like Elizabeth Taylor but without the diamonds.
‘It makes my sister mad. People say to her: “Ooh, married five times — your sister must have done well from her marriages.” Well, it’s the opposite. I got no houses. I bought the houses and they all moved in with me. I was the mug.’
There was another doomed relationship. Between marriages one and two she lived in Australia (she was the first female newsreader there) and fell madly in love and got engaged to a Swede, Havo. But her fiance was killed in a car crash on his way to visit her. Could he perhaps have been The One?
‘No, I suspect he would have been a womaniser, too,’ she says. ‘There was another girl I found out about . . .’
Jan can seem rather self-important, pompous even, but it’s hardly surprising she is peeved that people now see her as a reality star rather than a BBC legend.
Is she miffed that the TV presenters of today enjoy riches and fame her generation did not? She started as a BBC secretary and moved her way front of house.
‘I always say I mistimed everything,’ she admits. ‘The big money arrived just after me.
‘When I was there, I’d have earned more money being the PA to the CEO of a big firm, and I’d have had a private pension, and probably private medicine and possibly a company car.’
Instead, when she started as star newsreader, she was on £10,500, had to buy her own on-screen wardrobe and had no pension. When she left in 1987 she was on £23,000, with the men on much more, around the £40,000 mark, she guesses. Different times.
What does she make of the current pay equality issues at the BBC?
‘Well, feminists will hate me for saying this, but I just think they are all paid too much, and the men’s money should come down, not the other way round. I mean, the BBC is publicly funded.’
Did she ever protest, in her day? ‘Yes. On Pebble Mill (she was a presenter there) I was paid £6,000, and my co-presenter, Marion Foster, was on £6,700. We were sharing a one-bedroom flat — we’d do one week on the bed; one on the sofa.
‘Well, we discovered that the men were all on twice what we were on, with expenses on top.
‘I’ll never forget going to see our boss, as a united front of two, and he said: “Ladies, if you don’t like it, there is the door.” That was it. Unless you are sizzling hot bacon, there is always someone else who can do the job.’
She insists she doesn’t seethe at today’s crop of well-paid stars, however. ‘When I see Holly Willoughby, I think: “Jolly lucky girl,”’ she says.
What about Fiona Bruce?
‘In one week, she was on four different programmes! This happens a lot now. I mean, I like Fiona. She is extremely competent and I like her as a newsreader.
‘I can’t say that about them all. Some really irritate me. But nowadays if someone is popular they are given everything. Eventually, the public actually gets tired of seeing the same person on every show, and they sort of disappear. I just wish it was more evenly balanced.’
Jan would love to be on television more, but not on reality shows. She has grand ideas for documentaries, she says. Failing that, she could be an agony aunt, she reckons. ‘Let’s face it, I’ve made all the mistakes,’ she says. ‘A few times over, too.’
The Real Marigold On Tour is on BBC1 on Wednesday, February 20 at 9pm.