Angela Rippon was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in British television history. It came in the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special in 1976, when 20 million gawped as she emerged from behind her Nine O’Clock News desk to high-kick round the studio like an autocue Ginger Rogers.
Four decades on, give or take the odd line around her eyes, she barely seems to have changed. At 75, Rippon is in remarkable shape: slim, quick, light on her feet. She maintains her fitness by playing tennis with singer Elaine Paige, doing Pilates and taking ballet classes. ‘Oh, and I power-walk,’ she adds.
Angela Rippon with Ernie Wise on The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special in 1976. Four decades on, give or take the odd line around her eyes, she barely seems to have changed
The fact is, Rippon has been power-walking across our screens for 53 years. Which is a good 25 years longer than one of her bosses ever thought she would. John Birt, the then director-general of the BBC, had taken her aside at a Corporation party in 1995. ‘I’d just turned 50 and he said to me “Angela, you’ll have to accept you need to make way for the younger generation coming through”, she recalls. ‘I thought: I’ll decide when I stop, thank you very much! Well, I’m still working. And where exactly is John Birt? I remember thinking, Have you had this conversation with Terry Wogan, with Michael Parkinson? Clearly he hadn’t. That was the way women were regarded in television in those days.
‘What’s really good is that nobody would dare say that to a woman today. Imagine the director-general telling someone like Katya Adler [the BBC’s Europe editor], “Darling, it’s time to stop.” Not going to happen.’
Indeed, despite Birt’s insistence that her time was up, Rippon says she is busier than ever. Together with the equally venerable Julia Somerville and Gloria Hunniford, she presents BBC consumer show Rip Off Britain. Plus, she is one of the well-known sleuths on Channel 5’s new Celebrity Murder Mystery. ‘I had such fun doing it,’ she says of the series in which she joins a team including John Sergeant, Su Pollard and Keith Duffy trying to solve a country-house murder spree. ‘I unleashed my inner Miss Marple.’
‘It comes down to the individual. If you stand your ground and say “I’m here to stay”, then you will. I never had a problem,’ says Rippon
And Rippon, you suspect, has quite an inner Miss Marple. No-nonsense, nerve-free, organised. It is easy to see how equipped she was for live television. This is not someone for whom the term flappable has ever been used.
‘Actually, I remember the first live report I did for television, that wasn’t how I came across,’ she says, of a piece she filed for BBC Plymouth in 1967.
‘When I got home, my dad told me I looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. I was mortified. I said to him, “I was talking live to thousands of people – you have no idea how nerve-racking that is.” My father, a Royal Marine turned engineer, said, “Next time you look in the lens, just talk to me. Tell me the story.” It was the best advice ever. Reading the news, presenting Eurovision, reporting from Princess Diana’s funeral. I’ve been talking to my dad ever since, even though sadly he passed away some time ago.’
Rippon’s refusal to be flapped gave her another advantage in the early days of her career: it helped her navigate a workplace that, at the time, was overwhelmingly male. Though she was never someone who allowed herself to be put off by the gender imbalance.
‘It comes down to the individual. If you stand your ground and say “I’m here to stay”, then you will. I never had a problem. Yes, there were some women who were there as tokens. We have got to the stage where we can admit that. But the ones who survived did so because they could do the job as well as men, if not better.’
Yet the evidence suggests some issues still linger. The BBC has only just settled a case with Samira Ahmed, who sued after she discovered she was not earning as much as men doing the same job. Is it fair to assume, in those early days, that Rippon was similarly underpaid? ‘I don’t know what my male colleagues were earning. It never occurred to me to ask,’ she says. ‘But I know when I first became a full-time newsreader in 1975, I was earning £25,000 a year. Which I knew was more than my father. That was chastening.’
Rippon is not one to be drawn into politicising about pay equality.
‘I’m a Libran, so I can see both sides of the argument. So while I can see the Samira Ahmed view that you’re doing the same work as a man so you should get the same money, there is also the point that – ultimately – we are in the entertainment business. If you were casting a movie and you had Tom Hanks in it and he had the same number of lines as his female co-star, you wouldn’t necessarily think you should pay them the same. He’s the star so he gets more. It’s the same in television: there are some people who viewers want to watch and inevitably they earn more.’
Imagine the director-general telling Katya Adler: ‘Darling, it’s time to stop’
She also never worried – as Ann Francke of the Chartered Management Institute recently claimed a lot of women in the workplace do – about the overwhelmingly male conversation going on around her.
‘That sort of thing never bothered me,’ she says. ‘If they wanted to talk about football, fine. Just as long as they realised when Wimbledon was on I would be talking tennis. I don’t mean that to sound as if I’m denying how people feel. But I can only talk about my own experience. And I’ve loved every minute of it.’
Except perhaps for when she was cornered by John Birt. But even that conversation did not alarm her.
‘Good Lord no, of course not!’ she snorts derisively. ‘That said, I am a pragmatist. I have to be aware you can only do this if people still want to work with you. Lots of people have fallen by the wayside. It’s a very crowded profession. And one thing I have learnt is there’s no room for divas. If you’re not nice to work with you won’t get work, it’s pretty simple. I’ve seen it happen to people who thought they were bigger than the programme. Do that and you are on borrowed time.’
Rippon, though, sails on, a majestic constant on our screens. ‘I can only do this at my age because I’m fit,’ she says. ‘We did a pop-up shop for Rip Off Britain in Manchester the other day. I was on my feet from 8.30 in the morning till seven at night. I didn’t have my Fitbit then, but the cameraman had one and he told me we’d walked seven miles in a day.’
And the thing was, she was up the next morning at six to do it all again. Which is not bad, given she is now old enough to qualify for a free TV licence, though that wasn’t why she recently campaigned to have the concession preserved for the over-75s.
‘The Government should never have put the BBC in the position of having to pay for it. Television is such a vital part of life for the elderly, it should be up to the Government to ensure they can afford to stay tuned in.’
A young Angela Rippon with her father, John, and mother, Edna. Rippon is not one to be drawn into politicising about pay equality. ‘I’m a Libran, so I can see both sides of the argument’
As for the rest of the viewing public, she remains an advocate of the licence.
‘I do fear it is under threat,’ she says. ‘I do wish the BBC would blow its trumpet a bit more. £154.50 a year seems a lot, but break it down and it works out at less than 50p a day. I would pay 50p a day just for Radio 4.’
Given the amount she still works, that 50p a day is, for some time yet, likely to deliver some Angela Rippon. ‘The most powerful thing I have keeping me young is that I just love what I do for a living,’ she says. ‘If I have a secret, that’s it.’ e
‘Celebrity Murder Mystery’ is on March 27 and 28 at 9pm on Channel 5