Sandi Toksvig on the BBC ageism row, Guildford life and cultivated banter on Radio 4

One of Radio 4’s best-loved presenters, Sandi Toksvig has lived just outside Guildford for many years. Here, she talks exclusively to Alistair Duncan about her work, family life and favourite things about Surrey

Sandi Toksvig is an effervescent mix of blithe, breezy fun and cultivated banter. Of course, you’ll already know that if you listen to Radio 4, where she chairs The News Quiz weekly and presents travel programme Excess Baggage, or from her zingy newspaper columns or lively TV appearances in shows like Have I Got News For You. But I am glad to report that she is much the same in person as in media format: in other words, great value.

Today, the writer, comedian, broadcaster, journalist and all-round polymath (some brand her ‘the female Stephen Fry’ – although I’m sure she’ll wince at being called ‘the female’ anything) is taking time out from her hectic schedule to speak to Surrey Life about, among other things, her latest literary effort.


Girls are Best

The new book, Girls are Best, is a tongue-in-cheek feminist pamphlet that highlights the crucial role women have played in history. I wonder whether her aim, given the bullish title of the book, was to get back at boys – but cue a wry riposte from the seasoned broadcaster.

“You don’t need defending against my little book!” she hoots. “I don’t think the book’s about bashing the boys. Well done you; you’re very good at map reading and you can lift heavy suitcases and all those things. The book is about girls reaching their potential. But I feel passionate about everyone reaching their potential, not just girls.”

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Ever the erudite interviewee, she then goes on to illustrate her point with a literary quotation.

“There’s that wonderful poem, Gray’s Elegy, in which he talks about the graveyard in the village, where children never got a chance because they didn’t get an education: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Toksvig is in peppy mood today, even though she’s just flown back from New York. Some of the linguistic differences between ourselves and our American cousins have evidently kept her chortling all the way across the Atlantic. “I was in a salad bar in New York where it had a sign that said: ‘Tossing to order’,” she chuckles. “There’s no way you’d have that in the UK. Wonderful!”

She says that, on the whole, she finds life entertaining and amusing. Clearly, she’s of a sunny disposition, but she’s also well known for her strong convictions and her book is a product of that. Highlighting many of the women who have made vital contributions to humanity but have been airbrushed out of the annals, Girls are Best brims with curious facts (sample: Colonel Gaddafi uses 30 highly trained women as his personal bodyguards – he thinks they are more alert).


Sober message

There are plenty of silly gags, too (of the many illustrations, my favourite has to be the one of a son asking his mother: ‘Mummy, is dinner ready yet?’ They are both swaddled in linen bandages – mummy, get it?) but it also contains a sober message about the disenfranchisement of women across the planet. Was the book born out of a sense of indignation?

“It’s intended to be a funny book,” she says, explaining that it was meant to have a companion called Boys are Best; the male author, whose identity she won’t reveal, never delivered his book. “But, having said that, I was flabbergasted to find out the percentage of the world’s assets that women own. Women own one per cent of the world’s assets – and yet, across the world, they do 75 per cent of the work. How ridiculous?

“And how awful if the great brain that has been born that can cure cancer or the great brain that can come up with an alternative to the use of petroleum fuel resides in a girl in Afghanistan who isn’t given an education. How dreadful for all of us – not just girls.”

Toksvig has travelled extensively, both for work and for pleasure. In 1995, she sailed around the coast of Britain with John McCarthy for a BBC series. As presenter of Radio 4’s Excess Baggage, she often travels to far-flung places – well, when the tiny budget allows for it – to do reports. She has also published several travel books. Her experience of being in countries where women are little more than second class citizens has informed many of her views:

“When you travel, you all too often see the women working and men under a tree chatting,” she says with a grimace.

I wonder how Toksvig feels about the world of broadcasting. She is 51 and very much in demand but the BBC has recently been berated for giving ageing female presenters the heave-ho. This summer, 66-year-old Arlene Phillips was controversially replaced by pretty, 31-year-old Alesha Dixon in Strictly Come Dancing; BBC director general Mark Thompson then tried to bat away criticism by setting BBC News a 12-month deadline to recruit a female presenter over 50. Does Toksvig think that the consensus view in TV is that, if you’re a woman, you have to be young and pretty to be on the box?

“Oh yes,” she says. “Normally, they like to pair an older man with a much younger woman. That’s the standard thing. When Fern Britton left This Morning, for instance, she was replaced by a much younger, pretty woman. Now, I’m sure Holly Willoughby is very talented, but put it this way: I question whether Fern would get the job if she was applying today.”

What about radio? Surely, she is proof that smart, talented female presenters in their middle years are just as valued as their male counterparts.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “There isn’t a single woman broadcasting a major show on Radio 2 apart from Sarah Kennedy and she’s on at six o’ clock in the morning. That’s the most listened to radio station in the country and there’s hardly any women broadcasting on it. Are things as good as they could be? I don’t think so.”


Childhood memories

Toksvig’s childhood was a peripatetic one. Her father was a famous Danish broadcaster who was dispatched to America to be a correspondent when his fiercely bright daughter was of school age. She was expelled from two schools and, amazingly, attended a further 15, before being accepted to read archaeology and anthropology at Girton College, Cambridge, where she got a First Class honours degree and met Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson at the famous Cambridge Footlights.

She says that it’s perhaps because her childhood was so rootless that she always wanted her children to grow up in a stable environment. All of Toksvig’s three children have been raised in the family home just outside Guildford; they attended a local school and still have friends in their village whom they met at playgroup.

“I came to Guildford when I was 14, to attend a boarding school,” she explains (she has previously said that Tormead “constituted four of the worst years of my life”). “Then, later I met my partner, who lived in Guildford. So I ended up in Surrey by default. But I have lots of friends here and it’s a very beautiful county.”

By all accounts, Toksvig’s is a strong family unit just like any other – except, of course, it is an unconventional set-up, as was revealed to great fanfare several years ago: in 1994, tabloid revelations that Toksvig was gay were on the horizon, so the feisty comedian stole their thunder and proudly came out to the nation; it turned out that her children were conceived by her now ex-partner, using sperm donated by a friend. Toksvig now parents with her civil partner Debbie, a psychotherapist.

Does she think that her children might follow her into the world of entertainment? “My oldest daughter is studying TV and film at York University, so maybe,” she says. “But my middle one is going to medical school. Thank goodness because my hips might need replacing!” Again, a chuckle. “My son plays tennis full-time. It wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes a comedian. He’s the funniest person I know.”

She admits that her family think she works far too hard. “They always want some time with me,” she says. “They always want me to slow down.” Apparently, when they head off on holiday, she’s under strict instructions not to bring her laptop or mobile phone. And no wonder when you consider how busy she keeps herself…

In between writing books (in addition to her books for adults, she has written several fictional children’s books – her son is severely dyslexic and she wrote the first one as a boy’s adventure book that would encourage him to read more), she writes a weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph, a monthly column for Good Housekeeping, presents two shows on Radio 4 and, among other media commitments, is constantly going to schools to speak to children about the benefits of reading.

“They have no idea who I am,” she says. “I’m just a random writer who’s turned up. Consequently, they treat you in a wonderfully refreshing, non-sycophantic manner.”

Before interviewing her, I was most familiar with Toksvig through her work on Radio 4. Her witty repartee and intelligent banter is perfectly placed on the station. Has Radio 4 become a home for her?


On the airwaves

“I love it,” she says with gusto. “One minute you can have a serious conversation, doing an interview about a great book, and then the next minute you’re doing something wonderfully frivolous and it doesn’t cost tuppence ha’penny to make. When I came back from New York yesterday, the first thing I did was get the driver to put on Radio 4. I felt better straightaway.”  

True to form, Toksvig then see-saws from serious and sincere to silly. Aren’t there some days when you go on air and you’re just not feeling witty and amusing, I ask.

“Oh yes,” she deadpans. “You know, there’s nothing more dreary than having dinner with a comedian. They’re the most serious people on the planet. It’s just a job. Then again, I’m sure plumbers don’t sit around talking about U-bends.”


My Favourite Surrey

Restaurant: I’m particularly fond of the Black Swan pub over in Ockham.

Shop: I’m not a big shopper, but I love the fact that in Ripley there’s a shop, Richardsons, that is both a motorcycle shop and florist. I think it’s a combination that never occurred to me. Apparently, it’s a husband and wife who run it. They didn’t want to put a wall in between the two shops.

View: From St Martha-on-the-Hill, just outside Guildford. It’s quite a puff to get up the hill, but it’s my favourite place to stretch my legs. That’s my favourite view. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Place to chill: At home. If I’m not sitting around shooting the breeze with my kids, then I’ve got a large room where I devote my time to my loom and my weaving. I’m making quite a lot of rag rugs currently. It’s an old Scandinavian thing.

Place to visit: My favourite thing to do is go to Ripley farmers’ market, which is once a month on a Saturday. You can get fabulous fresh food and meat. I always make the time to stop and have a coffee and a chat with the stallholders.