Nothing like a Dame - Interview with Ann Widdecombe
Writing, waltzing and walking with Ann Widdecombe, the retired MP for Maidstone, author and star of The Orchard at Dartford's Christmas panto...
Writing, waltzing and walking with Ann Widdecombe, the retired MP for Maidstone, author and star of The Orchard at Dartford’s Christmas panto
She was the grande dame of British politics during her decades in Parliament. As Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Secretary of State for Health she was a formidable force and a committed representative of her Maidstone constituency.
But since her retirement in 2010, Ann Widdecombe has won a whole new bastion of fans after surprising the nation with her 10-week stint on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing where she waltzed and tangoed with professional dancer Anton du Beke.
Ann was Member of Parliament for Maidstone between 1987 and 2010 and had a reputation for being a very dedicated and busy MP in her local constituency.
She enjoyed the banter of Parliament but it was to her Kent home in Sutton Valence that she returned as often as she could to seek an antidote to the rush of the capital city.
“I like rural Kent,” she says in her familiar tones. “That you can have The Weald of Kent so close to London means you get the best of both worlds.
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“I used to live in Sutton Valence of course, so that is the bit I know best. It’s a village; a very rural area. I like that. I also like visiting local gardens and stately homes where I can get some ideas.”
Does this mean Ann is someone who enjoys getting her hands muddy in flower beds? “No not really. I am not a gardener these days; someone else does it for me,” she says.
“I do like being in gardens and in particular flower gardens. I don’t go for the vegetables. I like roses and shrubs and bright colours.”
Kent is spoilt for choice when it comes to beautiful gardens andhouses to visit. “We are lucky,” she says. “There are so many beautiful National Trust properties in the county.”
Although Ann appreciates the beauty of a well-tended garden, it is to the open countryside that she heads whenever she has time. She lists walking as a hobby and is genuinely keen to get out and walk different local routes.
“An ideal day for me would be a long country walk followed by an evening spent by a huge roaring fire,” she says.
Throughout her distinguished career Ann was committed to standing up for what she believes in. I suggest this must have been hard sometimes, but she dismisses the idea.
“No, it is not remotely hard to go out on a limb, if you believe something, you say it. What’s the point of believing it otherwise? There is no great pressure to compromise your beliefs. This is one of the great myths of politics.”
With a reputation for straight talking Ann is as forthright in her conversation as she was when in Parliament. Has she ever had to bite her tongue?
“Not really,” she insists. “Obviously when you are on the front bench you practice collective responsibility and I always did. After all, I led a huge rebellion in 1990 and by November I was a Minister.”
Ann supported dozens of charities across her constituency when she was an MP. One of her favourites is the Buttercup Goat Sanctuary in Boughton Monchelsea, Maidstone, where she is the patron and has adopted two goats, Bruce and Megan.
I suggest that a goat sanctuary is an unusual charity. “The idea of a goat sanctuary is not unusual at all,” she corrects me.
“I also support a donkey sanctuary in the Holy Land. They also approached me for support and I am very pleased to be involved. I have visited the donkeys and met some of them when I was in Israel. I am very fond of animals and have always had cats at home. I might well get a dog one day, but not yet.”
She is also a very active Patron of HiKent, the charity that supports the people of Kent who cannot hear or who have impaired hearing.
“That is a very worthy charity,” Ann says. “It’s an easy enough thing to overlook, but they come up with some wonderful devices and some wonderful technology which means that you can translate the heard into the visual.”
She hosts dinners, does speeches and makes appearances for HiKent whenever she can. It’s clear when Ann puts her name to something to lend her support, then that the support is genuine and her patronage is tangible rather than just a name on headed paper. Again, she corrects me.
“If I can be actively involved then I will try my best. If people approach me and I really don’t have the time to get involved they can put my name on the headed paper. There nothing wrong with being just a name on the headed paper, if it helps a good cause.”
Does she ever get weary of making speeches and talking abouther life and career? “Not at all. I attend the dinners and do the talks because I enjoy it. I simply wouldn’t do it otherwise.
“I have had decades of practice so I don’t ever feel nervous about speaking or unsure of what I am going to say. I don’t use notes because I don’t need them. I simply wouldn’t do these things unless I really wanted to.”
Retirement for most people means sitting back and taking it easy a little; not for Ann. She has more social engagements than ever before and has been touring the country in her own show, An Audience With Ann Widdecombe, throughout the summer months.
“I think I knew exactly what retirement would be like,” she insists. “What I didn’t foresee was Strictly!
“I don’t know what Anton was expecting when he got me as a partner, but I think he knew it would work from the moment I fell about in fits of giggles. Everything went wrong and I couldn’t stop laughing. The rest is history.”
Since the success of Strictly last autumn Ann has kept up her dancing by performing in the tour. She has also lent her support to a BUPA initiative to get the older generation taking up ballroom dancing.
“I’m not going to say because I did it, that everyone should hit the dance floor. But my view is that dancing is social, mental, physical and it’s something people of any ability can get involved with. It is ideal for older people.”
Ann has written four novels. Her next, a detective story, is out next year. She finds writing is a relaxing pastime and considers it a hobby.
“My novels come quite easily. I write anywhere: on a train journey, at home, out and about. I can just pick up a pen and a notebook and off I go.”
Regarding her new role as an actress, she is not phased by the idea at all. She will be playing Widdie-In-Waiting in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, The Orchard in Dartford’s pantomime this December.
“I really am looking forward to it,” she says. “And, I am so pleased that the first pantomime I’m ever doing will be in Kent so a lot of my friends can come along.”
... from grande dame of politics to pantomime dame. I can’t wait to see her in action again!