Joan Bakewell needs very little introduction. A regular on British television and radio for decades, she is a fierce defender of the arts, with an incisive mind and consummate expertise, and a clear-cut role model. At the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards, held on 12 May 2019, she was presented with BAFTA’s highest accolade, the Fellowship. Words by Matthew Bell
Over a career spanning six decades, Joan Bakewell has offered viewers an erudite and distinctive voice, whether discussing the arts, current affairs or the big ethical issues of the day. Still working at the age of 86, the broadcaster and journalist has long been an inspiration to women in and outside television.
“Being awarded the BAFTA Fellowship is extraordinary because it’s an acknowledgment by the people in the business that I’ve adored all my life,” says Bakewell, who already has a BAFTA – the Richard Dimbleby Award for her work on BBC One ethics show Heart of the Matter – proudly displayed in her office. “The idea of joining a fellowship is really something. On the night, I will be in the company of such illustrious talent.”
Stockport-born Bakewell suffered a few false starts after graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1954. Looking for a way into the BBC, she moved to London and became a studio manager with BBC Radio. “I was terrible – I couldn’t do technical stuff and I still can’t,” she recalls.
She made her television debut in the early 1960s on Sunday Break, created to fill ITV’s quota of religious programming. It got Bakewell noticed and she joined the roster of presenters on BBC Two’s live arts show, Late Night Line-Up. “Television at the time was open for young people – I hit the right moment,” she recalls. “We were making it up as we went along – there were no rules in the ’60s.”Persistence, though, is a Bakewell trait. “I don’t take no for an answer, which is an enormous virtue in television,” she says, recounting how she “bombarded” producers with ideas for stories. Eventually, she began to get short items on BBC Radio.
I feel I’ve lived through the greatest social change of the century, which is the liberation of women.
Late Night Line-Up had its fingers on the cultural pulse, with items on everything from Hollywood movies to avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, via counter-culture writer Allen Ginsberg. “It was quite lively – and drink had often been taken, too,” laughs Bakewell.
The 1970s saw Bakewell appear in an eclectic series of shows. Granada’s 1977 series Pandora’s Box was quintessential Bakewell, featuring all-women panels discussing the big issues of the day – with a young Victoria Wood writing and performing songs for light relief. “What you get now is Loose Women, which is cheeky and rude. Mine was terribly solemn and serious,” says Bakewell, who is always ready to poke fun at her earnest image.
I still adore the arts. While I’m still on my feet, life’s too good to miss out on.
In the 1980s, she was the BBC’s arts correspondent, before joining Heart of the Matter in 1987, which covered “female genital mutilation, transgender people and gay priests – real headline stuff”. It also gave Bakewell her most remarkable interviewee, Nelson Mandela, shortly after his release from prison. “He was so impressive and I was a bit star-struck – it was the only time I’ve asked someone to sign a book, because that’s a bit cheesy.”
Bakewell, who became Labour peer Baroness Bakewell of Stockport in 2011, continues to work in the media. Later this year, she will front Sky Arts’ series Landscape Artist of the Year. “I still adore the arts,” she says. “While I’m still on my feet, life’s too good to miss out on.” She also makes BBC Radio 4 shows; most recently, We Need to Talk About Death.
When Bakewell first appeared on television, she was notable for being one of the few women allowed to make serious programmes. Thankfully, things have moved on a little since then. “I’ve seen a huge change – I feel I’ve lived through the greatest social change of the century, which is the liberation of women,” says Bakewell. “I rejoice to see how many women are thriving in television now.”
Watch Joan Bakewell’s acceptance speech here.
The full feature can be read in the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 brochure here.