FIONA BRUCE opens up to Cole Moreton about holding back the tears on live TV and the one thing she refuses to talk about – even to her family. PHOTOGRAPHS: RACHELL SMITH
I laughed like a drain,’ says Fiona Bruce, her face lighting up. We don’t often see the presenter like this. We’re more used to her bossing politicians around on Question Time or projecting gravitas and decorum while reading the BBC News at Ten. But Fiona has just been reminded of an agony aunt column that appeared in a tabloid newspaper earlier this year. ‘It said: “My boyfriend is obsessed with the news and wants me to act like Fiona Bruce,”’ she laughs. ‘Everyone in the newsroom teased me mercilessly about it.’
A journalist at the top of her game, Fiona is one of the highest paid and most respected at the BBC. Someone who is always in control, whether reading the nightly news bulletin, guessing the value of heirlooms on Antiques Roadshow or chairing Question Time.
‘Question Time has a bigger social media footprint than any other TV programme outside Love Island. That is an extraordinary statistic,’ she says. Glance at Twitter late on a Thursday night and you can see the evidence, as viewers fire opinions from their sofas. It also means the host gets a lot of attention, as Fiona has found in the two years since she took over from David Dimbleby. While cabinet ministers, business leaders and celebrities jostle to be heard in a heated debate over whatever topic is vexing Britain that week, some viewers watch like hawks to see if Fiona will give away her true feelings. ‘On my desk is a screenshot from Twitter that shows two responses to Question Time. The first says “Fiona Bruce is turning this program into a Conservative hustings” and literally the next one is “She’s more left-wing than Trotsky.”’
As this elegantly illustrates, it’s hard to get a handle on the broadcaster. I want to try to find out who the real Fiona Bruce is. We’ve met a couple of times before: once on the set of an Antiques Roadshow episode, where she moved through the crowd like a minor royal, then delivered a brilliant piece to camera in one swift take. The other was in the media area for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, where she let a member of the American press know very firmly that he was sitting in her pew. He moved.
Today this tall, angular 57-year-old is looking relaxed in trainers, trousers and sweater, as she talks about being born in Singapore in 1964, to a father who was on his way to becoming a regional manager for Unilever. ‘My father grew up in real poverty– where you got no presents on Christmas Day –and he pulled himself out of that in a remarkable He really was the loveliest of men and very driven. So I was aware that things don’t just get handed to you on a plate– you have to work for what you get in life.’
She was at school in the Wirral first, then Milan when her father moved for work, and finally Haberdashers’ Aske’s in South London. ‘I had a very happy, uncomplicated childhood. By the time I came along into my parents’ household I’d say we were comfortable.’
Fiona went on to read French and Italian at Oxford but attending one of the UK’s premier universities was a culture shock. ‘No one in my family had been to university. So it was a really big deal. Then on the first day I met a baroness and thought: “What the hell is going on? It’s like these people are from a different planet. ”I felt a real fish out of water and very chippy about the whole thing. Eventually I calmed down and realised I was overgeneralising and expressing my own prejudice about other people.’
She joined a management company after university, before moving on to an advertising agency. Then a chance encounter with Panorama editor Tim Gardam, at a wedding in 1989, gave Fiona an opportunity to get into broadcasting. It was one she seized. ‘I met Tim at the reception and I think he was rather surprised to get a call the next day to his office from this 24-year-old saying: “Can I take you out to lunch?” I pitched some stories and then I just kept reminding him I would very much like to work there. Eventually, months later, he said: “We’re interviewing for researchers, just come and see how you get on.” Probably just to get rid of me. I think you make your own chances in life. I’ve always felt I’m driven. If I see an opportunity, I’ll go for it.’
She met her husband Nigel Sharrocks around this time when she was still working at an advertising agency and he was a director. Nigel moved on to become managing director of Warner Brothers, where he oversaw the release of more than 150 movies including the Harry Potter series. The couple married in Islington, North London, in 1994 and had their first child Sam four years later, while Fiona was a reporter on Newsnight. By the time her daughter Mia was born in 2001 she was presenting The Six O’Clock News and Crimewatch. Fiona chose to go back to work 16 days after the birth and felt she had to justify herself by saying publicly: ‘I’m not some mad career monster.’ She’s at a different point in her life now, though. ‘We took our daughter to university on Sunday,’ she says, grimacing. ‘When we dropped her off she was happy, so it felt easier. Also my son is working but living at home, so we’re not yet empty-nesting.’
Fiona started hosting Antiques Roadshow in the late 90s and for the past decade has hunted down forgeries and hidden treasures with the art expert Philip Mould in Fake Or Fortune? She took home around £409,000 from the BBC last year, according to official figures, but that was still a touch less than her newsreading contemporary Huw Edwards, who doesn’t have the other high-profile shows she has. ‘It’s getting there, but there’s still lots of work to be done on the pay gap. God knows if we will get a satisfactory result even in my lifetime.’ Isn’t this proof the BBC still has a problem with its gender pay gap?
Fiona was the first woman to present the News at Ten, a job that puts her into people’s living rooms. ‘It’s a very big close-up.’ Emotions sometimes show: particularly after the Grenfell fire or reports from hospitals in the frontline during the Covid crisis. ‘You need to tread a line between not getting in the way of the story and not being a robot.’ And the news does still get to her. ‘Yesterday I wept listening to testimony by the mother of Sarah Everard [who was abducted and murdered by a serving police officer]. Who wouldn’t? If I’d had to read that on the news I would have struggled. I would have had to rehearse it to make sure my throat didn’t catch.’
Question Time is another huge job. ‘When the audience comes back I will kiss every single one of them, whether they like it or not,’ she said before the start of the latest series, after a year without them because of Covid. So did she? ‘That would probably constitute some kind of assault,’ she says, smiling. ‘But I’m thrilled that they have turned up and we’re doing the programme in this way. It’s massive. When you have the people in the room, it’s an event. You can feel the atmosphere, hear the laughter, the clapping, the intakes of breath, the disapproval… The panel and I feed off that.’
The first episode back featured the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the minister James Cleverly failed to address. ‘A woman shouted from the back: “Shame on you: you’re not answering the question at all.” She had a real go at him. I remember thinking: “The audience is back! Here we go…” It was a brilliant moment.’
I’m listening to this and wondering how it works in her private life. Does she sit back and listen at a dinner party or pitch in with her own political takes? ‘It is the belief of the BBC that one has to strive to be neutral when reporting the news. That is baked into me like words through a stick of rock. I have not expressed political opinions to my friends or my family for years.’ Seriously? Not even in private? ‘When my children were growing up I never did, in case they blurted out something innocently at school. It was like this omertà [vow of silence] that I imposed upon myself.’
That is extraordinary. Would she stay neutral even if they were talking about hospitals and a loved one had been on a waiting list for a very long time? ‘I absolutely would. To do otherwise would be an abuse of my position.’ She’s adamant. ‘It’s quite clear where I’m coming from if I start doing that.’
After poking around in her psyche for a bit I really do think this is who Fiona Bruce is: a conservative with a small c who is always looking for the middle ground, by instinct and by training. It goes all the way back past the BBC to school days, when she had to work out how to get by with the international students in Milan or the posh kids at Oxford. But where’s the fire in her? A big clue comes when I ask if there’s anyone she would not have back to Question Time. The answer is not one of the obvious controversialists like Nigel Farage or Lawrence Fox. ‘There was an actor whose name I forget, who’s been in The Lord of The Rings.’ That’s put him in his place. Was it John Rhys-Davies, who she challenged for being rude to the Green MP Caroline Lucas? ‘Yeah, he called her “woman”.’
Actually, he went much further than that, slamming the desk with both hands and bellowing, ‘Oh, woman!’ in exasperation at something she said about Donald Trump. Fiona hated that. ‘My great regret is that I didn’t go after him and say: “Actually, her name is Caroline.” I wouldn’t have him back.’
It must be so stressful, mediating a show that sometimes feels it could tip over into a proper fight. So what does she do to let off steam? ‘If I’m feeling stressed about something and I’ve got a lot on I find going for a run makes me feel a bit better.’ There’s something else too. ‘I started horse riding very late in life. I will always be pretty rubbish, but I love it.’
Now, at last, I’ve found her secret passion. Fiona’s face lights up again when she talks about this, and not in the way it did with the agony column. ‘It takes me to a different place. I can’t think about anything else when I’m doing it. I love being around horses. I love the speed. I love being outdoors.’
So next time the scrapping on Question Time is at its fiercest, see whether you can catch a glimpse of that in her eyes: Fiona Bruce on horseback, far from the fray, riding like the wind.
Question Time is on BBC One every Thursday at 10.35pm
PICTURE DIRECTOR: ESTER MALLOY. STYLIST: SORREL KINDER. MAKE-UP: BARRIE GRIFFITH USING GUERLAIN. HAIR: NARAD KUTOWAROO AT CAROL HAYES MANAGEMENT USING GHD.