There’s far more to Kirsty Wark than Newsnight; she’s also a mother, a baker, and now, a writer. She tells Hannah Stephenson about her debut novel, sexism in TV and her old pal Jeremy Paxman, who isn’t nearly as scary as he seems
IF Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark had a pound for every commute she’s made from Scotland to London during her broadcasting career, she’d be rich.
The mother-of-two, who still lives in her home city, Glasgow, travels the 900 miles by train every week, returning to her Victorian mansion on the sleeper. Sometimes, she stays in London.
Wark has a strong sense of home — and that home is Scotland.
“I have lived in London, when I was a producer, but I always knew I was on a long elastic band and that I would come back.
“The truth of the matter is that I could live away somewhere for six months, but I couldn’t ever leave Scotland. I have a strong sense of place and culture,” she says.
Wark is warm and friendly, more genial than her gruff Newsnight counterpart, Jeremy Paxman.
“I used to work with Jeremy a lot on Breakfast Time but, of course, we’d never see each other, because we did different days, but we’d have informal presenters’ ‘trade union’ meetings to discuss things,” she says.
Is Paxman as scary as he seems?
“No, no, no. It’s the question I’m asked on every interview. He’s very generous and gentle, so he’s nothing like that persona, but, then, very few people are like their television personas,” she says.
Wark, 59, is a versatile journalist, one of a rare breed who can interrogate a government minister, then do an in-depth analysis of a new novel, play or film.
“Last week, I went to London to do an advance interview with Debbie Harry. Newsnight can embrace all these things,” she says.
“I’ve always been a person who believes that you should be able to mix and match politics, news and the arts.
“I went to Newsnight with the expectation that I’d be able to do all sorts of different things, and so it has proved.”
Indeed, on Newsnight’s last Halloween edition, Wark ended BBC Two’s political flagship show by taking part in a Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ dance, along with a swarm of zombies. Never let it be said that she doesn’t have a sense of humour.
Now, Wark has written her debut novel, The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle, which is inspired by her love of the Scottish island of Arran, where it is set.
“There was a period, a decade ago, when we’d had an incredibly wet holiday there and my husband said, ‘if we go on holiday, I need to go somewhere where I can get a little heat’, so we stopped going.
“But I wanted to maintain a connection with the island, and the best way to do that was to write about it,” she says.
The novel is a gentle read. The eponymous character, Elizabeth Pringle, bequeaths her house on Arran to a woman who is all but a stranger.
It falls to the beneficiary’s daughter, Martha, to find out how her mother inherited the house.
From here, we follow two stories — the life of Elizabeth Pringle, born just before the First World War, told in the first person, and the quest by Martha, in the present day, to find out how her mother inherited the house.
The two stories are told separately and bring home the cruel consequences of WWI, as well as the secrets that hold women together.
Wark is married to producer, Alan Clements, whom she met while working at BBC Scotland, and they have two children, Caitlin and James, both in their 20s. Like Elizabeth, Wark will not leave her roots.
“I’ve spent God knows how long commuting,” she says. Yet she has balanced the pressures of bringing up a family with holding down a top presenting job.
“I had a wonderful back-up team. I had a nanny who is a family friend and, basically, I had the freedom not to be at work every day.
“I’ve been in an incredibly privileged position. It wasn’t as if I was leaving on Monday morning and coming back on Friday night. I would go down for a couple of days a week, and then I’d be working in Glasgow. I still do.
“I also made a very strong decision that, when the children were growing up, I would never take a weekend job,” Wark says.
She has baked every weekend since her two children were small. It was an antidote to the guilt she felt about being away a lot.
“I always have baked. It was a thing where I’d get into the kitchen and be with the kids. It was grounding,” she says.
Her cookery skills came to the fore in 2011, when she was runner-up in Celebrity MasterChef, being pipped to the post by Phil Vickery. Then, last year, she appeared in a special series of The Great British Bake Off.
Baking aside, at no stage did she consider ditching her career for full-time motherhood.
“There’s no doubt I felt guilty about leaving the children. I was always selfish enough to know that I wanted a career, but, then, I hope I poured everything back in at home,” she says.
“On the other hand, I wanted to be a role model for my kids, as well, to show that you can work and you can raise a family.”
Wark’s been in broadcasting for more than 35 years, yet doesn’t think it was any more difficult for women to rise up the ranks in TV in her early days than it is now.
“I rode on the crest of a wave, as I joined the BBC when they needed more women,” she says. “They realised that they hadn’t nearly enough women.”
She doesn’t recall that her ascent into key presenting jobs caused consternation among her male counterparts.
“Weirdly — and I’m not going to say that there isn’t sexism in television — I didn’t have that problem. I’d like to hope that I got where I am because I’m halfway decent at my job, as opposed to a gender thing.
“There are lots of challenges now for women in TV. There are lots of incredibly good broadcasters and I would say you need experience, but you also need fresh talent. There are opportunities for women. Women are being less overlooked than perhaps they once were. Women are able to punch their weight now,” she says.
Wark made her reputation by challenging Margaret Thatcher, in 1990, about the poll tax. Britain’s then prime minister had not wanted to face a woman, but the BBC insisted.
It was one of those defining moments of an interviewer’s career.
As she nears 60, Wark shows no signs of slowing down and has recently said that age shouldn’t be a barrier to women in TV.
“If you try to keep to the top of your game, and if you are still doing good work, then age shouldn’t be a barrier. It’s not a barrier for men. Dimbleby’s in his 70s,” she has said.
She’s writing her next novel, set in Scotland and New York, which again has family relationships at its heart.
She says she’s still hugely ambitious, although she questions how that is perceived.
“Ambition is often seen as a great thing in men and a bad thing in women. I want to continue to do good work in television and radio and I really want to write another book,” she says.
“Let’s hope I don’t have to give up one for the other.”