'I've felt a real empathy for my criminal ancestor'
TV presenter Mariella Frostrup reveals why she’s happy to talk about her jailbird relative, but not about friend George Clooney.
There isn't much Mariella Frostrup won't talk about. She'll effuse about idyllic weekends spent in Somerset, share her love of ‘Yogalates' classes in the local village hall, and rail against “shocking” regulations preventing people sending books to prisoners, all in that famously husky voice.
But the mention of her close friend George Clooney's upcoming nuptials elicits a clipped response from the blonde broadcaster.
“I don't talk about Mr Clooney, or anyone else,” she says matter-of-factly. “It's just not what I do.”
Frostrup has, in fact, spoken and written about the A-list star her two kids call Uncle George before, but she may be feeling more protective than usual.
Our chat comes days after Clooney, who is engaged to lawyer Amal Alamuddin, issued a statement attacking a newspaper for suggesting his future mother-in-law disapproved of the union.
Frostrup (who has previously denied any romance with the Oscar-winner) can relate to his annoyance, having read mistruths about herself “hundreds of times”.
“The thing is, when people write about you personally, you do feel it comes with the territory (of being famous),” the 51-year-old says. “But when it starts affecting innocents around you ... I think that's when people get defensive.”
She breaks into laughter as she recalls: “I remember one charming headline about two decades ago, a classic, which said that I'd climbed to the top through the men I'd slept with.
“The funniest thing about it was, it then listed this really tragic list of slightly no-hoper boyfriends, who couldn't have got me out of the flat, let alone to the top of anything.”
The half-Scottish, half-Norwegian presenter was happy to let people pry into her past — or that of her ancestors, at least — for two-part ITV series Secrets From The Clink.
It sees Frostrup and other celebrities, including Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman and comedian Johnny Vegas, learn about the crimes committed by their ancestors in the Victorian era, and the punishments they received.
We see Frostrup's surprise as she learns her maternal great-great-grandfather, William Martin Eckersley, was found guilty of fraud.
The stress of the ensuing court case caused Eckersley to suffer a stroke aged just 30, and he was left paralysed, bed-ridden and confined to a dingy cell in HMP Lancaster Castle.
While Frostrup appears upset on the show by the conditions her relative endured, she ultimately found his tale uplifting.
“On the programme, he looks like quite a tragic story, but what I loved about him is he's hilarious, a total chancer!” she says, revealing that some evidence suggests he may have played up his paralysis.
“He was a man who filled me with hope because he was one of those very resilient people — every time the world knocked him down, he'd bounce back up again.”
By the end of the process, Frostrup — who was born in Oslo and moved to Co Wicklow as a child — felt “a real empathy and affection” for Eckersley.
“I've been very guilty of favouring what I felt was the more exotic side of my heritage, which was the Norwegian side, and thinking that was the fascinating side, and really paying very little attention at all to my mother's side of the family,” she confesses.
“I thought, ‘This will be amusing, let's see where it goes'. But actually, by the end, I felt a real connection with him.
“I don't think I have his resilience at all, I'm sure that jail would have finished me off completely, having seen what it was like. But that sense of being able to reinvent yourself, being fast on your feet, is something I've inherited from him.”
Frostrup has enjoyed a varied career since she moved to London in her teens, working in public relations before moving into television as a presenter and film critic.
In addition to her BBC Radio 4 literary show Open Book, she also writes an agony aunt column for The Observer — although she admits her friends are “less enthusiastic” about coming to her for advice in real life. “I'm not sure that they like my hard justice approach,” she says with a smile. “I can be a little too brutally direct.”
Asked what role her voice — a heady mix of honey and gravel — has played in her success, she says: “It's sort of like asking (supermodel) Giselle what role her legs have played.
“Your voice is a biological part of you, you can't feel any credit or sense of satisfaction,” Frostrup continues. “I think it (my voice) is so recognisable that I do less lucrative things like voice-overs, rather than more. So in some ways, it could be a bit of a handicap.”
These days, Frostrup splits her time between London and Somerset, where she moved with lawyer husband Jason McCue and their children, Molly and Dan, last year.
“There's a real lushness to Somerset and that green lushness is very Irish. And also the sort of undulating land,” Frostrup purrs.
“I just love a little valley and a hill and a bit of ancient ground. Everywhere you look where we are in Somerset, it's all Roman forts and ancient bits of field and farmland. It's so beautiful.
“This week, I'm stuck in London until tomorrow morning,” she adds. “But normally I'm on the train on Thursday afternoon, willing the train to go faster as I sit there, almost using the weight of my body to push it forward.”
- Secrets From The Clink is on ITV on Wednesday, at 9pm