Ann Widdecombe answers the phone on the first ring and bellows in her jolly-hockey-sticks head-mistress way: “Hellaw?” Almost immediately I can tell that she's going to be good, cantankerous fun.
Her superior tone invites the more formal address of Miss Widdecombe, like some Hardy heroine, but she says I may call her Ann. She spells it without the affectation of an ‘e', which sums up the starchy no-nonsense persona which has given the 66-year-old national treasure status, both as a former old-school Tory and as a cartoonish contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. That reputation was slightly dented last year by some sniffy reviews in the broadsheets of her forthright autobiography Strictly Ann, out in paperback next week. The finely detailed memoir is the subject of her keenly anticipated talk at the Belfast Book Festival on Sunday — and I dare anyone going to bring up the one big question it doesn't answer.
A succession of journalists, including the tenacious Louis Theroux, have tried to find out if Ann is a virgin or not. A prurient inquiry, for sure, but one which an autobiography these days would be expected to address. She has never married nor had any children, and admits to one chaste relationship with a fellow Oxford student, Colin Maltby, who broke it off with her over dinner at a pub-restaurant in Esher.
“Years later I was to compare the experience to the loss of the 1997 general election,” she writes loftily of the break-up, in Strictly Ann. “I had been a minister for nearly seven years and the sudden loss of office was painful, but the release from relentless pressure, red boxes and perpetually tired eyes produced something akin to euphoria.”
The relationship was brought up in a BBC Radio 4 interview in November 2007 in which the reporter produced a profile on Ann, with the assumption that she had had at least "one sexual relationship". To which she snapped: "Be careful, that's the way you get sued."
And when the Radio 4 interviewer went on to ask if she had ever had a sexual relationship, Widdy – as she's known to her admirers – laughed and declared: "It's nobody else's business."
She sighs dramatically, down the line from her home in Dartmoor, Devon, when I ask her if she'd really sue anyone who would suggest such a thing.
"Oh no, not that again ..."
"Well," I venture, "would I be sued if I said it, in this piece?"
Her voice lowers an octave.
"Try it and see, my dear," she intones. "It's nobody else's business. And you can tell your features editor – is it a man or woman? – that it's very rude to ask."
It's clear she'd make a great panto villain – she got rave reviews for her role as the Wicked Queen in Snow White – and I tell her she'd make a great pairing with our own May McFettridge at the Christmas show in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Of course, she doesn't have a clue who May is, despite having visited Northern Ireland on several occasions. Nor does she claim to have any knowledge of Angelina Jolie, when I ask her what she thinks of the actress's anti war-rape campaign and political ambitions.
"I have no idea – is she an actress? Of course, that doesn't mean she wouldn't make a good politician. Look at Shirley Temple, and Dana, and Ronald Reagan – all actors."
Ignoring the fact that Dana's a singer, and that I'm amazed Ann hasn't seen or heard her former colleague and adversary William Hague doing the publicity rounds with Angelina, I confirm the latter is indeed an actress.
"Yes, I rather thought so, but I have no real sense of her," chortles Ann, who claims she can live happily without television (but, like her former leader, enjoys a Scotch and soda in the evenings).
I don't doubt she's unfamiliar with Dana's anodyne singing career but certain she admires the former Eurovision Song Contest winner's right-wing Catholic politics.
Even as a former agnostic, Ann was a firm supporter of the Pro-Life movement, and went on to convert from the Anglican Church to Catholicism after the former decided to ordain women. I imagine a re-make of The Sound of Music, with Dana in the Julie Andrews role of Sister Maria, and Ann as the all-conquering Mother Superior – and wonder if she ever considered entering a convent.
"No, I have never wanted to be a nun," she emphasises. "It's a very good question. I never understood why one would want to shut themselves away with 30 other women. I couldn't – it doesn't mean I don't have huge respect for those that do, I do. I just don't understand it. And I feel sad for some of them – I look at them and think 'You would have made a good mother.' Not to belittle them, ever ..."
Yet she hasn't changed her mind on the ordination of women, and claims in her autobiography that the Catholic Church has no more need to apologise for child abuse than any other institution.
"The Anglican Church's ordination of women was the last straw for me," she booms. "The Catholic Church doesn't mess about – it doesn't care if its teachings are unpopular. You need strong leadership, not something slavishly bowing to whims. You have got to know what your church and your leadership stands for."
Isn't that just like you ostensibly, not caring if you're popular or not?
She guffaws loudly – she does often – at the reminder of the more unflattering nicknames she has been given throughout her career, from the Doris Karloff tag she was labelled with at Westminster, to the Dancing Hippo and Dalek in Drag descriptions by the judges in Strictly. Len Goodman even likened her success in the competition to haemorrhoids: "You keep coming back more painful than ever," he complained, after she and her partner, Anton du Beke, had completed their hilarious Titanic-inspired rumba.
He also compared her to a "Hoover or something" being dragged across the floor in the Blackpool ballroom.
"I was never a serious dancer – Anton and I were a pantomime act, my dear! I've been inured by the grief I have received all my life. Yes, maybe if the insults all came on my second day in Parliament, I would've been flattened by them, but after so many years you get used to it."
Of course, she can give as good as she takes – her classic observation of there being "something of the night" about fellow Conservative Michael Howard was a sting that launched a thousand vampire cartoons, seriously thwarting his leadership ambitions. But it's hard to believe some of the barbs directed at her have not privately hurt her.
For all her doughty declarations, there's the odd hint of vanity and vulnerability in this Tory targe. She takes pride in her long eyelashes and admits to liking bespoke shoes for her size two-and-three-quarters feet (she's only 5ft 2in). And then there was her famous makeover back in 2001, when she dyed her dark hair blonde and donned a coquettish Alice-band.
Her softer side comes out in her love for animals, particularly cats, and in her fondness for her family.
The daughter of a Devon Admiralty officer, she shared her home in London with her widowed mother, Rita Widdecombe (of Cork ancestry), until Rita's death, on April 25, 2007, aged 95.
Her brother, Malcolm, a former Anglican Canon in Bristol, died of metastatic oesophageal cancer on October 12, 2010. She lives alone on her beloved moors but scoffs at the idea of loneliness. She's at pains in interviews to state she has no regrets about missing out on motherhood.
But would she like to have been a granny?
"Well, I'm a great aunt to five kids who come to me in the summer and at half terms – I may have been a good granny but I'm not much into babysitting. I have spent most of my life on my own, apart from when I lived with my mother. I've given up trying to explain to people that I do not get lonely. I remember my sister-in-law coming to see a lovely apartment I had in the early 1990s and saying, 'Oh, but wouldn't you like to have someone to come home to at night?' and I remember thinking, 'Thanks be to God to be alone when I close the door behind me at night'. I don't want anyone there."
Typically stoic, she shrugs off the negative reviews of her autobiography. Some accused her of being humourless and without empathy; others focused on the succession of academic, professional, personal and political failures she catalogues.
"I was pleased with reviews of my autobiography, by and large – there were some bad ones. I had to address my differences with Michael Howard and Michael Portillo and David Cameron, of course – it's a big challenge to write about your whole life and you have to think what would others be interested in. You have to include that, too."
That's the sort of comment that had The Guardian up in arms: 'Like most MPs, she is utterly delusional when it comes to the political class', noted the reviewer crossly, quoting from Strictly Ann: "It is a weakness of politicians that, as a breed, they assume everybody knows as much about everything as they do."
But for someone who didn't pass the 11-plus and managed only a third-class honours degree at Oxford, she is highly articulate, funny, quick-witted and candid – she admits to rehearsing that classic "something of the night" line several times before coming out with it in Westminster, knowing full well it would capture the public's imagination. Underneath, however, I get the feeling she's a born entertainer.
"I would do another reality show if it appealed," she admits. "I would not do Big Brother because I disapprove of it. I would not do I'm A Celebrity because I'm too squeamish and could not eat those creepy crawlies, and I would not do Dancing On Ice because I have too much respect for my old bones!
"I do enjoy book festivals and I'm looking forward to getting into the pit for the Q & A after my talk on Sunday. I've been to the province many times during the Troubles and on the more merry occasion of the Strictly tour.
"It's very difficult to make political pronouncements when you don't live in Belfast day-by-day but I do notice an enormous difference in the city now. There's quite a hum – yes, a hum – a new-found confidence, that Dublin used to have. I like that, I really do."
Apparently broke – according to her autobiography – for large parts of her life, Ms Widdecombe is plugging her new novel, The Dancing Detective, to be published next month.
"Guess what my detective is called," she challenges good humouredly.
"Are his initials AB?"
"Yes! After Anton! He's an amateur detective and I've set him in Dartmoor. I haven't gone the traditional publishing route with his one – it's coming out on Amazon. I'd like to write more but I'd also like to travel and see the Great Wall Of China. You see, no time to be lonely."
Ann Widdecombe appears at the Crescent Arts Centre for the Belfast Book Festival this Sunday, 8pm. Tickets cost £8 (concessions £6). For tickets, tel: 028 9024 2338. Strictly Ann: The Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe, Phoenix, £8.99
Who else to see at book festival
- There are still a host of top events and guests to catch on the packed programme of this year’s Belfast Book Festival
- Tonight will see writer, journalist, essayist and film-maker Jonathan Meades in conversation with Marcus Patton about his new memoir An Encyclopedia of Myself
- Tomorrow evening, poet and critic Kevin Quinn will introduce and read 20 poems spanning the late Seamus Heaney’s writing life, while on Saturday acclaimed poet Sinead Morrissey will join children's writer and illustrator Debi Gliori, and award-winning Belfast writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke to discuss motherhood and the tensions between family life and creativity
- The festival closes on Sunday with two big names from the world of UK politics, Ann Widdecombe and former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who will be talking about his upbringing in slum-like conditions in 1950s London
- And for fans of classic sitcom Dad’s Army, actor Frank Williams, best known for his role as the eccentric village vicar, will be recalling his decades in the comedy business