Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

'People think I'm a bit of an oddity - there's that angle'

Five novels, one newspaper column, 352 Facebook friends, and now a pasta ad. She might be retiring from politics, but Widdy won't wither away. By Ian Burrell

Ann Widdecombe shacked up in marital bliss with the 'shock' rocker Alice Cooper is a delicious image, but the Member of Parliament for Maidstone and the Weald has rejected a proposal to bring it to a television near you.

The proposal was, sadly, not in the form of a declaration of love by Cooper himself, but a pitch by an advertising agency that represents a major electronics company.

"My response to my agent was, 'Who is Alice Cooper? I vaguely remember her name'," says Ms Widdecombe.

Yet despite this, she has not been dissuaded from recently agreeing to become the first MP to star in a TV commercial since Clement Freud famously fed Minced Morsels to his bloodhound, Henry. Instead of selling electronic gadgetry in the company of a scary old rocker, Widdecombe can now be seen on screen in a mock television news report, peddling pasta.

"I rang up the register of members' interests to make sure it was alright, but of course there is the precedent of Clement Freud," she says. "I asked to taste some of the pasta first, because if I couldn't truthfully say that I loved it, and wouldn't willingly serve it up for my friends then I wouldn't have advertised it. It was a fun advert and took 20 minutes of my time, if that."

Widdecombe's foray into advertising is just her latest adventure in the world of mass media. Although she last week announced her intention to quit Parliament at the next General Election, she remains (for the time being, at least) Britain's most media-savvy parliamentarian.

Having recently been at the centre of controversy over her high-rating prime-time series for ITV1, and having previously appeared on such shows as Celebrity Fit Club and Have I Got News for You, she also pens a column for the Daily Express, is working on her fifth novel and is more active online than almost anyone else in politics.

A fortnight ago, as she celebrated her 60th birthday with a glamorous party in the Palace of Westminster, completing a transformation from the crude caricature that appeared on the front page of Piers Morgan's Daily Mirror in 1996 (The Loveless Life of the Minister They Call Doris Karloff) into perhaps the most recognised face on the back benches.

We meet in her office overlooking Parliament Square. Widdecombe is in a chirpy mood after returning from the hairdresser's. Her dyed blonde locks may not have quite turned Doris Karloff into Doris Day, but even critics would be less inclined to say that there was "something of the night" about her, to use her own crushing description of Michael Howard.

Asked of her plans beyond life at Westminster, she pipes up: "I'm going to Dartmoor. I shall have dogs. I shall walk the moors with the dogs." It will be a good setting for her to write whodunnits. "I think I'm going to try one when I'm on the moors. The moors are dark and bleak and lend themselves to detective tales."

For all the apparent whimsy, Widdecombe has never been the skilful manipulator of her media image that some might think.

The suggestion, for example, that her ad for Giovanni Rana pasta - in which she backs a campaign group called 'Citizens for Fresh Pasta Justice' and demands: "It is time that fresh pasta came right up the political agenda " - is a continuation of the health-conscious message of Celebrity Fit Club takes her completely by surprise.

"I didn't give it any serious intellectual analysis. As far as I was concerned, it was fun, it was clean, it was innocent and it was a quick thing to do, so it was worth doing. I never made any analogies to Fit Club."

Nonetheless, she understands the media like few other MPs, and is deeply concerned by the narrow participation in political debate in modern Britain. "When I do a programme on benefits (like her ITV1 series, Ann Widdecombe Versus ... ) I get viewing figures of four million. When I make a speech in the Commons on benefits, I wouldn't get a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. The only ones who would hear it or consider it would be people who are interested in the first place."

Widdecombe has turned to "methods of mass communication" in an effort to counter what she describes as the "heartbreaking" lack of interest in the political process, especially among the young. "I was one of the first with the internet, and latterly one of the first MPs to go on Facebook. You have to use the means that everybody else is using. Otherwise, we end up talking to ourselves in Westminster village, which is what we do most of the time."

Her online social networking experiences have been a revelation. "I've suddenly found I've got an awful lot of friends. I appear to be friends with goodness knows how many people, thousands of them (she has 352 on Facebook). But it does strike me as tremendously childish: 'Ann is friends with John'."

Her 'Widdy Web' website is cult reading in Westminster. With a home page illustrated by images of deckchairs and her beloved cats, it bears no resemblance to the green benches of the Lower House or her office view of Big Ben.

"I do put my speeches on my website, but nobody is going to read those. The number of people who come to my website to read the speeches you can count on one hand. They come in to find the person. So give it to them. Next time you are blathering on in front of a television camera, they might actually listen to you.

"A lot of young people come in. There are those who have read the books, those who are interested in politics, those who have seen me on television, those who can't stand me and come in to abuse me."

She was bitten again recently when she made an 'Ann Widdecombe Versus the Hoodies' programme, investigating the impact of juvenile crime in inner city London. The hoodies struck back. In a 10-minute film broadcast on YouTube, the young people of the Andover estate in Islington claimed that Widdecombe had misrepresented them, deliberately making them appear threatening by filming at night. The MP is unrepentant.

"If teenagers on the estate want to go off and make a film about the positive side, then bully for them. That's fine with me. But what I was telling in that film was not my story but the stories of the residents."

She cites her findings of senior citizens being frightened of coming home from bingo, and of a disabled resident on one north London estate whose garden was destroyed by acid.

"This is a real problem which the rest of us just brush under carpets because our business does not take us into these areas," she continues.

"We don't work on council estates, we don't drive through council estates to get to work, and very few of us have friends on council estates. It's out of sight and out of mind and people have forgotten."

Though she protests that her hoodies programme was fair, she concedes that producers are under "tremendous pressure from their bosses" to capture dramatic footage. "All the time I was out on the estate, it was, 'Hasn't Ann come across a crime scene yet?' There's always pressure to get what's dramatic."

She has had to be careful to avoid being caricatured, even in the programmes that carry her name. "I exploded when I saw one script. I said, 'I wouldn't talk like that.' I do have to watch the caricature - it's a very fine line indeed. The caricature is that I've just got one position and there's no subtlety."

During her BBC2 show, Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue, she was criticised by colleagues for not showing enough emotion. "They said, 'You are not reacting as we'd hoped.' They wanted a lot more shocked and outraged reaction. I said, 'You don't sort people's problems by expressing shock and outrage.'"

She is anxious, after leaving Westminster, to take on more television challenges, particularly in the fields of history and religion.

"We don't appear to have ever had an examination of the phenomenon of television evangelists, which I think is quite important given the growth of satellite television. It began with the entirely serious figure of Billy Graham and has become copied by a lot of people who are not properly motivated. I think telly evangelism is fine as a concept, but you can pervert things, and I strongly suspect that it has been perverted for people's enrichment of the material and not the spiritual kind."

Once the victim of press ridicule, she is now a newspaper columnist herself. Politicians, she says, remain in awe of the way that their statements are interpreted by the papers. "Before politicians make a speech, they imagine the next day's headlines and try to avoid the obvious pitfalls. People are terrified of headlines. If you get it wrong, and think it's going to be X when it is Y, you can get quite badly trapped."

That happened to Widdecombe as shadow Home Secretary when she tried to head off criticism of a proposal to lower the classification of cannabis by accompanying her announcement with tough-talking rhetoric. "The Press took the opposite line, and talked as if I was going to hang people for a little bit of cannabis."

She says that she believes that fear of headline writers is stifling the political debate on the future of health provision beyond the NHS.

Of the other politicians who have embarked on high-profile media careers, she has reservations. She says that she would not have behaved like George Galloway on Big Brother: "not in a million years". Her colleague Boris Johnson must also be more cautious, she believes.

"He has got to watch out. You can play the fool for so long, but everybody knows he is not a fool. He has been editor of The Spectator, he has a brilliant academic mind, and everybody knows he's not stupid. But if he goes on pretending to be a fool, there might come a moment when the caricature goes out of control."

As for Ann Widdecombe, the 'character', the public views her with a certain fascination. "People think they're going to get some common sense, they think they're going to get a bit of confrontation," says Widdy. " They also think they're going to get some amusement, because they think I'm a bit of an oddity - there's undeniably that angle to it as well."

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