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S elina Scott has come in from the cold. She lights a fire and makes herself a cup of tea – black, no sugar. The former “golden girl” of the BBC lives on a farm in North Yorkshire with a couple of dogs, a handful of rare belted galloway cattle, a waddle of ducks and swans, and the odd otter. The room looks dark and bleak, and the internet isn’t working well, so we struggle to Zoom. “I’m going to move you into another room.” Scott still pronounces room aristocratically as “rum”, but her voice is different from the old days. Back then, it was more of a stately caress, offset by a youthful giggle. Today, her voice is deeper, more flinty, though still with a hint of grandeur. The Yorkshire roots of her childhood have re-emerged and planted themselves firmly in the peaty soil.
It’s 40 years since she made her name presenting News at 10, followed by BBC Breakfast Time, The Clothes Show, The Selina Scott Show for NBC, the magazine show West 57th for CBS and a brief stint at Sky. Scott wasn’t any old presenter. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Princess Diana (or, as she prefers it, the younger Diana bore an uncanny resemblance to her) and, like Diana, she became the nation’s sweetheart. Like Diana, she was hounded by the press – in a way that no other journalist has been. And like Diana she decided to walk away from it all at the peak of her fame. Unlike Diana, she lived to tell the tale.
Over the years the reasons for Scott’s departure from the BBC have emerged gradually in a drip-drip of revelations. Rather than cosy, trustworthy Auntie, for Scott the BBC was a hothouse of misogyny, gaslighting and harassment.
This week, she makes a rare foray back into television in the BBC series Winter Walks, filmed last February. She nods to ramblers, swaps notes with a fisherman who has caught a whopping grayling, and shares a pint at sunset with ferret-racing locals in Appletreewick. But this is very much a solitary Scott – a woman in her element in nature. Her face is naturally weathered, and still strikingly beautiful. At 69, the main difference is her hair, now the same silver-grey as the stone-built cottages she passes en route.Selina Scott in 1983. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock
These days, she is more likely to be found campaigning against ageism in TV than appearing on it. She has also fought to ban the live export of animals – the issue was sufficient to turn her into a Brexiter. “The European Union allows it, of course, because it’s free movement of animals. Boris Johnson has pledged that live export of animals will come to an end.” She is hopeful but sceptical. “Of course, they may shut the front door only to leave the back door open, letting Northern Ireland and Ireland take the animals.”
Scott, the eldest of five children, was born in Scarborough to a journalist mother and police officer father. Despite only having one brother, she grew up with a gang of boys and always stood her ground. She remembers playing cricket when she was tiny and a boy who was batting refusing to leave the crease because he had been caught by her, a girl. “He wouldn’t go. We had this huge argument. He had to go. It wasn’t right. In the end I physically got rid of him.”
She might have appeared placid on TV, but she says has always been a scrapper. Today, she has just had it out with a farmer who parked his tractor in one of her fields for a game shoot. “We had an argument in the middle of the field. He said: ‘Where the hell am I going to park? Can’t park on the road. And I said: ‘But you can park on the road. Move it.’” Sure enough, he moved.
The way she talks you would think nobody would dare mess with Scott. But the reality was very different. In 1983, she was a high-profile transfer from ITV to launch BBC’s Breakfast Time alongside the avuncular Frank Bough, who died last year. Looking back, it was the strangest of pairings – a TV marriage made in hell, and a reflection of the times. Bough was 50 but could have passed as an energetic pensioner; Scott was 31 and looked younger. And it turned out that Bough wasn’t quite so avuncular after all. In 1988, he was caught snorting cocaine with sex workers and promptly sacked. After his death, Scott wrote an article revealing that his behaviour was no better at work, saying he would deliberately undermine her by interrupting mid-question, insisted on getting the last word in, and repeatedly told her how well endowed he was. When Scott didn’t respond positively, he assumed she must be frigid or a lesbian, saying of her: “Even when she rides a bike she keeps her knees together.”
Was there nobody she could complain to? “No, I couldn’t do anything about it. Frank was protected.” Senior management simply wasn’t interested, she says. “They seemed to have no emotional intelligence, and they let men like Frank Bough roam the BBC without any check on them.”
She talks about a victim-blaming culture among the Oxbridge-educated leadership, which she likens to a mafia. “The men at the BBC would always say there was no smoke without fire. If Frank Bough did these things to these women then they must have encouraged him in some way.” She believes she had to speak out because some of that culture prevails today. “It was my little #MeToo moment.”
Scott says it didn’t take her long to sense something was wrong at the BBC. “I knew pretty soon that there was this malevolence. As soon as I arrived I was treated like an interloper. I wasn’t one of them, and therefore my television life became difficult. There was always a feeling that they were trying to get rid of me.” That’s barmy, I say – after all, she was brought in as a star for her expertise. “Or the way I looked at that time. Or the fact I’d been given a lot of publicity.”With Frank Bough in 1982. Photograph: PA
She mentions a management memo that was leaked to her after she had stood in for Terry Wogan, presenting his primetime chatshow Wogan. “They were talking about the way I looked, the way I talked, how I walked on to the stage. There was only one person who was in the room who said this is sexist. It was illuminating to see how these men discussed women like me.” Did she challenge them when she found out about it? Not half, she says. “I did my normal and grabbed the producer and said: ‘How dare you?’”
She quit Breakfast Time in 1986, leaving the BBC redfaced. After all, Scott was a prized asset. She was quickly offered another programme, The Clothes Show, to save it further embarrassment. Meanwhile she was headhunted by the US networks. Scott says that, in a way, she is thankful for the way she was treated at the BBC – it gave her the opportunity to make her name in the US.
What made her time on British TV even tougher was the tabloids’ obsession with her. When they failed to dig up anything about her love life, they became snide. “I was in the newspapers virtually every day.” What did they find to write about ? “Hair. The way I dressed. Me asking people stupid questions.” Did it get to her? “Of course. It was like constant trolling. The only way I could cope with it, rather like trolling today, was by switching off. I pretended this person that was appearing on television and in the newspapers was really not me.”
She says the female journalists were the most vituperative. “It was the Glenda Slagg era. Every Wednesday Jean Rook would sharpen her pen and go to town. I got a letter from her at one point saying: ‘Oh dear Selina I do feel so awful that I’ve got to do this to you, but my editor insists!’” She laughs. “He insists! What a lot of rubbish. She was, after all, the first lady of Fleet Street.”
Around this time the palace contacted her with an unusual request. “Michael Shea, the press secretary to the Queen, asked if I’d befriend Diana. He thought that I might be able to advise her on dealing with the press, but the trouble was I was going through just the same as she was.”
She did befriend Diana, though they preferred to chat about lighter stuff. “We always talked about things like hairstyles, clothes and boyfriends. She had a wonderful sense of humour and I thought that would help her overcome it all, but obviously it didn’t.”
Scott became friendly with other royals along the way. Is it true that when interviewing Prince Andrew, he asked her out? “Erm, yes.” And did she go on a date with him? “No! No!” she says, as if it would be the most ludicrous thing in the world. How did she turn him down? “I just ignored it.”
Was she surprised that he became friends with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein? “Surprised? No. This is what American multimillionaires do. They buy influence and prestige. I can see how he could have fallen into it. I hope to heaven he told the truth, because of his family more than anything.”
Scott also made a documentary about Prince Charles, and there was a rumour that he also had asked her out. Is that true? “You are a little monkey. I’m not going anywhere near that. Next question.”
That sounds like a yes to me, I say.
“Go on, next question.”With Diana, Princess of Wales (left) and Carol Barnes at ITN in 1982. Photograph: PA
So I ask what she’s most proud of from her TV career. “The one that had consequence was the exposure of ivory poaching in Kenya. Going out into the bush with George Adamson a few weeks before he was shot dead by poachers. The programme led to an immediate ban on ivory poaching. I felt I achieved something there.”
There were other successes, notably a documentary made for ITV about Donald Trump in 1995. He expected a puff piece, but she exposed him as a liar who owed the banks hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite everything, she concluded, we write him off at our peril.
In the opening shot, he hugged her tight as he introduced her to a boardroom of decrepit investors. She folded her arms around herself for protection. Did he proposition her? “Yes, I suppose he did.” What did he say? “Well, you can imagine. We were in his plane and …” Long silence. “I can’t remember, Simon. It’s far too long ago.” Her phone rings. She answers, and returns with a smile. “Saved by the bell,” she says.
Trump hated the documentary. Did he try to destroy her career afterwards? “I think so. Of course, the men at ITV were total cowards. He threatened them with legal action. It was supposed to be shown in the States, but ITV ran scared. And he slagged me off on television.” Did she mind? “Of course. I thought that was absolutely disgraceful. This was a documentary. Would they have done it to someone like Paxman?”
For more than a year, Scott says, Trump wrote her increasingly abusive letters, which she describes as “perverted”. What kind of things did he say? “My career is great, you’re a scumbag, you’re a loser, you’re seedy. Stuff like that. It was just like a stalker. He finally gave up when I said: ‘Stop stalking me mentally.’”
Over the following quarter of a century, Scott made occasional comebacks on TV – but the returns were brief and ended unhappily. In 1997, Sky hired her for a reported £1m a year to present a late-night chatshow, but the show was soon pulled. In 2002, she turned her back on the BBC after denouncing a documentary about her as “shoddy” and “offensive”. In 2008 Scott sued Channel 5 for age discrimination after her contract to do maternity cover for Natasha Kaplinsky was cancelled when the station decided it wanted a younger replacement. She won £250,000 in an out-of-court settlement. How important was it for her to take on Channel 5? “Very. Because television at that time was still about younger women with older men. There wasn’t an older woman anywhere.”
Since then, Scott has largely committed herself to the farm, her cashmere business, and campaigning. Although she acknowledges great moments in her career, Scott’s view is not rose-tinted. If anything, there is a sense of melancholy, a muted disappointment, when she looks back. “You suddenly stop and you think, what was all that really about then? That’s been a puzzling question. What was the point in it all?”
In 2006, she made a programme called Why I Hate Television Today. “I did hate TV because I felt there was nothing in it that inspired women like me.” Nowadays, she says she doesn’t hate television, she’s just indifferent to it.
It is 17 years since Scott bought her farmhouse with the purpose of rewilding its 180 acres. She rescued angora goats and produced mohair socks from their wool. Now the goats have died off, and she travels to Outer Mongolia to source cashmere for her clothes business. It may be a solitary life but, she says, she’s not lonely. Her phone rings again – a reminder of an event planned for this evening. She still occasionally makes the headlines, but often there’s nothing to the story. In 2014, for example, the Telegraph reported that she was considering standing as Conservative MP for Richmond in Yorkshire. It was nonsense, she says – she’s not even a Tory.Outside the Craven Arms pub in Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. Photograph: Tim Smith/BBC/Atypical Media
One of the things I always wondered was how, at the height of her success, Scott managed to keep her private life so utterly private. She smiles. “I tried very hard. Private life to me meant private. I was able to be independent, do my thing, meet who I wanted to meet, and pretty much got away with it all, and for that I am truly thankful.”
I ask if she has always lived by herself. Her guard goes up. “Errr … I’ve got a ghost I live with at the moment.” And now she’s telling me about how one morning, 10 years ago, she came downstairs and one of her dogs was hiding in the old Tudor chimney while the other had ripped every door apart. “Ever since then the dogs have refused to sleep in the house. I’ve had a priest from Ripon around here to look at it. He said that it’s a benign ghost, a serene ghost, and I said: ‘Well, tell my dogs.’” Does she talk to the ghost? “No I’m not that crackers. Yet. I know it’s around, and it’s in a particular part of the house.”
I try to go back to the previous question. “I’m not going to tell you,” she replies before I’m finished. “Why should I be pigeonholed? Everyone is individual. I’ve told you that at the moment I’m living with a ghost, which is true.”
I don’t think people are pigeonholed like they used to be, I say. Lots of people live on their own because they prefer to. And now Scott becomes very animated. “Marriage and being tied to a particular person is fine for people if that’s what they want, but it can be seen as an achievement that you don’t get married today. I consider it an achievement that I’ve been free to do anything I’ve wanted to do. I’ve chosen who I would like to be with or not be with. This business of labelling, all the way through life, seems a waste. Some people like being labelled.” She pauses for breath. “I certainly don’t,” she says with a fierce, and rather magnificent, conviction.
Winter Walks: Selina Scott is at 7pm on BBC Four on 4 January, and will be available on BBC iPlayer after that