You were the first person from your family to go to university. Was that a surprise to your family?
Yes and no. I went to a good school and was quite academic, and lots of my friends were going to university. But my parents didn’t have any experience of the application process and we all got through it together. They were so proud when I got my offer from Oxford.
While at Oxford, I know you worked on the Cherwell student newspaper – was that where your love of journalism was sparked? Can you tell me of a ‘scoop’ or particularly interesting story you covered?
I always loved writing and had thought about journalism as a career. I know there are lots of journalism courses out there, but I was advised to do a degree first in something I enjoyed, and then move on to journalism. So that’s what I did. I came to Oxford to study Modern Languages – German – and while I was here I worked on the student newspaper Cherwell.
My first assignment was a review of a CD – some indie group – and that was the start of my career as I moved into the Arts section of the paper. The ITV show Lewis – the sequel to Inspector Morse – was being filmed in Oxford at the time, and I wrote to ITV and asked if I could go to the press launch. It was really exciting to be at a big press conference, seeing all the actors and being with all the journalists from the mainstream newspapers, while I was there on behalf of Cherwell.
Someone from the TV Times spoke to me and said I should come and do work experience with them – so that was really the springboard to my career.
It was also very interesting to see how a paper was put together. There were lots of people whose families were in the media empire in one way or another, so it was a steep learning curve for me, but very exciting.
While working on the Cherwell, is there any one lesson you learned – a trick of the trade – that is still useful today?
What I learned was more along the lines of layout and production rather than the craft of writing itself. Boring but essential stuff, like pagination, not leaving too much white space on the page, coming up with headlines, or finding out at the eleventh hour that there’s an empty page and having to find something to fill it.
Anything you remember particularly from your days at Merton itself?
I remember very clearly sitting on the benches in Hall for the first time, when the Warden Jessica Rawson made her speech to us freshers. She said: ‘Look around. Your friends for life are here.’ And I remember thinking that I couldn’t find a friend for five minutes, let alone for life! But in fact it happened very quickly, and I soon found a great group of friends who I’m still close with to this day, we had so many great times together at Merton.
Other memories are of the BOPs at St Catz Pavilion, and Formal Hall, where you could have a fancy meal for a bargain price. And simply living in College was an experience in itself. In my fourth year, I had a room in Front Quad which actually looked out onto two different quads. It was stunning. I remember bringing my parents to see where I lived. I’ll never live anywhere so wonderful again!
And the essay crises. People sitting on the staircase outside my room, relaxing and chatting, while I was trying to finish an essay late at night. Lots of people in my room listening to my pink mp3 player. They were very happy times.
There’s the general feeling of having so much possibility laid out in front of you. I met people who thought of Merton as a passport to getting a job in the City, but of course you don’t have to do that – there are all sorts of amazing careers you can move on to. Look at Dominic Treadwell-Collins (1996), who went on to be the showrunner for EastEnders and win a BAFTA. There are so many artsy things you can do. What I think Merton teaches is equality of aspiration: you can aspire to anything; you can do anything.
What was your first job on leaving Oxford?
That was with TV Times, and I stayed there for ten years. I had so much fun there, travelling to TV sets all over the world, including the Caribbean and Malaysia, and interviewing all the big stars. It was an incredible job. It allowed me to do what I had always wanted: to write and to talk to interesting people, and to wake up and look forward to going to work.
You left the TV Times to go freelance. What have you been doing as a freelancer?
I was gradually building up a network of contacts while I was with TV Times. At one point, I said that I fancied having a go at radio, and so when an opportunity came up I did a slot on BBC 5Live, and gradually built up my broadcast experience, presenting and contributing on lots of different stations.
I find being on the radio invigorating and buzzy. It has the Oxford tutorial feel of having to think on your feet and say something, whether or not you know what you are talking about. It’s a definite skill!
I went freelance because there were so many things that I wanted to do, and now I’m able to cover lots of different things. Since going freelance, I have written for the national papers – including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Mirror – and worked extensively on radio and in print.
You describe yourself as an entertainment journalist. Do you see your role as being purely ‘entertaining’ or with a serious side as well?
It’s been an interesting journey, writing about television. Earlier on, I feel that television entertainment was rather looked down on, but now I would say we’re in the golden age of TV – there’s some incredible stuff being shown. Television entertainment is important – it’s not just fluff. After all, in the middle of the pandemic, shows like Strictly Come Dancing were a beacon of light into people’s sitting rooms.
TV, radio or the printed word: which do you prefer? Any particular aspects that you most enjoy?
There’s nothing quite like writing something good. Radio is exciting because, on the shows that I present, there’s an interaction with the audience – but the love of writing is what got me into it in the first place. I also love the physical feel of the printed word, I hope papers never disappear. When I was on the Cherwell, we used to deliver sacks of the paper to the colleges. I loved getting the newsprint on my hands and really being part of the whole print process.
What has been the single most exciting thing you’ve ever done in your career?
I find the travel really exciting and I love the people I get to meet and speak to. Being part of a national conversation is very exciting. When you first go on a television production set, for example, you cannot believe how slow, cold and unglamorous it is – people sitting around in their trailers in car parks, with a lot of waiting around. Each two-minute scene needs about 20 takes. It’s quite eye-opening – but still actually very exciting.
What’s the more surprising interview you have ever done?
As a young journalist, I was running across the grounds of Windsor to grab a last-minute interview with Helen Mirren, but tripped over and smashed my knee open. So I interviewed Dame Helen while paramedics dressed my knee. I always say she was dripping in diamonds, I was dripping in blood. She wrote to my editor the next day and insisted he buy me flowers!
Does anything you learned or experienced at Merton resonate in your life today?
Merton taught me that anything is possible. Life is out there to be taken – you just need a bit of confidence. There’s so much out there and being surrounded by people who are confident, it made things seem possible. You can find a job that you don’t even know exists. You don’t have to follow a set path – you can follow a career that you really enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a job in Canary Wharf.
Merton was very inclusive. By the time I was there, 25 years after women were first admitted to the College, it seemed very equal and it was great to be around women who were aspiring to achieve amazing things.