Angela Rippon: I'm proud to be from Devon
PUBLISHED: 14:06 19 February 2015 | UPDATED: 14:06 19 February 2015
Matt Austin Images 2013
Her story started in Devon and has seen her report the news from around the globe, but Angela Rippon is still proud to hail from these parts, as she tells ALEXIS BOWATER
Photography by Matt Austin
Dawn light seeps over Penzance Bay. There’s a beautiful young woman in a sports car, speeding past the Mount. The water is preternaturally flat - and black. Here and there boats bob and people pluck from it feathery oiled bundles.
This is Angela Rippon on her way to report on the Torrey Canyon disaster. It’s 1967 and this terrible tableau vivant is the story of her life. It was the worst environmental catastrophe this country had ever seen.
“A phone call at 4 or 5 in the morning and being told: ‘Get yourself down to Penzance, a tanker’s gone aground’,” she recalls over coffee in her immaculate Devon home.
“In those days I had a red MGB convertible and I remember getting in the car, and driving down with the roof off to keep me awake and haring down there. I did the story I think for three days in tandem with everyone else at the BBC in Plymouth and getting it for The World Service, for national news, for local news, for everybody.
“That was my first big national story; that was the first big, big story that I worked on and I remember that vividly. I think that is the brilliant thing of working in news, you are at the sharp end of it, you really are at the sharp end.”
And she’s been at the sharp end of it ever since: an extraordinary career spanning nearly 50 years in a notoriously cutthroat industry. A determined Devon maid who went from wanting to be a photojournalist, to becoming one of our most loved, trusted and respected broadcasters.
“I wanted to be a photographer, from when my father put a Box Brownie in my hand when I was seven years old,” she says.
So, with the natural instinct of a true news reporter, she began making breaks for herself. Opting out of a suggested career as a teacher and a degree in Cardiff she landed a job in the picture department of the Western Morning News, badgered the Plymouth Herald editor for a job and, when he couldn’t help, landed a traineeship in the newsroom of the Sunday Independent. It was a world of learning about newsrooms, about ‘hot metal’, copy going ‘onto the stone’ and the real meaning of ‘hot off the press.’
From there, having scoop after scoop led her to being scooped herself by the BBC in Plymouth, the transfer to screen and the photojournalist she always wanted to be: “I suppose in a way working in television is the ultimate in photojournalism. A combination of words and pictures,” she says. Now a visiting Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University, she tells her own students with a laugh that she didn’t even go to uni.
Those years may have been half a century ago, but the importance of this Devon training ground is as fresh and vital as ever it was. Her first contract, on a salary of six pounds and ten shillings, has been kept and treasured, as has the script from her first report, on the Saltash oyster beds.
It catapulted her to national stardom but also gave her a priceless professional grounding: hard-knock lessons learned in a real working environment.
It’s not hard to see why news editors and programme makers still come to her for outstanding reporting with warmth and gravitas. Her achievements are frankly boggling. She’s covered some of the biggest stories in the world. She jokes that she’s been around so long that she’s done four weddings and a funeral for the Royal Family. She’s now one of an award-winning trio of investigative reporters fronting the BBC consumer show Rip Off Britain.
The depth and wealth of her experience is absolutely priceless. As the first female journalist to present the BBC national television news on a permanent basis, I ask her what she thinks about ageism in TV now and whether women in the industry should fear a short shelf life. She’s clear: it’s not gender, rather attitude that defines career options.
“If you are not very good at what you do whether you are a man or a woman you will not survive,” she says. “There are some people (men as well as women) who work in television who have such grand ideas about themselves that they think they can be divas and you can’t any more.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you are unpleasant to work with then people are not going to work with you,” she adds.
I want to stand up and cheer. This no-nonsense clarity pervades everything she says. It’s the perspicuity of a trained reporter - and she’s bringing that to her latest campaign: to raise awareness about dementia.
As Ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society she opened Exeter’s five star dementia care home Green Tree Court in November and I watched as she gave a powerful and moving speech about how her mother’s Alzheimer’s triggered her campaigning drive to raise awareness.
At the time, seven years ago, insensitive journalists had asked her, twice, whether she was ‘embarrassed’ to talk about it - which brought her to question why anyone might think that, to turn a journalist’s eye onto the subject, and to realise that there was a massive gap in understanding.
“Dementia is one of the great medical and social challenges of the 21st century and it’s a challenge that requires a whole community response,” she says. “It is only when people are prepared to talk about it and to get the message across that you are going to make a difference.”
Spearheading this drive she is working with the government, teams of medical professionals, campaigners and communicators to create a ‘dementia-friendly’ generation and in just three years is well on the way to doing that.
I wonder aloud why she never went into politics. “No, good heavens above, no. Perhaps in a way, I make things happen as a journalist and maybe that, if I have a skill at all, that’s what it is. Maybe if I had gone into politics I wouldn’t have had such an influence.”
Or maybe if she had, we’d have already had another female PM by now.