Angela Rippon, Strictly Come Dancing 2023. Image: BBC
Angela Rippon was born in October 1944 in Plymouth. She joined the photographic department of the Western Morning News after leaving school and went on to work for BBC local radio and television. Her big break came in 1974, when she spent two weeks presenting BBC One’s Nine O’Clock News – the following year, she was offered a permanent job on the programme, where she stayed until 1981.
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She soon branched out, presenting 1977’s Eurovision Song Contest, Top Gear (making her the show’s first female presenter) from 1977-’78, and and Antiques Roadshow, among many others. As well as becoming a familiar face on our screens, often called upon to host television coverage of significant events including general elections and royal weddings, Rippon was a regular presenter on BBC Radio 2 and LBC and has written 14 books.
Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Rippon looks back on her route into TV, dancing with Morecambe and Wise, and her decision to take part in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Even at the age of 16 I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was about to take my A levels in geography, history and geology, and there was an idea that I would go to university and become a teacher. Then a job came up to work in the photographic department of the local newspaper. And I thought, actually, this is a real opportunity for me. That’s what I want to do, I want to be a photojournalist. I want to take pictures and write stories. So I made a sudden decision to walk away from my A levels, which didn’t make me very popular at school, I can tell you. But I had an instinctive idea of what I wanted to be. So it’s ironic that I ended up in television, the ultimate combination of pictures and words.
My parents were brilliant, they always supported me and what I wanted to do. And taking pictures was what my father taught me. He had a little Box Brownie that he carried with him all through the Second World War, when he was a Royal Marine. And we have an album with all sorts of exquisite, extraordinary photographs that he took when he was on the ship in Europe, and then later when he was in China and Japan. He bought me a little camera and I started taking photographs when I was six or seven. And so when I said, I want to be a photojournalist, he said, “If that’s what you believe you want to do in life, you should do it.”
For my mother, going to work was the norm. That was what she wanted to do. She wanted a career and she worked until she was about 67. I think she went beyond the age of retirement because she loved being at work. So she was a big influence on me. She unfortunately couldn’t have children after me, which is why I was an only child. I think my dad would have loved a son, but he didn’t have a son, he had me. He wanted me always to be a lady, but at the same time he instilled in me a lot of the ideals and attitudes that you would pass on to a son, about self-reliance and standing up for yourself and what you believe.
I think when you are an only child, you grow up with a certain amount of self-assurance and self-belief. I had cousins, boys, with whom I was very close, and still am. But I think because I was an only child and was going to be on my own a lot, my parents encouraged that self-confidence and assurance, hoping it would take me through life. Though I’ve always had the support of my male cousins. And my second family has always been the many wonderful friends that I’ve made in my life.
I did enjoy dancing when I was young. I took ballet classes. But at family events I would always dance with my dad. He loved to dance and when I was in grade 6 or 7 I used to stand on his feet when he was dancing, and we’d fly around the room. When I was a teenager we used to go to the local Plymouth YMCA on a Saturday night, where there was a fabulous band. We had a brilliant time – whenever there was a dance on, I always went.
I think the younger Angela would be surprised at some of the things that have happened to me, the pattern my life was taken. I assumed I was going to be working for newspapers. I never wouldn’t have occurred to me, back in the ’50s and ’60s, that I might work in television. Television was something that happened in London. It was not something that came from the West Country. So to think I’ve had a lifetime in television… and not just that, but all the people that I’ve met, the opportunities I’ve had, the countries I’ve visited. I think the young me would have been full of wonder at what my future held for me.
I’d been a political correspondent for months and been working in television news for a couple of years before I ever worked as a newsreader. I’d done a few foreign trips and lots of domestic stories. And I’d also been a documentary maker. The editor of television news came to me and said, we’ve made a bit of a muddle on the rota for newsreaders, would you mind reading the news next week in place of Richard Baker? I didn’t have to jump through any hoops, they just came and asked me to do it. I was used to being in front of the camera, so it wasn’t anything outside of my skill set.
I don’t think newsreader had done anything quite as revealing as I did on Morecambe and Wise [a sketch involved Angela getting up from behind her news desk and performing an extraordinary high kick in the legendary 1976 Christmas Special]. It was quite a surprise when there was a lot of talk about my legs, but it was flattering, a great compliment, though not something I ever expected. But I think doing that show reminded people that, just because the news we present is serious and often bad, newsreaders are not all doom and gloom. There is another side to our characters, we can let our hair down. More recently we’ve seen newsreaders dancing on Children in Need and it’s been fantastic. It’s a great way for people who are involved in the serious side of television and current affairs to let their hair down and demonstrate that we are human, we have a sense of humour.
You can never tell, when there’s a crossroads in your life, whether or not you’ve taken the right decision. I often think, what would have happened if I’d done that? Or why did I do that? Only time itself tells whether or not the decision that you made was the right one. And whichever way that goes, you need to learn from that experience. There are all sorts of things that have happened in my life and it’s turned out to be absolutely brilliant. And other times when I’ve done things which have turned out to be not as good. That’s all part of life.
The biggest thing I’ve discovered about myself, is that I love a challenge. If someone says, would you like to read the news, or present a quiz show, or do a consumer programme or dance on Strictly Come Dancing, I always say yes please. And most of the time I’ve made the right decisions, and those challenges have been confirmed. A couple of times I’ve made the wrong decision. But I’ve hopefully learned from that.
Of course Strictly… is a huge challenge. I would have loved them to have asked me years ago. But finally being asked now is fantastic. And I’ll do the best that I can while I’m doing it. And I can demonstrate that actually, people of a certain age can still exercise. Dance is the perfect way, mentally and physically, to keep you fit. We have an ageing population – if more people are prompted to take dance of some description, whether it’s line dancing or ballroom dancing with their partner or whatever, that’s the perfect way to stay young. If I can demonstrate that by physically doing it, that would be that would be a wonderful thing to have achieved.
I think my younger self would have been surprised to think she would be someone recognisable, but I never take that for granted. I’m not recognised everywhere. There’s a whole generation who haven’t got a clue who I am, because they don’t watch daytime television, so they don’t see Rip-Off Britain, and they don’t watch The One Show. Though several million people have seen me on Strictly… now. But I always take it as a huge compliment when people recognise me.
My father died two years ago. And as I said, he loved to dance. I would love to be able to speak to him now, just to say, look what I’m still doing! Because my father was very, very active right until the day he died, when he was in his 80s. Even though he retired he did not give up doing things. It would be lovely to be able to say to him, “Look, daddy, I’m 79 and I’m still working, doing things that I love, because you gave me the impetus to do that when I was so much younger.”
Strictly Come Dancing is on Saturdays and Sundays on BBC One and on iPlayer.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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