Interview: Ann Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe is not the retiring type, and since leaving Parliament has become both a successful author and the unlikely darling of reality TV.

ANN Widdecombe reckons that, had she been born in Victorian Britain, she’d have been the equivalent of a Labour politician.

Come again? Well, yes, Widdecombe is full of surprises, ever since she stood down as Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald in 2010, after 23 years in which she rose to become Prisons Minister then Shadow Home Secretary.

First of all she popped up very creditably presenting Have I Got News For You, got to know gangs of hoodies for a documentary, and was seen flying through the air like a neon kite on Strictly Come Dancing.

 

Despite the best efforts of hapless partner Anton du Beke, her two left feet could not be made to move in the same direction at the right time. The pair just enjoyed themselves being the comedy act – and the public loved them.

 

The woman formerly dubbed ‘Doris Karloff’ in the House, showed she had a gift for self-parody and, so long as the costumes were modest (no visible cleavage and matching leggings for each outfit, to avert wardrobe malfunctions), she was pretty much up for anything.

 

Strictly brought Widdecombe new fans – and paid for a swimming pool at her home on Dartmoor, where she writes and walks in between TV engagements.

 

There are regular political comment columns for newspapers and she has now published five novels, a book on Penance – she famously left the Church of England and became a Catholic over the issue of women priests – and the autobiography Strictly Ann.

 

Her most recent TV outing was serious-minded reality TV. Historian Ruth Goodman sent six celebrities back in time to the early Victorian era to live and work as the poorest people did, in BBC1’s 24 Hours In The Past.

 

Among their experiences were jobs as ‘dust collectors’, scavenging through piles of rubbish for scraps they could sell, and as servants at a coaching inn, where feeding guests and grooming horses were 24/7 work.

 

The grimly realistic conditions of 175 years ago were recreated, with actors used to play bosses, demanding customers and workhouse management. This was down and dirty, and no task for neurotic show-off celebs.

 

“I knew that Victorian times were awful for many ordinary working people,” says Widdecombe, “but the series did bring home to me just how horrible working conditions were. The filth was disgusting.”

 

The forthright Ann Widdecombe broke out when she appointed herself unofficial shop steward and stirred up a workers’ riot against the swindling bosses at the coaching inn.

 

Travellers’ meals were being held back until they were about to depart again, by which time there was little chance to eat and most of the food was put back in the pot to be sold again.

 

“I’ve always said I’d probably have been a Labour MP back in those days. But speaking out meant we all lost some of our food ration, and I didn’t how the others were criticising me behind my back until I saw the finished shows.

 

“I stand by what I did, even though we suffered. You need mavericks who will stand up against bad behaviour…”

 

Now 67, she says she doesn’t miss Parliament but keeps up with good friends there, and of course dusted off a few smart jackets so she could zig-zag across the country to support them during the election campaign.

 

“The size of Cameron’s majority worries me. Mrs Thatcher had a huge majority and could therefore afford to withstand a rebellion every week if she’d had to. John Major had a much smaller majority and had to wheel and deal with rebels. Cameron hasn’t even got Major’s majority, so it’s going to be very hard work.”

Her novels so far have been middle market dramas, two of them set during the Second World War. The latest, The Dancing Detective, follows a murder investigation after a dancer on a TV reality show is found dead in her dressing room.

“I’ve always wanted to try a detective novel, but I’m not completely changing genres. I found writing crime quite a challenge, as you have to have it all plotted out from the start. With my other books, the story has developed as I’ve gone along. I’d like to do a crime series but still do the other style, too.”

 

Strictly didn’t set Ann Widdecombe off on a hobby of afternoon tea dances down in Devon. “I don’t dance now because, as Anton says, I never could and I never did. The great thing for me about the show was the fantastic release from the responsibility I’d felt as an MP. It was three months of sustained frivolity.”

 

Ann Widdecombe will join a panel to discuss The Dark Art Of Criticism at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, on Friday, July 17 at 10pm at the Old Swan Hotel. Box office: 01423 562 303 www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com

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