Why does Angela Rippon give pride of place to a miner’s lamp at her home in Devon? The answer might surprise you. As a pioneering female presenter of the Nine O’Clock News in the 1970s, she was famous for her crisp, unaccented diction and her perfect pronunciation of complicated foreign names.
Wikipedia – not quite the fount of all knowledge, it seems – tells you Angela’s a grammar school girl from Plymouth and the daughter of a Royal Marine. All true. But, she cheerfully reveals, her father’s side of the family is rooted in County Durham – particularly around the pit villages of Cornsay and Esh Winning – where some of her relations still live.
“My father’s family were miners and all my uncles worked in the mines until they were well into their 40s and 50s. One of them suffered from pneumoconiosis which a lot of men did when they worked underground.
“The Rippons lived in the area for many years and that was my father’s heritage. He used to talk to me about his childhood. When he left school he worked as a tally boy at Cornsay Colliery, making sure all those who went down the mine came up again.”
John Rippon told his daughter about seeing the Jarrow marchers set off for London and would tell her stories about his grandmother, a widow who routinely doled out soup to youngsters on their way home from school. “I remember visiting the area when I was very little and seeing the miners around the war memorial. My father would say they had the pitman’s crouch, sitting in a particular way.” But Angela’s father didn’t plan on spending his life down a pit. Instead he joined the Royal Marines in time for the World War Two, serving first with the North Atlantic Fleet in Scotland and then Devon.
Angela, whose mother Edna was Scottish, was born in 1944. Her father saw her briefly then went off to fight the Japanese.
“I was nearly three when he got back. I have a photograph of us when he returned because it was always a big occasion when the ships docked at Plymouth. The Daily Mirror would send photographers to cover this. We have a photo of this row of sailors and my father, who was the only Royal Marine, standing with me in his arms. Because I’d never seen this man before I have the most sourpuss expression on my face. It is one of my favourite photographs.”
It was her father’s favourite, too, even after his daughter had become a famous television newsreader and a celebrity before the word had become common currency. “He carried it in his wallet until the day he died, when he was 87,” recalls Angela. “I always used to say, ‘Dad, I’ve got some lovely pictures of me that were taken by Lord Lichfield’, but he would reply, ‘I can see you every day like that just by turning on the telly’.” It was Angela’s telly fame that opened up a whole world of possibilities, including the chance to guest star at Sage Gateshead this weekend with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Chorus.
She was 17 when she left school and joined the photographic department of the local newspaper group in Plymouth. Her ambition was to become a photo-journalist and she served most of a five-year apprenticeship in all aspects of the newspaper business. She was on the brink of a magazine job when the local BBC TV company came calling because they liked her writing style. Her first report, she remembers, was broadcast on September 5, 1966.
But a national stage awaited. After standing in for Richard Baker for a fortnight on the Nine O’Clock News she earned a permanent newsreading post in 1975, making headlines because of her gender but earning respct because of her natural authority on the box.
Those were the days when the nightly bulletin spoke to an enormous chunk of the population. Angela remembers audiences of nine million hanging on her every perfectly enunciated word.
Which brings us to the accent. How, you might wonder, did the West Country daughter of a County Durham father and a Scottish mother come to embody the English language as spoken on the BBC?
With a laugh, Angela says she speaks the way she has always spoken. “I’ve never had an elocution lesson in my life. My father had pretty much lost his accent by the time he got older but I’d sometimes hear him on the telephone say ‘Gerraway!’
“I grew up with all these accents and this is what came out.”
As a newsreader, Angela remembers announcing the deaths of Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten (both assassinated by the IRA in 1979) and being the first person to tell the nation who killed JR (star of TV show Dallas). She also did the first interview with Margaret Thatcher when she became Conservative Party leader.
But she demonstrated her lighter side when she danced on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1976 (below left), paving the way for male colleagues to perform There is Nothing Like a Dame the following year.
“It didn’t change my life but it changed people’s perception of me as a newsreader,” she says. I always say, ‘Just because you read the news it doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of humour’.”
Angela says by the time she became a pioneering female newsreader – followed on ITV soon afterwards by Anna Ford (below left) – she had already earned her spurs as a reporter, director and producer. If she was a victim of any sexist behaviour, then she wasn’t aware of it. Last week Angela was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Sky Women in Film and TV Awards in London. But at the age of 69 she is still in the thick of it, presenting the consumer programme Rip-Off Britain and its spin-off shows with Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville.
“Last year we recouped just over a quarter of a million pounds that had been demanded from viewers and we have got 20 programmes lined up for next year. I have such fun doing it. Why should I think of retirement when I keep getting offered such nice things to do?”
Angela will perform her Sage duties this weekend and then look forward to “a wonderful Christmas in Devon with my close friends and family”. But it’s unlikely she will try her Geordie twang on Sage audiences. “My accent is terrible,” she says and proves it by reciting a line from Close the Coalhouse Door.
Rejoice! at the Sage, are on Saturday (7.30pm) and Sunday (3pm). For tickets tel. 0191 443 4661 or visit www.sagegateshead.com