Ann Widdecombe at the Devizes Arts Festival
On Thursday night, the Devizes Arts Festival kicked off with ‘An Audience with Ann Widdecombe.’
Ann is famous for her 23-year career in Parliament, her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing, and her right wing Victorian views.
In her rider she has asked for a glass of water and a sandwich.
She arrives on time, sporting a rather fashionable mustard coloured jumper. It is immediately apparent that she is not up for wasting syllables on irrelevant chat. She’s come to do the job, and flog some books, and entertain. ‘She’s dead professional’ says one of the new boys at the Town Hall, as we watch her cracking on with the soundcheck.
The doors open to the public, and Ann appears, dressed as a Victorian opera singer. The effect of the light catching her ash blonde hair and sequins is startling.
She’s up for signing books before and after the show, and in the interval. She’s written seven; five fiction, including a self-published detective novel, one autobiography, and a religious book about penance. She’s polite with the public. She makes herself accessible. She’s happy to have photos taken, happy to be in selfies, happy to nip upstairs for a random appearance on Fantasy Radio. She’s a good sport when something goes wrong (don’t ask). ‘Always see the funny side’ she says. Phew. But she’s not touchy feely at all (and why should she be?). She’s brisk, and formal. And there’s something of the…what about her?
Ann is, on stage, quite funny. ‘Do blondes have more fun? All I can say is that I noticed men were talking to me much-more-slowly’ she quips. She kicks off with talking about her recent celebrity appearances, or ‘non-political television’, as she calls it. She doesn’t do social media. Television is, in her view, still a good way of reaching the masses.
When Ann left Parliament in 2010, she drew a line. She was an ‘Admiralty child’.
‘The subconscious lesson of that childhood,’ she says, explaining how she moved from school to school, constantly having to make new friends, ‘was that when something’s gone, it’s gone.’
‘The day I left Parliament,’ she says, ‘I realised that I no longer owed anyone any duty of time and dignity.’
Friends warned her off Strictly, worried that if she did it she would lose her gravitas.
‘What would I want it for?’ says Ann.
Ann does panto these days and has worked with Basil Brush. She disagrees with hunting, doesn’t agree with abortion, and is in favour of the death penalty. She’s said Yes to Graham Norton, and No to Jonathan Ross. She seems a bit thick with Anton from Strictly. ‘The less time you spend with your feet on the floor the better’ – Anton. People laugh a lot.
After the interval, a cheeky glass of water and some more book signing, Ann returns for a Q&A. Questions are, in the main, unchallenging. Would you pay £16 to heckle Ann Widdecombe? Probably not. This is the meat and bones of Ann’s talk for me, and probably for the lady outside who said ‘She’s brilliant, erudite, and feisty, but I don’t feel she’s giving her best, and I’m really not that interested in Big Brother.’
Ann answers all the questions. Sort of. She’s up for it, that’s for sure. Assertive is the word.
She blames the closure of libraries on the internet. Margaret Thatcher was, while Ann had huge respect for her, ‘a bit remote’. She talks about her memories of Thatcher and Major walking through the lobbies, how the Red Sea parted for Thatcher whilst Major would stop and have a friendly chat. She has a Ten Commandments story. She thinks the quality of MPs in Parliament has gone down due to selection procedures, and that governments suffer from oppositions taking opposition habits into government, and governments taking government habits onto the opposition benches. She voted for Brexit. She says she said the ‘something of the night about him’ thing to a couple of people and it just caught on. She really doesn’t agree with abortion and thinks that there is divisive political skullduggery going on in relation to the issue. She has always been comfortable with herself. 50 Shades of Grey is ‘quite the dirtiest book I haven’t quite read’. She had 800 people on her Christmas list when she was in Parliament. Ann talks about changing demands on the NHS in relation to new scientific medical discoveries, and how Bevan’s original vision is out of odds with the current demand for services.
‘What would we want the NHS to look like if we started it from scratch?’ she asks.
A bit more book signing and ‘bon homie’, and Ann is ready for the off. People have enjoyed her, and if they didn’t they kept their opinions to themselves. She’s done everything she signed up for. She didn’t eat the sandwiches.
‘Good luck with your Festival!’ she says, as she walks out the door.
Something of the…what about her?
Something of the Right, obviously. But also something I can’t quite put my finger on.
Ann is working it, and good luck to her. The woman has balls, even if her views are objectionable. She answers to no-one. She’s a good speaker. She’s intelligent. There are things to admire about her, for sure. But she is a bit odd. A bit chilly. There’s a wall around her. Maybe you have to build such walls when you are a child being moved from pillar to post, or when you are trying to hold your own as a woman in Parliament, or when you have your knickers showing in the celebrity spotlight.
Who can say.
© Gail Foster 1st June 2018