Joan Bakewell. A Day in the Life. The Sunday Times Magazine. Writer’s Cut

150 150 Rob McGibbon



Dame Joan Bakewell has been a leading broadcaster, journalist and author since the 1960s, when comedian Frank Muir dubbed her “the thinking man’s crumpet”. Now 86, she was awarded a life peerage in 2011 and took the title Baroness Bakewell of Stockport to reflect her Northern upbringing. She has been married twice and famously had an eight-year affair from 1962 with playwright Harold Pinter, which inspired his 1978 play Betrayal. Bakewell lives alone in Primrose Hill, North London, and has two children from her first marriage, Harriet, 59, and Matthew, 57 and six grandchildren, aged 18-26. 

My day begins with a rigid routine that gradually gets ragged as the day continues. The alarm goes off at 6.50am, which gives me time to fetch a cup of tea and come back to bed to listen to the Radio 4 news at 7am. I have Earl Grey – always decaffeinated because I have a lot of adrenaline of my own. I’ve not had caffein for at least ten years, so if I ever have it these days without knowing I’m as high as a kite. 

I never listen to the Today program after the news because there’s far too much testosterone for me at that time of the morning. I have The Guardian delivered, so instead I read that cover to cover, except for the sport and pop music. 

I am very much a morning person and wake up with lots of energy and buzzing with ideas – well, probably more attitude, than ideas. I go on Twitter and send out a few tweets in response to the news, as a way of getting any irritation out of me. I also respond to any comments from friends on Twitter, as a way of staying on touch.

Just before Christmas, I moved into my new home after living in the same big house for 55 years in Primrose Hill. Moving was a great trauma and a lot of stress, but it is important to make the move at my age before it’s too late. I had moved into the old house with my husband Michael in 1963 when the area was really shabby and unfashionable. The house cost us £12,500, which was a lot of money then and we needed a mortgage, but I will not say what I sold it for.

I have downsized to a very large former artist’s studio, which is just a ten minute walk from where I used to live. It is far easier to organise and manage, so I’m loving it. I have even prepared a small bedsit in the attic area for a carer, should I ever need one. It’s best to think ahead.

I take three pills each morning: two supplements – Omega 3 and Glycocyamine for my bones – and Statins to stop me having heart trouble. For years, breakfast was marmalade on toast, but recently I started having granola with fresh fruits, honey and yoghurt. I spend most mornings working from two desks I have on a mezzanine level overlooking the main room – a large one for general work, such as writing book reviews or speeches, and the smaller one for household bills and Thank You notes.

As you get older, you have to rely on people to help. My housekeeper and friend Frances turns up every weekday at 10.30am. She has been with me for 20 years and sorts me out. I work from a MacBook Air laptop, but I’m not particularly techie, so I have a man called The Mac Doctor who is a delight. If something goes wrong, I scream down the phone and he comes round and saves me.

Two mornings a week, from 8-9am, I go to the same pilates class I have been doing for 25 years at a studio a short drive away in Belsize Park. This has kept me agile and my posture in good shape. There are six of us in the class and we have become good friends. 

I usually have something light and simple  for lunch at home – a bowl of homemade soup, avocado with smoked salmon, or some cheese and biscuits. Quite often I will fry up leftovers from another meal. I was a war child, so I hate to throw anything away. I always listen to the World at One with Sarah Montague – and then it is time for my daily snooze!

I have been having an afternoon nap ever since doctors advised me to rest during the day when I was pregnant with Harriet in 1959. These days, I even have one whenever I’m on location filming for television. Storyvault Films, the production company I work for, really look after me and always fix up a local hotel room for my nap. If there isn’t one nearby, they bring a fold out bed, with sheets and pillows, which they put up in a Winnebago. I have a mediative technic that helps me neutralise my brain and sleep for 20 minutes. I believe in the great merit of a snooze because I come out bouncing and refreshed and will keep working happily long into the evening when everyone else is flagging.

My afternoons on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 2.30pm are spent at the House of Lords. I drive there in my red Mini Cooper, which is an extension of home. I crawl through the traffic thinking, listening to the radio and working. I park at the House where the Mini looks a bit lonely alongside all the big Audis and Lexus’s. 

I was invited to be a working peer by Ed Miliband and I was more frightened when I was giving my first speech than I had ever been when broadcasting to millions. You are talking to an extremely learned lot who are very authoritative, but is a collegiate atmosphere and I enjoy dealing with ideas and engaging with interesting people. I get a sense of fulfilment going there.

I chose my title Baroness Bakewell of Stockport because I felt that it was important to go back to my roots. Initially, I thought of using Camden Town or Primrose Hill, but that would hardly authenticate any views I wanted to express about the great Northern Powerhouse! Besides, my roots are important to me.

My younger sister Susan and I were brought up on a new plot of houses on the outskirts of Stockport that had been built on the road to Macclesfield. The development remained unfinished for years because of the war, so we could turn left out of our house and within a matter of yards be in fields and then the countryside. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Susan died from breast cancer when she was 58 in 1997.

Joan with her little sister Susan

I had a complicated relationship with my mother Rose. She was a highly intelligent woman, but she had married young, as they did in those days, and felt completely unfulfilled in her life. She was depressed, although no one described it as that then. I just thought she was being difficult. She died from leukemia, also at 58, when I was 28.

At about 4pm I need a sugar rush, so I go to the River Restaurant at the House and have a cup of tea and a scone with cream and jam, or a piece of chocolate cake. Work there usually finishes at 6.30pm, unless there’s a debate, and then I creep home. Often I go out to dinner with friends, either locally or in the West End. I will have a glass of white wine, but don’t drink much these days. I also go to the theatre a lot and enjoy the opera. One of my great indulgences is using taxis. I either hail a black taxi in the street, or book one with the same local radio cab company I have been using for years.

House of Lords restaurant

I’m a news junkie, so my day ends with watching the headlines and the newspaper review on the BBC News Channel, and then I’m in bed by 11.15pm. I always have a couple of books on the go, so I will read for a while before nodding off. I’m a good sleeper, so I will be out until the alarm goes. I used to like a small brandy as a nightcap, but I have stopped that because, like most old people, I do not want to get up in the night.