Interview: Clare Balding

The news that Clare Balding takes over as the main BBC presenter for this Saturday’s Grand National, the iconic race watched by a worldwide audience of 600 million, produced an audible wheeze of relief. Racing aficionados know they’ll get intelligent yet impassioned information from a broadcaster devoid of silly mannerisms, who actually commands the respect, rather than the irritation, of her subjects. Writer Jeanette Winterson once ably summed her up: ‘Miss Balding is what the BBC does best no gimmicks, no game-show personality, just top-class commentary coming out of a big brain with plenty of experience and passion.’

Although closely identified with racing and sport, Clare, 37, is everywhere on television Crufts, at the New Year fireworks, even reading stories on CBeebies and always prepared. ‘I can take on information quickly, become an instant expert, and then forget it just as rapidly. I’m disappointingly shallow!’ she says with the deprecatory tone that characterises her anecdotes. ‘But what I do have in depth is an understanding of horses. My job is to get people to care, and not just because they’ve had a bet, so I love finding the stories outside the betting. Post-race analysis can be tricky if it’s a surprise result, but I find it easy if I’m excited. I go “whoosh” and articulate what I’m feeling. I’m not from the designer school of commentating I don’t have an autocue and I try to make people feel I’m having a conversation with them.

I actually enjoy it when things go wrong I get a kick out of making a programme that’s going belly up look smooth.’ Clare lives in Chiswick with civil partner Alice Arnold, a newsreader on Today, and in Kingsclere, where her father, Ian, trained the 1971 Derby winner, Mill Reef; her brother, Andrew, now has the licence. Educated at Downe House and Newnham College, where she was president of the Cambridge Union Society, Clare was a BBC trainee and made her television debut 10 years ago. She was Sports Presenter of the Year in 2003, but, reassuringly, gets visibly nervous. ‘I get quite revved up. When I was riding [she was a champion amateur flat jockey], I’d get very tense and faff around. But as soon as I was legged up, I’d go into a Zen-like calm. It’s the same when I hear the Grandstand music then I’m away.’

But plaudits have been hard earned. The first Ascot outfits were derided, Anne Robinson called her ‘chunky Clare’ on The Weakest Link, and she cheerfully describes herself as ‘no model. I used to feel I’d got a lot to prove. My father was probably the biggest critic he still thinks women shouldn’t present sport. People have written horrible things, but I don’t have time to wallow. The relevant thing is if the editor and producer think you’re any good.’

Of her myriad appearances, from University Challenge to The Apprentice for Sport Relief, she rates Have I Got News For You as the scariest. ‘I didn’t say a word for 20 minutes, and then uttered something that had to be edited out. The worst thing was being against Clement Freud, as he’d just written that I looked “like Vanessa Feltz on a chocolate diet”. I was so upset. But I got my own back I asked the make-up girls to tell him that he looked fine unadorned! We get on very well now.’

Away from television, Clare is fond of her Radio 4 Ramblings, of which she has done more than 100, with another series starting this month. ‘Most have never heard of 98% of the people, but they all have a tale. I was walking with an 80-year-old widow on the Isle of   Wight, and it was meant to be about Tennyson, but we got sidetracked into scattering her husband’s ashes. She said his mantra was “‘let’s do something it might be interesting.’ And you know, it always was.” It’s true everything is interesting if you ask the right question.’