THE TIMES – February 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Davina McCall may host shows at the tackier end of the television spectrum, but her appeal lies in a naughty, but oddly wholesome niceness. As she takes on BBC One’s primetime chat-show slot, Ginny Dougary meets a former wild child who has turned her bad times to spectacular good.

She’s clearly not Essexy, like Denise Van Outen or the new (literally) faux-celebrity, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Chantelle; although she does have something of their cheeky charm. Her vowels are a bit all over the place – “moind” for “mind”, for instance – and she’s much given to using phrases which are generally employed by young teenagers regardless of their background: “Ah, bless”, “Hell-o-oh” (swooping up and down), “bodacious”, along with some unequivocal East-Enderisms, such as “God love ’im”.

Boris Johnson is probably the only broadcasting personality who can get away with making a virtue of his poshness. Elsewhere, for a successful television career, a populist approach and an accessible manner are essential – and it’s Davina’s common-touch watchability as Big Brother’s Big Mother (or, perhaps, big sister) that has landed her a new primetime role as mid-week talk-show host on BBC One. Now although this is clearly something of a big deal – the last pre-watershed King of Chat on the Beeb was Terry Wogan back in 1992 – reports of a million-pound contract or, in fact, any contract at all are apparently overstated. As McCall, in ladette mode, put it to me: “I’ve never signed a contract with any TV channel because I like being a slut and working for anybody who wants me.”

For her fans, who obviously include the BBC chiefs, what is engaging about McCall’s personality is that although she works at the tacky end of television, she manages to retain a niceness while still delivering on the pushy, tasteless questions: “But did the train go into the tunnel’’ (to establish whether two former Big Brother contestants, Stuart and Michelle, had sexual intercourse). Indeed, McCall’s USP may be that while she is undeniably naughty she is also oddly wholesome. For her detractors, of course, she is the epitome of Moronic Britain; representing everything that is wrong with declining standards and cultural dumbing-down.

On telly, she is an odd mixture. As a guest on other people’s chat shows (hosted by the likes of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady – all of whom will probably end up on her show in today’s circular light-entertainment loop), she often goes in for that very English, very middle-class self-deprecation (think Emma Thompson). When she’s in charge as Big Mother – which is her main claim to fame – McCall is more obviously confident and excitable; shouty and motormouthy, talking ten-to-the-dozen in an Anneka Rice verbal gallop. Her own drink and drugs hell, and the long years of recovery, as well as her chequered childhood, may help to explain the genuine empathy she seems to have with the oddball contestants. But what makes her special, I think – which was certainly the strongest impression I had when we met – is that she is kind.

Our interview takes place in a photographers’ studio in Fulham where McCall is doing a shoot, under duress, for the BBC’s Radio Times. I assume “under duress” because it wasn’t until the 11th hour that our meeting was actually confirmed, which seemed rather more Hollywood hauteur than cosy little Britain. It later transpired that McCall hates being interviewed (which is why it took her so long to commit), and that she has the absolute heebie-jeebies about the new show partly because everyone insists on calling her the new Parky: “It strikes fear into my heart that people keep saying ‘Parky’ because it’s very hard to step into somebody else’s shoes and it’s just a nightmare because I want to be me. Even though I do partly want to be like Parky [although it’s hard to imagine him asking the train into tunnel question] because he’s bloody brilliant, but if I try to be like Parky it’s just going to seem weird, and I don’t really know how I’m going to be but it will be me.”

Unfortunately I cannot report on what sort of “me” this new “Davina” will be because – despite numerous requests – the BBC fail­ed to send a DVD of the pilot. This much we know: the guests were Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady (presumably talking about his unorthodox new slot, alternating with the wonderful Richard and Judy), an actor from EastEnders and Charlotte Church. There will be stairs: “Shall I leap down them? Oh no, I’ll be wearing heels so I’d go arse over tit, wouldn’t I?” Peals of laughter. Has she got a nice sofa? “I’m not sure… I was under the impression it’ll be two chairs but I want them close enough for touching. I need touching.” There are to be no gimmicks, just talk and music, and she’s very happy with it, although, “in a funny kind of way I don’t want to push it be­cause I don’t want people to have great expect­ations – I just want it to grow in a natural way.”

She is softer-looking and more delicate in person, oddly more reminiscent of the act­ress Dervla Kirwan than McCall’s own high-octane TV self. Glossy hair that flops in her eyes, good teeth and cheekbones, no make-up. There is something endearing about her open quality. Her gaze is so steady and attentive that I comment on it – and her explanation is that perhaps it is because she has a slightly lazy eye. Although she is 38, there is a childlike aspect to her which belies her streetwise past, and still clings to her without any suggestion that she is simple-minded.

An image remains of her sitting schoolgirlishly on her hands, although I’m pretty sure she did no such thing. This is much of a piece with other Davina conundrums – her aforementioned wholesomeness in a distinctly unwholesome show; her surprisingly old- fashioned values despite such modern packaging; the feeling she gives of offering new-best-friend intimacy while actually guarding her privacy more fiercely than the starriest A-list celebrity.

I thought of her as being a natty dresser until a number of friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and it seems that Davina’s husband, Matthew Robertson, may also be of their persuasion judging by his comments to his wife that morning. Apparently his very words were: ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of going out like that! Your trousers are far too short and your jacket looks two sizes too small.” Davina and I agree that this is a little harsh. Granted it is quite an unusual look; a sort of Hobbit meets homage to Jackie O. A forest-green retro jacket with a belt that ties under the breasts (Betty Jackson) and not quite three-quarter-length cuffs, over a mutton-sleeved black T-shirt (Jigsaw), denim gaucho culottes (French street market) and square-toed pixie boots. I am slightly startled when she shows me her devil’s horns tattoos on each hip pointing down – as she says, raising that well-exercised eyebrow – “to you know where!”

Her first attempts at experimenting with clothes and burying her Home Counties accent was at the age of 13, when she left her paternal grandmother’s house in Surrey to live with her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Gaby, in the wild streets of West London. She turned up on her first day at Godolphin & Latymer in long white socks and a proper uniform, “but Godolphin’s quite relaxed and everybody had their skirts taken in and so on, and I’m stood at the door with a pudding-bowl haircut, very, very nerdy and very square, with my doctor’s bag, and to go in at the second year of secondary school is difficult anyway because everybody’s already made their friends…”

So she abandoned the knee-length socks and went out and bought a bag from Millets with her stepmum. “I told her they were going to kill me if I didn’t”, and pretty soon she’d copied the names of bands she’d seen on other girls’ bags “because I just wanted to fit in. It was a survival technique, really.” By the same token, McCall changed the way she spoke when she got “a bit of hassle” from some kids in Shepherds Bush, on her way to school, “So I started talking ‘loik vat’ for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.” By this time, McCall’s survival skills were already pretty well-honed. Her French mother, Florence, and her English father – who comes from a long line of Wykehamists (which makes Davina’s background upper middle class, according to one of my Winchester- educated friends) and was a Debs’ Delight – had come to the decision to make their three-year-old daughter a ward of court since neither parent felt equipped to bring her up themselves.

She now knows that her parents did the best they could at the time by handing her over to her grandmother, but it has still left her with a lifelong fear of abandonment. “Being a mother myself [she has two little girls with Matthew, Holly and Tilly] has made me realise that all the things that make me want to be a great mum are all the things I missed when I was a kid,” she says. “Having got older and having been in recovery and going to meetings makes me realise that I can’t blame anybody else necessarily for all the things I’ve done in my life, but that my core insecurity is definitely going to have come from my mum not being around. “With time, I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t because my mum didn’t want me but when I was a teenager, I thought it was because my mum just had, you know, better things to do and that’s a horrible way to feel.”

Her feelings about her father seem to be less complicated than those towards her mother; in part because of the latter’s alcoholism, which certainly made its impact on Davina’s childhood, but also because her father was simply around more.

McCall would stay with her mother in Paris during the school holidays, in the chic eighth arrondissement off the Champs Elysées. At first, she says: “My mum was a very exciting wom­­an to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She’d do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, ‘Gosh, that’s like me – I’m Saffy and my mum’s Edina.’ Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.” How embarrassing was her mother? “Well, I’m thinking of an electric-blue floorlength fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil which she’d waft around in, and she’d go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work [as manager of the Yves St Laurent boutique], and she’d be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you’d be thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and she’d do citizen’s arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff but funny and fantastic… if you’re not the daughter. My friends would say, ‘Oh my GOD, she’s so cool.’ But I didn’t tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn’t tell my English family because I didn’t want to upset them or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother. And I still love my mother and I’ll always love her, and she’s not drinking now and she’s doing really, really well.”

When did she realise that her mother had a drink problem? “Quite early on, really. Four or five. You’d walk into a room and you’d have to read the atmosphere and try to fit in. There are sort of survival techniques that kids use to deal with it. Like if somebody’s in a bad mood, you just sit quietly and know not to ask for anything or be too demanding. Or if they’re in a really good mood then you’ve got to join in and be silly. Or if they’re really crying, you’ve got to go and take care of them.”

In her teens, back home in London, the young Davina – no longer a nerdy square – started hanging out with an older set and be­coming a fixture on the clubbing scene. She was a regular at Taboo and the Camden Palace and Beetroot and knew Steve Strange and the late Leigh Bowery and Pete Burns, most recently seen being nasty on Big Brother. “I’d always quite cherished his kind of brutal honesty but I have to say that Pete Burns should not drink because when he has a drink inside him, he becomes vicious and he was drunk that night,” she says, apropos of his bullying attack on Baywatch’s Traci Bingham. A couple of interesting things emerge when McCall talks about her own relationship with drugs. She says that the reason she couldn’t allow herself to have even one glass of wine – although her husband is a “wine nut who spends a lot of time doing that lovely ritual of de­canting and sniffing and swooshing and sometimes, you think, you know, it looks fun” – is that she knows that she’s not the sort of person who can do “one” of anything. “And I can’t tell you, hand on heart, that if I got drunk at a party and someone said, ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ that I wouldn’t think about doing it, and that is too frightening… I’ve got two children, and I’ve got a life.

Just how bad was it? “If I started on New Year’s Eve, I would be taking drugs nonstop for three days because when I start I just can’t stop. And when I was an addict, I just let everybody down and maybe because I did have strong morals and good manners and stuff, that made me hate myself. With a passion. And that’s eventually why I stopped.”

For a long time, McCall was able to keep her life under control, working as a booking agent for Models 1 during the day and running clubs – her energy fuelled by drugs – into the early hours. But, she says, it was the control aspect that was so exhausting: “It’s like a white-knuckle thing – you know, trying really hard not to do something you really want to do, and you’re constantly in your head thinking about the next time you can go and get some drugs.” She left a boyfriend whom she’d blamed for getting her into heroin, but while he was able to quit, her habit got even worse. “I realised, ‘Gosh, it’s not his fault, I’ve got to look at me.’ And the last thing I wanted to do was stop taking everything. I just thought, ‘Am I still going to be a fun person to be around? And aren’t I going to turn into a really boring person? And I don’t want to be totally abstinent and I definitely can’t do it for the rest of my life. You know, forget it.’ But I tried it every other way. I knew I had to cut things out, so I stopped taking heroin about two months before I got clean [at 24], but then I just had a major coke problem, so I realised I’m obviously unable to take any drugs in moderation. And now when I see friends of mine coming into the rooms [at NA], in their mid-thirties, I think, ‘Well, thank God, I didn’t have to wait that long.”

At one point in our interview, McCall declared that she’s never been ambitious in terms of her TV career. I’m not having it that you’re not ambitious! was my response. Well, she demurred, ambition’s always seemed like a swear word – and she hates swearing – but, yes, OK, she was ambitious to get on to telly in the first place. And she was really proud of herself, when she finally got an opening on MTV: “Because I’d spent three years just chewing at people’s heels and annoying people. Tenacious. Addict without the drugs. Because the minute I put down the drugs, I needed something else to get my teeth into.”

Did she become a workaholic instead? “No, just tenacious. You see, if I work at something half as hard as I used to work on scoring drugs – and addicts spend a lot of time and effort trying to maintain their habit – then I’m going to be extremely successful.”

Still, I doubt that Davina appeared on most people’s radars until Big Brother really took off. And there were a fair number of turkeys on the way: a dating show called Love on a Saturday Night; a TV race to have a millennium baby, which she disapproved of anyway. But I do remember seeing her on a travel show years ago, and being struck by the new presenter’s… what? Freshness? Jauntiness? Slightly camp appeal? It’s hard to define what she had but as her French mother might put it, McCall definitely had a certain je ne sais quoi. So now, she’s routinely talked about in hyperbolic terms as one of the highest-paid female presenters, and there’s the new BBC show over the next eight weeks, hosting the Baftas for ITV and then, presumably, back to Channel 4 for the umpteenth series of domestic squabbles in The House, of which she says: “I’ve been very, very blessed to have a corker of a show to always come back to and I don’t know where my career would be if I didn’t have Big Brother to come back to, but thank goodness I have.”

Perhaps it’s because McCall has had more cause to examine herself than most of us, but she’s rather good at assessing what makes her so popular. “One thing I had in my favour is that I’ve never been skinny and I’m not putting myself down, but although I think I’m attractive and I know what my good features are, I’ve never thought of myself as a stunning beauty. And that’s a good thing for me because sometimes if you’re really, really beautiful you’re quite alienating.

“You know, I have to admit that when Traci walked into the Big Brother house, I was – like – ‘OMIGOD, look at her!’ And there was a part of me that hated her because she’s beautiful and she’s got such a bodacious body and enormous boobs. And when I saw that she was just somebody who needs a lot of love, I sort of melted a bit but she did have to work on me. And I don’t have to do that because people aren’t threatened by the way I look.’ And the other thing in her favour? “Oh,” she says, with a whoop, “I’m silly.”

What she really loves about Big Brother is when contestants say that they’ve learnt something about themselves from the experience: “Because for some of them it is a journey, a very personal one, and being in that house makes you look at yourself; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do except think about yourself, and how your behaviour affects other people and how their behaviour affects you and how when there’s an argument you have to resolve it or else it just goes on and on. And it’s having to deal with things and deal with them in an open way and do stuff that you’d never normally do on the outside.”

Nadia, the transsexual who emerged the winner some time ago, was one of McCall’s favourites. That was the series that got me hooked, and following her over the weeks sometimes felt like watching an Almodóvar film which turned into The Elephant Man, in that extraordinary moment when she broke down in front of the camera and sobbed, “I am… not… a man…” “You see, there was real emotion there. She wasn’t in it for the money… I really believe she was in it for recognition and affection and that was an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing,” McCall says, her brown eyes blazing with sincerity.

What interests me about Davina’s own journey is how far she strayed from everything she held dear, in those lost years in her twenties. For several years after she got clean she went to church on a regular basis because, she says, “the vicar was amazing and unjudgmental, and he’s still one of my best friends”. She loves singing hymns and still prays, though “I don’t know who I’m praying to but I do believe my prayers are being heard.” When I ask her whether she has any role models, she has an instant reply: “My granny. She’s amazing. Highly emotional, highly opinionated, very fair and moral and just and incredibly thoughtful and kind to the community she lives in. She does a lot of charity work and she has a very strong faith and goes to church, and she used to say prayers to me every night. I mean, she’s really… well, she’s still the backbone of our family.”

It’s no surprise, then, that now she has a family of her own, and a husband she adores who jacked in his own mini-TV career as Pet Rescue presenter to become an Outward Bound instructor, that McCall has returned to her roots with a big house in Surrey and lunch every Sunday with family and friends. “A couple of years ago, my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny, who also lived with us, and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again, and how she had these little things in her purse, like a pixie in a black cap which she’d let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.

“That was very emotional for me… a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I’ve got it. And she’s just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family’s stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl, and our family tree from way, way before me, and it’s these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.”

It’s time for McCall to submit herself to more of the publicity hoopla she tries to avoid. She says she feels absolutely drained, stretching out on the banquette and whimpering as she kicks her legs in the air. But then a thought occurs to her: “Can I just say that’s what I’d like to have as my epitaph.” Er, what? “Whole­some but naughty. I love that. You know, I always wanted to be a little bit naughty.”