'Dance is the way to live a long, healthy life': Angela Rippon at the Bluebird Cafe, White City Photo: Clara Malden for The Daily Telegraph
How do you explain the cultural phenomenon that is Angela Rippon to Generation Z? Before we meet, I try to convey to my 14-year-old daughter the unique essence of Strictly Come Dancing's oldest celebrity contestant.
She was the star BBC newsreader who invented legs. Empty.
She traveled the planet and swam with sharks on Celebration before influencers even had a spark flicker in Steve Jobs' iPhone. Indifference.
She has presented Top Gear, Crufts, Antiques Roadshow and these days terrorizing cowboy contractors on BBC One's Rip Off Britain. Reluctant interest
Okay, Angela Rippon will soon be 79 and can still do the splits. What are you waiting for?! Why did not you tell? Is she on TikTok?
No. More. But as Britain enters the autumn of austere escapism, Rippon has already been named one to watch.
“I wish people would remember that I’m 78, not 37!” she cries with a mixture of amusement and disappointment. “I won’t be able to do what I did 40 years ago, and I’m worried about the unrealistic expectations placed on me.”
“I can't do what I did 40 years ago”: Angela Rippon on the BBC in 1976. Photo: Popperfoto
I point out that this won't help her because she doesn't seem to have changed one iota since the fateful Morecambe and Wise Christmas show in 1976, where she emerged from behind the news desk to show off a fantastic set of pins – don't cancel me, children, that's exactly what people said in the 1970s – and with the towering grace of a ghazal in front of a television audience of 27 million.
Here she is now, instantly recognizable by those arched fox-like eyebrows and impossibly intelligent features; a look of timeless, eye-popping elegance in a blue Zara blazer, Wolford top and white wide-leg trousers with studded boots.
“I was queuing at the checkout at Waitrose when a woman stopped me and said: “You are a gray woman like me and many others, and we are invisible to the world. I'm so proud that you're making headlines on Strictly. Thank you,” Rippon tells me with a brilliant smile. “I was very touched by this.
“I will do my best. I told my dance partner – and while I'm not allowed to reveal his identity yet, let me just state for the record that I am indeed a very lucky bunny – that he should challenge me, and I think he will.”By the time you read this, rehearsals will be in full swing. But when we met in a west London café, Rippon and her fellow celebrities had only had a brief, albeit grueling, tasting.
'I'm aware of unrealistic expectations': Morecambe and Wise dancing Photo: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock
“We were learning the steps for the pre-program group dance and then [fellow competitor] Les Dennis came up to me and said he was so exhausted he didn’t think he’d be able to walk the next day. I agreed with him – but you know, because I always kept in shape, everything was absolutely fine with me.”
Of course, she was; The other morning, the tabloids photographed her, wrapped up like Kanye West, her face barely visible, walking through the streets of London wearing headphones. “I wasn’t going undercover on purpose, it was 7 in the morning and it was very cold, so I was warm,” she counters with a laugh. “I also listened to the Today program on Radio 4.”
There's no point in explaining this concept to Gen Z. But I have a hunch that when they settle in for Strictly, albeit to watch former Love, rumba-singing Island star Zara McDermott could learn a lot from Rippon , who thinks of the body as “a machine full of parts that need to be lubricated and constantly moving, otherwise you will literally jam as you age.”
A few episodes ago there would have been an uproar about her inclusion in the show, as she trained in ballet, continues to do so, is a former chairman of the English National Ballet and an ambassador for Silver Swans, the Royal Academy of Dance's program for older students.
She also introduced that dusty TV dinosaur Come Dancing before it was shocked and sexualized as Strictly in 2004. Oh, and she also released a DVD called Ballroom Dancing with Angela Rippon – all of which hardly makes her an early amateur. But recently Strictly's rules have become much looser on such things in the name of entertainment. And Rippon, who is a sought-after after-dinner speaker (she recently lectured aboard the Queen Mary 2), is both extremely entertaining and a force of nature.
“In the BBC program How to Stay Young, which I co-hosted with Dr Chris van Tulleken, we scientifically proved that dance is the exercise that ticks all the boxes and gives you a complete workout for your mind and body,” she says. “It really convinced me that dance is the way to live a long, healthy life: it keeps you flexible; it is an aerobic exercise; it gives you spatial awareness; it forces you to use your brain; and it's very social and fun.”
'Dance fits the bill': Rippon is an ambassador charity organization Sliver Swans
Rippon, who was awarded an OBE in 2004 in recognition of her services to broadcasting, charity and the arts, and appointed an OBE in 2017 for services to dementia care, credits tennis, ballet, Pilates and race walking for her ability to still do the splits, high kick and maybe kick some ass when it comes to impaling crooks in Heist Britain starring Julia Somerville, 76, and Gloria Hunniford, 83.
“I’ve been dancing all my life, which means I know what it should look like,” she says. “But I would really enjoy learning Argentine tango, and of course, who wouldn’t love being in the arms of a big, strong dancer? When my partner held me in his arms, I felt so… protected and cared for.”
I cannot resist talking about the so-called “strict curse”; As the routine gets more stressful, week after week, the show stands out for what makes and breaks relationships and marriages. Rippon, who married and divorced engineer Christopher Dare many years ago and has no children, gives me what used to be called an old-fashioned look.
“Don’t. Be. Stupid. I’m a lonely pensioner,” she reproaches. “I like male company, and I’m very lucky that I have many friends – men, women, straight and gay. I communicate, I have freedom, I I love my job, and honestly, it takes someone absolutely brilliant to turn my head.”
I sigh that despite Strictly's 19-year history, there hasn't been a noticeable uptick in snaky British lads wanting to woo women through samba. “Yeah, but I had a foreign lover for 12 years!” – comes Rippon's smart answer. She nervously refuses to go into detail except to say, “It was a classic coup; our eyes met and butterflies filled me. That's all I'll say; the rest is personal. Only if I lived through that moment again would I even consider a relationship.”
Big question. But Rippon is a true national treasure, so it's understandable that her personal bar is set higher than most. A seasoned journalist, she exudes a steely authority, not bad for a 61-year career spent largely in a male-dominated broadcast environment where sexism and even sexual harassment were rife.
“Most men were respectful and professional”: reading the news in 1976 Photo: BBC
“I've always worked with men, and the vast majority of them have been respectful and professional,” she says, “but every now and then I've encountered a 'character.' One day, while I was in the studio reading the Nine O'Clock News, a colleague walked in. In those days, I sat alone at a table in front of a stationary camera while everyone else was in the gallery. I assumed he was going to hand me the script, but instead he stopped by the camera.
“I was reading the news in front of 10 million people, and he unzipped his fly and started pulling something out and fiddling around ostentatiously. around. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that it was his shirt, but he clearly wanted me to think it was his penis.”
Rippon held back. She continued reading without even pausing. Then, when the camera turned off, she let loose. “I screamed: “Grow up and get out of my studio!” Later, I tore the strip off him.”
Did she fire him too? Or was he reprimanded? Not so. – What would be the point of that? she asks. “Things are different today, and rightly so, but all he would have gotten was a slap on the wrist and we just went back to being great colleagues. But I established that I don’t take any nonsense, so nothing like that ever happened again.”
After a brief stint in television in the 1980s, Rippon knows all about editing. and an emphasis on watching TV at breakfast. But when I ask her what she thinks of Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby's row on ITV's This Morning, she's famously coy.
“I never publicly complain about anyone,” she says. “I could share this strange opinion privately, but I am well aware that the public pays my salary either directly to the BBC or indirectly through advertising on ITV. They expect us to be professional and leave our drama at home. They don't want two people who clearly don't like each other to show it on air. I've seen it, the public has seen it, and they don't like it. My advice: act like you do in Hollywood and just smile.”
Opposite us, BBC man Rippon is getting agitated; Strictly speaking, celebrities are kept on a very busy schedule. Just last week, singer-turned-actress Mika Paris, who took part in the project back in 2006, admitted that she still shudders from the memories: “It was terrible. There’s so much training and it’s so intense,” she said. When she was voted out in the second week, she was so happy to leave that she threw a party to celebrate.
Rippon, made of stronger material, is not going to give up early. In 2011, when she appeared on ITV's Dancing on Ice, she was given the proverbial boot in the first week and declared herself “very disappointed” with a capital “B” and a capital “D”. Her departure had a lot to do with the fact that she simply didn't have the same fan base as younger celebrities, so she didn't receive votes. But Strictly has a very different audience, and for them, Angela Rippon is the highest-grossing film. We want her to win the trophy. But is she ready to win?
“So many people are emotionally invested in my performance that I have to give it my all,” she says. “Winning, to be honest, is probably an ambition too far. But I want not only to take a walk, but also to talk about the benefits of dancing. If just a few viewers at home see me, 79 years old, happily singing the cha-cha-cha, and decide to take a Silver Swans class or learn salsa, I will feel like a winner. This will be my glitter ball.”
Strictly Come Dancing returns on Saturday 16 September at 6.35pm on BBC One. Angela Rippon's weekly Strictly diary will appear in the Telegraph every Friday from September 22