“Hang on two seconds, there’s someone at the door..” says Kirsty Wark as we discuss her new show A Question of Taste. “If I don’t catch him now then I won’t get this parcel for another month or so… Where do I sign?”
Sitting on the other end of the phone as the Newsnight presenter made small talk with the postman would have seemed odd five minutes earlier, but Wark had already answered her other phone mid-interview to tell a Daily Mail journalist that they’d missed their spot, so I was getting used to it. If I’d learned nothing else about the Scottish MP-botherer, it was that she’s a very busy woman, and her schedule has been especially frenetic over the last couple of months. In between commuting back and forth between London and Glasgow (!!) to film Newsnight, she’s managed to come second in Celebrity Masterchef and record new foodie quiz show A Question of Taste..
“I absolutely loved my time on Masterchef – even though I put put myself through the wringer!” she says enthusiastically. “But I was amazed by the age-range of those watching, so I was pleased to do A Question of Taste because I think it’s something that everyone can enjoy. I think a child could watch it with his grandfather or some people could watch it with a glass of wine as they cook the dinner.”
There’s certainly no shortage of cookery shows in the schedule at the minute (as anyone who watched any TV over Christmas can tell you) and Wark is hoping that this new early-evening offering will be to viewer’s ..umm.. taste. But it’s not the first time that she’s dabbled with light entertainment and she hopes that the new show can hit the same notes as A Question of Genius did a couple of years back.
“What worked about Question of Genius was its positive nature. You weren’t hoping that people got things wrong, you were hoping they’d get things right. Hopefully we’ve got the same atmosphere here. It’s a joy to meet people who are so smart and sharp and funny and passionate about their subject, what’s not to love?”
Whether people will love A Question of Taste remains to be seen, but the jury is well and truly in when it comes to Wark’s stint on Celebrity Masterchef, after she proved a hit with legions of viewers. Even her Newsnight colleagues were ‘obsessed’ with it. I bet the work-shy slackers were pleased to finally have something to watch on daytime TV..
“I do my homework for Newsnight, but by god I had to do my homework for Masterchef,” she explains. “Unlike when you’re cooking at home with a glass of wine in your hand, thinking you might be having a friend over for dinner at 8, maybe 8.30, it literally is what you see. I was practicing at home beforehand, but getting the order right was the real trick. I suppose it’s like the running order for a TV programme in many senses. It was all about organisation. I loved it.”
Wark came second to former England rugby captain Phil Vickery in a fiercely fought final.. (“He’s so lovely – apart from the ears he’s fabulous”) ..and couldn’t resist mulling over some of her mishaps.
“I made some massive mistakes,” she laughs. “For instance, the reason my crème brûlée didn’t set when we were in Ireland was quite interesting. We had raspberries that were 3 or 4 days old and therefore very juicy and acidic, so when that happens then your crème brûlée is going to curdle. In my own defence! Of course under-cooking your chicken is inexcusable. That was a bad one.”
Reality TV has a way of opening doors though (not that Wark needs anyone to open doors for her at the Beeb!) and she was back on our TVs over Christmas, appearing in the Absolutely Fabulous festive specials. “I’m not in the Christmas one, but there’s a New Year one which I’m in and an Olympics episode. I’m so in awe of Jennifer Saunders, I think she’s a brilliant writer and incredibly funny, in fact the same goes for Joanna Lumley and the whole team. We had great fun during filming, Lindsay Duncan, Lulu, Emma Bunton.. it was a full house!”
She also had a cameo in Doctor Who a couple of years back and after discussing the prospect of a movie version (“Why not!?”) we got back to Masterchef, and I can’t help but ask if facing John and Greg at the end of every cook-off was as difficult as grilling our beloved politicians on a daily basis. “No..” she says after a couple of seconds deliberation. “But it was very difficult.” At that point, the politics student in me awoke. “Who was the toughest politician to interview? Probably Peter Mandleson. He has a real veneer to him that’s difficult to get past, he’s very self-contained, a cool customer.”
Wark has been grilling MPs for the best part of three decades, but she made her name in 1990 when she grilled PM Margaret Thatcher at the height of the Poll Tax Crisis. Thatcher had famously refused to be interviewed by a woman and the Beeb resisted great pressure from Downing Street to swap Wark for one of her male colleagues.
“I think it was important for BBC to stand it’s ground on that issue,” she explained looking back. “I remember Dr Stoppard interviewing her once and she was lampooned by a member of public over the Belgrano, but I think that was the first time she’d had a political interview with a woman and she had a lot of training beforehand. It was a difficult time for her, but I’d done a lot of homework and it paid off. I was actually pregnant at the time as well!”
A Question of Taste continues this evening at 7.30pm on BBC2