Sandi Toksvig - The Great Dane interviewed

PUBLISHED: 13:07 15 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:03 20 February 2013

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig

Katie Jarvis catches up with The News Quiz presenter and comedienne

Ive just interviewed the leader of the opposition.

David who?

Ah no, sorry; not that one. I mean the leader of the real opposition. The one who makes MPs squirm; whose comments leave them teetering on the edge of their safe seats; the one everybody in Westminster listens to with fear and trepidation, not at midday on a Wednesday but on a Friday night. News Quiz night. The quiz that probes their weaknesses with rapier-sharp wit.

I dont care whos in power whether its Labour, Liberals or Conservatives, says Sandi Toksvig, firmly. We have a duty to point out the foibles of Government. And I absolutely know that many, many people in Parliament listen to the programme. Her chuckle is deliciously wicked.

If David or Nick could put things as succinctly as the News Quiz team, theyd have their trendily scruffy trainers comfortably stretched under the cabinet table by now. But theyre not going to get far with the British voting public by tediously calling for righteous inquiries into this and stronger ministerial codes for that (cue mass rolling of eyes and heavy yawning). Sandi & co express the true outrage of the nation such as, for example, when the National Bullying Helpline revealed frightened calls from Number 10 staff. You do not disclose confidential information about the Government on the radio, Sandi railed, crossly.

You leave it on the train.

Im talking to her just as shes about to go on stage at Bath Literature Festival. The interview is technically over, but she and her civil partner Debbie wont hear of me disappearing off into the depths of the night. No, no! Come and have a drink in the writers room, they warmly insist. So here we are, having a laugh, inventing a new panel game: identify the MP by their expenses. Easy! Sandi says. 80,000 mortgages: Labour. Duck houses and moats: Tory. Beard trimmer: Hazel Blears.

Shes very funny. Naturally funny. You have a very quirky way of looking at very ordinary things, Debbie says to her. Its like when I dropped a coin in the kitchen the other day and you instantly shouted Heads or tails?.

Its clever humour. Theres pretty much always a point to it, whether political, or simply to make you see the gloriously funny side of life. The first-class honours degree from Cambridge might not be used in its original fields of law, archaeology or anthropology but the sharp mind that earned it never stops working for a second.

But you do have to take some responsibility for what you say, Sandi says, as we sit over a cup of tea, and what I love is that people like Jeremy Hardy and Andy Hamilton [her regular panellists] are very bright: they have paid attention to the news; they know what has happened and theyre not just making jokes for their own sake.

Thats where we really miss the great Linda Smith, who was a genius and who made fabulous political points as well as being intensely funny. Sue Perkins can do it; weve got a new woman called Susan Calman who can do it; so there are women, but its rare.

And its a fair point. Where are all the funny women in a mans world of satire? Not many people know, for example, that two pilots were originally shot for Have I Got News for You, one hosted by Angus Deayton, the other by Sandi. But it was deemed at the time that a male presenter was a more suitable choice for a topical news quiz. Much good that did Angus.

Ah, well. The lesson is to stay out of the news yourself, Sandi points out.

Its a shame, in many ways, that she is this side of Westminster, for she not only makes a lot of sense; shes also passionate and well informed about her causes. Particularly the suppression of women in the world a subject she finds far from funny. While a lack of female presence on certain radio and television shows is an irksome bone of contention, she has not-infrequently pointed out that the larger picture is far more shocking.

When I talk to boys and girls about womens history and diversity, I take a jar of 100 sweets with me and an empty jar, and I ask the children to imagine that the 100 sweets are as many things in the world as you can own. Then I tell them to put the number of sweets into the empty jar that they think are owned by women in the world, and to leave the rest for men. Its interesting: they usually put about 30 sweets into the empty jar - and I have to pour them out again and just keep one in there. You can feel their shock.

Afghanistan, where British men and women are dying on a daily basis, recently changed the law under Hamid Karzai to prevent women from going to the doctors without permission from their husbands. In the Congo, rape is being used as a war weapon. We dont know what the figures are, maybe half a million women so far. The reason? I dont know the reason for it other than male superior strength. And yet, if you look at certain aspects of life, there are institutions such as womens micro banks: the most successful in the world. Yet we never seem to say: Lets transpose those models into something bigger.

Shes written her own book, Girls are Best, which turns history into her-story, reminding readers of great female achievements. In point of fact, it sells well to both sexes... But perhaps not to all ages. We were crying with laughter because we looked on Amazon the other day and saw a review from a man calling it feminist claptrap. He recommends that girls should be given books on child-rearing and household management.

She gives that deep chuckle once again. Evidently, my work here is done.

There are times, as she speaks especially on an emotive subject - that you can hear traces of her Danish origins. When Im tired, my children feel theyre being addressed by a troll, she says. She was born in Copenhagen in 1958, but spent much of her childhood elsewhere. Her father, Claus Toksvig whom she clearly adored was a foreign correspondent for Danish television who believed that education took place out in the world rather than in school. As a result, Sandi, her brother and sister were on the front row of some pretty classy world events. When Claus was commentating on the Apollo 11 landings in 69, Sandi was wandering round mission control in a big cowboy hat, smiling at everybody. The year before, the family had followed all the candidates round on the American campaign trail, meeting Nelson Rockefeller and George McGovern on the way.

When I look back on my childhood, I can see it was extraordinary, but it didnt seem extraordinary at the time. My father considered that, whatever they were teaching you in school, somebody had written a book about it that you could probably read overnight; lessons, on the other hand, took forever. He was impatient, a bit like myself.

She tells how her father hilariously explained French to her. The French word for horse is cheval, and its like that all the way through. They have a different word for every one of ours. (In fact, her inability to get on with the subject led her to take her only CSE within a dazzling panoply of otherwise high-scoring O levels which later led to a misunderstanding during an interview for a stop-gap job supervising shelf-filling. When asked if she had any CSEs, Sandi was delighted to be able to say she had one. She was turned down as under-qualified.)

Fortunately, her fathers laissez-faire attitude to school meant he was more understanding than most when she was expelled (more than once, usually for playing hooky). One time, her parents turned up at a parents evening to discover that not one of the teachers had a clue who their daughter was. Another headmistress told Claus his daughter should aim for agricultural college. He laughed for a week. Afterwards, he would say to me, The soil, Sandi! The soil! When I got into Cambridge, he was desperate for me to write and tell her.

She absolutely shone at university, walking off with a first-class degree and academic prizes; but perhaps more importantly, it introduced her to the Footlights, where she performed alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.

When I told my wonderful director of studies, Dr Swallow, who I think now runs Courtauld Institute, that I was thinking of staying on to do my PhD, she said, Sit down, Sandi, have a sherry and stick to acting. Youll be bored of academia. Come back when youre old.

It was good advice. Via a series of chance encounters and events, Sandi was spotted by a director, and ended up beating several thousand applicants to a starring role on ITVs Saturday morning childrens programme No 73.

Everything Ive done is by chance. Ive done nothing on purpose, she says.

Unsurprisingly, then, happenstance is a theme running through her latest book, The Chain of Curiosity, which brings together columns from four years of writing for the Sunday Telegraph. Along with her ruminations on life, they include stories such as that of Gracie Fields musical director, Harry Parr Davies who, en route to America in the Queen Mary, leant over the ships rail and lost his only pair of glasses. They were returned to him by the purser. A fellow passenger had put his hand out of a porthole to see if it was raining, and the glasses had landed in his palm. Then there was a Major Summerford, struck by lightning no fewer than three times. Youd have thought hed have taken the hint and earthed himself, but no: four years after his death, his tombstone was destroyed by lightning.

Indeed, the last time Sandi was in town, she went to the Roman Baths to look around, And a senator came up to me and said, Oh, hello, Sandi! It turns out to be somebody Id worked with years ago on No 73 who was working in the Baths as an actor playing a Roman senator. What are the chances that you go to the Baths and meet a senator you know? Slight, I would have thought.

You would never guess shes about to go on stage, to talk to a packed hall; shes relaxed, conversational, hugely entertaining, and not in any way self-obsessed. Where do you live? How old are your children? she asks. But technical issues are pressing sound checks and other such practicalities.

Before she goes, theres one question I have to ask. Many might envy her her settled life, with three clearly well-adjusted, happy children and a close relationship with Debbie. But for comedy fans such as I, its her intimacy with greatly-missed heroes such as Alan Coren, Linda Smith and Humphrey Lyttleton thats most to be coveted.

Ah, yes, she says. And I hope theyre all sitting there together.

The very first time I met Linda, I was sitting in a cafe, waiting to go into the theatre for News Quiz and eating a yoghurt. Linda sat on the stool next to me, and said, I always knew youd be rock n roll. Dull woman eating yoghurt! It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

And Humph?

Just a gentleman. The last time we performed together, we were working at a theatre doing a Christmas special for the radio. Humph and I were sitting backstage on some folded-up old velvet curtains, eating sausage rolls. And I remember I was tired, so I put my head on his shoulder and he put his arm round me and we sat like that for about 10 minutes. I can still feel his sweater against my cheek...

And I probably remember those moments so much more than I remember them being funny.

The Chain of Curiosity by Sandi Toksvig is published by Sphere, price 9.99.

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