Kirsty Wark on staying visible
She may have reached a stage of life that used to be discussed in hushed tones, but Kirsty Wark has no plans to fade into the background. She talks to Vicky Allan about her Bafta-nominated film, her rules for juggling work and family ... and the sleaze cr
AT an age when it’s said women start to become invisible, veteran presenter Kirsty Wark, grand dame of Newsnight, isn’t budging from our screens. Disappearing is something that, at 62 years old, she is absolutely not going to do, nor does she believe that any woman her age has to do it. “Do you remember when Germaine Greer said she felt invisible after her 40s?” she says, during an interview she’s squeezed into her hectic schedule. “It’s just rubbish. You can feel invisible if you want to be invisible. But you don’t need to be invisible. You’re visible to the people you want to be visible to.”
Wark has seen other women of her age disappear. People who have clearly given up and thought, “that’s it”. This, she says, is extraordinary, given current life expectancy, and she’s just not doing it. “Touch wood, I would like to be alive when I’m 90. I think we’ve just got to have a different attitude to it. We are major breadwinners. We are major carers. And we’ve got a lot to contribute.”
Wark remains a key figure in television current affairs, one of the relatively few women on the BBC top earner list published earlier this year, bringing in between £150,000 and £199,999 a year. “I feel as empowered as ever,” she observes. “There are key things that I want to do, and I’m very lucky I get to do them. You have to keep changing and developing. You can’t expect some kind of golden ticket. You have to earn it all the time and you have to be on your game.”
And all this, despite the fact Wark is no longer in the flush of youth; she is, in fact, a menopausal woman. This puts her at a stage of life that has, until now, been rarely discussed openly – a fact Wark is working hard to change. Her groundbreaking documentary on the menopause has been nominated for a Scottish Bafta award. And it says a great deal about its taboo-busting impact that, after four decades working in television, and despite having famously skewered Margaret Thatcher during an interview, the film has generated the most enthusiastic response of any of her work. Everywhere she has gone in recent times, she says, women have approached her about it. “It was like people were suddenly saying, ‘Oh my God we can talk about this thing.’ Women, from CEOs in banks to women working in Marks and Spencer’s, were coming up to me and saying that the next day they went to their GPs and said, ‘Look I don’t want to stay on anti-depressants’. Or asking, ‘Why did we not discuss HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy]?’”
The Insiders’ Guide To The Menopause, which Wark presents and in which she tells her personal story, is a landmark film. Made by BBC Scotland, it’s the first ever full-length documentary to have been made by the BBC on the subject, though it affects all women. It was the brainchild, not of Wark herself, but of executive producer May Miller, who had long wanted to make a film on the menopause. Knowing that Wark had gone through what’s called a medical menopause following a hysterectomy, Miller had thought the presenter would be ideal to front it.
Its message is that the worst thing about the menopause is we do not talk about it. We ridicule it, and approach it in fear. But, as Wark points out, it can be “a liberation”. Wark is talking to me in a week that sees her head off to Perth to help host a Menopause Café at a festival, dart down to London for a few days filming for Newsnight, and then head back up for the Scottish Bafta awards. Clearly, the menopause hasn’t slowed her down, or made her less visible.
That word “liberation” may surprise many women, for whom the perimenopause – the period of hormonal changes that leads up to the cessation of menstruation – is characterised by hot flushes, insomnia and low moods. What’s liberating about that?
“You don’t have to worry about going to buy tampons,” declares Wark. “I mean, really … As long as you’re happy to be there and you’ve had what you’ve needed from life beforehand and by that I mean if your reproductive life has been what you wanted and desired, it’s a liberation.”
Wark, who has two grown-up children with her husband, the STV Director of Content Alan Clements, is one of those blessed women. But many women – even those who’ve had the reproductive life they wanted – still experience the menopause as a loss. “That’s because they feel – there’s my sexuality gone,” she suggests. “But we know that’s not true.”
The Insiders’ Guide To The Menopause attempts to cut through some of the confusion around the health risks of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and there is plenty. For in 2003, research was published showing links between the hormones and increased rate of breast cancer. The impact was huge. Many women stopped taking the drugs immediately. And while those links have since been found to be overstated, the media remains littered with different messages about how good or bad it is for you. “Of course, we now know that that whole original study was flawed,” says Wark. “You [can] have a predisposition towards breast cancer. It may speed it up, but it will not give you breast cancer.”
Running through this film, therefore, is a story of a generation who ditched HRT, out of fear, and missed out on its benefits. Wark herself was thrown into medical menopause at the age of 47, and went straight onto HRT. At the time she “felt fab”. But, years later, after news emerged of the link with breast cancer, she went cold turkey, ditched the hormones and was plunged straight into menopause.
“Honestly if you’d been on HRT and come off it, it’s like whooooff,” she recalls, “there is a very big difference. The trouble was it was that to nothing. Because I had had a hysterectomy and my ovaries had been taken there was no oestrogen at all there.”
The film is frequently funny as well as informative. An interview with Jennifer Saunders – who talks about what it was like to be knocked into the menopause when she had treatment for breast cancer – makes for sobering, but hilarious, viewing. “When May came to me to do the documentary, I said, ‘I’ll only do it if it’s got humour in it’,” says Wark. “There would be nothing worse than a turgid, ‘Oh my God it’s the menopause’ documentary. That’s why I got hold of Jennifer – to make it light-hearted. Women are very funny when they all get together. And that lot were.”
For Wark, the biggest symptom of coming off HRT was sleeplessness, though this has improved somewhat since she returned to a low dose. Have there been times when her work was affected by what she was going through physically? “No, because you summon your energy for your work. And you make sure you are on your game. You don’t want any free pass. Absolutely no free pass, thank you.”
In a life that has involved weekly trips between Scotland and London, Wark has always given her energy to her work, and also her family, even when exhausted. When her children were young she had a rule that she would not go away from home for more than three nights. On one occasion she went to film in the Himalayan foothills and returned after three nights. “I was back – tired and wrung out. But my children didn’t suffer. And I did the good work.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges: “Something has to give. Nobody is a superwoman by the way. There’s no such thing.”
Has the menopause brought worries about how she looks? Wark, who has previously dismissed the idea of having plastic surgery, appears unconcerned about age ravaging her beauty. “Not really. It’s more that you feel a bit more rickety in the old joints.” A scan carried out for the purpose of the documentary showed she had osteopenia (loss of bone density). “I got freaked out by that,” she says, particularly since she was a person who already exercised. “I play tennis a lot. I’d play tennis every day if I could. ” Recently she and her family were in Arran, a holiday location she has visited since childhood, and, she recalls, “It pished with rain the whole time, but there were the four of us, the family, and we played tennis indoors every single day. Twice a day one day.”
ONE thing Wark makes clear is she does not feel old. The need to keep fit and look after yourself is her mantra. Though her own parents are no longer living – her mother passed away in 2008 and her father died of cancer in 1993 – she observes many women of her age are “pulled this way and that, by parents, by children and by grandchildren”. “It’s great to be on hand. But be on hand, don’t be on tap. There’s a huge difference. You’ve got to keep fit, look after yourself and carve out time for yourself.”
Her own mother helped out with her grandchildren, but always prioritised her own activities. “Sometimes I’d be pissed off. I’d say, ‘Can you look after the kids?’ And she’d say, ‘Well I’ve got my bridge today, and I’m volunteering at the hospital. In the end I said, ‘Thank God for that because bridge kept her as sharp as a tack.’ These things matter.”
What Wark wants is for mothers and daughters to talk about this subject. Wark’s mother described to her how she had been through an earlyish menopause in her mid-40s. Wark’s own daughter, Caitlin, at 26, is following in her mother’s footsteps, in her first job in journalism at Homes And Interiors Scotland. “She just knows this stuff and she knows to keep fit. That is a key thing, fitness. And to eat well.”
Not everyone, of course, can have a menopause, or a life, like Wark’s. One can’t help but feel that she has been not only talented and driven, but also lucky – the daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, who went to Wellington independent girls’ school, whose career as a presenter was kicked off when she was spotted sitting in a presenter’s chair as a stand-in during a lighting check, and who ended up as one half of Scotland’s most significant television power couple.
To her credit, though, this good fortune is something she acknowledges. “I’ve been very privileged in the career I have had. Not everybody gets the opportunity. I think I have great opportunities. I feel liberated about what I can do at work so I feel very lucky. Lots of people do not have that luxury.”
Often she seems immune to some of the problems that afflict women’s careers. For instance, she can’t recall experiencing much in the way of sexism or sexual harassment. Never has she had the horror of the kind of encounter of which we have heard too many in recent weeks – but she is emphatically supportive of those who have told their
own #metoo stories following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.
“I would say I was very lucky that I was never sexually harassed,” she says. “There was an incident in which I was in a car going north from London and the driver said I’m a bit tired maybe we should stop for the night. I just said, no, no, I can take over the driving. But that was it, and it didn’t occur to me that it was significant, because I wasn’t in that mindset. And I’ve never had anything like that with someone in a power position – which is awful for women when their next job may depend on it. So Weinstein being called out was a huge thing in terms of unlocking the gates.”
“As a feminist,” she adds, “I thought we were getting away from all this in the 1970s and 1980s, and my God, I’m not saying it’s endemic but it’s terrible. And also people are still reluctant to name and shame. I might be able to handle it now but what if you’re a 22-year-old researcher in your first three-month contract, having got a flat in London that you paid a six-month deposit. Really?”
This past weekend when she was in Perth at the Women of the World (WOW) festival, for the third of a series of Menopause Cafes, inspired by her documentary, she talked about what it means to be 60. “Sixty to me means spending as much time as possible with family and friends,” she says. “Travel, travel. I have lots of places I want to see and go. Sixty means maybe getting a little bit more wisdom as I go, reading books I haven’t had a chance to read. Finishing tapestries. All that kind of cr*p ... I’ve got a bucket list. I want to join a choir, get another couple of books written, travel to South America.”
When it comes to the menopause, Wark is not the only one to have talked openly about it. Since Germaine Greer published her 1991 book, The Change, there has been a building wave of writing on the subject. It’s been said that so-called baby boomers, like Wark – those in the 1950s and early 1960s – have been the generation that have owned everything, who have broken all the taboos. Here they are doing it again with the menopause. Is there any taboo-busting conversation she feels her generation have not had? “I think death is a really difficult conversation. Fewer of us are religious. Also people want to think they’re going to live a long life.”
When it comes to breaking the culture of silence over the menopause, however, she believes there is still a long way to go. “There’s one very high-profile television presenter,” she rails, “who four weeks ago went to her doctor and he just immediately offered her anti-depressants. It was like, have you not seen this documentary? Don’t you know that we know now?
“We will not be fobbed off.”
It speaks volumes that Wark’s work on The Insider’s Guide To The Menopause has generated the most enthusiastic response of anything she has done throughout her career