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Oldie of the Year 2023 – Angela Rippon. By Gyles Brandreth

Blog | By Gyles Brandreth | Nov 23, 2023

Angela Rippon, Oldie of the Year (Neil Spence photography)

At the Oldie of the Year Award, our champion winner Angela Rippon, 79, said, 'When I was 50, John Birt, then Director-General of the BBC, said, "You've had your day. It's time to let younger women have a go." He managed to be both misogynist and sexist at the same time.

'Well, just recently, someone my age at the supermarket said, 'I'm so thrilled you're on Stricly now. At our age, we just disappear. Hope you make some headlines."''

Angela signed off, saying, 'Stop writing us off!'

ANGELA RIPPON, OLDIE OF THE YEAR, BY GYLES BRANDRETH

As the late, great Sir Bruce Forsyth would have said, ‘Didn’t she do well?’

She did better than well – she did brilliantly. In November 2023, Angela May Rippon, born in Plymouth on 12 October 1944, waltzed, tangoed, rumba’d and cha-cha-cha’ed her way to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom as the oldest ever contestant in the twenty-year history of the BBC’s most popular talent competition, Strictly Come Dancing.

If you follow the show, you will know that, apart from winning, ‘getting to Blackpool’ is what it’s all about. The Tower Ballroom, a late-Victorian Frank Matcham masterpiece (where Reginald Dixon played the famous organ from 1930, for forty years), is the Mecca of ballroom dancing. All the greats of ballroom have strutted their stuff on its fabulous sprung floor. Every year, it rocks to the World Modern Jive Championships. Every year, the Strictly contenders simply want to survive the early rounds to get themselves to Blackpool.

Angela Rippon did just that – in her eightieth year and in some style. With her professional dance partner, choreographer and coach, Kai Widdrington, 28, beneath the famous Blackpool chandelier, with apparently effortless grace, she danced her last dance: an American Smooth performed to the Ella Fitzgerald version of Tea for Two.

It was a fitting finale to a fabulous two months of Saturday-night telly in which the veteran newsreader wowed us with her high style and high kicks. She’s 79 and still doing the splits.

And, all through her run on Strictly, she kept going with her day job, too: researching, rehearsing and presenting Rip Off Britain, the BBC2 consumer affairs programme she co-hosts with two other golden oldies, Gloria Hunniford, 83, and Julia Somerville, 76.

‘I’ll stop working when the phone stops ringing,’ she says. ‘The splits – that’s nothing. It’s a party trick. It’s not dancing. It’s just that I’m flexible and strong.’

Angela knew she was never going to win Strictly. She was up against bobby-dazzling Bobby Brazier, aged 20, who beat her in the dance-off, as well as the two most likely eventual winners of the series: actress Ellie Leach, 22, and 29-year-old actor and dancer, Layton Williams, whose original claim to fame was playing the title role in Billy Elliot The Musical in London’s West End when he was twelve.

Without question, Angela has to be our Oldie of the Year because the honour goes to an individual deemed to be ‘making a contribution’ in later life while demonstrating that they still have (in the fine phrase of our founder, Richard Ingrams) ‘snap in their celery’. There’s crackle and pop as well as snap in Angela’s celery, I can tell you. And steel, too.

In Blackpool, actor Nigel Harman, 50, did not score as highly as he hoped and couldn’t hide his disappointment. His shoulders drooped; his face fell. Behind him stood Angela, with a worse score (she was bottom of the leader board) but head held high and dazzling smile firmly in place. Angela is the last of the great professionals.

She is a tough cookie and always has been. Her Devonian father was in the Royal Marines. Angela first saw him when he came back from the war in 1947. Her Scottish mother worked for a fine china company and as a seamstress. Angela left school at 17 and got a job in the photographic department at the Western Morning News. She had ambition from the start. I first met her 51 years ago. I can tell you the date because I keep a diary:

‘Tuesday, 12 September 1972. Last night I took the overnight sleeper to Plymouth. I am here recording Open House at Westward TV, edited and presented by Angela Rippon. She is alarmingly fierce with everybody, except me. We do the programmes “as live”, but in the middle of one of my pieces today I “dried”. I just came to a standstill. It was halfway through the recording. We had to stop the tape, roll back and start the entire programme all over again. She took it incredibly well.’

She was always lovely to me, but she could be quite frightening. When we filmed the last programme in the series, the floor manager got the final countdown wrong and didn’t give Angela time for a proper sign-off. She was not amused. I could tell that this was a formidable lady who was going places. As a young woman, you had to be formidable to go places in those days.

In 1974, she became the first woman to regularly read the news on BBC TV. In 1976, she burst out from behind her news desk to make her iconic national dance debut on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. The Nine O’Clock News, Top Gear, the original Come Dancing, the Eurovision Song Contest – you name it, she’s presented it. She’s done all sorts of good works, too. She chaired the English National Ballet. She is patron of the Old Time Dance Society. She is an ambassador for Silver Swans, the Royal Academy of Dance initiative, keeping older people fit through dance.

She is a cool customer – literally. She takes ice baths. She regularly survives three-minute sessions in a cryotherapy tank at minus 120 degrees centigrade. But she is a cool customer with a warm heart. I love her. I admire her old-school good manners, her matchless staying power and her indomitable work ethic. She is my kind of role model. Keep dancing – and you too can skip blithely into your ninth decade.

As Brucie would have said, ‘She’s our favourite.’