LOUISE MINCHIN says you can’t fake TV chemistry
On a dark night last year, former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin found herself standing on a frozen lake in Finland, gazing into a hole cut into the ice.
Wearing a wetsuit, Louise, 54, had to lower herself through the hole into 0.6c water and swim 15 metres under the ice to emerge at the next hole. It sounds like the stuff of nightmares.
‘There were so many things about it that were so wrong,’ Louise admits merrily. ‘My mind was going: “I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s ridiculous!” I had to pull myself under and I realised I was so buoyant I was pressed up against the ice under the water. I managed to work out very quickly (because if you don’t you’re going to die) that if I pushed my hand against the ice I could swim on my back. It was pretty awful.
‘Time goes very weirdly when you’re in that situation. It was only 25 seconds of swimming, but it felt like 25 minutes.
‘But it was amazing. I was sliding along [under] the ice, which was really smooth. Then suddenly, I thought: “Oh God, I’m never going to get out.” But after that panic, I did get out and I was laughing my head off from the explosion of being literally on the edge of what I thought I could do, combined with the adrenaline and endorphins. So I went back under and swam back to where I came from.’
Louise (pictured) lives in Chester with David, 59, her restaurateur husband of 25 years, and their two labradors (her daughters are both away at university)
Hearing this story, I conclude that Louise is possibly a masochist and/or a tad unhinged. Either way, she’s definitely much braver than most of us.
So, is the presenter and mother-of-two — Mia, 21, and Scarlett, 18 — completely fearless?
‘Oh no, I definitely have fears,’ she admits. ‘It’s not normal to be swimming under ice — a survival mechanism kicks in. But I push the boundaries of where my fear is. Every time you do that, you learn a lot about yourself. It empowers you in all parts of your life.’
Perhaps this is proof of a midlife crisis?
‘No, I’d say it’s getting back to what I really love to do,’ she laughs. ‘My family know what I love, they know I’m not reckless, so they’re very happy to support me.’
Talking on Zoom from her home in Chester, where she lives with David, 59, her restaurateur husband of 25 years, and their two labradors (her daughters are both away at university), Louise is ebullient and huge fun, endearingly dressed-down in a white T-shirt, specs on, no make-up and hair unbrushed.
It’s a different look from ‘groomed BBC Breakfast host’, which is what she’s best known for, having spent nearly 20 years getting up to greet the country every weekday morning.
Yet two years ago, she quit the show.
In 2013, inspired by filming for BBC Breakfast in the Olympic velodrome, she decided to train for triathlons
In the book she speaks of successfully challenging her BBC bosses about her co-presenter Dan Walker always being the one to say the show’s first ‘hello’ and do the day’s biggest interview — so from then on, it was even-stevens
However, she stresses — unlike the recently disastrous dynamic between Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield on ITV’s This Morning (the latter has now left the show), she and Dan always remained friends
And now I don’t have to care what I look like,’ she cries. ‘I think you get to a point in life where you don’t care so much about anything. I call it my menopause superpower.’
That’s not to say Louise has given up the ghost. On the contrary, after a few years of struggling with the menopause, early morning starts and empty-nest syndrome, she’s embracing the positives of midlife.
‘I definitely feel I’m having a second lease of life; I’ve completely changed things,’ she says. ‘Of course change can be scary, but I think scary is a good thing.’
One change was rediscovering sport — which she’d loved as a teenager, but then abandoned when she worried her shoulders were becoming too muscly.
In 2013, inspired by filming for BBC Breakfast in the Olympic velodrome, she decided to train for triathlons. So far she’s completed 25, including two of the toughest in the world — the Patagonman (in South America) and Norseman (in Norway).
Last month, she and daughter Mia ran the London marathon. It’s all led to a boost in confidence and strength at a time when many women can feel emotionally and physically overwhelmed
Louise is as busy as ever, presenting programmes on a freelance basis; hosting the podcast Her Spirit, which encourages women to get active and healthy; and chairing the judges for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction
I’m fitter, stronger and more resilient than in my 20s
For her new book, the aptly titled Fearless, she documents 17 terrifying-sounding challenges (including the ice swim) she’s completed over the past two years with other more experienced women.
Last month, she and daughter Mia ran the London marathon.
It’s all led to a boost in confidence and strength at a time when many women can feel emotionally and physically overwhelmed.
‘I am fitter, stronger and more mentally resilient than I was in my 20s, 30s or early 40s,’ she says proudly.
Louise has certainly needed that resilience. In the past few years she has endured the trauma of being stalked by a stranger who, in July 2020, made a series of violent rape and death threats, not only against her, but also Mia, then 18.
At the end of 2021, former soldier Carl Davies pleaded guilty to ‘causing alarm and distress’ to mother and daughter. He was jailed for two years and eight months, and given an indefinite restraining order.
It was not his first stalking conviction: Davies had previously served a 15-month suspended sentence for stalking his ex-partner, Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts, for five years, threatening to stab and burn her.
Louise doesn’t want to dwell on the fact Davies will soon be eligible for parole, but of the ordeal she says starkly: ‘Life will probably never be the same again. The honest truth is that it changes you for ever. It had a massive impact on all of us — we felt genuinely really scared.
You never get used to those hours. I always felt jetlagged
‘We had to change lots of things — our security, where we went running, and I was never out on my own. Obviously, that’s different now, but I don’t think it’s anything any woman will ever forget.’
She continues: ‘You don’t have to be in the public eye for something like this to happen to you, but I was always wary about people — always cautious about what I posted on social media; I never showed pictures of the girls. But this changes the way you look around, how you feel when people come up to you. If someone asks for a selfie I say “No”, because you definitely feel more vulnerable.’
‘Anyway . . . we move on!’
It’s telling how much Louise is still rattled by the ordeal, because she’s clearly made of sterner stuff. The eldest of three children of an Army major, she says she’s always been a tomboy.
‘As a child, I loved climbing things, I was always into swimming. My father used to take my brother, sister and me on expeditions — not exactly route marches, but big, big walks.’
LOUISE ON CHALLENGEOF BEING A TV HUSBAND AND WIFE
I had already fought and won some important battles for equality during my TV career, including a bruising and longwinded fight to be paid the same as my male co-presenters sitting next to me.
The other battle was to make sure women presenting BBC Breakfast were allowed occasionally to lead the programme.
I had noticed that almost every day my male colleague was given the prestigious task of saying hello at the top of each hour, introducing the programme and doing the first interview.
Once I’d noticed how often it happened, I couldn’t unsee it. Why was it happening?
Why was I always the second person to speak, even though I was older and more experienced? What message did it send to all our female viewers? That I wasn’t as important as my male counterpart? That I was second fiddle? That I didn’t deserve to be there? What implication did that have for their own lives, and their own careers?
I thought it was unfair, unequal and also immensely damaging.
So, I set out to try to change things, gently at first. I asked our (mostly male) directors if maybe, every now and then, I could start the programme? Ask the first question? Take charge of the most important story of the day?
Some let me, others didn’t. When they didn’t, I asked why. The most coherent answer they had was this: ‘Because this is the way we have always done it.’
There it was: age-old, systemic discrimination built into the fabric of the programme.
For the next three months I took notes of dates and times, who did which interview and when. My hunch was right: it was almost always the man who took the lead. Armed with the facts, I arranged a meeting with my boss at the time, which went like this.
‘I have noticed that my co-presenter almost always seems to do the first interview of the day. Could we change it so that I can do it occasionally?’
‘That’s not the case. They don’t.’
I knew him well…
‘I thought you might say that, so I’ve made notes.
‘We can do one of two things. I can show these to you, and you can change it. Or you believe me and just change it?’
He never asked for my notes, and from that day it was set in stone: every other day, the woman on the sofa was allowed to lead the programme, to be in charge.
EXTRACTED from Fearless Adventures With Extraordinary Women by Louise Minchin (£18.99, Bloomsbury), out this Thursday. ©Louise Minchin 2023.
To order a copy for £17.09 (offer valid until 05/06/23; UK P&P free on orders over £25), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937
In 2019, she made huge waves by being one of the first women to discuss her menopause on television — owning up to suffering from a short temper, hot flushes (the studio’s air conditioning was switched to a super-cold ‘Louise’ setting to help her cope) and heart palpitations.
Such admissions from celebrities such as Davina McCall and Mariella Frostrup are now ubiquitous, but at the time they were ground-breaking. ‘I wanted to open up the box but it felt very scary telling six million people I felt menopausal because it was a taboo subject,’ she says. ‘It could have been career-limiting. People could have written me off.
‘But talking about it was so powerful; at the time, I was in a really, really difficult place. I had a lot of complicated things going on both physically and psychologically. I was feeling very anxious and vulnerable.
‘So it was brilliant because I showed a lot of people that there I was sitting on the BBC sofa, holding down a really pressured job, but with all this stuff going on.’
‘When I signed up for BBC Breakfast I genuinely never thought I’d be there at 50. There were women ahead of me, like Fiona [Bruce], and thank goodness for them.’
Hormone replacement therapy, combined with her hardcore exercise regime, helped her overcome the worst of her symptoms.
So why, then, aged 52, did Louise take the momentous decision to leave the cosy BBC Breakfast sofa?
In the book she speaks of successfully challenging her BBC bosses about her co-presenter Dan Walker always being the one to say the show’s first ‘hello’ and do the day’s biggest interview — so from then on, it was even-stevens.
‘I don’t like being confrontational but it was really important to me,’ she says.
However, she stresses — unlike the recently disastrous dynamic between Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield on ITV’s This Morning (the latter has now left the show), she and Dan always remained friends.
‘You really have to trust your co-presenter. If that trust is gone it’s difficult to build it back,’ Louise says. ‘I don’t know if it has [gone with Holly and Phillip], but I do know the camera doesn’t lie. On television, body language is very powerful — even just a twitch of an eyebrow. Viewers can see what’s going on and as soon as you, as a presenter, are conscious of it, it gets worse.
‘Dan and I always had each other’s back and it was so important to know that.’
So if it wasn’t on account of her co-presenter, why did she leave?
‘This was not a decision I came to lightly at all. I put a lot of thought into it, but . . . tragically . . .’ she starts to laugh.
‘The amount of sleep I’ve had [since leaving] has just been brilliant. Because that was the main issue.’
For nearly two decades Louise had been rising at 3.40am.
‘You never get used to those hours. I felt permanently jetlagged,’ she recalls.
‘I became obsessed with sleep, and had a constant nagging at the back of my brain: “You need to go to bed now.” I had to be incredibly organised about my social life.
‘But then I met a sleep expert who said: “If you were left to sleep naturally, when would you wake up?” The answer was 9.15am, which was when the programme came off air. He looked at me and went: “Hmm. You’re struggling with biology.”
‘I took that quite seriously. If you read any of the research, it’s not good for you to be up in the middle of the night. So many people do shifts and it can have a big impact on your health. It hadn’t yet on mine, but I didn’t need it to.’
Mia leaving for university three years ago (Scarlett followed last year) made Louise realise how quickly time was passing and how it was now or never.
‘As soon as the door slammed shut there was this really visceral sense of loss. Just walking past her bedroom and she wasn’t there . . . I found it really hard. I love it when the girls are here. They’re like boomerangs, always coming back.’
She loves her less regimented life with no defined working hours.
Why was I always the second person to speak, even though I was older and more experienced?
‘I’m at the point where I do like them to warn me they’re coming home — otherwise there’s no food in the house! Some days I don’t know what day it is,’ she admits.
She’s been known to lie in until 10am, yet that doesn’t mean she’s slacking. In fact, she’s as busy as ever, presenting programmes on a freelance basis; hosting the podcast Her Spirit, which encourages women to get active and healthy; and chairing the judges for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
There’s no let-up up on the cards: another book on a mystery subject is planned and in July she’s signed up for a 11-mile relay swim across Lake Windermere, for which she’ll warm up with a three-mile swim across a Welsh lake.
‘It’s going to be 10c, apparently. Cold! And I’m not really prepared. I’ll be in that water for an hour and I’ve only swum twice since January because I was training for the marathon. But it’ll be fine, won’t it?’ she laughs.
‘Being busy is my happy place,’ she adds. ‘Hopefully, I’ll live to 80 and will still be swimming and doing races.’