A woman of many talents, Clare Balding, former Downe House Head Girl, tells SN about her crazy broadcasting schedule, her latest novel for children and why she is passionate about promoting women’s sport
Clare Balding is just as you would expect her to be: warm, articulate, intelligent, inspiring. Most reassuring, though, is how down to earth the broadcaster and best-selling author remains despite the accolades that have been heaped upon her: OBE, BAFTA Special Award, Royal Television Society’s Presenter of the Year Award, Racing Journalist of the Year, to name but a few. “I don’t need freshly born kittens and lilies. I don’t even need a dressing room. I go and change in the loo if needs be.”
It is this lack of entitlement, along with her unerring professionalism, that has won over the hearts of pretty much the entire nation and made her the go-to presenter for so many of the sporting calendar’s biggest events.
When we meet she has just finished fronting Crufts, is in the middle of filming a Channel 4 documentary, When Football Banned Women, which tells the story of the globally feted Dick Kerr ladies and explains how the 50-year ban (1921-1971) came about. Then she’s onto the Boat Race, the America’s Cup (“something totally new for me to learn”), Wimbledon, swiftly followed by the European Women’s Football Championships in Holland, which she is also presenting for the first time. In amongst all this, she has her ongoing Radio 4 series, Ramblings, and is also in the throes of writing her second novel for children, a sequel to her hugely popular witty debut, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop. It has, she tips us off, a “certain Shergar theme to it”.
It’s exhausting just thinking about her schedule. And that’s not all of her commitments by any means, so just imagine when it’s an Olympic year. How on earth does she do it?
“There’s a lot of other stuff that I don’t do. My sister-in-law will rustle up dinner for 20 people without blinking – that would give me a heart attack. I don’t have kids. Alice [Arnold, her wife] plans our holidays. I’m pretty focused on what I do.” Focused, or a workaholic, perhaps? “Yes, it is a danger, ” she admits. “But I recognise it and pull back from it.”
The buzz of live coverage is hard to pass up, she admits: “I do love the energy and performance of live TV and radio, bringing a sporting event to life… trying to make people care about a race they’ve never watched before and they don’t know who half the swimmers, cyclists or whoever are.”
As the daughter of former racehorse trainer Ian Balding, sport was in her blood. “The whole family was into it and it was on TV all the time.” She did endless competitive riding in the holidays and played a lot of lacrosse at Downe House, where she was head girl. Sport is, she insists, hugely important to schoolchildren’s confidence.
“When you’re really struggling and feeling that you’re failing at something, it’s really good for showing you how to pick yourself up – not just how to succeed, but how to work in a team, how to react when someone else wins, how to get fit, to recover.”
It is also, she says, a valuable reminder that life’s “not all about being size zero and stick thin”. It’s a theme she deals with in The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, which tells the heartwarming story of a horse-mad 10-year-old girl, Charlie Bass, who has big thighs and even bigger dreams.
Although her school days are long behind her, Clare still remembers “the terror of changing into mufti at weekends”, and has some very sound advice for her younger self that schoolgirls would do well to heed: “Think less about what other people think and more about who you want to be.
If you were going to describe yourself in adjectives, what would you want to be described as? Do you want to be kind? Do you want to be thoughtful? Energetic? Generous, ambitious, competitive? Don’t think: ‘I want to have long straight hair and all the latest clothes.’ That is not who you are and that is not how you will be remembered.”
It is comments such as these that explain why Clare has become one of today’s most influential female role models. She is constantly flying the flag for women in sport and beyond, and has big aspirations. “In 10 years’ time I would like to open the sports pages of any newspaper and for it to be genuinely balanced.”
She believes women’s football holds the key and is hugely excited to start covering it. “Football is the biggie because so many people do it. It is going to reach a tipping point very soon where interest multiplies exponentially.” She is hopeful that it could go on the kind of journey that the Paralympics went on under her watch. “The more people that know about it, the more stories we can tell, the more familiar we can get people with the players, the more people will enjoy it and be interested.” And who better than Clare Balding to make that a reality?
Since this interview, Clare’s books are now both available to buy and can be found here