It All Began With A PO Box Ad In The Stage

We talk to Maggie Philbin about her television career which spans three decades

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Maggie was reunited with her former Swap Shop colleagues to celebrate 30th anniversary of the programme in December 2006.


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For those who are fortunate enough to meet their childhood heroes or object of a teenage crush or perhaps someone they admire greatly, the event can turn out to be a bitter disappointment. Which isn’t surprising as few could live up to expectations based on public image or indeed infatuation.

It happened to me recently when I had the opportunity to interview someone who I had held in high regard for many years only to discover that in reality they were pompous, boring and, if truth be told, drunk.

Maggie Philbin on the other hand was as far from disappointment as is possible. With an innate elegance and natural beauty, the years have been kind to her. I studied her face for signs of cosmetic intervention but there were none, just the same warm smile I remembered from Saturday mornings as a teenager.

Maggie stepped straight out of Manchester University, where she studied drama with classmates Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton and Rik Mayall and onto our TV screens in Swap Shop presenting the Saturday morning programme with Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin and John Craven.

“I was incredibly fortunate that the editor of the programme was an amazing woman called Rosemary Hill,” she says. “She had the blokes but they needed a girl. They tried going down the agent route but that didn’t throw anyone up so she put a box number ad in The Stage to see what happened.

“I thought it was a joke an ad with the title ‘Do you want to be a top TV personality?’ with a box number to reply to. But Rosemary was very clever. Under the list of questions like can you abseil, play an instrument etc. she added or would you be will to learn? So I answered the ad.”

It was Ben Elton who helped her prepare for the audition she explained. “He asked me ‘what are you going to wear? What are you going to go as?’ He meant are you going to go as a sexy young thing, hard nosed journalist, woman about town. I only decided when I went into a shop and chose an outfit that came with a free pair of boots. Those boots got me the job, I’ve still got them!

“I asked Rosemary some years later why she chose me and she replied that she asked me where I got my boots from and I managed to speak for 35 minutes about them. She knew she had got her girl!

“I was very green and made every mistake under the sun. But Rosemary gave me some really good advice, she told me not to copy anyone, she said ‘don’t try and be Valerie Singleton or Sue Lawley, we want you’. They allowed me to find my own style as it were. When I went to Tomorrow’s World I had that grounding and was able to do science my way.”

Although Maggie was always good at Science, her school wasn’t so she opted to take arts subjects knowing she would get good grades. She did and went onto to study Drama and English at Manchester.

“I had to pass the science block everyday on my way to drama which served as a constant reminder to me of what could have been. So doing Tomorrow’s World was like returning to science – I’m not a scientist but I love science.”

After a brief stint on the Show me Show, Maggie was offered Tomorrow’s World the day before she married co-presenter Keith Chegwin in 1982 but she didn’t accept it immediately. “I go cold when I think about it now! I wasn’t sure about Tomorrow’s World it was a different style to what I had been doing, very grown up. It was a full time job as a journalist, researching and writing stories and then filming them. I’m often asked if I understood what I was talking about!” She laughs.

Eight years of Tomorrow’s World were followed by a variety of television and radio programmes, including Hospital Watch, Bodymatters Roadshow, QED, and BBC Two’s women’s documentary series "The Doll’s House". In 2003 she spearheaded the BBC’s Talking Teenagers project across television and radio.

Today Maggie lives in Chiswick with her daughter Rose, named Rose after her mentor Rosemary Hill, and has regular slots on BBC Breakfast, Inside Out and Radio Berkshire.

“I used to live in Berkshire before moving to Chiswick around eight years ago,” she says. “I did the opposite to everyone else and moved back to the city! It took me a long time to decide to do it but I just felt that life generally would be better in London.

“After Rose was born I back-peddled in my career only taking on short term contract I didn’t want to feel like someone owned me. But as a journalist I wanted to do proper stories but I couldn’t which frustrated me. So coming to London got me back into the swing of things. Not just with work, with everything. All of my really close friends live in London; I wanted to be able to see them for a coffee rather than for a whole weekends at a time.” She stresses that she thoroughly enjoyed these weekends it was simply having the luxury of popping in to see someone that she yearned for.

“And I felt starved of London so I started to make tentative steps to come back. I had lived in Twickenham before moving to Berkshire but my good friend Sarah [Greene] said I might as stay in Newbury if I was thinking about living in Twickenham. ‘Why not live in Chiswick?’ she said. “It was a big move for me, but even bigger for Rose. She was leaving everything and having to start a new school. She was 13 when we moved here.”

Although Maggie needn’t have worried as her daughter settled into LEH with her characteristic aplomb. “She was so determined not to be seen as a hayseed, that she would transform herself from a demure school girl into a Goth on the school bus every morning. She has a wonderful ‘this is me’ attitude which clearly worked as she was voted form captain just a few weeks after starting.”

Rose is currently studying Geography at university with a view to becoming an Environmental Journalist.

“We enjoy Chiswick in so many different ways. One of my favourates is walking down to the High Road to have coffee and read the papers and we’re spoilt with so many lovely places to eat. When I’m good I run – I’m not always good I should emphasize, but there are lovely runs in Chiswick. I like to run down to the river, across Kew Bridge over to Hammersmith Bridge and back home.”

Although Chiswick isn’t without its irritation however entertaining they are. “The Post Office, it’s awful! It’s funny because I actually look forward to going there to see just how awful the experience will be, it’s like a challenge.”

“I also love to read the forum, it’s amazing what people get worked up about it’s just so funny.”

It was a genuine pleasure to meet the woman who had been instrumental the swapping of my red cassette recorder for something I can’t quite recall now and had taught me all I ever needed to know about cutting edge gadgetry throughout the 80’s.

Maggie Philbin is every bit as knowledgeable and personable in reality as she is on screen and I am grateful to her that my faith in teenage fixations restored.

March 27, 2009