FIONA BRUCE opens up Cole Moreton Holding back the tears The one thing and live TV It is not something she wants to discuss. – even to her family

Fiona wears dress, Sandro. Shoes, Grey Matters. Earrings, Dinosaur Designs. Necklace, Shaun Lean

Fiona wears dress, Sandro. Shoes by Grey Matters. Earrings, Dinosaur Designs. Necklace, Shaun Leane

 I laughed like a drain,’ says Fiona Bruce, her face lighting up. We don’t often see the presenter like this. We’re more used to her bossing politicians around on Question Time or projecting gravitas and decorum while reading the BBC News at Ten. Fiona was just reminded by an article about Fiona’s aunt in tabloid newspapers earlier this year. ‘It said: “My boyfriend is obsessed with the news and wants me to act like Fiona Bruce,”’ she laughs. ‘Everyone in the newsroom teased me mercilessly about it.’

Fiona, a journalist who is at the forefront of her field, is highly respected and paid at BBC. Fiona is a leader, who can read the news bulletin every night, determine the value of antique heirlooms, or even chair Question Time.

‘Question Time has a bigger social media footprint than any other TV programme outside Love Island. That is an extraordinary statistic,’ she says. You can easily see evidence by looking at Twitter on Thursday nights as people post their opinions. Fiona, who has been hosting the show for two years after David Dimbleby’s departure, enjoys a lot more attention. Fiona is often the first to reveal her feelings, while celebrities, politicians, and business leaders jostle for attention. ‘On my desk is a screenshot from Twitter that shows two responses to Question Time. The first says “Fiona Bruce is turning this program into a Conservative hustings” and literally the next one is “She’s more left-wing than Trotsky.”’

As this elegantly illustrates, it’s hard to get a handle on the broadcaster. Fiona Bruce’s real identity is what I would like to discover. We’ve met a couple of times before: once on the set of an Antiques Roadshow episode, where she moved through the crowd like a minor royal, then delivered a brilliant piece to camera in one swift take. One was at the press area of the wedding of Duke and Duchess, when she made it clear to an American journalist that he was seated in her chair. He got up and moved.

Blazer, trousers, and boots, Iris & Ink, Shirt, Jigsaw. Earrings, Ruby Jack. Ring, Fiona’s own

Blazer, trousers, and boots, Iris & Ink, Shirt, Jigsaw. Earrings: Ruby Jack Ring, Fiona’s own 

 Today this tall, angular 57-year-old is looking relaxed in trainers, trousers and sweater, as she talks about being born in Singapore in 1964, to a father who was on his way to becoming a regional manager for Unilever. ‘My father grew up in real poverty – where you got no presents on Christmas Day – and he pulled himself out of that in a remarkable way. He was the most loving man I knew and was extremely driven. So I was aware that things don’t just get handed to you on a plate – you have to work for what you get in life.’

She was at school in the Wirral first, then Milan when her father moved for work, and finally Haberdashers’ Aske’s in South London. ‘I had a very happy, uncomplicated childhood. By the time I came along into my parents’ household I’d say we were comfortable.’

Fiona went on to read French and Italian at Oxford but attending one of the UK’s premier universities was a culture shock. ‘No one in my family had been to university. It was quite a big deal. Then on the first day I met a baroness and thought: “What the hell is going on? It’s like these people are from a different planet.” I felt a real fish out of water and very chippy about the whole thing. Eventually I calmed down and realised I was overgeneralising and expressing my own prejudice about other people.’

It was a very oxford experience for me. I felt very chippy and like a fish without water. 

After graduation, she worked in a management agency before going on to become an advertiser. Fiona got into broadcasting when she met Panorama editor Tim Gardam during a 1989 wedding. This was an opportunity she took advantage of. ‘I met Tim at the reception and I think he was rather surprised to get a call the next day to his office from this 24-year-old saying: “Can I take you out to lunch?” I pitched some stories and then I just kept reminding him I would very much like to work there. Eventually, months later, he said: “We’re interviewing for researchers, just come and see how you get on.” Probably just to get rid of me. Your life is your choice. I’ve always felt I’m driven. If I see an opportunity, I’ll go for it.’

Her husband, Nigel Sharrocks, met her around the same time she was working in an advertising agency. He was also a director. Nigel went on to be Warner Brothers’ managing director, overseeing the release of 150 movies, including Harry Potter. They were married in Islington in North London in 1994. Their first child, Sam, was born four years later. Fiona worked as a Newsnight reporter. By the time her daughter Mia was born in 2001 she was presenting The Six O’Clock News and Crimewatch. Fiona chose to go back to work 16 days after the birth and felt she had to justify herself by saying publicly: ‘I’m not some mad career monster.’ She’s at a different point in her life now, though. ‘We took our daughter to university on Sunday,’ she says, grimacing. ‘When we dropped her off she was happy, so it felt easier. Also my son is working but living at home, so we’re not yet empty-nesting.’

Fiona began hosting Antiques Roadshow back in the 90s. For the past decade, she has been hunting down fakes and hidden treasures alongside Philip Mould (Fake Or Fortune?). She took home around £409,000 from the BBC last year, according to official figures, but that was still a touch less than her newsreading contemporary Huw Edwards, who doesn’t have the other high-profile shows she has. ‘It’s getting there, but there’s still lots of work to be done on the pay gap. God knows if we will get a satisfactory result even in my lifetime.’ Isn’t this proof the BBC still has a problem with its gender pay gap?

Fiona and her husband Nigel Sharrocks at Wimbledon

Fiona Sharrocks with her husband Nigel Sharrocks in Wimbledon

Fiona was the first woman to present the News at Ten, a job that puts her into people’s living rooms. ‘It’s a very big close-up.’ Emotions sometimes show: particularly after the Grenfell fire or reports from hospitals in the frontline during the Covid crisis. ‘You need to tread a line between not getting in the way of the story and not being a robot.’ And the news does still get to her. ‘Yesterday I wept listening to testimony by the mother of Sarah Everard [who was abducted and murdered by a serving police officer]. Who wouldn’t? If I’d had to read that on the news I would have struggled. I would have had to rehearse it to make sure my throat didn’t catch.’

Question Time is another big job. ‘When the audience comes back I will kiss every single one of them, whether they like it or not,’ she said before the start of the latest series, after a year without them because of Covid. So did she? ‘That would probably constitute some kind of assault,’ she says, smiling. ‘But I’m thrilled that they have turned up and we’re doing the programme in this way. It’s massive. When you have the people in the room, it’s an event. You can feel the atmosphere, hear the laughter, the clapping, the intakes of breath, the disapproval… The panel and I feed off that.’

In the first episode, the Minister James Cleverly did not address the issue of Afghanistan’s disastrous withdrawal. ‘A woman shouted from the back: “Shame on you: you’re not answering the question at all.” She had a real go at him. I remember thinking: “The audience is back! Here we go…” It was a brilliant moment.’

I’m listening to this and wondering how it works in her private life. Do you think she will just sit and watch at dinner parties or get involved with politics? ‘It is the belief of the BBC that one has to strive to be neutral when reporting the news. This belief is ingrained in me as a way to get words across a rock. I have not expressed political opinions to my friends or my family for years.’ Seriously? Not even in private? ‘When my children were growing up I never did, in case they blurted out something innocently at school. It was like this omertà [vow of silence] that I imposed upon myself.’

This is amazing. Even if the subject was hospitals, and someone she cared about had been waiting for years on the list, would she remain neutral? ‘I absolutely would. To do otherwise would be an abuse of my position.’ She’s adamant. ‘It’s quite clear where I’m coming from if I start doing that.’

This is Fiona Bruce, I believe after a little digging into her mind. She is a conservative with an occasional c and is constantly looking for the middle ground by instinct as well as training. She can trace her roots back all the way to when she worked out how to survive with students from Milan and Oxford. But where’s the fire in her? A big clue comes when I ask if there’s anyone she would not have back to Question Time. This isn’t a question about controversialists such as Nigel Farage and Lawrence Fox. ‘There was an actor whose name I forget, who’s been in The Lord of The Rings.’ That’s put him in his place. John Rhys-Davies? She challenged him for his rudeness towards Caroline Lucas (Green MP). ‘Yeah, he called her “woman”.’

Foina with her daughter Mia

Foina with her daughter Mia

Actually, he went much further than that, slamming the desk with both hands and bellowing, ‘Oh, woman!’ in exasperation at something she said about Donald Trump. Fiona hated this. ‘My great regret is that I didn’t go after him and say: “Actually, her name is Caroline.” I wouldn’t have him back.’

Mediating such a stressful show can make it feel like it will turn into an actual fight. What can she do? ‘If I’m feeling stressed about something and I’ve got a lot on I find going for a run makes me feel a bit better.’ There’s something else too. ‘I started horse riding very late in life. I will always be pretty rubbish, but I love it.’

Now, at last, I’ve found her secret passion. Fiona’s face lights up again when she talks about this, and not in the way it did with the agony column. ‘It takes me to a different place. I can’t think about anything else when I’m doing it. I love being around horses. Speed is my favorite thing. I love being outdoors.’

Next time there is a lot of scrapping at Question Time, try to catch some glimpses in Fiona Bruce’s eyes. She rides like the wind and on horseback far away from all the action.

Question Time on BBC One is every Thursday at 10:35pm. 

Picture director: Ester Malloy. 

Stylist: Sorrel Children.

 Make-up: Barrie Griffith using guerlain.

Hair: Narad Kutowaroo at Carol Hayes Management using GHD.