Sandi Toksvig: 'I came out, and the tabloid press thought I was Cruella de Vil'

Zoe Williams

Sandi Toksvig has always been a huge “darling”-er. “Darling”, she would declaim when presenting the News Quiz on Radio 4 or QI on BBC Two; it was never completely plain to me whether she was being affectionate or ironic. It depended on the context, I suppose; on Bake Off, which is a kind of crucible for affection, it always sounded much warmer than it did on the radio. I have thought about this, on and off, for many years, but nothing prepared me for the experience of being called “darling” myself: a billionaire who had hired Beyoncé to sing Happy Birthday to them could not have felt more puffed up with pleasure.

“Darling,” she starts, over Zoom of course, from what I take to be a stylish, tongue-and-groove shed in her south London back garden, “I miss restaurants. I want some really, really unctuous service.” Over the course of our conversation, she takes me on a whistle-stop tour of her regular social life, her drink of choice (bourbon), the bars where she’d prefer a martini and why she doesn’t have an American accent, even though that’s where she grew up. It is all peppered with the tantalising promise of imminent firm friendship.

“One day, you and I will get roaring drunk together,” she says. “And when I’m roaring drunk, I become extremely American. My wife says to me: ‘Oh my God, New York’s arrived – it’s time to go to bed.’” She and the psychotherapist Debbie Toksvig met at a dinner party in 2000, although they didn’t become a couple until 2006. They were civil-partnered in 2007 and got married as soon as it became legal to do so, in 2014.

Great waves of jubilant nostalgia crash over the conversation: I miss extroverts, bars and Dorothy Parkerish wit. By the end of it all, I hate lockdown more than I have in all these weeks; annoyingly, Toksvig loves it. “I’m allowed to sit in my office all day, every day, and nobody says anything about it or says: ‘You must come and host an auction.’ It’s marvellous.” She and Debbie have taken up educational cycling. “I’ve got lots of books about quirky bits of London; things my poor wife doesn’t give a fuck about. And I say: ‘We’re going to go and visit a prostitute’s graveyard today.’”

Now 62, she misses the kids – Jesse, 31, Megan, 29, and Theo, 25 – she had with her former partner, Peta Stewart, and says in a theatrically matter-of-fact way: “My grandchildren are growing up without me.” But the bustle? Not so much. She was never in this game for the attention. “Do you not find it weird, darling, that people have an idea about you? They’ve put you in a category – mine will say ‘comedian’ or something – and that’s not how I see myself at all.”

Where would one put her? Certainly, at the start of her career, you’d have said comedian: she was a member of the Cambridge Footlights, as any self-respecting name-of-the-80s had to be. She was a Comedy Store Player before moving into TV, first of all as a presenter on the children’s show No 73. It was not her most distinctive work (she has quite a caustic, not-at-all-childish wit), but is etched into the minds of the now middle-aged.

At the same time, she was always a writer, of columns, novels, young adult fiction, plays and musicals. “I love the thing of subduing words,” she says. “My dad was a wonderful writer. He used to describe it as: ‘First, you catch your fish, then you need to fillet your fish until you serve the finest piece.’” He was a Danish foreign correspondent, and while she grew up mainly in the US, her parents were always on the move, and she has the urbane wherever-I-lay-my-hat outlook of a diplomat’s child: she can be Danish, English and a New Yorker in the course of one sentence.

By the mid-90s, thanks to the tabloids, she was mostly famous for being gay. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, until you remember how unusual it was then for women in the public eye to come out. And then it feels like centuries ago. The prejudice was extraordinary: Toksvig was stood down by Save the Children, as compere for its 75th birthday celebrations, but a direct action protest by the Lesbian Avengers led the charity to apologise. (Complete tangent, but this is everything that’s wrong with corporate charities – trying to please the Sun newspaper and the Lesbian Avengers at the same time, instead of having some bloody values.)

But I am much more exercised about this than Toksvig, who is very funny, even mellow, on the subject. “For a long time, Deb and I didn’t live in a house – we lived in a ‘love nest’. What do they think is going on here? We’re basically going: ‘Do you think these tomatoes have gone off?’” She never made the mistake of taking the media’s view as a snapshot of the culture. “I’ve always said the British people are nicer, kinder people than the tabloid press would have us believe,” she says, of this and, by extension, every era. “I came out, and the tabloid press thought that I was Cruella de Vil; I never got that from the public.” The mood of the nation prevailed over the bigotry, and “they’ve stopped putting ‘lesbian Sandi Toksvig’ whenever they mention me. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a given, or they’ve just given up. I’m still a lesbian.”

If all this made her de facto political, she was nevertheless still neutral enough in terms of party politics to be made host of the News Quiz in 2006, and the subsequent decade was the show’s golden age, with Toksvig and the much-mourned Jeremy Hardy perfecting an intoxicating double act; Hardy with his fireworks of grumpiness, and Toksvig batting him back with a paw, like a dog and a cat in perpetual high jinks. “My love for that man knows no bounds,” she says, mournfully, “The best bits were not broadcastable. He would dare to do any topic of any kind. There was a terrible story – some Austrian man had kept his children in the basement for years. Jeremy started on why this couldn’t possibly have happened in England because of the planning regulations: ‘You couldn’t possibly have a loo off the kitchen like that.’ He referred to it as the Von Trapped family. It was appalling and hilarious. And I just sat there.” Toksvig quit the News Quiz in 2015 to co-found the Women’s Equality party (WEP). Hardy, she says, “always used to tease me that I’d started the Women’s Nagging party”.

Presenting QI … ‘They give you all the answers.’ Photograph: Brian Ritchie/BBC/Talkback/FremantleMedia/Brian Ritchie

“I think it’s a shame,” she says, “if people aren’t straightforward about their politics,” and there’s no time in her career when you’d have mistaken her for a rightwinger. Apart from anything else, as she points out, “the rightwing comedian is a rare soul. We longed to have Tories on [the News Quiz]. They just turned out to be not very funny. They’re not very self-effacing.” However, for all the outre jokes (“The Tories putting the N into cuts – that was actually written for me by a man called Simon Littlefield”), I’ve never heard her as blankly dismayed by the ruling party as she is today. “It’s an interchangeable group of schoolboys who, bafflingly, have found themselves in charge. If Boris Johnson were my child, after he’d given that speech [she means the Sunday evening address in which he ordered people to return to work while remaining at home], I’d have said to him: ‘Darling, I think you’re still not well. I think you’re overtired. A speech of such vacuousness … why did you make it? And why have you put a side table that needed refinishing in a doorway and sat behind it? How is this going to fill anybody with confidence?’”

She is still very upset about Brexit, and chlorinated chicken – “We’re going to get no-deal, and nobody’s going to notice.” Great. Fresh waves of nostalgia. Now I also miss remainiacs and Jeremy Hardy, and the phase of parenting when you’re allowed to tell someone they’re tired. This, incidentally, is why even before 2015 and the WEP, it always felt as if Toksvig was allowed to skate closer to politics than other broadcasters: even when she’s talking about a prime minister she plainly has no respect for, she manages to couch that quite fondly. She would turf him out of Downing Street, given the chance, but she would ruffle his hair first, and he would probably be glad of it.

In 2016, she took over from Stephen Fry as the presenter of QI; indeed, technically, it’s the next season we’re here to talk about, along with her podcasts, called Vox Toks, wonderful vignettes telling the unheard histories of women. And although she will occasionally divert into one of those – Emma Cons, for instance, who opened the Old Vic and fought for working-class access to education as well as the vote for women – she talks quite dismissively about her own work. I have never interviewed anyone more fiercely resistant to plugging the thing they’re supposed to plug.

Bake Off is a job; you try to do your best, and you go home

It was considered quite a high-risk enterprise to replace Fry at all, since his very distinctive hosting style – veering expertly between pompous and skittish, headteacherly and rebellious – was so baked into the show’s success. Toksvig doesn’t have much patience with this kind of mystique-building on quizshows or, indeed, anything. “I’ve been a broadcaster a really long time. I don’t know what there was to worry about. I ask a question and then I see if anybody else knows the answer.” People kept asking her how she would fill Fry’s shoes. “I hadn’t planned to wear his shoes,” she recalls archly, “so it’s really not a problem. And, also, they tell you the answers beforehand; he doesn’t know it all. I hate to break it to you. It’s like a boy’s card trick: ‘Look at me! I know everything.’”

When, in 2017, she and Noel Fielding took over Bake Off from Mel and Sue, the pressure was even more intense, because they’d turned a quirky idea into this incredible cash cow, and all the world’s producers were wondering what the exact ingredients were that would keep the cow alive. “People were in a state of ashen terror. I’ve never seen so many executives look so pale. You’d be doing something, with 40 people behind the camera, staring, shaking their heads.” As ever, she refused to engage with this psychodrama. “It’s a job; you try to do your best, and you go home.” She quit the show earlier this year to work on other projects, and is being replaced by Matt Lucas. Did she ever experience any pressure, being a national treasure, taking over from two other national treasures, on a show that is itself a national treasure? “I’m diffident about that kind of thing. I don’t know what it means. I just try to be a good person, try to do things for good effect.”

The projects she speaks most passionately about aren’t TV at all, but the musicals she has written, most recently, one with her sister, Jenifer Toksvig, a librettist (whom she talks about so admiringly that I nearly wrote “the wonderful librettist”, on a reflex). “At Christmas, my sister and I wrote a show for the Globe theatre called The Snow Globe, and we made it snow inside, and we made people roar, and they were happy. It was wonderful theatre. It was a great thing to do, to watch adults behave like kids.” They’ve just been commissioned to write an opera together, but she won’t tell me the plot because Jenifer would kill her.

The prospect of doing the job delights her, even while realities of the world are always biting. “I have not heard one single government person talk about theatre. I’ve not heard one person discuss the reopening of live art. This is important. We need to gather and have those communal experiences. We need that thing, where you leave a theatre feeling better than when you arrived. I feel like I’m flying when I do live shows.” I think, on balance, that’s the box you’d put her in, if not comedian, host or writer: “Person whom you leave feeling better than when you arrived.”

• QI returns to BBC Two on Thursday 28 May, and Sandi Toksvig’s new podcast We Will Get Past This is available on all podcast platforms.