• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Jackie Bird: a woman who's become a national icon

Before she was taken ill earlier this month, JACKIE BIRD spoke to Brian Beacom about her career and receiving an honorary degree from Glasgow University

She's now 50, surviving an industry that sends female presenters racing to botox clinics at the first sign of a crow's toe.

And Reporting Scotland colleagues admit she's a consummate professional; in moments of apparent on-screen confusion, Jackie Bird remains unflappable.

Jackie Bird has second operation

But what of that doctorate? “I could  have gone to uni, I think, but the idea was daunting. And I guess if I’d been in a middle-class family perhaps I’d have gone on to further education. But jobs were hard to come by at the time.”

Playing back the recording after our interview, you realise Bird speaks in a TV presentation voice, the key words emphasised.

“I’d always wanted to become a journalist,” she adds. “So when one of the women I worked with at Primark in Hamilton cut out the DC Thomson ad for an editorial assistant for me I applied.”

The school janny’s daughter clearly didn’t have the personal Windolene to wipe the glass ceiling clear.

But did she really want to be working for Jackie magazine in Dundee? “I wasn’t a proper journalist,” she agrees. “I was running about after pop bands.”

And did she adopt a pop star lifestyle? Sex, drugs and all of that? “A guy in Bad Manners had the hots for me. That’s as wild as it got.”

Your teen world was man-free? “There was a guy in Dundee who broke my heart. But I’ve only been chatted up a couple of times in my life and I married one of them.” (More of that later.)

Now, Bird is plucked, powdered, coloured, honed, glammed and gym-trained to within an inch of her life. But as a teenager she says she was fat.

“Not quite Monica in Friends,” she offers. “I couldn’t even think about the long jump at school. I was slow and lumbering.”

But not when it came to career. The tricky part was in which direction to move? The young Macpherson, as she was then, had been a singer in a band since the age of 14 and while in Dundee almost landed a job as Paul Weller’s pop protege.

On moving to Radio Clyde, to do “real journalism”, on Saturday mornings Bird became a roving DJ. Journalism/showbiz seemed to be opposite faces of the same career coin.

Yet, there was a constant in the Bird brain; the need to fly higher. On leaving Clyde (“after a killer night shift”) she joined the Evening Times newsroom, but soon flew off to the Sun – and left after a few months. Why?

“At the time, the Sun was a caricature of what a tabloid should be,” Bird recalls of the stint where she met her future husband, Bob.

Undaunted, she called then Evening Times editor George McKechnie and asked for her job back. Having heard her plea, the unforgiving editor suggested Ms Macpherson should go to Buckie. Or perhaps it sounded like Buckie.

“I just loved the world of print journalism,” she recalls. Yet, Bird reveals later she’d already been pursuing a career in television. Heavily. “I wrote to BBC boss Ken Cargill when I was 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, and asked for work.”

You stalked him? “Sort of,” she smiles. “He’d meet me for coffee and tell me I wasn’t ready yet.”

The determined Bird wrote to every TV company in the UK offering to work for nothing and Television South in Maidstone took her on.

Did she get help with the accent/dialect change, given she’d grown up in the Hillhouse scheme, Hamilton’s equivalent of Hell’s Kitchen? “It got smoothed out,” she says of her diction.

“But I had a stammer and that made me listen to how I spoke. I knew I had to smarten up my act.”

Heavy built with a stammer? Perfect for telly? “This may sound like the Waltons but the love of my parents gave me a huge belief in my own abilities.”

The plump Bird slimmed down and spoke better and did well in telly. And Ken Cargill saw enough in the Maidstone showreels to bring her to Queen Margaret Drive, where she has worked hard, tried hard to get the best stories to read, and listened hard to others reporting on the same subjects, always learning.

Bird admits she’s highly competitive. “If you’re in a race, with 400 metres to go you don’t ease back,” she says in a cold voice. “Others will overtake you. I keep challenging my own PB.”

So is this why the reported rivalries emerged, with the likes of co-presenters Eddie Mair and Anne McKenzie?

“It is horrible when you get the bad press but then you think ‘Nobody died’. The worst bit that hurts is the personal criticism.

"The Hogmanay Show (2000, think wardrobe malfunction) brought some terrible comments. But then I read out a tragedy story on TV and it made me get a grip.”

Yet, didn’t she invite personal comment? At one point there seemed to be a different Jackie look, the hair, the make-up, every night. Too much Jackie-fication?

“I’m sure (that was the case) when I was young. If you’re not naturally demure you have to keep your personality down. But the news is the star.”

Bird may be prone to the odd cliche but is refreshingly honest on the subject of ageism. Given the recent battering Auntie Beeb’s taken, our Jackie’s hardly likely to be bumped any time soon.

Lucky timing or what? “Absolutely! she says with dramatic flourish. “It has worked in my favour and I intend to keep going. Forever.”

And feminism? “I think women can stand up for themselves. I’d rather do a prize-giving at a deprived school than speak to women’s groups.”

What about leaving Scotland? Bird had the chance to work on Radio 2, (showbiz again, working from Birmingham).

But by this time she had two kids at primary school. Why not just leave them behind? “I would now,” she says, grinning. “Back then, I must have had a heart.”

Difficult broadcasting moments? “There have been so many – it’s part of the job. No one is pretending that reading the autocue is a great skill, but it’s about holding it together.”

How did she hold it together on-air when her marriage broke up? “I would howl before and after bulletins, but not during. And it was hard because my emotions are near the surface. Like Ed Balls, I cry all the time.”

She’s married again to Robin Weir, whom she doesn’t like to talk about publicly. But how did she cope with reading reports about her ex-hubby when he made headlines in the Tommy Sheridan/News of the World case?

“It was fine for me. I knew the story was coming up. My only concern was that the kids were okay about it.” She smiles: “But being teenagers and self-obsessed they didn’t give a damn.”

Has she remained friends with her ex?  A roll of the eyes suggests that’s not the case, that this is a lady who doesn’t forgive easily.

And that’s a clue as to why she’s been awarded the doctorate. The presenter is tough, determined, and she’s always wanted it, as badly as an X Factor contestant.

And she works hard at everything, from presentation to forays into comedy writing for radio. (“The comedy editor worked me damn hard”).

She’s no Emily Maitlis but she’s clever enough to know what she doesn’t know. While reporting, she never goes off piste with acute comment, and when making documentaries carefully selects the populist follow-the-boys-to-Afghanistan/Korea Vera Lynn route.

She works hard at the on-screen sincerity (Fiona Bruce with more hair and less eyebrow?) and that’s not a criticism. And she certainly knows how to PR herself.

Showbiz or journalism? A bit of both. Which is perhaps why Bird’s become part of the cultural landscape, a national figure. And now with a degree.

“I was presented with it alongside scientists and doctors,” she says, highlighting every word. “And I had to think ‘Why me?’”

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

126101