On screen

Anne Mackenzie is cool, calculating and confident;


she's ''just a mum who goes to the supermarket'' - truth or dare?

The problem with Anne, or Annie, or Miss Mackenzie or the Duchess or whatever she gets called, is that she is so, well, damn attractive. Almost at once you find yourself drifting away on the cusp of her Lewis lilt, while at the same time overcome by a charm which smothers you like all the perfumes of Arabia. This is not what I expected. Not a bit of it. On the television, where she berates politicians (with respect, Minister, that's not what I asked), she sits there waiting them out, patient and strong, gazing at their angry eyes, laughing at their quivering knees. There's a necessary confidence in her, a firmness that rarely falls silent.

Yet there is the feeling that underneath all of this lurks a passion and a dark side (she tells me later she's very boring), and I can't help imagining her intelligent analysis as a smokescreen for a vamp. ''No,'' she laughs, ''I'm just a mum who goes to the supermarket.''

I muse that it would be a jolt to see her carrying a plastic Safeway bag, half full of fish fingers for her son Jack. Mackenzie, it seems, simply doesn't have the time for anything else. For one thing, her ever-so Highland earthiness doesn't allow her to dwell on the fact that she has become a public figure, become part of the intellectual establishment. A television celebrity news presenter of Newsnight Scotland, the controversial opt-out from the BBC's current affairs flagship, Newsnight, with a penchant for rigorous cross-questioning.

But for a moment I can see through the denials. The slightly flirty eyes, the occasional pout, the head thrown back in mock promising-actress-with-not-so-promising-dialogue mode. The blonde hair, the big indulgent smile. Chewy, smooth Highland tottie, if you don't mind. It's definitely there, somewhat hidden, somewhat un-Scottish, definitely sexy. A diva, with no sense of vanity. You expect ice-maiden, you get sex-appeal. You expect polo necks, you get the nape of her neck.

In the flesh she is perversely fascinating, a break with the type. She is also emphatically polite, with a husky voice and a hearty, gothic giggle. Plus, she's a terrible fidget. But she does not want to be noticed. At least not for the way she looks. So far, it's not working.

We meet in the not-so-exotic food court of the BBC Scotland canteen, in Glasgow. She is slightly late, so I sit in a corner pondering the merits of a #2.89 Seafood Cocktail, with mayonnaise dressing and spring onion, which stares at me from the laminated menu. Twenty minutes later and I'm still not sold on the cocktail. Then she arrives, cutting a swathe through the coffee machines and plastic forks, the Duchess in all her regal splendour. Today she's wearing a thrilling leopardskin and feather-boa, with a tight bodice and . . . well, no, not quite. It's more a forensic black trouser suit and black shoes. The tired eyes and calm efficiency come courtesy of presenting Newsnight Scotland some 16 hours earlier.

Ostensibly, this is what I'm here for, to probe that late-night hybrid, somewhat predictably dubbed Newsnicht. And, of course, Anne Mackenzie herself, Beeb Babe, 39-year-old screen dream and erstwhile wife and mother. Her ascent has been swift and dazzling.

When she left the University of Glasgow (where she gained an MA Hons in history), she had planned a career in teaching, but after an eagle-eyed Grampian television executive spotted her on a visit to Lewis, where she grew up, she was ''inveigled into doing an audition''. She was successful. She stayed with Grampian for 13 years, winning a BAFTA in 1995 for her North Tonight programme, before switching allegiances to the BBC to do Reporting Scotland. Despite her career move, she has steadfastly refused to move house from Aberdeen, where she still lives with her husband Neil McConaghy, who works in the oil business. ''There is more to Scotland than living in Glasgow.''

Following her debut on Reporting Scotland came an offer to present Westminister Live and she found herself commuting to London two days a week. Yet she still refused to be drawn to living in the capital full time, indeed found herself retreating even further away from the glare of the media spotlight. Still in Aberdeen, she now lives in an old Georgian rectory, having flitted from her townhouse.

''According to the press it's become a mansion, so who am I to argue?'' And she laughs, throwing back her glossy blonde hair. Today she is majoring on eyeliner.

Disconcertingly for Mackenzie, according to latest figures, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of Scots watching the opt-out programme, led by herself and Gordon Brewer (both equally first class professionals who could hardly be described as tartan amateurs). Figures for October show 77,000 Scots tuned into the programme, a 6.4% share of the audience, compared with 99,000 the previous month (a BBC spokesman disputed the figures arguing that an extra 3000 viewers per night were watching the 11pm opt-out north of the Border, while Newsnight Scotland editor, Blair Jenkins added: ''We can't influence how many people watch Newsnight but the key thing for us is that we are not losing viewers on Newsnight Scotland.'').

Earlier this year, plans for the Newsnight Scotland were greeted with both derision and howls of ''compromise'' and ''betrayal'', after BBC governors rejected proposals for a devolved ''Scottish Six'' national news bulletin. Jeremy Paxman, co-presenter of Newsnight, with Kirsty Wark, was suitably outraged that 20 minutes of his prestigious show was being lost to the uneducated tribes of Jockland, deeming the proposals a ''damn fool idea''. Wark, between running her own production company with her husband Alan Clements, her recent #3m deal with the BBC for her presenter and production services, and catching the sleeper home after her two Newsnight shifts (to be with her children before school), called the arrangement ''unworkable''. But it's not just Paxman's metropolitan ego which has been

dented. Numerous commentators in Scotland have lined up to trash the show questioning its rigid and narrow agenda. ''A diet of porridge followed by . . . porridge,'' said one. If the complaints are as genuine as they are many, then it is obvious that viewers in Scotland want more. A great deal more.

So what exactly, I ask Mackenzie, is the point of Newsnight Scotland? ''That's a very interesting question,'' she answers, which is actually her unassailably nice way of saying ''get stuffed.'' She draws breath, ready to mount a firm defence. ''I think it's quite simply addressing the reality of what's happening in Scotland today. Issues like health, education, and so on, are entirely within the gift of the Scottish Parliament, and nobody is really examining it in any real depth, certainly on a daily basis. There is a need for an in-depth examination of it and also bringing the Executive to account. It can't be done in nightly news programmes when you have about two minutes.''

Many critics question the programme's ability to bring a Scottish perspective to bear on matters of international importance, in the allotted time. Newsnight has 50 minutes of airtime, whereas the Scottish version is a 20-minute news and current affairs programme. ''That's just the compromise that had to be made. It's not ideal.'' That's exactly what it is, I say, a compromise. Which, in many ways, can be dangerous. ''What do you suggest,'' she retorts, ''we get rid of Newsnight altogether?''

Scotland has, in effect, been allowed only 20 minutes from the BBC's top brass, making it subservient to the greater machinations of the London-edited Newsnight team. Scotland never got the Scottish Six, so it compromised by taking 20 minutes of another show. While a separate show is evidently the desire of BBC staff in Scotland, it is firstly essential that Newsnight works. If ever there was a poisoned chalice, Scotland's Newsnight is it. If the present programme fails, the task masters in London will say that Scotland was never up to going it alone in the first place. If they are unable to hold on to a viewership of a programme with a proven track record, over 20 minutes, how will they cope on their own? They will say: ''We told you so.''

''That is possible,'' she concedes. ''But I have no idea if it's going to happen. And I don't understand why there was a huge campaign for a Scottish Six in the Scottish papers, which seems to be led by the very same people who are saying a Scottish Newsnight would fail because we are Scottish, or we didn't have enough to say, or we would be too parochial. I really couldn't understand that contradiction of attitudes. Whether or not you wanted one or the other I find that extremely illogical. Critics seem to think that we should stick with Newsnight UK because it comes from London and it's better quality.''

It is clearly a subject that rankles. Ask her about criticism that the programme is parochial lacking a broad news agenda and she says that the brief for those involved is, simply, one that is based in Scotland, keeping tabs on what is happening. ''You either focus solely on Scotland, which you can get accused of being inward-looking or being totally, national and international. Somewhere in between the two is Newsnight Scotland.'' So for 20 minutes you get two puddings instead of a main meal?

She hesitates, then says diplomatically. ''I can see that 20 minutes isn't a long time and, as I say, we do have the brief to maintain a non-parochial Scottish programme. I personally think we're doing it quite well. There are times we wish we had more time, it's not perfect but nothing is an ideal world.'' I suggest that more energy should be put into challenging for a proper Scottish news and current affairs show, instead of being content with a programme whose aim was ''to keep the Scots from whingeing'', as one BBC London insider described it.

''This is what I find so bizarre,'' she says, neatly side-stepping the point, like a bleating politician. ''On the one hand people are saying there isn't enough time for Scottish Newsnight and then there isn't enough Scottish news and you are boring for 20 minutes. Either there is not enough news in Scotland and we shouldn't be doing it because we can't even fill 20 mins or there is so much news that we should be doing more. I think people are criticising for the sake of it.''

She sighs slightly. Mackenzie is both convincing and disingenuous on the subject at hand. And she hates being interviewed, but accepts that it ''comes with the territory''. Born on the Hebridean island of Lewis, her reticence springs, I imagine, from her island priorities. As a child she was shy and never stood out. She didn't draw attention to herself and didn't cause trouble. Her mother died when she was just 19 - her death as unexpected as it was troubling. ''When it's sudden you have no time to say the things you want to say.'' Her father died of cancer two years ago and his death presented its own dilemma. While she could spend time with him until the end, she was left with the memory of watching him suffer. Her biggest regret is that her parents never saw Jack.

The birth of Jack changed her career priorities. Yet she doesn't regret him for a second, despite turning down a number of impressive opportunities since his birth. ''He is the most important thing for me in my life. I've never planned my career, things do just tend to happen. It's not what anybody wants to hear because they tend to think that you have to have a career plan and want to schmooze with people and all that and I don't.''

Jack is 13 months old and getting two teeth. Her work is constant guilt. From her own experience, she doesn't believe you can have it all as a woman.

I ask her if she was upset when the acerbic Scotophobe Paxman and the redoubtable Wark made their comments about the programme's validity. ''I haven't seen Kirsty since before we started. Honestly, it keeps coming up all the time. Same as with Jeremy. At the time, when they made their comments, I wasn't engaged in the argument because I wasn't involved in Newsnight Scotland. I worked purely in London and had Jack, which takes up so much of your time.'' She pauses. ''Let's talk about children, they're infinitely more interesting.'' And briefly she comes alive, displaying an impressive diplomacy, the aim of which is purely to obfuscate.

But we return to the subject at hand. ''What was I saying? Oh, yes. So when they said it I wasn't that involved. It was entirely their opinion. You have to step in their shoes, they're doing a programme and part of it is being taken away. I understand Jeremy's never seen the programme. He didn't actually criticise the programme. He criticised the change in the format of the programme, the fact that its impacting on the programme as he knows it. It's understandable.''

So are Paxman and Wark satisfied by the way things have gone? ''I don't honestly know. I've seen Jeremy but I've never actually spoken to him. God, you think we're having an affair.'' She's laughing like a drain now. ''All I know of him is what I've read in the press. So, of course, it must be true.''

Now we're both laughing. You mean to tell me you have no idea how Paxman or Wark feel about the programme? No little nuggets of information have slipped through from the net of verbiage and comment that is bound to have emanated from London? This is impossible. ''I swear to you. I've not talked to Kirsty or Jeremy about it, I really haven't. I cross my heart in my most Presbyterian fashion. As far as I know from what Blair (Jenkins) has said to me they are happy with it. We've actually had a very positive feedback from the viewers.'' Then she adds, with a smile. ''Positive, apart from you.'' Even when she is irate she finds i

t impossible to frown. From the viewing public's standpoint they watch Paxman and Wark on Newsnight for the bloodletting. But now, it seems, it's a game of two halves with two armed camps facing off at each other trying to put a spoke in each other's wheels. ''The politics of it with a small 'p', I always try to avoid. It's very difficult in this particular job, but I am not fobbing you off. Jeremy is entitled to his own opinion, of course he is, he's an enormously respected journalist, but he keeps getting quoted like the word of God.''

Which leads me to my next point about the cult of celebrity news presenters that has developed over the last few years. Wark. Mackenzie. Paxman and, increasingly, Kirsty Young, among others. She hates it, always has. ''Television is a visual media, so you can't avoid some of these things, but the cult of celebrity has become almost the most important thing in society and deeply worrying. I despise it. Hate it. I try to focus on what I'm saying rather than how I look. I try not to run my career towards being a celebrity. We do interviews as part of the job. If you start refusing interviews you start appearing supercilious and so on.''

She insists she really doesn't live the celebrity lifestyle. She doesn't have a nanny, doesn't have a housekeeper. Her life is so ordinary, so boring. She attends mother and toddler groups, goes to the supermarket, does her own hoovering, ironing, and looks after her own baby. ''Everything that normal people do.'' She doesn't mix work with pleasure, and doesn't schmooze. Any of these things. ''I'm booo-ring.'' I believe her.

I ask about the so-called incident with presenter Jackie Bird's old jacket. ''I was wondering about that one. It was nonsense. I categorically deny it. It was a good story for the papers and you have to take it on the chin,'' she says, referring to the time she is supposed to have borrowed a jacket from Bird when asked to fill in for her at short notice. An alleged apoplectic Bird tuned in from her sick bed. The two were constantly involved in girly showdowns, blasted the tabloid headlines. Her big eyes are animated at the thought of it.

One television producer describes her as ''an instinctive communicator''. It's true. And I get the feeling that Newsnight needs her more than she needs it. ''I really don't know. I don't really think they need me in that sense, there are plenty of experienced, qualified presenters out there,'' she mumbles, half-heartedly. ''You wouldn't have to have a woman either. I personally tend to believe in substance over appearance. I do think that if two male presenters are right you would use two male presenters. You don't need the token man or the token woman. This idea that you have to have a man and a woman because it looks better is nonsense, we should just go for the one who does the job better.''

So what, I ask, do you bring to Newsnight? ''Aggh, no,'' she barks, rolling her head away. ''I really can't answer that . . . that's like one of those questions they ask you in an interview for ICI or something. I honestly can't. You need to ask someone else that. It's my Presbyterian upbringing (of course it is. Again). I cannot blow my own trumpet in public. I do the job to the best of my abilities.'' And she's off again, telling me how she dull she is and how she counts blocks of granite in Aberdeen as a hobby.

But there is obviously more to her than this. Her screen persona is quite icy and, I wonder, is she compensating for something. ''No, I'm not compensating. It just annoys me when people don't answer the question properly.'' She stops. ''As you are probably feeling at the moment.'' No, I counter, I think you've answered one. You said you were boring. Thankfully, she's laughing.

Indeed, she has a wonderful laugh and a very cheeky sense of humour, very down to earth. How do people in the television business react to her as a blonde, young attractive woman? ''Will you marry me?'' she is quick to retort. I remind her that she's already married. She keeps laughing. ''I'm not aware of how they treat me really. I'm not aware of being treated any differently because of my hair colour or whatever.

''I'm very unfashionable about it, but I've never discovered being a woman was a disadvantage in journalism.'' Have you used it to your advantage? ''Not constantly,'' she says, faltering over a Freudian slip. ''I mean not consciously . . . '' she adds, tailing off in a kind of elegant, anxious flurry. ''I don't think my image is remotely sexy or anything like that. My image is reasonably professional. I am conscious of the dumb blonde association. But I've not been conscious of politicians seeing me as a soft target.''

Round fifteen. Again she tells me she is shy, quiet and boring, so I ask her to name someone she doesn't like. But she can't. ''There's not a lot of juicy stuff to give, apart from my see-through body stocking and all that.'' At last, something interesting. Pray tell me more. But she waves my overtures away. She refuses to tell me what politician she admires. ''And I can see exactly why you are asking it.'' What about the new Parliament then, has it been a success? ''How can I answer that? I really can't, it's party political. Devolution, the whole agenda is deeply political, you wicked boy.''

For all her reticence and unwillingness to divulge personal opinions, Anne Mackenzie is certainly not aloof and frosty. She's much less clinical and more accommodating, than I imagined. It's a combination of affable good manners and her sheltered, Hebridean upbringing. A visitor and a native at the same time. She's buttoned-up but desperate to fly. Quiet but longing to outrage. Far beyond the camouflage of the blue screen light she's a gloriously decent Macfemme fatale. Sort of. If only I could get her to tell me more about the bodystocking . . .