Cult Q & A: Samira Ahmed

We’re asking, they’re answering. This week: Broadcaster and Geek Queen Samira Ahmed on Wonder Woman, David Bowie, the BFi and more.

An award-winning journalist, writer and broadcaster with more than 20 years’ broadcast news experience, Samira Ahmed currently presents Newswatch on BBC1 and the BBC News channel and Front Row on Radio 4, and has hosted a number of BBC programmes including The World Tonight, The World This Weekend, PM, Sunday, Profile, One To One and Woman’s Hour

Samira has also made a number of documentaries for Radio 3 and 4 on various aspects of popular culture, politics and social history, from David Bowie and Oliver Cromwell’s wife to Westerns and HG Wells and the atomic bomb.

Previously a reporter and presenter on Channel 4 News and Newsnight, she has also been the BBC’s Los Angeles correspondent and a news anchor for Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin.

Samira’s writing includes features, interviews and analysis on culture, politics and social affairs for The Independent, The Guardian and for The Spectator website. She also writes a column in The Big Issue magazine and has a special love of westerns.

Last October, Samira chaired Ladybird Books and Constructing the Future Past at Conway Hall.

Samira with Mark Gatiss at The Target Book Artwork exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum.

From age 8 I wanted to be a journalist from then on. I used to make my own radio shows with a tape recorder and my own newspaper and magazines.

What were you like at school?

Super swotty. Plaits. The whole thing. Top of the class super keen. But also relentlessly focused on university and life beyond. I loved what school could teach me, but I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I can recall my first career ambition aged about 3 was to be a pilot like the Angels in Captain Scarlet. They were so cool. Then, like every girl in the early ‘70s, a stewardess. My super beautiful glamorous aunt Ruby was the face of Air India in a magazine campaign and lived in in bachelorette apartment in New Delhi. It looked amazing. She was like Audrey Hepburn in a sari.  Luckily feminism saved me. From age 8 I wanted to be a journalist from then on. I used to make my own radio shows with a tape recorder and my own newspaper and magazines. Nothing else.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Lighten up. Get rid of the plaits. But otherwise, keep working really hard and get the hell out. Your escape plan will work.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Best: I’m the hardest working person I know and I know right from wrong. You’d be amazed how many people don’t. Worst: I’m impatient with people who don’t work as hard as I do.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Selling store card accounts in Debenhams on Oxford St. I lasted 2 days. It wasn’t my idea. I was doing Christmas temp work and they suggested it. It was hateful and the only time I’d done something ethically queasy. Encouraging people to take on unnecessary debt at extortionate interest rates. I went back to HR and said no and they put me in Christmas gift wrapping. Much nicer and a skill for life.

Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?

The Beatles, David Bowie, Luke Skywalker. I had a thing about Philip in The Mill on The Floss.

Also, mid-70s Wonder Woman comics which I discovered on my first trip to the US in 1976, and Lynda Carter’s TV version. I particularly liked Diana Prince’s job in the UN crisis bureau and I have had a thing about trouser suits worn with tinted sunglasses ever since.

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

Dread Poets’ Society (1992) starring Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s amazing. I stumbled across it on transmission and it‘s flawless TV. Byron, Shelley Keats and Mary Shelley are transported by a freak electrical storm onto his train and they debate poetry. It’s funny, it’s SF, it’s political about the row over elitism and  “proper” Poetry and actually quite violent – Byron decides to give Timothy Spall’s mouthy commuter a proper whipping. It also has my favourite line of all time when Alex Jennings’ Byron assumes Zephaniah to be a minion of Satan:  “Take me to the Lord of Darkness and I shall give you a shiny penny.”

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Yes. I love the dragging up as old ladies and housewives. They were good hearted boys, you could tell. The problems with the use of busty babes was a cultural attitudes issue across all TV. I’m actually making a programme about that.

What was the last film that you watched?

T2 Trainspotting. I’m almost exactly the same age as Renton, and remember reporting form LA on the fuss the original film made in America, during the US presidential election campaign. But I couldn’t have lived a more different life.  I love that under the violence and the dildos and the drugs, the sequel’s really a reflective film about mortality and the art of memoir. After enthusing about it, I did have to talk my mother out of going to see it though. “It’s for younger people”, I explained. “In their 40s.”

What film could you watch every day?

Hairspray (1988) – the John Waters original. It’s a flawless film. I used to watch it almost every day in my twenties.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

I write my scripts everyday listening to John Barry’s Somewhere In Time. But current fave is Jackie.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

Living actors, I take it? Riz Ahmed, Archie Panjabi, James Woods (even though he’s gone mad) and Sharon Stone. A Western of course. Actually I might lose James Woods and add Kim Basinger instead.

Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?

Nice Guys. Really nasty tone to it all. How could you make a film set in the year of Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman and fill it with such misogyny? Amazing. Even Gil Gerard couldn’t save that one.

Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Vikingur Olafsson’s Philip Glass Piano Works. He’s an amazing young pianist. I saw him at a concert and knew I had to interview him. A traditional choice: The Monkees’ Good Times. Couldn’t believe how wonderful every track was.

Which record or book wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food. She was one of the Three Degrees. The book is full of beautiful family photos and delicious recipes handed down through her family going back to slave days and published years before the celebrity cook book industry really took off. I buy duplicates if I spot them in second hand book shops to pass on to my children.

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

My falling-apart, food splattered Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Dishes of the World. Best chocolate brownie recipe ever.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

There’s got to be an intensity to the devotion it inspires, out of any direct proportion to its duration or exposure. And a sense of not being sure if you’re awake or dreaming when you consume it.  The Prisoner is like that.

What are you reading at present?

The Roll Call by Arnold Bennett (I’m trying to work my way through all his books this year) and The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra.

How did your career in news journalism begin and what inspired you to enter that profession?

I joined the BBC from university as a graduate News Trainee which was the most wonderful fast track into the world of broadcast journalism. But I’d done loads of student journalism before. I’d always been fascinated by world events as a child and writing them up and asking about why stuff happened. Even my school compositions aged 9 or 10 were about stories like the Red Brigade kidnappings for ransom that I saw on the news. Lucy Mathen read out one of my letters on Newsround Extra when I was 10. That felt like validation. It was an account of a real racist incident. She got in touch with me 30 years later when she realised it was me and we had an amazing conversation about it.

She and Shyama Perera were these amazing reporters I saw on TV. It never occurred to me to be anything else.

You’re both a regular attendee and participant of numerous film & TV events hosted by BFI including Missing Believed Wiped.  What it is that makes the BFI such a great British institution?

I originally joined the BFI in about 1992 when I’d run out of new releases to see at the cinema. I was in my early twenties and realised there was a whole world of classics and world cinema to enter to take my love of cinema to the next level. I love the personal passions that come out through things like Missing Believed Wiped and the insight into the importance of the ephemera – the adverts and channel idents – that help us define our own shared cultural memories. Some of my most important cinematic experiences have happened there. Seeing Ed Bishop talk about UFO in a double bill screening with Star Maidens. Seeing that Stalin-era film The Fall Of Berlin and bringing my children to see Vertigo and The Lodger. These days I introduce the odd film screening, which is such a privilege. I know the audience, because I’m one of them, so I make sure my talks are good enough and short enough.

Your BBC documentary I Dressed Ziggy Stardust is still available to hear on iPlayer Radio. Can you tell us a little about how it first came about?

Shortly after I left Channel 4 News to go freelance, I got in touch with Shyama Perera – a long term heroine of mine – thanks to social media –  to have a coffee. She told me the story about being a teenage fan and knowing Angie and Bowie and sending in the costume design. I just said, this is a documentary and I wrote the pitch in 2 minutes and knew it would get made. Producer Alice Bloch did so much to bring the story alive. it was a kind of oral history of Bowie fandom from the point of view of the girls, at a time when all the female fans had been written out of his mythology by museums and snobbish male music journalists. People still come up to me to tell me how much they loved it and how it captured the experience of teenage fandom in the 70s and 80s.

Lucy Mathen (Twitter) and Shyama Perara (Google+)

Which writers and broadcasters have inspired you over the years?

Shyama Perera and Lucy Mathen are the big two. Kailash Bhudwar, head of the BBC’s Eastern Service at Bush House for many years, who always encouraged me. I used to listen to all the journalists discussing politics and world affairs in Bush House as a child, waiting for my mum to finish work. I felt at home there. Matthew Sweet is one of the most accomplished writers and broadcasters out there. And he does it with a light touch and a lot of humour which is an amazing skill. And Lyse Doucet – the toughest foreign correspondent there is, but her reports are full of warmth and compassion, not bravado. She’s an amazing film reviewer, too.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

“Someone’s got to get that job. Why shouldn’t it be you?” (A parent at a school careers’ night when I was 14)

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your work/life?

Tony Phillips – till recently a Radio 4 commissioner – was the one who really brought me aboard when I went freelance. Opened doors, gave me commissions, and recommended me for work. A generous champion of new talent. I’m eternally grateful.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

I’ve spent the best hours of my life in the company of John Waters. I like to imagine he’s my bad uncle.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

Worked hard, never gave up and never sold out.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Cranberry juice with a slice of lime. But really I’d rather have a Ribena.

What are your three favourite cities?

Los Angeles, London, Berlin.

What do you do to chill out?

Read, watch some old classic Star Treks and play the piano.

Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and you work?

I’ve always got some documentaries on the go. Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls about John Ruskin as a women’s liberationist is on Radio 3 on Feb 26th. I’m finishing one for Radio 4 on the new generation of board games like Pandemic.  I’ve also just got a commission to make a Radio 3 documentary about the politics and cultural legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote The Little House on the Prairie books and how she’s become a heroine to the white nationalist right as much as the feminist left. It’s all on my website!

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us!

Total pleasure!


 ‘Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday (26 February 2017). Keep an eye on listings for more details.

Follow Samira Ahmed on twitter 

 Visit her personal website

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