When and why did you decide to get involved in the Lit & Phil?
I was approached around 2010 and asked if I’d be interested in being a patron. I have to admit that until then I didn’t really know anything about the institution.
So you’d never visited the Lit & Phil before?
No. I grew up about 30 miles outside of Newcastle in a rural village in the heart of Northumberland. I’d get very excited when we visited the ‘big city’. As a family, we’d go to Bainbridge’s [now John Lewis] to pick up school uniforms and to Newcastle’s Central Station. We must have walked past the Lit & Phil on Westgate Road a million times but I had no idea it was there.
When I discovered the Lit & Phil it was a revelation. I soon realised I had a long family connection, stretching back almost to the Society’s formation [in 1793]. I fell in love with the institution and when I was asked if I would be interested in becoming its president, I was delighted to accept.
What about the Lit & Phil appeals to you?
It has this incredible history. It was once a crucible for natural philosophy – which we now commonly call science, now – as well as for literature and politics, making it a focal point for so much of the North East’s development. The Lit & Phil was established to create an environment where people could come together and exchange ideas and thoughts. It wasn’t a place for confrontation, it was a place for expansion and mutual debate.
You mentioned that you have a long family connection with the institution…
I have Armstrong ancestors and Swinburne ancestors who were involved in the Lit & Phil. Robert Spence Watson, who was my great grandmother’s brother, was also a former president. When I found out about the Lit & Phil, it was as though I had discovered a whole new portal in the North East and I was so excited.
What does your role of president involve?
I was initially asked to become involved in the Lit & Phil as more of a figurehead but I was determined it should be more than that, despite the difficulty of living in the South, working in London and getting remarkably little time off. I do try and get up to Newcastle at least once a year and will always pay a visit to the Lit & Phil. My job is to help raise its profile and to draw attention to the library and the Society. In particular, it is to attract a younger audience and make them aware of the Lit & Phil as a resource.
What role do you think the Lit & Phil plays within the community now and how can it become more accessible?
Its chief role is to be a beautiful cultural venue. The library has a wonderful atmosphere to it. It remains an important meeting place but I think its role can and will expand. There’s been a big fundraising drive recently to finance the redevelopment of the rooms under the main library space. These are the rooms where Joseph Swan developed and demonstrated the first electric light bulb. Where Thomas Bewick, Robert Stephenson and William Armstrong discussed their ideas.
The level of discussion might not be quite the same nowadays but I think it could return in the future. Wonderful talks from visiting literary figures still take place but once the renovated rooms are up and running again, there’ll be more flexibility. There’s a lot in the pipeline to make the venue more attractive to a new audience.
So the Lit & Phil needs to modernise?
I don’t see it as modernising. It’s about staying relevant. I recently spent time filming at a very prominent London theatre. It’s gone through several years of renovations since I was last there and I found that all of the colour, the vibrancy, the ‘yeastiness’ and the slightly faded glory of the backstage areas had gone. Instead there were grey walls and grey carpets. It was like an architect’s office. Someone said it had been done to make it more relevant but I just thought, ‘no it’s not, it’s to be more corporately available and bland’. The lovely thing about the Lit & Phil is that that’s not going to be the case.
As this is the arts and culture issue, what were the North East cultural venues you visited growing up?
My first introduction to music was in the North East. I remember going to see The Gondoliers opera at the Theatre Royal. The Scottish Opera would spend short seasons at the theatre as did the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC] and, of course, still do. As a family, we would devour it all. My mother, in particular, loved the RSC and would buy tickets to every production. We also regularly visited Newcastle Playhouse and the Gulbenkian Studio [now Northern Stage]. We have a lovely family connection with the playhouse in that my Great Aunt – the playwright Esther McCracken – and Great Uncle, established the foundation for the theatre. I was also a huge fan of Roger McGough when I was young – and still am. Roger would visit Newcastle each year to perform a poetry reading and I would beg my parents to take me.
Culturally, there was masses going on in the North East in the 1970s and the 1980s. I loved going to the Joicey Museum when I was little, too.
Alongside Pointless, in what else can we expect to see you on our television screens?
A new series called Don’t Ask Me Ask Britain is about to start on ITV. It’s a live interactive programme, which I chair, where people at home can vote for answers using an app. I’m also in the middle of filming a documentary about the Royal Wedding to mark 70 years since the Queen and Prince Philip got married, which should be screened in the autumn.
What about your music?
There’s another album on its way. I’ll be recording that in the next couple of months and working with the Choir of New College Oxford.
Returning to the Lit & Phil, what do you hope to achieve during your presidency?
I hope to be president over a strong period of expansion. As I say, the big question for the Lit & Phil – as it is for all of the ancient institutions – is how does it remain relevant? The development of the downstairs rooms and the preservation of the architecture will continue but what’s important is that the spirit of the beautiful old structure remains. It’s important to know that there’s a difference between being ‘old fashioned’ and ‘classic’. The Lit & Phil is a classic and it must be restored sensitively so that people who visit can see and feel what a beautiful and important institution it is.
It’s an ongoing task but it’s one that I’m delighted to be a part of.