Tab Interview: Carol Vorderman

HOLLY STEVENSON talks to Carol Vorderman about her time at Cambridge, Countdown, and her ‘interesting’ fashion sense…

Abba access Cambridge University Carol Vorderman Countdown Engineering Holly Stevenson Richard Whiteley Sidney Sussex tuition fees

Before interviewing Carol Vorderman, I was quite sceptical about her appeal. Having never enjoyed Countdown and never needed my debts consolidated into one easy monthly payment, I never paid much attention to her.

It easy to forget that the woman who seems to have a new hairstyle every week is, in her own words, ‘only behind Delia in the bestselling female non-fiction list’. Her latest business venture, The Maths Factor, is an online academy designed to give students support in maths outside school. ‘I’ve brought out maths books for years and have sold literally millions of them; that says something about the demand for help in maths,’ Carol explained. ‘Maths education in schools has been a passion of mine, and so this is a great opportunity to put my money where my mouth is.’

But, is an impersonal, online service really a better way of teaching than one-to-one tuition? ‘One-to-one tuition can cost up to £60 per hour in London,’ said Carol, ‘whereas with The Maths Factor you can get two months worth of teaching for £25, and be on it all day. I wouldn’t argue about one-to-one tuition; you can’t beat it, but it’s not cheap.’

Carol is, if anything, savvy about saving money. Her father left his family when Carol was just three weeks old, leaving her mother to look after three children alone. For years, they lived hand to mouth. Hence, she understands the huge challenges students from poorer backgrounds face when they do decide to go to university; both financially and emotionally.

When I went to university I was on a full grant; all my fees were paid,’ she explains. ‘Politically I’m not in favour of tuition fees at all; I think it’s wrong. When the government of the time said 50% of students should go to university – such a random figure! – I thought, ‘why so? Why not 56%? Why not 31%?’ It was just a figure that was plucked from nowhere and obviously that has had a bouncing effect. I also think people from my sort of background would like to see their fees covered in order to get there, and have help from bursaries where necessary.’

When Carol spoke to me about her time at Cambridge, her repetition of the phrase: ‘they were very different times then’ was telling. She went to Sidney Sussex to study Engineering in 1978, and seemingly broke every boundary of class, gender and background. ‘At the time I went up to Cambridge there were only five mixed colleges, and it was the first year that Sidney had girls in each undergraduate year. I went up at the time when everyone had to take the Oxbridge exam; but I went to a comprehensive where no one had ever applied to Oxbridge before, and I couldn’t take the exam as no one knew what it was.’

Holding one of the very few unconditional offers, Carol began her time at Sidney at the age of 17. The transition was a huge shock. ‘Most of the kids there were from Eton or Harrow, or otherwise from the big grammar schools. It was a real eye opener for me. I was 17, but I felt that I was quite streetwise, as though I was a lot worldlier than the others. But it was a whole different world. I had never been in a world where there was any formality at all, or heated intellectual debate; they were all new things to me. I’d never actually met anyone who said ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’. It was a culture shock in a very different way.’

And so Carol was a genuine trailblazer, not only in attitude, but also in fashion: ‘I refused to wear jeans. Then I was very much a 70s Abba-esque dresser. I used to wear thigh-high leather boots every day, as well as waist high red velveteen trousers, which meant it took me four times longer to ride my bike to the engineering department than anybody else because I couldn’t actually turn the pedals!’

Carol’s new autobiography, It All Counts, documents her astonishing rise from a shy, permed, leather-boots-wearing Engineering student to one of the biggest media personalities in the UK. Her memories of Countdown are particularly warm. ‘My relationship with Richard Whiteley was absolutely fantastic. We had a ball and we were so lucky. We loved everyone who watched it and the people who came into the audience. It was just one of those programmes that worked; and one of the world’s longest running shows. But we always kept driving it; we never tried to score off each other or have a row on-air. Richard’s death was the hardest thing I had to write about.’

In her autobiography, Carol speaks of being a working mother – and a workaholic – often working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, surviving only on caffeine and adrenaline. ‘I do think the ‘having it all’ idea is having an effect on young women,’ Carol explained. ‘I have a daughter who is 18 so I understand what you [young women of university age] are going through. There’s a great work ethic amongst you, regardless of what the papers might say; you work very hard, probably harder than we did at your age.

‘Young women know they are just as bright and just as capable as men, and then they get channelled into their professional career, and that takes more years, and then you hit 30. And, no matter what anyone says, that’s when the clock starts ticking if you ever want children, and that’s when decisions have to be made. I think that’s incredibly difficult for women.

There is much more to Ms. Vorderman than the ‘another consonant please, Carol’ request. I found that it is her intelligence that is pervading, much more so than her choice of detox diet. The world’s media would do much better to focus on the former rather than the latter.