The Opportunity: A conversation with Penny Smith

by Michael Volpe

Broadcaster and journalist Penny Smith always knew she wanted to be a writer. ‘I think back with sympathy for my teachers — when they gave us homework to write about what we did in our holidays, kids would hand in a paragraph but I’d write screeds of the stuff,’ she laughs.

Penny has been a regular on British TV screens and on radio for over three decades now with a long 16 year stint on GMTV in the middle of it. She has written three novels and her screen career takes in travel programmes and even an appearance in the movie Garfield 2. But it was that period on the GMTV sofa and news-desk that made her a household name and she seems able to turn her hand to almost anything, including being an opera critic. She currently hosts a prime afternoon show on Scala Radio.

Despite having a clear-eyed view of her future from a young age, it all began via a fortuitous bit of eavesdropping by her father in a local Rutland pub.

‘At 17 I was living and travelling around Europe and was working as an au pair in Belgium when a letter arrived from Dad. He’d been in the local and heard a couple of blokes talking about a newspaper publishing group, EMAP, who were looking for a couple of cub reporters. So I wrote to EMAP and told them how I’d always wanted to be a journalist and was invited for an interview — I had to leave Belgium. I think I just talked nonsense at the editor but he gave me the job (on the Peterborough Evening Telegraph). It was only later that I discovered I’d been one of hundreds of applicants for two jobs.’

The editor had apparently been bored rigid by the procession of earnest university students who’d traipsed into his office with stacks of writing samples but had found Penny’s intrepid adventures in Europe appealing. So luck played a part, but it wasn’t too long before the recurring element in this series, risk taking, enters the narrative. Penny had found her way (via a job on Border TV in Cumbria) into television and was presenting Thames News with Andrew Gardner when the call came from the new channel Sky. In 1988, she left Thames to help launch Sky News. ‘Everybody — and I mean everybody — said that joining Sky would ruin my career. But I couldn’t resist, it seemed like it had legs.’

Four years after she joined Sky, in 1993, GMTV offered her a job and again but this time there was a queue of people telling her it was a gift she couldn’t refuse; she didn’t, and stayed at GMTV until 2010. ‘I just felt I had to be brave and take those opportunities because I’d learned from my father about taking chances and doing what you loved.’ This appears to be a theme through her life, whether that be yomping around South America for two years with a backpack or leaving higher paid jobs to take less well-rewarded ones. ‘I was always very intrepid,’ she says.

I think Penny is one of the few genuinely positive people I have known and sense that she is completely content with where she is, what she has achieved and how she has done it all. I press and probe about the writing career that she has only partially fulfilled, and wonder if she has secret regrets that she isn’t sitting here talking to me as a literary novelist. ‘No, I wrote three novels, which people enjoyed. I did them quickly and knew what it was I wanted to achieve with them. I am also realistic about what I am — I know that I can turn a good phrase and write well but I don’t regret not being something I am not.’ And the natural cynic in me is actually convinced by that answer.

‘I still worry about being rubbish and thrown off a show or whatever. We all do in this business. But I am healthily competitive and that realism I mentioned earlier also extends to knowing what it is that I am good at. And we don’t stop learning and evolving.’

Taking opportunities cannot be taken if they are not there so we talk about Nova’s proposition for communities — particular the issues around social cohesion. Penny is a great arts lover and feels -as many of us do — that the life-enriching force of the creative arts is always the first to go when things get tough for the country. But she does wonder about the divisions in the country and the gaps between the haves and have-nots.

‘I always think,’ she says, ‘that people who worry about litter intensely — and I hate litter — can’t have much else to worry about in their lives. If you are struggling to survive and just get through each day, you don’t feel compelled to make overt contributions to the society around you. So we HAVE to help people and it’s so important that Nova are doing that.

‘Take risks and don’t be afraid to fail. And do something you love, too. You never know where it might lead, nor, importantly, who you might meet along the way.’

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The Opportunity

In people’s lives, ‘opportunities’ can come in various guises, some can be clear and obvious and others may not be evident until after the passage of time. At Nova New Opportunities, we aim to create the conditions for people to take new life chances, and to see where it may take them.

‘The Opportunity’ is a series of discussions with successful individuals who recall a particular moment — or opportunity — that changed the course of their lives. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a particular moment would prove so important to their future, at others, it was a blazingly clear juncture that they knew had to be grabbed with both hands. It could be deemed ‘a stroke of luck’, or it could just have been that someone, somewhere showed a little faith, but these moments are when we recognise the turning points in our lives.