SHEREEN Nanjiani admits she was a bag of nerves before going back in front of the cameras for the first time in more than 10 years.
It’s hard to believe over a decade has passed since the broadcaster, arguably the most well-known face on Scottish television in the 1990s – and surely one of the few Scots recognisable by their first name alone – left STV.
Since stepping off the daily news treadmill she has forged a successful career in radio. But when the BBC came knocking with the chance to co-present a new weekly current affairs show, Timeline, Nanjiani couldn’t resist returning to the buzz of live TV.
“I must say I was pretty worried about doing it again,” she laughs. “I remember asking myself whether I could still do it – it’s been such a long time. I love doing radio because it’s more in depth and you can be yourself, whereas TV is much more structured. It has to be.
“On the first day of Timeline rehearsals I was nervous. There’s a weight of expectation, of course, when people read the words ‘30 years of experience’ on your CV… no pressure, then. If you screw it up you’ve got no excuse.
“But when I sat down and looked at the autocue I instantly relaxed and felt at home – it was so strange. And when we went on air for the first time I felt very calm. There might be hairy moments every now and then – with live TV there always is – but it felt good.”
Timeline is the perfect vehicle for Nanjiani’s considerable talents. Co-hosted with political journalist Glenn Campbell, it offers a feature-led take on the week’s big stories, giving more focus to the human interest lines daily news bulletins usually don’t have the time to bring out. It’s slick, but not too slick, with Nanjiani and Campbell already displaying the sort of chemistry which makes you wonder why nobody thought of putting them together before.
The show goes out at the same time as EastEnders and the last half-hour of Channel 4 News. But with the end of Scotland 2016, the nightly news analysis programme widely viewed as a flop, there was definitely room in the BBC schedules for something new. And this softer half-hour weekly format, anchored by two of the most experienced presenters in town, seems to be growing in both confidence and popularity.
“We’re not trying to do what a news programme does, it’s a completely different beast,” says Nanjiani, who is 55. “At that time in the evening people are in a different zone. I think they have a shorter attention span – I know I certainly do – but it doesn’t mean they can’t get into the meat of a story. It just means you have to do it in an immediately engaging way. We’re never going to beat EastEnders but I think it’s a good alternative if you’re looking for something else.”
Seeing Paisley-born Nanjiani back on television reminds you how much she’s been missed. As well as the professionalism, there’s the trademark warmth in the delivery and charisma. Nanjiani has all these in spades – though she chose to walk away from STV in 2006, after 20 years, more of which later.
She laughs that it feels a bit strange to be answering rather than asking the questions. We’re talking in the light, spacious conversion in a quiet street in the west end of Glasgow, filled with interesting artwork and comfy sofas, that Nanjiani shares with her partner of 20 years, media executive Mark Smith and Thomas, the chummy black cat who meanders between us throughout, purring like a finely-tuned engine.
I should probably disclose that I have a professional connection to the presenter, having appeared as a guest on her long-running Saturday morning show on BBC Radio Scotland. Live radio and TV are far harder and fraught with potential drama and distress than you may think, but behind the scenes Nanjiani is as warm as her on-screen personality suggests, engaged and hands on, aware of all the details, constantly rewriting links and copy, keen to make guests feel as relaxed as possible.
Thirty years in broadcasting isn’t to be sniffed at. Nanjiani says it doesn’t seem like three decades, and indeed she looks remarkably unchanged to the woman I remember inspiring me to become a journalist when I was a teenager.
Her big break came following graduation from Glasgow University, where she studied philosophy. While Nanjiani was working as a reporter at STV, presenter Sheena MacDonald phoned in sick one day. It was like something out of the movies – but Scottish style.
“David Scott, the very gruff news boss at the time, called me in and said, ‘Right, you’re reading the news tonight.’ I was aghast and immediately said I couldn’t possibly do it. This was the main news programme, the big one, with a million viewers, before the days when there were smaller bulletins you could cut your teeth on. I'd had no training. He said, ‘Don’t worry, if you f*** it up you won’t be doing it again.’"
In fact, Nanjiani turned out to be a natural. And, she discovered, she loved the buzz of live TV. A few weeks later they named her alongside Angus Simpson as the joint anchor of the main evening programme at a time before digital news platforms, when families sat down to watch the news together.
Gus – now Lord – Macdonald was in charge of STV at the time and determined to make it the best news programme of the day.
“It was such an exciting time,” remembers Nanjiani. “We were competing toe to toe with the BBC. They raised their game and so did we. I have to thank David Scott – he pushed me in to it and I probably wouldn’t have gone for it myself. It really was a baptism of fire – I still hadn’t had any training when I started doing the job for real – but I surprised myself how much I enjoyed it.”
And famously, inescapably, Nanjiani was Scotland’s first-ever Asian newsreader at a time when Scotland was less cosmopolitan and outward-looking than it is now. How did the young journalist, the daughter of a Pakistani eye doctor and an English nurse, feel about being presented in this way?
“I didn’t know they were going to pitch it that way and I wasn’t happy about it at the time,” she explains. “The first I knew was when the press release went out about me being the first Asian newsreader. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, is that what you’re seeing?’ I was quite upset about it. I didn’t say anything because I was young and didn’t have the confidence but I wondered whether that was why I got the job.
“I thought it reeked of tokenism. I actually believe I did get the job on my own merits, but I thought it was a bit cynical of them to present me in that way. I spent much of my career railing against it, not wanting that tag to follow me around. And, of course, I was only half-Asian.”
Nanjiani says her feelings on the matter changed around 10 years ago when she realised that, like it or not, she had been a role model for a whole generation of Asian Scots.
“So many young Asian people were coming up to me and saying, ‘You’ve no idea what a difference it made seeing your face on TV. It made me think I could do it too.’ Hardeep Singh Kohli [the Glaswegian broadcaster and Sunday Herald columnist] came up to me at an event – we’d never met before – and said, ‘I just want to shake your hand and say thank you. It meant so much seeing you on screen.’ I’d never thought of it that way and it made me realise that I shouldn’t deny it, I should celebrate it a bit more.”
But she admits dismay and disappointment that more Asian Scots are not in prominent positions in the media. “I was the first Asian newsreader in Scotland, and didn’t expect 30 years later to be the last. I don’t think it’s because of racism, but the media hasn’t done enough to engage with black and minority ethnic communities, or indeed other minorities.
“I was at the Scottish launch of the BBC’s diversity strategy and it is something they are taking very seriously now. I think they get it now. But you have to be more active. In journalism – especially the press – it is striking that there are still very few ethnic names.”
In her years at STV, Nanjiani became the station’s flagship presenter, leading coverage of the stories that have shaped Scotland over the last 30 years, including Lockerbie, Dunblane and the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. She also reported from Romania after the fall of the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, visiting the orphanages that so shocked the world, returning on various occasions with the Scottish charities who helped give new lives to the children.
She presented from South Africa after the election of Nelson Mandela and Peshawar, Pakistan, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I was so lucky to get a taste of that,” Nanjiani says, “and every time an opportunity arose I would jump at it. I was always keen to look outward.
"But after 20 years it was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day and I just wasn't enjoying it so much."
I ask whether she was ever tempted to move to London and follow in the footsteps of fellow Scots such as Selina Scott, Kirsty Wark and Lorraine Kelly. You can’t help but think she could have become the most successful name on this list.
“It’s just the way it worked out,” she muses without an iota of bitterness. “I’ve always been very comfortable in Scotland. I suppose I was always comfortable with the Scottish people, too. There can be a perceived pressure that you can’t come back at a high level unless you’ve been to London, but I did all right in Scotland. I like my life here. Maybe I could and should have spread my wings, but I have no regrets.
“There’s much more of a confidence in the Scottish creative spheres now. There isn’t that attitude that you have go to London. Young Scottish people these days seem so much more confident and happier in their own skin than we did when we were young – I envy them.”
A few weeks ago, Nanjiani’s mother, Enid, died suddenly. Her father Max is in his eighties and disabled, and Nanjiani, who has one brother, a vet, has been there to help him adjust to his new life and circumstances.
The family of four were always a close unit, she says, particularly so because her father’s family were thousands of miles away in Pakistan, and much of her mother’s had moved to South Africa, so there were no aunts, uncles or cousins around while she was growing up in Paisley.
Out of the blue a couple of years ago, however, she had the chance to meet another famous Nanjiani – Kumail, a successful stand-up comedian in the US, best known as one of the stars of the Emmy-nominated HBO show Silicon Valley. And to her surprise, he knew all about her.
“I was reading an article in the paper about the best comedians to see at the Edinburgh Festival and the name Kumail Nanjiani leapt off the page. That’s a family name, so I knew we would have to be related. It turns out he’s my second cousin.
“I went to Edinburgh to meet him and it was amazing how much he looked like my dad as a young man – I couldn’t believe it. And he was a lovely guy. It was really funny because he told me that when he was growing up the family were always telling him about Shereen 'the big TV star in Scotland'.
“That made me laugh because if anything I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome – I just haven’t been found out yet.”
For many Scots, of course, it is Shereen who is the real deal. And that’s why it’s great to have her back on the box.
Timeline returns after an Easter break on Thursday, 7.30pm, BBC Two
Scotswomen behind the desk
Scotland’s women news presenters have held a special place in our TV lives through the years. Here are five of the most memorable:
Like Shereen Nanjiani, something of a legend in her own lifetime, Bird has presented Reporting Scotland for 28 years. Also a keen singer, before her BBC days she toured with Echo & the Bunnymen and worked with Paul Weller. In 2016 she made a cameo appearance as herself in Still Game. Also presents the BBC’s Hogmanay coverage.
Marquis, who trained as an actor, became a newsreader on BBC Scotland in the mid-1960s and presented Nationwide throughout the 1970s. At the time, ITV tried to poach her for their main news, but she preferred to stay in her home city, Glasgow, and became the face of Reporting Scotland until her retirement in 1988. Still a favourite with many of a certain age.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 90s, Lumsden flipped between STV and the BBC. After moving on from presenting news, she had her own show, Viv on Sunday, and presented STV’s The Home Show – a precursor for the interior and house-buying programmes that fill today’s schedules – for six years with her husband, fellow newsreader Alan Douglas.
Initially a radio presenter with BBC Scotland, McDonald made the move to London and anchored an array of heavyweight current affairs programmes including The World at One, Channel 4 News and The World This Week. In 1999, she was hit by a police van on its way to a 999 call and sustained a serious head injury which took her years to recover from. She is married to BBC journalist Alan Little and still works in broadcasting.
Joining BBC Scotland in 1976, Wark worked as an editor on radio and TV before moving in front of the cameras for Breakfast Time in 1988. She fronted much of the BBC’s coverage of Lockerbie and her tough interviewing style famously rattled PM Margaret Thatcher during an interview. Since 1993, she has presented the Beeb’s flagship current affairs show, Newsnight. A keen cook, she has appeared on Celebrity Masterchef and the Great British Bake Off.