“I used to believe I could do everything, what a silly idea. I’d never think that again.”
Linda McDougall describes that she ‘leaps out of bed at 5am’ not only to tend to her latest manuscript, but also her house renovations and her voluntary work with the Barbara Pym Society, an organisation that celebrates the work of one of her favourite novelists. At 77, she doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of retiring from her work yet.
“Sometimes I lie on my back and tell myself that I don’t have to do anything, but I still don’t believe it.”
Linda first arrived in the UK in 1961 as a 19-year-old aspiring actress on a NZ Government bursary to attend the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. It was upon her arrival in the UK that she watched television for the very first time, unaware that she would go on to spend her entire career behind the cameras as well as in front of them.
Three years later she returned to New Zealand, having decided that she no longer wanted to be an actress. “I’d discovered they were vessels that you poured wonderful things into and I wanted more control. I realised that I wanted to direct or produce things myself.”
She took a job in Wellington with the newly created NZBC, as their Researcher. As the only person in the whole country in this role, it was her job to research every single show, and she admits that she was perhaps not the ideal person for the job, however it was how she came to meet her husband, Austin Mitchell, who had come from the UK to lecture at the University of Canterbury.
“He was going to be the presenter and interviewer in a TV show called ‘Men on the Hill’ beginning with the visiting UK Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Sir Arthur Bottomley. He asked me to research Sir Arthur, I had no idea what I was doing, so I copied about three lines out of British “Who’s Who” and gave it to him. He looked at me and said “Is that it? That’s your research?!”
They fell in love and after what she describes as ‘some very bad decisions, largely my own’, Linda became pregnant with twins and returned to Oxford with Austin to raise their son and daughter.
Within two months of having their twins, Linda had landed a job with the BBC in London on the current events programme, 24 Hours. She was employed on a one-year contract which was not renewed due to the fact that she had two young children. She still has the letter she received telling her that her contract would not be extended for this reason – a relic of attitudes to women in the workplace in the 1960s.
After a role as a Vision Mixer on a local magazine programme in Manchester, Linda moved into news and current events in a production role, where she worked with Stuart Hall whom she would later give evidence against in an investigation into his indecent assaults on underage girls in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At the beginning of the troubles in Ireland, she took a job with BBC Belfast, covering the situation as it unfolded. It was a tough role, which involved travelling home at the weekends to be with her family, but she says that she immensely enjoyed it.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Linda held a variety number of roles producing current events shows and documentaries. She ran a small, independent production company making programmes for BBC, ITV and Channel 4, which won a number of awards.
Her TV career highlights are numerous, in 1979 she won the Royal Television Society Journalism award for “Eurofrauds”, a Thames TV programme for the series TV Eye. It investigated and exposed people defrauding the Common Market by submitting claims for false agricultural subsidies, and showed farmers living near the border in Northern Ireland herding their cows across the border to claim subsidies for exporting them, only for the cows to find their way back home and be ‘exported’ again the next day.
Linda won this award again in 1983 with a programme called “Here Comes Cruise”, also on TV Eye. They constructed a fake Cruise missile based on plans acquired from the US government. The fake missile was put on a truck and driven around the Greenham Common area to gauge public reaction.
However, her personal career highlight was in 1991 when she read an ex-pat newspaper article about some promising research from Otago University around preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDs). She contacted Anne Diamond, a TV presenter who had recently lost her son to SIDS. The women flew to New Zealand to review the research which was clearly showing a link between babies sleeping on their fronts and SIDS. The show aired and along with Diamond’s campaigning, the official advice on infant sleeping positions was changed, resulting in SIDS dropping from 1545 deaths in 1989 to 647 in 1992, with rates falling as low as 128 by 2014.
Alongside her TV work, Linda has also written two books; Westminster Women containing interviews with 120 female MPs in 1997 after Labour had all-women short lists resulting in a significant increase in female MPs, and an unauthorised biography of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie Blair. She is currently contributing to a third book, “Honourable Ladies”, which will consist of two volumes detailing the lives of every female MP in the British Parliament to date. The first volume will be released in September and will contain biographies of 167 female MPs from 1918 to 1996.
Her advice to young, Kiwi women is not to forget your New Zealand-ness.
“It is a unique privilege to come from a small country, to have had a great education and to be brave and confident. New Zealand gave me all that and I could never thank it enough. My New Zealand-ness is key to everything that has happened in my life.”