ANN Widdecombe likes Henley so much she’s been to both of them.
The former Conservative MP turned Strictly Come Dancing star is also a bestselling author who published her autobiography, Strictly Ann, in 2013.
She was among the first batch of authors announced for this year’s Henley Literary Festival, which runs from Monday, September 26, to Sunday, October 2.
Tickets go on sale in mid-July, with Ann’s appearance set for Friday, September 30.
Most authors at the festival will have a new book to promote but Ann, as ever, isn’t afraid to be different.
Speaking from her home in Devon, she says: “No, I haven’t got a new book coming out. I do literary festivals anyway because the old books still sell. The autobiography is certainly selling.
“When I finished the autobiography I did a detective novel. So sometimes when I’m doing literary festivals there is a new book out and sometimes there isn’t.
“It’s quite a reasonable assumption to make — that I would have a new book out — but it’s never worked that way with me. I mean, I do them all year round, so sometimes they follow on from a publication and sometimes they don’t.”
Has she been to Henley before?
“Oh yes, I’ve been to Henley lots of times. I like both Henleys. I like Henley-on-Thames, which is what you’re talking about, but I also like Henley-in-Arden.”
So she’s been to Henley — the other one is in Warwickshire. But has she been to the literary festival? She’s not sure at first.
“I think I have. I’m not entirely certain because I do so many. Unless I do them either all the time or I’ve never done it before I don’t really remember, so I think I probably have done Henley — in fact, I’m certain I have — but I can’t remember which book it was or when.”
That’s not too surprising when you consider how busy she’s been as an author. Her first novel, The Clematis Tree, was published in 2000 and was quickly followed by three more.
A fifth novel, Sackcloth and Ashes, appeared in the same year as her autobiography, and the following year she made her debut as a detective novelist, penning The Dancing Detective under the name AN Widdecombe — the N standing for Noreen, her middle name.
(For Widdecombe completists, a book of her collected speeches, Inspired and Outspoken, is also available.)
Popular as her books have proved, it was her 2010 appearance on Strictly Come Dancing that really raised her profile following her retirement as the MP for Maidstone and the Weald — the seat she had held since the 1987 general election — in May that year. Now 68 and living near Haytor on Dartmoor, she seems to be as busy as ever.
“I suppose I’m semi-semi-retired, she says. “I mean, I’m still writing, I’m still making television, I’m still doing things like that. But obviously I’m not a member of parliament, so that frees an awful lot of time.”
Although there was some precedent for a figure associated with politics being a success on the show, with former ITN political editor John Sergeant proving a hit with viewers in 2008, Ann says the possibility that the same thing might happen to her never crossed her mind.
“It changed everything,” she says, “because when I did Strictly I then got the Strictly tour, and then I went into pantomime, and then I was on at the Royal Opera House. So Strictly really started a series of events that I couldn’t reasonably have foreseen.”
She really didn’t have any idea what could happen?
“No, not at all. No, I mean, I actually thought I would be on for about three weeks and that would be it. I could never have predicted how it took off, ever. Just couldn’t have predicted that.” Now, of course, she is part of the Strictly “family”, having subsequently appeared in a special edition for Children in Need alongside fellow show favourite Russell Grant.
Ann is pleased at Strictly’s continuing popularity, saying: “It happens everywhere — I mean, I was in the Channel Islands doing something and saw adverts for Vincent and Flavia, so yes. Craig does a huge amount of stuff. He’s touring at the moment.”
Right she is. An Audience with Craig Revel Horwood comes to the Hexagon in Reading on Sunday, November 13. Prior to which the strictest Strictly judge will be directing and choreographing a production of Sister Act starring Alexandra Burke at the Wycombe Swan — the venue where he drew rave reviews for his Christmas panto turn as Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
As for the dancers, audiences at the Hexagon this year have already been treated to shows by Brendan Cole, followed by dance partners Anton du Beke and Erin Boag, with tickets still available for Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe on Saturday, April 16.
Does Ann still keep in touch with people from the show?
“I’m in touch with Anton and I’m in touch with Craig and very, very, very occasionally with Len Goodman. But apart from that, no.”
Although the venue for Ann’s literary festival appearance has yet to be confirmed, she can offer a foretaste of what form it will take.
“I don’t give a reading,” she says. “Sometimes I’m interviewed, sometimes I talk — but always, always the one consistent feature is that there is a long time for Q&A from the audience. They ask about everything — they don’t just ask about literature because they’ve got a whole festival full of that. They ask about politics, they ask about Strictly, they ask any old thing — they ask about cats, sometimes, just anything.”
Joining Ann on the festival bill are her fellow former MPs Ken Livingstone and David Laws. Having experienced the worlds of both politics and showbiz, would she say they have much in common?
“Clever footwork!” she laughs.
Although tickets for the Henley Literary Festival do not go on sale until July, the Friends membership scheme is now open for 2016. As well as priority booking and exclusive ticket offers, Friends can save throughout the year with festival partners including the Hotel du Vin, the Quince Tree, Strada, CAU and Wigg Hairdressing.
Membership costs £35 and runs until October 31. For full details, visit www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk
Tickets for the Hexagon shows can be booked by calling 0118 960 6060 or visiting www.readingarts.com
For more on Sister Act, visit www.wycombeswan.co.uk