The Brits, a book, a podcast – and now a secret part on The Archers. Etan Smallman meets lockdown’s most unlikely celebrity
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The Zoom era has birthed many viral stars. The woman who left her camera on during a work meeting while it captured her going to the toilet. The Texas lawyer unable to switch off the feline video filter, and pathetically insisting to the judge: “I’m not a cat.”
But only one has managed to extend her fame beyond the requisite 15 minutes. Life hasn’t been the same for Jackie Weaver since she presided over a riotous meeting of Handforth Parish Council that went global after being posted online in February. CNN called it “the world’s worst Zoom call” while the Washington Post said “it felt like an absurdist British play”.
Previous tensions had seen Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, brought in to ensure the smooth running of proceedings. But before they had formally begun, she was being barracked by three men. One insisted she had “no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all”. Another yelled: “Read the standing orders! READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM.” Weaver kept an enviable sense of sangfroid and booted them, one by one, into the virtual waiting room.
Quickly dubbed “the patron saint of women who are having absolutely none of your nonsense,” the 62-year-old was, at one point, more googled than Taylor Swift or Boris Johnson. She was soon being imitated by Joanna Lumley, the subject of a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber and had her face plastered over mugs, face masks and scented candles. (Weaver herself possesses only a single piece of merch, a tea towel with the clarion call: “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver.”)
Just last week, she was opening the Brit Awards from home alongside the cast of Line of Duty. Producers had tried everything to tempt her down from her Shropshire village to London, but the 62-year-old was adamant: she was simply too busy.
Weaver is talking to me on Zoom (where else?) while sitting on the throne-like maroon office chair from which she regally marshalled the notorious meeting. Her westies, Izzie and Rosie, bark outside the door.
The latest salvo in her bid for media domination is her own podcast titled, inevitably, Jackie Weaver Has The Authority. Weaver acts as agony aunt, solving listeners’ life problems with famous guests including Jeremy Vine and her longtime celebrity crush, Anton Du Beke.
She emphatically denies rumours that she has been approached for Strictly Come Dancing, but she has turned down Channel 4 reality series The Circle, a stint in panto and a chance to front ad campaigns for two nursing homes.
She is ticking one thing off her bucket list with a “top secret” part in The Archers. But her dream gig? “I’d like to be Judge Judy,” she says. “None of this mediation stuff I’ve been doing for 23 years, just plain arbitration: you’re right. You’re wrong. Moving on…”
If only things had been that easy in Handforth. Weaver’s two main adversaries, the chairman and vice chairman, have both resigned, but have shown no contrition, she says, let alone offered her an apology: “They still feel that they were [deep intake of breath] the champions of what is right.” Indeed, Weaver had to fend off a formal complaint made against her. However, she is certainly getting the last laugh – featuring the shouty men in her podcast jingles.
She says she had never come across such hostility and would have been afraid to stand her ground had the meeting been face-to-face. “I don’t really do anger,” she explains. “Angry people are frightening.”
But that hasn’t stopped her calling out examples of swaggering male self-entitlement in the past.
“The last time I saw something similar was when I was across the table from a union rep and he sat there with his shirt hanging out and his zip undone – and I got the distinct impression neither of them was by accident.” She made no bones about telling him to pull himself together.
Weaver was “shocked and disappointed” by the number of messages she has received from younger women sharing their own tales of workplace misbehaviour. “I suppose, as an older person, I thought all this was sorted,” she says. Pointedly, she is donating a share of profits from her podcast to an anti-bullying charity.
Though Weaver believes sexism was a key factor in how she was treated, she admits: “Anybody with half a sense of humour has to see the funny side of it.”
She has not stopped laughing at the response, herself. One admirer asked if she was married (she and her husband, Stuart, the Denis Thatcher of the parish council sphere, celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary last Wednesday with a fish and chip takeaway).
“People are awfully kind. I wonder if it’s sometimes that they’re missing a mum in their life,” she says, chuckling. “I’m just filling that gap.” Her three grown-up kids, however, are unmoved. “I guess, you have to do something more than I’ve done already to impress your children.”
There is online abuse, of course, which has led Weaver to firmly reject the “Don’t Feed the Trolls” mantra. “We’ve created a group of people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to abuse anybody you like online and the expectation is they will ignore it.” She took to Twitter to publicly shame one man who had sent her messages calling her a “feminazi” and a “stupid cow”.
Weaver was born in Motherwell in Scotland in 1958. Her father, Bill, worked in a steel works, but it was her mother, Janet, a nurse, who instilled her will of iron. “She was hard, bitey and Scottish. She could have been, apart from the age thing, Nicola Sturgeon.”
The Handforth ruckus may have brought Weaver more fame than she knows what to do with, but it is yet to bring her her fortune.
“Do you know how much I got paid for the Brit Awards? Nothing. I suppose I didn’t ask, they didn’t offer.” I tell Weaver she needs to get an agent quick smart, but she is having none of it.
“Many of the things I’ve done over the last three months that I’ve had the greatest pleasure from have been unpaid. So I’ve done a shedload of talks to schools and young political groups. No agent is going to push that.” And, anyway, Weaver’s idea of the high life is some fancy stationery and a DIY manicure.
She is also half-way through writing her book: details of the deal are still under wraps, but it will be a paean to pragmatism, common sense and the little man and woman.
“I don’t know why or when it became unacceptable to be ordinary,” she says. “If we all want to be pop stars, we have a problem because someone has to keep the lights on. But if we keep telling people ‘You’ve got to be special,’ surely we’re making them spend a large part of their life feeling ‘I’m failing’? In the big world, you and me are ordinary and that is absolutely fine.”
While Weaver insists on her mundanity, she is anything but anonymous. She has spotted people on the country lane outside giving surreptitious glances through the window of her home-office (“I wish they’d just look and I would wave!”)
I tell her I worry passers-by will still be shouting “Read the standing orders!” when she’s in her 90s.
“The way I look at it is, actually, I get a lot of publicity and off the back of it, it kind of takes me full circle, I can then bang on about town and parish councils.
“It’s been one of those things that when it first started, I thought, well, give it to the weekend and then it’ll be back to obscurity. I feel, where I am now, that when this goes – because it will – I will miss it.”