Strictly maternal: Ann Widdecombe is the surrogate second mother for the children of her local kebab shop owner

By Lisa Sewards
Last updated at 12:34 AM on 20th November 2010

Over the past few weeks, it has been increasingly hard to ­reconcile the Ann Widdecombe ‘battleaxe’ politician who once struck fear into ­fellow ­members of the House of Commons with the ‘Widdy’ who has been the priceless comic turn on Strictly Come Dancing.
But while millions of television viewers have been left speechless by the humorous incarnation of the former Prisons Minister, one brother and sister who built up an astonishing relationship with her as children have long known about this rather lighter side to ­Widdecombe’s character.
Behind the uncompromising manner that earned her the nickname Doris Karloff, they say, lies the heart of a warm and caring woman who quietly, away from the spotlight, became a ­loving second mother to them both.
Relaxing: Ann Widdecombe, Britain's most celebrated spinster shares a joke with Theo and Nick
Relaxing: Ann Widdecombe, Britain's most celebrated spinster, shares a joke with Theo and Nick
For just when you thought you’d read everything there is to know about Britain’s most ­celebrated spinster, there comes an astonishing revelation. For almost three decades, Ann has acted as a surrogate mother-figure to Nikos Lourida and his sister Theo­dora — the children of a kebab shop owner and his wife.
She has lavished gifts on them, helped them secure the best possible education, taken them on joyful ­family excursions and shared every ­significant landmark of their lives.
Yet never once has she revealed their bond to the wider world.
Nick, now 29, and Theo, 31, were aged two and five when Ann first came into their lives. Their Greek-Cypriot parents, Debbie and Demetrious, ran a late-night doner kebab restaurant, The Royal Dolphin, in Kennington, South-east London — just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament.
Ann would call in with political ­colleagues, including John Major and Kenneth Clarke, at the end of the day’s sittings.
As she sat with her books, her favourite doner kebab and regular glass of Greek retsina, Ann would play with the children — chasing Nick and helping Theo to learn her spellings while their parents were busy serving customers.
Still close: Theo with her beloved mentor Ann Widdecombe and a family toast to togetherness
‘She would come in most evenings,’ recalls Theo. ‘It was just an ordinary place, with plastic tables and benches and flowery wallpaper, but she loved to see us.
‘We lived upstairs, but when she arrived we’d come tumbling down. The way we looked at it was, Ann’s here, so it’s time for fun.
‘We wouldn’t miss a visit from her for anything. If she hadn’t been around for a few days, we’d start asking where she was. We love Ann so much. She’s like blood family to us. A second mother.’
Their heads are still filled with ­memories of Ann entertaining them with jokes told in an Irish accent or crawling around on her hands and knees and barking like a dog while chasing them around their parents’ restaurant.
‘Until now, nobody’s seen what a fun person she is,’ says Nikos. Theo adds: ‘She’s always been game for a laugh with us and we’ve never understood why people are intimidated by her.’
Ever since a chaste four-year love affair at Oxford University, where she read history, politics and economics, convent-school-educated Ann has remained unashamedly a virgin. She says her dedication to her work left her little time for men.
But her devotion to these two young children reveals a much warmer, ­caring side to her personality.
As Theo says: ‘We know her as a very maternal person who is extremely ­caring and feminine. She has been a huge influence on our lives.’
Certainly, Ann appears to have doted on the children like a mother. She is still in close contact with the pair and has supported them throughout.
‘Her nickname for me was Trouble’, says Theo. ‘She called Nick “Great Big Thing”.’ Nick adds: ‘Ever since we were little she would give us milk ­bottles filled with coins for our birthdays. Then we’d race to the top of the stairs, count it and she’d be waiting at the bottom to hear how much there was.
‘One year she gave us a cheque for £50 instead, and we were upset because it just wasn’t the same.’
In triguingly, for a woman not known for her sense of glamour, she also paid for Theo to have her first manicure as a birthday treat.
Theo says: ‘She always has immaculate nails and regular manicures ­herself. Now, I can’t live without ­manicures and my husband always blames Ann for that.’
She adds: ‘I can’t understand how Ann has managed to get this dowdy, sexless image. And I hate it when they called her Doris Karloff.
‘She’s not the serious, old-­fashioned woman people believe her to be. She always had a strong ­feminine side.’
But Ann’s relationship with the brother and sister was not just about fun. She took an intense interest in their education, writing letters of ­recommendation to help them get into the best schools and helping them revise for their exams.
She helped Theo get into the Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster, where she passed ten GCSEs and three A-levels before going on to study classical Greek at Lampeter University.
Ann with Theo and Nick's parents outside the kebab restaurant
Ann with Theo and Nick's parents outside the kebab restaurant. She played with Nick and Theo when they were children
Later, she helped Nick get into the London Oratory, the top Roman ­Catholic school attended by Tony and ­Cherie Blair’s sons. Nick passed 12 GCSEs and three A-levels and went to the former London Guildhall University to study French and Banking.
‘Mum and Dad were so busy working, they didn’t often have time to help us with our English homework and, being Greek, we had the most problems with this subject,’ says Theo.
‘Ann taught us not only grammar, but also how to speak correctly. She was incredibly strict about speech and told us to use “standard” English, as she calls it. But she never patronised us or made us feel stupid.
‘I had an entrance exam and Ann helped me with writing and speaking English. And when I got into the school, she took me out for my first Chinese meal to celebrate.’
Theo adds: ‘When it came to exam results, she always wanted to know how we’d done. Sometimes, if I’d done badly, I’d try to avoid telling her, but she has a way of extracting the information out of you and she’d say: “You know you can do better, don’t you?” ’
As Nick and Theo got older, Ann helped them to understand politics and the way of the world. ‘If I’d seen her on Newsnight and didn’t understand an issue, she would explain it when she came to dinner,’ says Theo.
‘She gave me work experience in the House of Commons when she was Shadow Home Secretary and I did lots of campaigning with her, attending meetings and sitting with her in her constituency surgery.
‘She was extremely focused and was always clear when it was time for fun and time to be serious. She’s played a vital part in our education and Nick and I know that we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for Ann.’
It is largely thanks to her, they say, that they have done so well for themselves. Nikos now works as an international accounts manager in Athens. Theodora, whose married surname is Jones, is a legal secretary in Wales.
But despite living a long way from Ann, their relationship is as close as ever — indeed, it was Nick and Theo who urged her to go on Strictly Come Dancing. ‘She’s the right type of personality and she always loved dancing’, says Theo. ‘In The Royal Dolphin she’d jump to her feet whenever any Elvis Presley records were played, and she’d rock ’n’ roll and dance round the restaurant with the rest of us.
A younger Ann with Theo and mother Debbie
A younger Ann with Theo and mother Debbie
‘And when the Greek music came on, she’d be up for that too, right down to smashing the plates, as
is tradition. Mind you, we were more notorious for breaking glasses and mugs during games of Snap, because she was so competitive.
‘It was a good lesson for us, and a measure of her determination. She puts her all into everything. Ann is very strong-willed and independent and as such was a fantastic role model for me as a girl.’
The combination of love and guidance was, say the brother and ­sister, invaluable to their lives. But it is the fun that they remember the most — the days out to funfairs, museums, the zoo and the cinema.
Theo says: ‘Ann brought gifts back from wherever she went. She brought koalas from Australia and T-shirts from Japan. She opened my eyes to a world which my family wasn’t able to in the same way.
‘She loves animals and I remember she took us to see 101 Dalmatians as an excuse to see it herself!’
Nick adds: ‘We have a lot to thank Ann for. Everyone knows she’s got a sharp tongue, but she was always kind and patient with us.’
Nick and Theo demonstrated their love for Ann with a silver and blue enamel ring from Greece which they gave to her for her 50th birthday — and which she now wears next to her mother’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring. ‘We even went to her 50th birthday party at the House of Commons, where I met Jeremy Paxman,’ recalls Nick.
There is little doubt Ann must have got just as much out of her relationship with the brother and sister as they did from her. ‘Nick and Theo are gorgeous,’ she says. ‘I loved being part of their lives and helping with their education.
‘They are an extension of my own family, even though I wouldn’t say they’re surrogate children. But we’ve had many great times together and endless fun.
‘I’ve watched their progress with delight, and even though they’ve grown up and left home, we are still in regular contact.’
Clearly, the children filled a void left by those she never had.
Not surprisingly then, Nick and Theo are rooting for her to win Strictly and can hardly bear to watch the results show in case she is voted off. ‘We’re desperate for Ann and her partner Anton du Beke to win because we know how much she wants to do well,’ says Theo.
Nick adds: ‘Now she’s retired from politics, it seems she’s still as energetic and competitive as ever and we’re really hoping she wins Strictly.’
But more than anything, Nick and Theo’s memories reveal yet another side to the retired politician, one which might come as a surprise even to those who have succumbed to Widdymania in recent weeks.
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1 at 6.30pm today.