Dame Jenni Murray - this woman’s finest hour

Barnsley norn Dame Jenni Murray

Barnsley norn Dame Jenni Murray - Credit: Archant

Barnsley-born Jenni Murray is bowing out of Woman’s Hour - what’s next for the broadcaster?

Dame Jenni Murray recently announced she’s leaving Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour after 33 years at the helm. Some people might see this as another example of the BBC’s seemingly new ‘out with the old’ mentality, but the acclaimed broadcaster turned 70 in May, so perhaps it’s no surprise she’s keen to embark on a new chapter.

When we chat, it’s a couple of weeks before the announcement is made and she firmly tells me ‘retirement is not on my agenda’, highlighting the sharpest people she knows are the ones who keep themselves busy in their later years. Thee’s little doubt then we’ll continue to hear Jenni’s familiar voice on the airwaves following her final episode of Woman’s Hour on October 1, and can expect more books, too.

Over the years, she’s written about historical female figures, the menopause and raising boys [she has two sons, Ed and Charlie]. Her latest tome is Fat Cow, Fat Chance: The Science and Psychology of Size.

‘We had a tour planned and I love going on tour and talking to people, it’s absolutely delightful, but that’s all had to be put on hold,’ says Jenni who examines her own struggles with weight throughout the book, as well as the wider factors that contribute to obesity.

‘I think the reason men and women will be interested in the book is that it explains why some of us can eat as many chips as we like and not put on an ounce, and others of us look at a chip and put on half a stone,’ she explains.

‘People make me so cross when they say, ‘Oh, fat shaming is a really good idea’ . It’s just not that simple. Our bodies are very complicated and diets on the whole don’t work, unless you’re the kind of person who is prepared to spend every day of your life thinking about what you’re eating.’

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Jenni’s encouraged by Boris Johnson’s recent proclamation he wants to tackle the issue of weight. ‘The Prime Minister coming out and saying, ‘I got really ill with Covid because I was fat’ and beginning to acknowledge obesity is a real problem is encouraging. It’s a huge problem and we have to look at the food industry, we have to look at helping kids understand the science and we need to loosen up with the NHS…[because ultimately] surgery saves lives and money.’

At her heaviest, Jenni weighed 24 stone and at the age of 64 decided to undergo gastrectomy surgery, where a large percentage of the stomach is removed. She did this privately to avoid the lengthy NHS red tape and lost eight stone within a year. She now feels content with her weight and has a healthy relationship with food.

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‘It should never be a guilty pleasure; it’s just a pleasure. I put food on a small plate, which my sons find hilarious. I just serve myself small portions and eat until I’m full and then I’ll stop and of course my much smaller stomach tells me I’m full much quicker than my old one did.’

In the book, she talks about growing up an only child with her mum, Win, and dad, Alvin, in Barnsley and the close relationship she had with her grandparents. Food, she says, was used a way to ‘express their love’.

‘I was born into an immediate post-war family. My grandmother and mother had gone through rationing. Suddenly they were able to get all the sugar, butter and everything else they needed to make their wonderful cakes, buns and Yorkshire puddings. There was great pleasure in the food they cooked, but they’d put a huge portion on the plate and would be insulted because you didn’t finish it. I learned early on to overeat and that’s disastrous,’ remarks Jenni, who attended Barnsley Girls High School before reading French and Drama at Hull University (‘I was pleased to be staying in Yorkshire’).

She doesn’t shy away from recounting the strained relationship she had with her mother who could be cruel in the remarks she made about her daughter’s weight. ‘So many people have contacted me saying. ‘This could’ve been my life you were writing about’.

‘There are a lot of points I wanted to make in the book, but one of the most important is mothers have to be alert to this stuff with their children,’ says the broadcaster whose mother passed away in 2006, the same time Jenni was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She does point out her mum was incredibly proud of her daughter’s achievements though and closely followed her career as she moved from regional television to Newsnight and the Today programme before taking over Woman’s Hour in1987.

Over the years, Jenni, who was made a Dame in 2011, has interviewed some of the world’s most legendary women, but her personal favourite was the singer Joan Baez.

‘My friend and I were her number one fans and throughout the 60s, we used to go to a folk club and pretend we were her. The first time I interviewed her was when she brought out her autobiography about 20 years ago, and then a couple of years ago she came on what she said would be her last tour, and she sang for me in the studio, one of her best songs and that was just amazing,’ recalls Jenni who continued to broadcast Woman’s Hour throughout lockdown.

It was tough she admits, as Jenni divides her time between London, for work, and the south coast, where the family home, and her husband David, is, and she even celebrated her 70th birthday via Zoom. They originally lived in the Peak District ‘but we moved house because the kids had moved south,’ she notes.

‘I do really, really miss the north. The people down here [in the south] are very nice but they’re not the same. When my mother was unwell, I’d go back to Barnsley and go around the market, to the stalls I’d always gone to with her, and someone would say, ‘Aye luv, aren’t you Winnie Bailey’s lass?’ It’s just warm, friendly and funny and I miss that.’

Fat Cow, Fat Chance: The Science and Psychology of Size by Jenni Murray, published by Doubleday, £16.99, is out now

Murray’s favourite Yorkshire women

Bárbara Castle - born in Chesterfield but raised in Pontefract and Bradford, she was responsible for steering Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay legislation through Parliament.

Betty Boothroyd - born in Dewsbury, the former Tiller Girl was the first female Speaker, and known for insisting the men should ‘Call Me Madam’!

Judi Dench - the finest classical and populist actor ever with a great sense of humour.

Charlotte Bronte - wrote Jane Eyre, the best-ever book about a girl learning to deal with the worst life has to offer and achieving independence.

Miss Anne Lister - now known as Gentleman Jack. A Halifax businesswoman and independent diarist who was courageous enough to pursue her sexuality.

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