Dame Jenni Murray becomes a Barnsley champion

Dame Jenni Murray Photo: DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock

Dame Jenni Murray Photo: DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock - Credit: DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock

Barnsley-born broadcaster Jenni Murray will be among the stars at this year’s Harrogate Literature Festival, writes Ann Chadwick

As a young girl growing up in a working class Barnsley family, Dame Jenni Murray’s life was destined to be far removed from the pit her grandfather worked in. She puts that down to the strong women in her life, who flung her into education and indulged her in theatre and music.

Dame Jenni had strong female influences in her life, from the teachers at Barnsley Girls High School – ‘set up by a group of really tough powerful Yorkshire women who had said we need to educate our girls just as we’re educating our boys,’ to her grandmother and mum.

‘I think Yorkshire women are brought up tough,’ Dame Jenni said reflecting on a time she worked in a fish factory during her university days in Hull. ‘Those women I knew working in the fish factories, their husbands were trawler men and the women ran their jobs, their families and their homes completely on their own as they were away for long periods.

‘And Barnsley women had to put up with the fact that their husbands went down the mines which was terribly dangerous, dirty work. So the women controlled the household. My granny was absolutely extraordinary, she controlled everything.

‘My granddad came home with his pay packet and he gave it to her – he didn’t even open it. She would give him enough money to buy a pint occasionally, and buy his fags, and that was all the money he had. She looked after everything. I think my mother was the same.’

She puts her mother’s pushiness for her daughter to be a high achiever down to the fact she made no qualms she wanted a son. ‘I suppose I got all the pushiness that a boy would have got; and they wanted their kids to do better than they had.’

She still comes back to Barnsley, and remembers the heartbreak when she covered the miners’ strike in the 1980s. Working on Newsnight, she covered Ann Scargill’s women’s group organising food for striking miners. She said it was a ‘shocking moment’ seeing her community ‘being destroyed’. ‘It lost its industry, and it broke my heart,’ she said.

Soon Jenni is returning north, to Harrogate, for the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival that takes place in October.

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She’s one of a line-up of influential politicians, authors, and stars of the screen and literary world: Joan Bakewell, Kate Garraway, Philomena author Martin Sixsmith, Peter Snow, Victoria Hislop, Lisa Faulkner, Anne Widdecombe, Jonathan Aitken, Mark Muller Stuart QC, Chris Bonnington, to name just a few in the literary line-up.

Dame Jenni is there to talk about her book, A History of Britain in 21 Women.

The book features some well-known heroines, but many hidden in history. ‘I think it’s really important that people know about these women. I’ve learnt about them from childhood,’ she said.

The one who surprised her most was Dame Ethel Smyth, a composer. ‘What I liked most about her is she learned to play cricket with her brothers when she was a girl, and she learned to bowl overarm, rather than underarm. Emmeline Pankhurst asked her to teach the Suffragettes how to throw stones when they decided they were going to break windows, and she did, and ended up in Holloway. When a whole group of Suffragettes came to sing her March of the Women, she conducted them through the bars of her cell with her toothbrush!’

Writing the book was, she said, a joy. ‘I’ve loved reading about women who just defy every stereotype; they just say “I want to be a doctor, no matter how hard it is, I’ll be a doctor”, or “I think women should have the vote, they’re going to get the vote, no matter how hard I have to try”. Just inspiring, inspiring women.’

As well as returning to Harrogate, where Jenni is a regular at the Harrogate International Festivals’ portfolio of book festivals, she recently did a broadcast of Woman’s Hour in Hull.

‘It was to celebrate the Hull UK City of Culture. It was fantastic, there’s so much going on. I kind of always saw it as a city of culture because it was people from my year at university that started Hull Truck. It’s barely recognisable.’

Studying women through history, who does she most admire today?

‘Shirley Williams has always been my hero, she is the most articulate, the best educated, the most intelligent, the most thoughtful and kindest women, who never gave a damn if her hair looked a mess, which it always did, and she would always be my model.’

She struggles to find a younger role model, but settles on the singer, Adele.

‘If I were to look at a young woman who I could admire for the way she presents herself it would probably be Adele, she makes no bones about the fact that she likes food and is a little bit overweight. My son went to her concert and said she was just delightful, she was warm, she was funny, she worked her own music, and she’s done incredibly well. I think from the perspective of the way women look, she’d probably be the one I’d admire.’

As to Harrogate, she’s looking forward to coming back.

‘I will be definitely booking tea at Bettys. I hope audiences will be really interested in the women. And I can be quite fun, I think! I try to entertain my audiences as well as inform them.’

Dame Jenni Murray will be talking about A History of Britain in 21 Women at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, The Crown Hotel, on Saturday, October 21st at 5pm.

Visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for the full line up. Tickets on sale now from the Box Office on 01423 562303

Champion of The Civic

Dame Jenni Murray has added her support to the further development of The Civic, the arts centre in her hometown of Barnsley. She is backing a £5million fundraising campaign to complete the refurbishment of the Grade II listed building saying it was ‘incredibly important to have access to the arts’.

‘I think that’s a terrific idea, I would give them all my support, absolutely,’ Dame Jenni said. ‘The arts are just vital. My memories of The Civic are going there to see musicals with my mother, and she would tell stories that she remembered from her childhood.

‘I was very lucky because my mother was very worried that I’d have a broad Yorkshire accent. She sent me to elocution lessons, I think I was five when I started, which was quite young to be taught posh. And the teacher that I went to was a speech and drama teacher, and she would take us to Leeds and to Sheffield when the big companies toured from London. I saw Laurence Olivier – all the great actors of the time – we went to the Sheffield Playhouse regularly and we went to music concerts too.

‘I had that range of culture, right down to going to Locke Park in Barnsley where they hosted an open-air musical every summer, so you saw Oklahoma or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers perform.

‘That formed the basis of my life really. I went on to study French and drama at Hull University, and it’s given me my career. It’s absolutely vital that we consider the arts every bit as important as the sciences.’

The Civic, which has been part of Barnsley since 1877, was given a new lease of life in 2009 after investment to refurbish, but which still left a third of the building unfinished and unused. The building was then given over in trust to the charity, Barnsley Civic Enterprise Ltd and with the recession then in full force, it had to adapt and make the venue work in its current form. The £5million fundraising campaign aims to open up the whole of The Civic, add a new theatre, café, and extended gallery, and re-open 22,000sqft creating a ‘wow-factor’.

The Civic’s patron, Sir Michael Parkinson, earlier spoke out in support of the fundraising campaign. He said: ‘Barnsley sits there and it’s vulnerable, and what it deserves, and what these areas didn’t get, was an adequate replacement for the pits.’ He said the town, and communities across the north, were ‘dying on their feet’, adding: ‘They need something to aspire to. Arts, music particularly, are important. Without entertainment, where are we?’

Helen Ball, CEO of The Civic, added: ‘We’re delighted to welcome Dame Jenni as a Champion of our cause. As she, and Sir Michael and the amazing calibre of our Champions show, Barnsley punches above its weight and makes an important contribution to the nation’s cultural landscape.’

To find out more about The Civic’s campaign go to barnsleycivic.co.uk or join the debate #connect @BarnsleyCivic

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