Dame Jenni Murray – Inspirational Woman

Jenni Murray by Charlie Fordham-Bailey
Have you ever met one of your heroes and been worried that they might not be quite as you imagined? I fantasised for years about meeting Elvis (and rescuing him from himself) but I have finally accepted that I won’t meet him down the chip shop. Sigh.

A more realistic ambition was to meet Jenni Murray; I’ve been a fan of Woman’s Hour and Jenni for a very long time. I remember talking with a colleague returning to work after maternity leave, and totally understanding when she said she was really missing Woman’s Hour every day, (obviously she missed her child too, but this was pre pod cast days!)

I’d even gone so far as to announce to anyone who cared to listen, that I’d feel I’d ‘made it’ when I appeared on Woman’s Hour. The day I got the call from the BBC researcher (lovely Edward) I danced round the kitchen for ages; it was almost as good as the day I was booking flights to family in US, realised we had a stopover in Memphis and could actually get off the plane! (Home of Gracelands, in case you’re wondering).

So what a thrill when Jenni said Of course I’ll do an interview with you and what an even bigger thrill to talk for well over an hour and feel like I was talking with an old friend.

Dame Jenni Murray is a very well known and highly respected broadcaster for the BBC; her voice has been part of the backdrop of British life for a long time. I was so pleased to interview her for my Inspirational Women section. Fortunately I recorded it because I kept forgetting to write stuff down and getting caught up in the moment. What follows is a slightly edited verbatim account with most of my interjections taken out. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed talking with her; she’s a genuine legend in broadcasting.

Jane: Jenni, when you were younger what was your idea of a dream job?
JM: I wanted to act. My mother was so worried about me having broad Yorkshire accent she sent me to elocution lessons when I was 4. I was incredibly lucky in that she sent me to an extremely good speech and drama specialist, Florence D Firth (she always used the D and no one knew what it stood for). She was an incredibly elegant woman who lived with her father. Her waiting room was her garage so we’d turn up for lessons and get seated in the garage where the mothers would wait. I had an hour every Friday night. I stayed with her until I left home for University. I absolutely loved her. I did all the Guildhall School of Music & Drama exams, local music festivals doing poetry and extracts from plays. She had 2 or 3 favoured pupils and would take us up to the theatre. It was wonderful.

I had a fantastic time at the theatre and decided that was what I wanted to do. My mother was not keen, and impressed upon me that I should get academic educations. Then I saw Vanessa Redgrave on stage in As You Like It and thought ‘Actually, I’m not that good, I need to find something else to do.’

So I did French and Drama at Hull University: there were only 4 universities doing drama at the time. Bristol was one but they turned me down, a fact of which I reminded them when they gave me an honorary degree a few years ago!

It was a very new course at Hull so for the first year we just had an old building to use, but then they built a brand new centre packed with technology, and they put radio and television studios in it. I went into the television centre and I didn’t like it. I’ve always had a neurosis about being in front of a camera, about being photographed. It drives my photographer son mad.

Me: Do you feel comfortable with him about photographs?
No, not when he turns the camera on me. He does take very good pictures of me though. I did television for years but never really took to it.

I did a programme in France when I was working in Southampton and was sent to a pig farm with a cameraman. We were given beautiful food, wine, (and lots of cognac) by the French family. Next morning I had to get up very early to do a piece to camera and my cameraman said “Jenni, do you know I have photographed some of the most beautiful women in the world, (pause) and you are not one of them” ! I did look a little bit wrecked but that confirmed for me how much I hated being in front of camera.

But when I walked into that radio studio in Hull I immediately felt at home. I loved it. I’d always been interested in journalism and I’d written for the university newspaper etc, and I also had the natural nosiness inherited from my mother, which you need as a journalist.

So armed with this knowledge what did you do next?
I applied to the BBC who turned me down.

How did you eventually end up at BBC & in broadcasting?
At University I’d been told don’t bother applying to BBC because they only take a couple of journalist trainees a year and they are always male and always Oxbridge. So I applied for the only other course the BBC offered, which was to be a studio manager, although I knew nothing about technical things.  However, my Dad was an electrical engineer, so I called him and got as much information as I could from him. Which was great – I learned all about microphones and broadcasting and felt really well prepared.

Off I went for the interview, and I was brilliant until we came to the end when my interviewer asked me what is the PM doing this morning? I hadn’t got a clue, I hadn’t read the papers. He said the BBC expected all its employees to be au fait with current affairs and so I was turned down.

I had to work, so I went to Brook Street Bureau (remember them?), in Leeds and asked for a job. They tested my typing (which was bad), and shorthand (which was non existent), and actually offered me a job as one of their interviewers. I did all the training and eventually was sent to Bristol as a manager for the office there. While I was there there a job came in from H.T.V. (local independent TV company) to be a copy-taker in the newsroom, so I sent myself as a temp for 2 weeks in my holiday leave! I gained some valuable experience.

A colleague at Brook Street told me that BBC Bristol was advertising for a copy taker, I applied and that’s how I got into the BBC and it all started.

What did you start as?
I did local radio from ’73 to ’78 and had a great manager, David Waine; Kate Adie, Michael Buerk were there. David told me to get experience in television. I got ‘attached’ to regional television in Leeds which I quite enjoyed, even though I was never totally comfortable in front of camera. David was a great mentor and really encouraged you to develop your talents. He later told me about a presenting job in Southampton, which I got.

From there I was asked to go to the Newsnight programme. It was an incredibly busy job, out all day, editing in the evening and then presenting at night. It so annoyed me that I had to be in ‘make up’ for ever while the guys got by with a quick dab of powder. It was a good time, however, working with presenters like Jeremy Paxman; still quite junior then.

My mother didn’t exactly boost my confidence about being on TV either; she’d ring up after every broadcast, however late it was. I’d eagerly ask her what did you think of my interview with Norman Tebbit? And she’d reply that she hadn’t noticed the interview but go on to tell me that I was wearing something which didn’t suit me! Radio was such a relief after that.

You went from Newsnight to radio?
Yes, I went on to the Today (BBC radio’s flagship news show) programme in the days of Brian Redhead. Jenny Abramski was the editor at the time. She asked me if I’d be interested and I did a trial week. During that week I discovered I was pregnant. I had to tell her and she said, “I don’t think it would be good for the very first female editor of the Today programme to reject a presenter because she’s pregnant” and so I carried on.

I adored Brian; he was a great presenter. And John Humphries and I started the Saturday Today programme together: I taught John everything he knows about radio. (She chuckled while saying this but apparently it’s true. Oh to have been a fly on the wall.)

How was it working with the formidable John Humphries?
I am very fond of John and loved working with him. He’s fun and so energetic.

Then I had Charlie and it worked perfectly. I had him on Monday, the election was on the Thursday and I went back to work on the Saturday. That’s freelance maternity leave! 4 days. I had Charlie at home and I had a really good nanny. I’d get up really early, feed him, go to work and be home by 10a.m. so it worked very well.

Some time ago ago I wrote a post about the Today programme bemoaning the lack of female presenters. (See here) It took some time before they ran it with two women presenters.  You joined in 1973. Did you experience much sexism?
Well, there was the guy who came up behind you and put his arms out and on your tits.

That is appalling! How did you deal with it?
Well, I made sure I befriended all the wives who came to the BBC club bar, and if they (the chaps) had a go at me I’d say “I’m sure your wife would be interested in hearing about that behaviour.” The word soon went round to not mess with Murray.

On Newsnight I was there with Olivia O’Leary and we were known as the ‘Newsnight wives’. But I can’t honestly say I’ve experienced real difficulties, but then I’m pretty tough. But who knows what might have gone on behind closed doors and may have excluded me from opportunities because of my looks, etc.

I was asked to appear on Women’s Hour in 1987 and I went like a shot. I bit their hand off. If there was one programme I really wanted to work on it was Woman’s Hour. News and current affairs are great but there’s a kind of conspiracy: they know what you’re going to ask and you know how they’re going to respond and it can be very repetitive. Woman’s Hour had such a broad remit. It was anything which interested women: books, plays, films, music, politics and cooking. Cooking is not my thing but it’s part of the programme so I do it.

Could you be tempted back to current affairs and the news?
No, not at all. I love Woman’s Hour.

Who was your co presenter in those early days?
In those days just me. Monday to Thursday in London and on Friday it came from the regions, with a regional presenter.

Then we moved to the Peak District and I was commuting weekly.  Woman’s Hour moved to the morning slot from 2pm in the afternoon (a great drama – questions were asked in the house. It was even suggested that it be called the Jenni Murray programme and we were so opposed to that and went flat out to keep it as Woman’s Hour). They decided to stop regional Woman’s Hour and just do one from Manchester. So I did 3 days in London and one in Manchester. A few months ago that changed as everything had moved to Salford and it was too expensive to keep a team doing one day a week. So we bought it back to London.

I know – my first slot on Woman’s Hour was on a Friday and the BBC reception staff thought I should be in Manchester. I nearly had a coronary!
Yes, it did cause quite a bit of confusion. I cut down to 3 days a week after my cancer. It was just so tough. I managed to keep going because I was on 3 weekly cycle of treatment. Working for 2 weeks, get the treatment, take that week off then back to work. Work was the only thing that kept me sane.

You give a very honest account of this in your book Memoirs of a not so Dutiful Daughter.
Yes, I wanted to be honest. So many women of our generation had problems with their mothers as we were entering a period of opportunity which was so different form what they had had. Hard to keep a relationship going with someone who was proud of you and loved you, but also envious. Especially being an only child. I wanted people to think about it in those terms and be forgiving. I tried not to blame my mother for the difficulties she created in my life because it wasn’t her fault. My Mum died 10 years ago on the day my final diagnosis of cancer was given. In a way it was a relief because I would have hated to have told her I had breast cancer. She had feared it all her life.

Do you remember when you first realised you were a feminist? Was it a gradual realisation or a real light bulb moment?
I think I was about 16. My Dad did a lot of foreign contract work so was frequently away and Mum often went with him. At this time we were all together and I’d persuaded my Mum to get a job because I didn’t need her at home. She got a job as receptionist at the Town Hall which she loved and really suited her.

I’d had day at school, come home and done my particular job, cleaning out the grate and setting a fire. Mum shopped on way home from work, came in, and immediately started getting tea ready. My Dad, a lovely bloke, arrived home and sat down with his paper while we all fussed round still working. After tea he went to his armchair and sat down. I said “Dad, why don’t you do the washing up?” He said “I don’t mind helping”. To which I replied “It’s not about helping it’s about doing your share”. And that’s when light bulb went on. Men had such an easy life.

That said, I really adored my Dad and I was so lucky to have two men in my life, both too young to have seen action in either of the world wars.

There was plenty of overt sexism in the 60s and 70s; what particular issues do you think young girls today have to face?
I get really angry about how little real support they get; the fact that people are doubtful about whether there should be proper sex education in schools. This is my idea which I’ve shared with many politicians. Stop having sex education, sex is biology, put it in the biology classes. Have separate gender education classes talking about respect. For example,  for the little ones – is it OK to look up a girl’s skirt in playground?  And as they get older talk sensibly about pornography but do it together in mixed groups.

My son took A level history and he came home one day with his History of 20th Century text book and said “Mum look at this isn’t this weird? The suffragettes get only quarter of a page”. Kids are not being taught properly about women’s history. And pornography needs to be taught properly in schools, critiqued like Hamlet.

So if I asked you if you could introduce one piece of legislation it would be…?
Exactly! I’d make gender education mandatory in all schools.

Who has had the most influence on your career?
I think it has to be David Waine; he was such a great manager and he was only young when he was managing radio Bristol. He just ‘got it’. He’d come to see us after a programme finished and give really positive encouraging criticism. He just knew how to be a manager. I still see him at ‘do’s. He is a funny, charming, delightful man who knew how to manage talented, sometimes difficult young people.

Who has had the biggest influence on you in your personal life?
I think that would be my kids, my two sons, now aged 32 and 28 and they know everything. I’m about to have bariatric surgery (my surgeon calls it metabolic surgery because he understands the complexity); I am far too fat. One of my sons is totally opposed and thinks I’m taking the easy way out. But he has come round and he now understands. He’s done some research. They are tremendously supportive. But they do ‘know best’. They have a big influence on me and I love ‘em to bits but sometimes I feel like saying I am a Grown Up!

Did your complicated relationship with your Mum affect your attitude to parenting your sons?
Oh yes. I have never done anything but tell them how charming, handsome and clever they are. Charlie, the photographer, often sends me pictures which I enthuse loudly over.  He will often say to me “a little constructive criticism wouldn’t go amiss, Mum”. And my other son, Ed, is a vet, and I am forever doing the Jewish mother thing: My son is a vet. I am terribly proud of both of them. I have written a book about bringing up boys ‘It’s called That’s My Boy’.

And my final question, Jenni, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Keep on keeping on from Florence D. Firth, my elocution teacher. I love it.

PS By the way, Jenni was talking with me shortly before her radio interview with George Clooney. I offered to assist her with this but unfortunately the call never came. You can see her below. Does she look like she needs help?

Jenni meeting George clooney

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Posted on May 22nd, 2015 by

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