News, Culture & Society

JENNI MURRAY: I admit it, I was jealous of the new Woman’s Hour

Until two weeks ago, a year after I left, I hadn’t been able to listen to Woman’s Hour. I now realise that even though leaving was my decision and not the BBC’s, I’ve been grieving for that life I loved.

I had been the Woman’s Hour presenter for so long, my children had never known me as anything else. It felt like I had lost my identity. Who and what was I without it?

Now, I’ve begun to listen again as the grief and the jealousy I felt listening to the new presenters, Emma Barnett and Anita Rani, have eased. They welcome their loyal listeners warmly and, as in my day, no politician need assume Woman’s Hour will mean an easy ride. The fight for women’s rights and safety continues just as it did in my time, and I can now continue to be a devoted listener again.

I am able to celebrate the fact that today is the 75th anniversary of the radio programme which has been a vital part of my entire life.

Jenni Murray said the grief and jealousy she felt from listening to the new Woman’s Hour presenters has eased. Pictured: Emma Barnett 

On October 7, 1946, Woman’s Hour was broadcast for the first time, presented, surprisingly, by a man. Alan Ivimey was described as ‘a specialist in writing for and talking to women’.

He didn’t last long, as a growing audience made it clear that a woman would be more acceptable in discussions about politics, childcare, equal pay, the menopause, illegitimacy, homosexuality, divorce and prostitution. The groundbreaking radio show never shied away from difficult subjects and never deserved the critics who accused it of being nothing but knitting and cooking.

I was a listener for years, starting in 1950 soon after my birth. Two o’clock in the afternoon fitted perfectly into my mother’s strict breastfeeding schedule — every four hours, beginning at six in the morning, then ten, then 2pm. Woman’s Hour was perfect for her to sit and relax.

As I grew older and more conscious of what was being talked about, I’d be packed off on spurious errands to the kitchen until matters concerning sex were over and done with. Through school and university, I caught it when I could, always knowing I wanted to be like Sue MacGregor. Then, on Monday, September 14, 1987, came the biggest thrill of my life. I sat in the studio in Broadcasting House and heard the continuity announcer say: ‘And now Woman’s Hour with Jenni Murray.’

My diary on that first day records ‘Nicaragua, Liberal Party conference’. Day two notes Bette Davis, followed on subsequent days by Eartha Kitt, Fatima Whitbread and broadcasters Cliff Michelmore and his wife Jean Metcalfe.

It was going to be an exciting time of my life and it would last for another 33 years.

There was controversy in 1991 when the then controller of Radio 4, Michael Green, decided a move to the morning would better fit his schedule, and suggested it should no longer be Woman’s Hour, but could become The Jenni Murray Show. We fought hard to keep the title and the focus of the programme and won.

Jenni said turning 70 in 2020 and the freedom to express her opinion influenced her decision to quit Woman's Hour after 33 years. Pictured: Anita Rani

Jenni said turning 70 in 2020 and the freedom to express her opinion influenced her decision to quit Woman’s Hour after 33 years. Pictured: Anita Rani 

After 33 years on Woman’s Hour, it was hard to make the decision to leave. I had loved every minute of my job. It was my life. But two things made me decide to quit: I would be 70 in 2020; and it seemed the right time to escape the strictures of the BBC and free myself to express an opinion.

I had never in the past got into any trouble for articles I had written and had never allowed my own views to show themselves in the studio, but I was ticked off for writing about trans women and was banned from discussing the subject on air in the newly strictly impartial BBC. If I couldn’t be trusted, I had to go.

My last programme was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, despite the warm tributes paid to me by my four guests — Helena Kennedy QC, the MP Harriet Harman, the poet Jackie Kay and the Women Of The World Festival director Jude Kelly. We are contemporaries and looked back proudly on the social and economic revolution for women to which we had all contributed.

Then I walked away.

Jenni Murray (pictured) said retaining the 'Woman's Hour' title and focus is more important than ever as the level of violence against women and girls becomes ever clearer

Jenni Murray (pictured) said retaining the ‘Woman’s Hour’ title and focus is more important than ever as the level of violence against women and girls becomes ever clearer

Throughout my tenure I had been asked frequently why it had to be called ‘Woman’s Hour’? So many would suggest it was ‘old-fashioned in a post-feminist era’.

‘No’ has always been my answer. It seems to me now that retaining the title and focus is more important than ever as the level of violence against women and girls becomes ever clearer and attempts to erase the word ‘Woman’ have become a political hot potato.

And, by the way, Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary, you may have said at the Tory Party Conference that you didn’t know if the BBC would exist in ten years’ time, but I know Woman’s Hour will last far longer.

And it’s not just people ‘whose mum and dad worked there’. I was employed at the BBC for more than half my life — a Northern, working-class girl from Barnsley. Nothing elitist or snobbish about that.

I’ve No Time for boring Bond

I, like so many, rushed to see the latest Bond, which is going great guns at the box office — making £21 million in one weekend. Excellent, if it’s saving the cinema, but by the end of a confused and incomprehensible plot lasting nearly three hours, I felt death would be a welcome release!

Christine Keeler would be proud of her loyal son

Christine Keeler's son Seymour Platt has vowed to restore her reputation and get a posthumous pardon for a conviction of perjury

Christine Keeler’s son Seymour Platt has vowed to restore her reputation and get a posthumous pardon for a conviction of perjury

Christine Keeler was one of hundreds of young women who came to London in the 1960s thinking the streetswere paved with gold. They became the playthings of rich and powerful men who should have known better.

Her son, Seymour Platt, has vowed to restore his mother’s reputation and get a posthumous pardon for a conviction of perjury. He believes she suffered a massive miscarriage of justice.

His plea is now being considered by the Lord Chancellor. What woman would not be proud of such a fine and faithful son?

Arlene’s cool comeback

Jenni Murray said Dame Arlene Phillips (pictured) should never have been let go from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of Alesha Dixon

Jenni Murray said Dame Arlene Phillips (pictured) should never have been let go from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of Alesha Dixon

Three cheers for Dame Arlene Phillips who’s been appointed a judge on ITV’s Dancing On Ice. She’s 78, a brilliant dancer and should never have been let go from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of Alesha Dixon, 36 years her junior.

Dame Arlene replaces John Barrowman, after he admitted exposing himself to colleagues on the Doctor Who set, which he dismissed as ‘tomfoolery’.

Nothing funny about it. No fear of that from Dame Arlene!

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