The Week in Radio: Ordinary Jo Rowling shines in an extraordinary takeover on Woman's Hour


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The Independent Culture

"I do need to walk the dog," remarked JK Rowling, the first guest editor of Woman's Hour in its 68-year history. "And I don't do that in stilettos."

Well, there's another bubble burst, I thought. JK Rowling – or Jo, as she is known – not only walks her own dog, I'm guessing she makes her own bed, butters her own toast and loads her own dishwasher, too. Call yourself a celebrity? Someone get the Kardashians on the phone.

There was a serious intent in asking the author to take part in the week-long Woman's Hour Takeover on Radio 4, and that was to give voice to one of the most successful women of our time while highlighting the causes that she cared about. But her participation also went some way towards demystifying Brand Rowling, revealing the lofty-sounding JK to be plain old Jo, a woman who, as it happens, doesn't spend her days enthroned in a walled castle in jewel-encrusted ball gowns and supping on caviar and truffles, but who goes out, has meetings, pops to M&S and walks her dog. She was, it turned out, an ordinary mortal with the same fears, insecurities and sadnesses as the rest of us.

Thus there was an item on multiple sclerosis, the illness that killed Rowling's mother, and its prevalence among Scottish women. There was also a devastating piece on the scores of children living in care across the world, many of whom have living parents who are unable to look after them. The solution wasn't just money, however. "You can change lives just by writing letters," Rowling revealed. This was good news for those who might feel powerless in the face of the writer and her zillions.

Rowling was a coup for Woman's Hour, but just as significant was the programme's willingness to shake things up. I've always liked it when a long-running show breaks with its format. In the same way that Today's end-of-year guest editor slots offer new perspectives, Woman's Hour's decision to bring in new voices had the effect of blowing away the cobwebs on a BBC institution that has, in the past, suffered from a lack of adventure.

On day two of the takeover, the Olympic athlete Dame Kelly Holmes showed enormous warmth as she explored themes of confidence, determination and motivation. Holmes was clear about the benefits of ambition and deftly dismissed notions of what she might have lost by pursuing it. But I wonder if I was alone in detecting a hint of melancholy in her assertion that, "Without a goal or direction, I don't feel I'm living my life."

The novelist and tech-enthusiast Naomi Alderman, who one suspects would make a fine drinking companion, wasn't scared to start a scrap on air. In the event everyone behaved beautifully on her Wednesday takeover, though sparks flew on Twitter following her debate about feminism's discrimination against transgender women.

It appears there are those at the radical end of feminism who wish to exclude transgender women from the debate on the somewhat laughable basis of having once enjoyed male privilege. The journalist and transgender campaigner Paris Lees was moving in her description of an unprivileged childhood spent scared to go to school and even more scared to go home and face her father, while Alderman reflected on an issue that is, she says, "deeply divisive and painful". These are not discussions that one often comes across on Radio 4, a network not exactly famed for its diversity. So all hail Alderman and Woman's Hour. More of this, please.