Fi Glover: Home to roost

Despite brief excursions into television, it is radio where she can take the title of national treasure

For fans - and there are many - of the broadcaster Fi Glover, this week's news that she is to become a stalwart of Saturday morning Radio 4 in place of the late, lamented John Peel was a thrill. A rare listener on the BBC message board who declared they would be switching off Radio 4 as a consequence was immediately overruled by a flurry of online praise for the witty, self-deprecating presenter whose voice is routinely referred to as "velvet".

"I think she is exceptionally sexy, funny and charismatic," said liverpool_elvis, while henry_the_hoarse's affections were clear: "She's lovely, leave her alone." Which has been pretty much the view of Fi Glover from most radio aficionados for years. Despite brief excursions into television, notably as a presenter of BBC2's Travel Show and a guest on Have I Got News For You, it is radio where 36-year-old Glover has made her name and where she seems well on course to take the title of national treasure left vacant when Peel himself died.

From Radio Five Live's late-night slot through the cult Sunday Service political show with ex-spin doctor Charlie Whelan to the more controversial realm of Radio 4's Broadcasting House, Glover has combined a quick political intelligence with an even quicker tongue.

But with the sharpness of mind is a sense of fun. Few presenters handed the hallowed classified football results would have had the nerve to pep them up with a few judiciously added adjectives: "Stalybridge Celtic, a whopping 4; Morecambe, quite a luscious 3." But Glover got away with it.

She grew up in Hampshire with her mother, Priscilla, who strongly disapproved of swearing, and sister, Izy, while her financier father had moved to Hong Kong to establish his business. Her parents later divorced. She found her days at a Hampshire girls school "rather stifling" and, despite being bright enough to miss a year early on, was very bored. She would much have preferred to have attended a mixed school - "one where lacrosse wasn't considered a reason to live ... I felt like a dumpy talentless alien for quite a lot of the time".

Possibly as a consequence, at 15, she embarked on a cycle of extreme dieting and bingeing which saw her weight exceed 10 stone and then plummet to a dangerous six and a half. It wrecked her immune system and would later land her in hospital. When she was 25, she went down with chicken pox, tonsillitis and an appalling abscess on her throat which took months to clear up. "It was a very salutary lesson - a great big red warning," she says. "Now I eat like a horse and feel a hundred times better for it."

She had no option but to take note - because by now it was her career as well as her health that was at stake. For while studying at the University of Kent on the strength of a single decent A-level, she had found her metier: broadcasting. "I started my radio career in a small unventilated studio opposite the railway station in Canterbury doing a pilot show for the local station there," she has explained to Broadcasting House listeners. "I read out some rather dubious links between two Tina Turner tracks and I am thankful the tape doesn't survive. But the experience was one of those monumental life-changing ones and since that tender age of 17 I had my heart set on radio."

She began in 1993 with a place on the BBC local radio training scheme and cut her teeth on Radio Humberside, Somerset Sound and Radio Northampton.

An early interview gave a hint of the Glover to come. Sent to see Jeffrey Archer, she told him: "We ran one of your novels through a computer program that assesses grammar, vocabulary and literary form. And the computer has come up with the answer: Your book is worse than a Sun leader." Archer, she recalled, "just lost it". But when the angry explosion was over and she had switched off her recording equipment, he shook her hand and said: "That'll be the making of you."

She then moved to GLR, the BBC London station, and won a silver Sony Award, the Oscars of the radio industry, for her breakfast show. Then came Five Live in 1997 and the BBC2 Travel Show. Whereas many travel presenters complain how tough such work is, upbeat Glover would not even dream of doing so. "Don't let anyone tell you that is hard work," she told anyone who would listen.

A description of her packing skills at the time gives a taste of classic Glover self-deprecation: "There is no method in my packing. In fact, I just leave the mess at the bottom of the suitcase and it sort of builds up. It fills up with razors. There's about 4,000 receipts - and I've even found four pairs of goggles in there. At some stage these things turn out to be very useful, depending on where I'm going."

Yet if her packing was disorganised, her personal life, was, for once, coming together. Introduced to Mark Sandell, a producer for the Five Live presenter Nicky Campbell, the diminutive 5ft high Glover had found a match in the 6ft 5inch divorcé and was delighted. "My relationships before now have been rather poor. Nothing ever seemed to work out and I was on my own for three years before I met Mark," she told an interviewer at the time.

They bought a house together in north London, and when the Travel Show was axed, she returned to radio. From hosting the afternoon show on Five Live she moved to the late-night slot. But this bliss was not to last. In a love triangle tale that grabbed tabloid headlines, Sandell left her for fellow Five Live host Victoria Derbyshire.

Initially Glover ploughed on with her work. By now manifestly a station golden girl, in 2003, she was promoted to the mid-morning slot with a more heavy-hitting agenda than the reflective late-night show. But broadcast immediately after Derbyshire's own show, now edited by Sandell, the juxtaposition produced palpable tensions.

After five months in the new job, she quit amid rife speculation that it was the difficulties of the working relationships that were the problem. In the words of the Daily Mail: "Jilted radio star quits to escape love triangle. A dream job, but Fi finds work with her ex and his new love a nightmare."

Whatever the truth of the decision - which certainly seemed surprising given her career trajectory until then - it was greeted with woe by listeners who besieged the BBC message board. Matthew Norman, the broadcasting commentator, said it was an act of "gross negligence" by BBC management to let her go.

But Glover was not going to stick around in tricky circumstances. She had already written one well-received book, which had been published the year before. I'm an Oil Tanker - Travels with My Radio was a quirky travelogue through local radio stations worldwide. She moved to New York to write another, looking at the American radio industry and its shock-jock DJs.

Her ties with British broadcasting were not severed, however. Those velvet tones were deployed to lucrative effect in voice-overs for TV shows on everything from How Plastic Surgery Ruined My Life to Food Junkies. For Radio 2, she presented The Martha Stewart Story and Sad Songs Say So Much.

In 2004 she seemed back for good, deemed an apt successor to Eddie Mair on Radio 4's Broadcasting House and still well imbued with her characteristic irreverence. When Mark Damazer, the station controller and her boss, requested more dissent on the airwaves, she responded with alacrity. "Now might be a good time to ask if anyone else has noticed his [Damazer's] startling similarity to Mr Burns from The Simpsons," she asked in her Broadcasting House newsletter. "A younger, better-looking version, obviously..."

But then she became pregnant by her new partner, Rick Jones, a marketing executive at the lottery firm Camelot, and took maternity leave. Hector William Glover Jones was born in January in an NHS hospital near her north London home. Clearly delighted, Glover was asked whether the happy parents planned to marry. "Who knows?" she replied. "We are living in sin and thoroughly enjoying it."

When she returns to work next month, it will be to the new show at 9am on Saturday, the slot many now associate with John Peel. Curiously, the idea had been mooted almost ever since the great DJ died in October 2004, as it was known that Mark Damazer's wife was a Glover fan.

Radio 4 executives are keen to stress that whatever the new programme is - and the details are still closely under wraps - it will not be Home Truths with a new presenter. "It will be very much Fi's own programme with her own stamp of personality," Damazer stressed.

Critics of Broadcasting House's occasionally smug, self-reverential style - one Glover inherited rather than created - have hinted they would be unhappy were that to spill over to Saturday morning Radio 4.

But they should not worry. Glover, who admits to being a home-bird who loves cooking and the anonymity of radio over the fame of TV, should settle in nicely amid the clutter of the average Radio 4 household's start to the weekend.

And she has a strong self-critical faculty even if she hates listening to herself broadcast. ("It's like when you go into John Lewis and they have mirrors on the door of the changing rooms and you see your bum," she said once of the experience of hearing herself.)

Bob Shennan, her former boss at Five Live, remains a fan. "She's an incredibly warm broadcaster. She is just naturally engaging and she's very, very bright," he said. "She loves the medium and somehow manages to translate that into good broadcasting. And she's unafraid. She's not daunted by anything or any subject. She's a class act."

A Life in Brief

BORN 27 February 1970.

EDUCATION St Swithun's girls school, Winchester, Hampshire. Studied classical civilisation and philosophy at the University of Kent 1997-1990.

FAMILY Lives with Rick Jones, a marketing executive with Camelot, the lottery firm. One son, Hector, born January 2006.

CAREER Joined the BBC as a trainee reporter in 1993 and worked on local radio stations before joining GLR in London. In 1996, joined Radio Five Live where she worked on different programmes until 2003 when she quit. From 1997-2000 also presented the BBC2 Travel Show. Returned to radio for Radio 4's Broadcasting House in 2004.

SHE SAYS "The key to good radio is making people feel they have joined a club. If you don't get that link with your audience, you might as well do voice-overs."

THEY SAY "I was about to write that her combination of warmth, wit, brains and sensitivity makes her a potential all-time broadcasting great but there's nothing potential about it." - Matthew Norman, media critic

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