Jenni Murray: Woman of the hour

She is the voice of Radio 4's iconic show and, as it turns 60, its feisty presenter still has plenty to say
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The Independent Online

She's the cosy warrior of Middle England, equally at home presenting features on female genital mutilation and autumn leaves. She has interviewed all the major political figures of her generation - famously asking the junior health minister Edwina Currie when she last had a smear test, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, whether he would show his wife his tax returns - but manages to make it sound like a chat over the garden wall.

To many listeners today, Jenni Murray is Woman's Hour, the show she has presented for nearly 20 years (which celebrated its 60th anniversary yesterday). Having honed that deliciously bossy headmistress persona, she can ask razor-sharp political questions or flirt for Britain (her interview with Jack Nicholson was a classic of sexual chemistry). In the words of the veteran broadcaster and journalist Charles Wheeler she has "the most beautiful voice on radio, ever".

"The sheer amount of hard journalism that goes into those interviews, whether it's about nail varnish or the Budget, may not be appreciated," says Sally Feldman, University of Westminster's head of media, arts and design, and a former Woman's Hour editor. "She never lets her research show, and yet it's meticulously done."

Murray asks the questions the listener wants answered. And woe betide the guest who is under-briefed. Virginia Bottomley once came on the show and said: "Jenni, I don't really know my facts on this. You will be gentle, won't you?" But Murray can be tougher on women than she is on men. "I've never been an advocate of the 'women are gooder' school," she insists.

She tackled Margaret Thatcher about her lack of interest in childcare provision and, sotto voce, asked Tessa Jowell: "As the feminist you are, are we to believe that you signed for a mortgage loan on your house for your husband, without knowing exactly how it was going to be paid back?" Feldman says: "I think it's a kind of hypnotising that she does. She's got a very deep look and she makes you say things."

Like all great iconoclasts, Murray is a mass of contradictions. A radical feminist and long-term critic of marriage (which she once described as "legalised prostitution") she has been with her partner, David Forgham, for 26 years and dotes on her two grown-up sons. Recently, she published a book entitled That's My Boy about raising a happy son. "It's a myth that the feminist movement set out to smash the family," she insists, although Forgham, a former naval officer, did most of the childcare. "He had to endure years of sidelong glances at the school gate," she recalls. "Was he a dad or a predatory pervert? There are no supportive networks for the dad who deigns to do a 'woman's job'. Coffee mornings are still primarily all-female affairs."

Despite her views on marriage, Murray has married twice. In 1971, she and her architect boyfriend Brian Murray returned from a gap year abroad and decided to share a flat. Convinced her mother would go "absolutely bonkers" she asked Brian to marry her. The marriage, which lasted seven years, gave Murray her professional name. Two years ago she succumbed to her second marriage, to Forgham, in order to avoid inheritance tax. "I said to the registrar, 'Here are the rules. You do not refer to me as the bride. You do not refer to him as the groom. No flowers, no music, no romantic guff.'"

At 56, Murray is vibrantly, passionately engaged with life. "I've been out with her on the sauce," says the lesbian feminist writer and campaigner, Julie Bindel, a frequent guest on Woman's Hour. "She likes a fag and a glass of wine. I'm off wrecked in a taxi at 11.30pm; she's up at 5.30am reading her papers. She's a really tough cookie!"

And yet the woman dubbed the most caring broadcaster in Britain admitted that she does not want to be "trapped" into caring full-time for her mother who is ill with late-stage Parkinson's disease. "Having fought so hard to become liberated and independent, women are now being trapped into caring for dependent parents."

Jennifer Susan Bailey was born in Barnsley in 1950. Her mother, she says, was taken into hospital aged 23, strapped into stirrups and put through such a traumatic experience that she never got pregnant again; Murray remained an only child. "I carried the baggage of this with me," she recalls, "because my mother always told me about it and there was always this feeling that I had really damaged her life."

She took a degree in French and drama at Hull University, where she bobbed her hair and - to her mother's disapproval - converted her skirts into extended belts. She joined BBC Radio Bristol in 1973, later becoming a reporter and presenter for BBC TV's South Today. Her feminist awakening came when, as a single woman, she was refused a mortgage without a father or husband's signature. She went into the building society, threatened them with the full power of the new sex discrimination act, and won.

In 1983, she joined Newsnight. She moved to Radio 4 in 1985 as a presenter for Today and launched the Saturday edition with John Humphrys in 1987.

That year she inherited the Woman's Hour chair from Sue MacGregor. The northern grammar school girl had arrived. "She represented a completely new type of woman," says Sally Feldman. "The fact that she was a young, very open, very direct broadcaster who was also a mother helped to define her for that generation. We were a generation that wanted everything and so were our listeners."

Twenty years on, Woman's Hour is one of broadcasting's strongest brands. Yet last week, amid the celebrations, its relevance was called into question. Attacking "wimmin's" programming, Carol Sarler insisted in the Daily Mail that the sex war is won: "If I worked on Woman's Hour, I would be afraid. One can understand, of course, why these women continue to plough this anachronistic furrow: theirs is a vested interest, given that their livelihoods depend upon it."

Even if one goes along with Sarler's rose-tinted theory that the sex war is won, 40 per cent of its listeners are men. OK, the title may be rooted in the 1950s but the content is timeless. As the MP Harriet Harman says, "Jenni's Woman's Hour is about men, women and children. But through women's eyes."

Louise Chunn, the editor of Good Housekeeping, agrees. "Jenni Murray is a feisty, clever broadcaster with an amazingly broad reach. I don't think Woman's Hour is near its sell-by date. Didn't you know? Sixty is the new forty!"

Murray shows no signs of retiring. She still lives partly in London in a basement flat, and partly in Cheshire in a converted farmhouse. Will she ever retire? And who will replace her?

Jenni is irreplaceable, believes Bindel. "I honestly think the show will die with her. She is an era - along with the programme - and it can't be reproduced."