Dame Jenni Murray, whose mellifluous voice has graced the airwaves as the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for more than three decades, is to leave the programme.
Once described as having the most beautiful voice on radio, she has hosted the programme for 33 years. During that time she has tackled wide-ranging subjects, held politicians to account and cast light on devastating stories of persecution and rape from women around the world.
She said: “I’ve spent nearly half my life with Woman’s Hour and it’s been a privilege and delight to inform, educate and entertain a loyal and growing audience of women and men. Saying goodbye will be very hard to do, but it’s time to move on.”
Her gentle and reassuring interview style could draw out the unsuspecting, only for her to pounce swiftly with the most penetrating and pertinent questions. Politicians often found themselves disarmed. She confronted Margaret Thatcher about her childcare policies, and drilled Gordon Brown over whether as chancellor he would show his wife his tax returns.
Few questions have been off limits for Murray; Edwina Currie was asked when she last had a smear test. High-profile figures she has interviewed during her tenure ranged from Margaret Atwood to Benazir Bhutto and Dame Judi Dench. Joan Baez sang Diamonds & Rust in the studio especially for her.
Born in Barnsley, Murray began her broadcasting career at BBC Radio Bristol in 1973, going on to report and present for BBC television’s South Today programme. She joined Newsnight in 1983, before moving to Radio 4 as a presenter on the Today programme .
She became the regular presenter of Woman’s Hour in 1987, and in 2011 was made a dame in recognition of her contribution to broadcasting. Her final programme will be on 1 October.
She often shared her own life experience with fans. When, in 2006, she announced at the end of Woman’s Hour that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the response was overwhelming, with goodwill messages flooding into the BBC from thousands of listeners.
Returning to the programme after treatment, she told listeners that the most emotionally upsetting moment was losing her hair, then used this to explore the centrality of hair to definitions of femininity.
Another issue she shared was her lifelong battle with her weight, having been overweight, even obese, for much of her adult life. It is a topic she further addressed in the most recent of several books, Fat Cow, Fat Chance, in which she chronicles her fight to control her weight, which has yo-yoed between 14 and 24 stone, and the diets she has tried over the years. She eventually chose a surgical route, opting at the age of 65, for an irreversible “sleeve gastrectomy” procedure, in which a large part of the stomach is removed.
Off the airwaves, she courted controversy in 2017 with an article in the Sunday Times magazine in which she questioned the claims of transgender women to be considered “real women”. The article was headlined: “Jenni Murray: be trans, be proud – but don’t call yourself a real woman.” She wrote: “I know that in writing this article I am entering into the most controversial and, at times, vicious, vulgar and threatening debate of our day. I’m diving headfirst into deep and dangerous waters.” The response was swift, with the campaigns director of Stonewall condemning her views as hurtful. She was then forced to pull out of an Oxford University talk following a backlash over her comments.
Tony Hall, the outgoing director general of the BBC said: “Jenni Murray is a remarkable broadcaster and few have matched her outstanding contribution to the BBC and our audience.
“For more than three decades, Jenni has been an unmistakable and warm voice that has interviewed many of the most well-known women in the world, and helped illuminate issues that matter. The radio airwaves won’t be the same without her.”
Mohit Bakaya, the controller of Radio 4, said: “Jenni is one of the most loved voices on Radio 4. For more than 30 years she has tackled important issues on behalf of listeners, opening up sometimes difficult conversations about the experience of women and shining a light on subjects that have often been sadly neglected.
“I want to thank her for her wonderful commitment to Woman’s Hour, to Radio 4 in general and for the passion she has shown for the topics explored during her time on the programme. I wish her the very best with her plans for the future.”
A new Woman’s Hour presenter will be announced in due course, according to the BBC.
Highlights of Jenni Murray’s three decades on Woman’s Hour
Hillary Clinton, interviewed by Murray in 2014, was asked why she had stayed in her marriage despite its humiliations. Murray said Clinton went on to give her “the most fabulous interview. When I asked her why, when her husband had humiliated her on so many occasions, she had remained with him, she spoke of marriage being a friendship, not necessarily about sex. She said: ‘When we met we were at university, where we started a conversation. We are still having that conversation.’”
Monica Lewinsky, meanwhile, when she was interviewed years earlier, was questioned over why she had not washed that stain from her dress.
Tessa Jowell was asked: “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?”
Few guests had disappointed her, Murray said in a Radio Times interview in 2017. “People who are really top-ranking make the effort to give the very best of themselves.” Oprah Winfrey was a case in point. “She didn’t make any bones about her weight going up and down. She said: ‘What kind of a life is it without a French fry ever?’”
Among the more awkward was her interview with Margaret Thatcher, who had, said Murray, “these blue eyes that bore into you”. There was an uncomfortable meeting in 1993 after she had been ousted as prime minister. Murray asked how she had dealt with sexist comments, such as Alan Clark’s reference to her “pretty ankles”, or François Mitterrand saying she had “the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe”.
“She looked at me and didn’t speak,” Murray recalled. It later struck her that perhaps Thatcher’s press secretary had not shown her every newspaper cutting, and that “when I put those things to her, she was genuinely shocked”.