70 years of Woman’s Hour: ‘Our listeners like frank conversations about sex‘

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‘We did go for lunch once’ … Woman’s Hour presenters Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey. Photograph: David Bebber for the Guardian

Radio invites the imagination to a conjure a clear picture of a programme, and in my mind, Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey have always been practically sisters. I love Woman’s Hour with a fanatical passion, and had pictured the pair sharing an office and endless conversations, collaborating closely on the programme together.

In fact, I am astonished to discover: “We barely know each other.”

I think Murray must be joking. “No, no. We hardly ever meet.”

“Well, we did go for lunch,” Garvey corrects her drily. “Oh yes,” Murray agrees. “But we never see each other, because we work on different days.” Is Woman’s Hour not a joint enterprise? “Absolutely not,” says Garvey. “We usually co-present a Christmas special. But the truth is, the programme rolls on, and we are just contracted to present it.”

This revelation comes about half an hour into our interview, and although startling, does help to explain something I had been puzzled by from the moment we met. We greeted each other in the programme’s open-plan office in London’s Broadcasting House, where we’re meeting to mark its 70th anniversary. But before we had even made our way to the green room, I was struck by how distant, almost wary, they seemed. The curiously anaemic chemistry lacked any trace of easy familiarity, and Garvey didn’t take the seat next to Murray, but sat apart. The temperature did gradually warm up, and the distance between them didn’t feel hostile. But it is clear from their answers to my very first question – When did you start listening to Woman’s Hour? – that on top of barely knowing one another, the presenters could not be more different.

Murray, 66, has been presenting Woman’s Hour for 29 years, but claims to have been listening to it for 66. Born in Barnsley, as a baby she was fed at 2pm every day, just as Woman’s Hour came on the radio, a fact that leads Murray on to more childhood radio anecdotes, all delivered with the polished flair of an accomplished raconteur. With long, red nails and dramatic eyelashes, Murray is a fabulously glamorous performer, and radiates star quality. She wraps up the monologue by reminding us of the consternation Woman’s Hour, even then, provoked by talking about taboos such as cancer. Her manifest pride in the programme and its history is very affecting, and goes on at some length. Garvey, meanwhile, doesn’t even try to compete for airtime, but listens in expressionless silence.

Murray in the Woman’s Hour studio circa 1994. Photograph: Gemma Levine/Getty Images

Garvey grew up in Liverpool listening to Radio 1 and Radio Merseyside. She joined Radio 5 Live on its first day in 1994, and didn’t listen to anything else for 13 years. The 52-year-old had barely even heard Radio 4, let alone Woman’s Hour, when she joined the programme in 2007, and quickly ruffled some devotees’ feathers by expressing reservations about its “middle-class women talking about cookery”.

Makeup-free and unadorned, she is as self-effacing and understated as Murray is flamboyant. How she holds her own becomes clear when she mentions Radio 4 and Murray chips in: “It wasn’t Radio 4 when I started listening. It was the home service.” Garvey clips back with: “I’m not old enough to remember the home service.” “Steady on, dear,” Murray purrs.

Asked to name one reason why it has endured for 70 years, with four million listeners, Murray says: “It has always been respectful of the fact that women are not all one thing. They have a huge range of interests, and it has always tried to reflect that. So we might go from Germaine Greer to cooking; the range has always been there.” Does that include addressing women who are vehemently anti-feminist?

“It is not a feminist programme,” Garvey says at once. “No, it’s not,” Murray agrees firmly. “We do not make feminism an assumption.” I’m surprised by this, so I ask if a woman who was emphatically not a feminist could ever present the programme. An abrupt pause is followed by a falsetto “Mmm, mmm,” from Murray, and “I’m not sure about that,” from Garvey. She thinks it through for a moment. “Let’s be honest about this. I think it’s highly unlikely that the programme would be presented by someone who stated in public that she doesn’t have any truck with feminism.”

They may not assume a feminist audience, but do get annoyed by the misapprehension that their listeners get the vapours over explicit discussions about sex. “Our listeners are women of the world, people who have lived,” Garvey says. “They’re very happy to hear frank conversations about sex.” Only that morning, Murray had interviewed the author of a book that encourages girls to stop thinking their job in bed is to service boys’ needs, and start pursuing their own sexual pleasure, too. Murray admits she had a moment of minor alarm when the words “penis in her mouth” were uttered, and is “sure there will be people who thought I allowed it to go too far”. But for Garvey, these are the programme’s finest moments, and she thinks the only people they offend are not Woman’s Hour listeners, but titillated hacks.

“We did an item about dick pics recently, and I made my debut on page 3 of the Sun, under the headline, ‘Radio knob’. It’s so trivialising. Maybe readers of the Sun genuinely don’t know their daughters are receiving dick pics – but if they don’t, they probably should. Maybe silly old middle-aged executives in the Sun don’t know, either. But I don’t think a single listener complained. They are sensible people. What really annoys me is people going, ‘I can’t believe Woman’s Hour is talking about dick pics!’ Woman’s Hour has always been talking about what’s going on in people’s lives. My beef is with the rest of the media for still doing all the tired, titillating stuff about sex, and not talking about any of the complicated things, like the ones discussed on Jenni’s show today.”

I get the impression that Murray is the more squeamish of the two, while Garvey thinks the items about sex are the listeners’ favourites. “A couple of years ago we did an item about the rise in cosmetic labiaplasty, and why this is connected to porn, and if you’re a straight woman you probably haven’t seen that many vaginas or vulvas, so let’s have a conversation about what women look like there. That was a completely straight conversation. I interviewed a woman gynaecologist and we just talked about what women’s genitalia looked like. It wasn’t titillating, it wasn’t funny, it was just – guess what – they come in all shapes and sizes. That’s the kind of thing you’re just never going to hear anywhere else.”

The closest thing they can find to Woman’s Hour anywhere else on air or in print is probably, Garvey thinks, Stylist magazine. Murray suggests Good Housekeeping. “Yes, Good Housekeeping for the older readers,” Garvey agrees. “Not necessarily older,” objects Murray. “Good Housekeeping has a similar broad appeal to the one that we have.” “Well, I’m not a reader of Good Housekeeping,” murmurs Garvey. “Well, nor am I,” says Murray quickly. Garvey shoots a doubtful glance. “Aren’t you?”

Jane Garvey, Adrian Chiles and Marcus Buckland in the BBC’s 5 Live studio, where Garvey starting working on the station’s first day of broadcast in 1994. Photograph: BBC

Its Garvey’s turn to look faintly squeamish when Murray laments her generation of feminists’ failure to bequeath their hard-fought entitlement to sexual pleasure to today’s young women.

“We’ve passed down to our children so many principles of feminism, but not their entitlement to good sex. That’s really shocked me. We’ve known for a long time that porn is where young people have been going for their information about sex. Why, when we know porn is so ubiquitous, have we not as parents thought, ‘Ah, we have to teach our children this?’” She goes on: “I have to say that with my boys, I like to think I did. We talked a lot about it. Because it was so important. I didn’t want my boys to grow up to be men who didn’t understand that women quite liked sex too, and that there were things they could learn that would make it better for them.”

Garvey is blanching, and suggests quietly: “I think you’re probably a rarity in having those conversations.”

Murray has been with her husband for more than 30 years, and has two grown-up sons. Garvey is divorced from Adrian Chiles, and guards her teenage daughters’ privacy much more closely. Whereas Murray has always taken the view that “life is copy”, Garvey says: “I don’t particularly have that impulse. I’m quite a private, self-contained person.”

When Woman’s Hour began 70 years ago, 30% of its listeners were men, and it is 40% today, a fact about which both are very happy. Both say nice things about 5 Live’s Men’s Hour, and say they welcome anything that encourages men to open up and talk. Garvey says she is also a fan of a recent innovation on Radio 4 called Late Night Woman’s Hour, hosted by Lauren Laverne and targeted towards a younger, possibly racier audience. “I think it’s a great idea. There’s a nice feel to the programme. I think it works. There’s a good mood to it.” Murray, on the other hand, claims not to have heard a single edition.

That can’t possibly be true, I say. But she insists it is, because she goes to bed before the programme goes out. There are, I point out, these things called podcasts. “Yes,” says Garvey. “I listen to podcasts.”

“Ah,” says Murray. “I do say on the programme, ‘It’s really easy to podcast, all you have to do is go to the website.’ But I don’t know where to start.” Garvey looks incredulous. “Jenni, Jenni. Hang your head in shame.” But surely she must know how to use the BBC’s iPlayer, at least? Murray is mute, and her silence answers the question. Intervening briskly, Garvey cries: “Right! Can I say, I think podcasts are a brilliant invention – and I’m moving the subject gently on.” We’re all laughing, but still I cannot believe that Murray has never once been curious enough about an offshoot of the show she has presented for nearly 30 years to find a way to listen.

“Honestly, I’ve got a BlackBerry,” she protests, “and you can’t download anything on it.”

“We’ll have a whip-round to buy you a smartphone, then,” mutters Garvey. “I don’t want a smartphone because I can’t type on that because my nails are too long!” I suggest the real reason why she won’t listen to Late Night Woman’s Hour is because she would rather it didn’t exist. She assumes an expression of faux innocence. “I’m sure I’d love it if I listened to it.” Then she giggles, “Oh God, the Guardian’s going to be appalled that I’m so technologically inept! You’re not going to write this, are you?”

Murray has, unlike Garvey, watched ITV’s Loose Women, and even appeared on it, but was unimpressed by the lowbrow “intelligence of the conversation”. Transferring Woman’s Hour to television has been suggested many times, but always rejected as too expensive, and neither presenter is keen on the idea. Both have, however, been trying for years to get the daily 15-minute drama serial ditched, alas without success.

As both presenters strike me as formidable, I’m surprised they haven’t won that battle – but nothing like as surprised as when I ask about their pay. The programme has been talking about equal pay for 70 years; the BBC couldn’t possibly pay its presenters less than the salaries of male presenters on other flagship Radio 4 programmes, could it?

“Neither of us knows what other presenters of either gender earn,” Murray tells me, rather carefully. “It’s long been BBC policy to keep such things a secret. We both agree that pay audits should be made compulsory in all places of work, so that at least everyone knows.” Much more will, of course, be known about the gender balance of BBC pay when the names of all presenters earning more than £150,000 are published next year. “You won’t find either of us on that list,” Murray says.

What? In that case, the BBC absolutely is paying them less than their male counterparts on Radio 4, many of whom earn several hundred thousand pounds a year. I am scandalised. How can this be possible in 2016?

“I think,” Murray says, “we can leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

The 70th anniversary edition of Woman’s Hour presented by Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey will broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 10am on Monday 10 October.