Jenni Murray:
weight off her mind

With the announcement that she was leaving Woman’s Hour, Dame Jenni Murray shocked radio fans but she insists she won’t be leaving broadcasting entirely

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Dame Jenni Murray turned 70 in May and the broadcaster, who recently announced she was stepping down from Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour after 33 years, planned to celebrate her landmark birthday with a trip to Paris. Her intention was to finally reach the top of the Eiffel Tower, something she’s wanted to do since she was a tour guide in the city in her early twenties. But then Covid-19 happened and instead the occasion was marked with a surprise Zoom party organised by her husband, David, and grown-up sons Ed and Charlie, “who I call my little one,
even though he’s over 6ft”.

“I have forgiven her for some of the pain she caused, and all the stupid things she said to me.”

“My little one bought me a bottle of champagne and bits of food and said we’re going to have a Zoom call with the family, and when I Zoomed in, I was completely gobsmacked to find about 40 people from as far back as school. They’d put together videos and photos, and all my favourite songs. It was just so special, incredible,” says Murray, whose career encompassed regional television, Newsnight and the Today programme before she took over Woman’s Hour in 1987, and in 2011, she was made a dame.

She has no issue with ageing (“It’s inevitable”), but was concerned about the impact it would have on her ability to record her radio show if she was suddenly regarded at greater risk of Covid-19 and told to self-isolate.

“I tried to broadcast from home once but it was so difficult, so I argued my case and signed to say it was my choice to go in and I carried on, although going into Broadcasting House is a bit like going into the Mary Celeste because there are hardly any people around.”

With her family scattered around the country – David on the south coast, Ed in the New Forest and Charlie not too far from her in London where she stays for work – she admits the first three months of lockdown were “quite difficult”.

“But I have, to some degree, the benefit of being an only child in that I’ve always known how to entertain myself and I do a lot of reading, and I’ve got my little dogs with me,” remarks Murray, who grew up on a council estate in Barnsley.

She describes her upbringing in vivid detail in her laudably frank new memoir Fat Cow, Fat Chance: The Science and Psychology of Size, about a lifelong struggle with her weight.

In the book Murray details the complex relationship she had with her mother, Win, a woman who was incredibly proud of her daughter’s achievements but who could also be cruel where her appearance was concerned.

In one chapter, the broadcaster recalls seeing her parents for the first time in months during her first year at Hull University where she was studying French and drama. Like so many students, she’d enjoyed the freedom and excess of fresher’s year and her weight had crept up by two stone.

“I didn’t really notice – that’s the extraordinary thing,” says Murray.
But her mother did when she went to meet her parents at the ferry terminal after their drive from Turkey where her father, Alvin, had been working.

“They drove straight past me. I was shouting ‘Dad’ and they eventually stopped. Dad jumped out and gave me a big hug. My mum didn’t say a word. I got in the car and she went: ‘God, you’re like a baby elephant, you’re so fat.’ She was really horrible.”

Far from receiving an apology, her mother later called to blame her for a minor accident they’d subsequently had because “Dad was so upset about you and the state you’re in”, before promptly hanging up.

“You know, I never walked into my mother’s house without her saying ‘Oh my god, you’ve got a bit too thin’, or ‘Oh my god, you’ve put on so much weight.’ She was completely obsessed by it. I’ve tried to explain it to myself in that she wanted me to look the best I possibly could,” explains Murray, whose mother died at the end of 2006, the same day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was the worst day of my life,” she writes in the book.

“I have in the end, I think, forgiven her for some of the pain she caused, and all the stupid things she said to me, but I know I’m not alone. It’s why I think it’s really important to be open about it.”

The incident at the ferry terminal resulted in her first “crazy diet” when Murray, determined to lose weight, visited the doctor at the university hospital and was sent off with a packet of pills. Her drastic weight loss prompted concern from her tutor who asked what drugs she was taking. “I was so offended. ‘I don’t take drugs, never even smoked a joint,’ I told him, but I showed him the pills I was taking, and he said: ‘Good god, they’re Black Bombers.’ I didn’t know they were very powerful amphetamines. No wonder I had been a little bit crazy.”

Murray in 1998. Last month she announced her departure from Woman’s Hour after 33 years. (Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/Getty)

Weighing just under seven stone, she was taken into the university’s health centre and eased back into a healthy eating pattern, but she admits that over the years she’s tried all sorts of diets.

“You get seduced by these snake oil salesmen who say: ‘I have the way to make you thin,’ she notes, although her weight didn’t become a cause for concern until her forties and fifties.

She was living in a flat in London she nicknamed Wuthering Depths while David and her then teenage sons stayed in the Peak District.

“I found it really tough to be away from kids who really need you for a long period of time, and my elderly parents weren’t well. When you’re miserable and depressed and worried about your parents and teenage kids, and your husband having to manage so much at home because you’re the breadwinner, what do you do? You sit down and comfort eat, and I got fatter and fatter, and dieted and got fatter, and dieted and got fatter.”

She’d pretend to the world that she was “fat and happy” but has since described this “an Oscar-winning performance put on in public”.

She recalls the two things that “shocked me into taking myself in hand”. The first was a new GP who “pulled no punches” and asked her to step on the scales at their first meeting. The scales read 24 stone.

The second was walking her dogs with Charlie. “I was lumbering along and sitting on every bench we came across when a woman drove past on one of those mobility scooters with her two little dogs’ leads attached to the handle bars and she was even more obese than I was. Charlie, being a genuinely frightened and concerned young man, said: ‘Mum, if you don’t do something about your weight, that will be you before very long.’”

It was the prompt she needed to take action. Not long after she met Professor Francesco Rubino, an expert in metabolic surgery to whom she dedicates the book. He carried out her sleeve gastrectomy surgery, where a large part of the stomach is removed, and Murray credits him with changing her life.

“It was going to cost me £11,000 but I’d inherited a bit of money from my parents, and I thought, well, if my mother knew I’d spent some of the money she left me on losing weight, then she’d be thrilled to bits.”

She lost eight stone in less than a year, and five years on is comfortable with her weight.

“I could’ve lost more, but I thought at my age, you don’t want to sacrifice your face and I’m quite happy just under 14 stone. I’ve retained a little of what I call plumptitude. I love food and it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure, but now I eat delicious food in small quantities.

“The science is really complicated, as are our bodies. It’s not as simple as ‘eat less, move more’. Lots of people struggle. That’s the reason I finally got round to being frank about what happened to me and how long it took to understand it.”

It’s why Jenni chose an unflinching title for the book. “Fat cow is something I know hundreds of other women will have faced as they’re walking down the street, or sitting in their car and some bloke, and it is always a bloke, will shout ‘fat cow’ at you. That’s happened to me so many times and I never want to hear those words again, ever, anywhere.”

Over the years, she’s written books including A History of the World in 21 Women and Is It Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? and is thankful to have had a career in print and on radio that’s fulfilled her.

“What other job would you get to read all the books you want to read, see all the plays you want to see, all the films you want to see and talk to some of the women you’ve most admired throughout your life? It’s been great. I never had a masterplan, but I always enjoyed performing and I’m very nosy and curious, which is what’s required for good journalists,” says Murray of a career that’s included interviews with Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Atwood over three decades.

She also found herself at the centre of controversy when in 2018 she pulled out of a talk at Oxford University over comments made the previous year in an article for The Sunday Times titled “Be trans, be proud – but don’t call yourself a real woman”, although she had said she is not “transphobic or anti-trans”.

The shock announcement on 24 July that she was leaving Woman’s Hour has also prompted headlines, with many seeing it as another sign that the BBC’s too willing to lose veterans in favour of a young and cool agenda.

In a statement, Murray said: “Saying goodbye will be very hard to do, but it’s time to move on.”

Her final Woman’s Hour episode is due to be aired on 1 October, but as she enters her eighth decade, Murray has no intention of entirely withdrawing from the airwaves.

“Retirement is not on my agenda. All the people I know in their eighties are people who work, they write, they broadcast, they get out and see people and they’re the ones who have, still, the sharpest minds, so that’s my plan.’

Fat Cow, Fat Chance: The Science and Psychology of Size by Jenni Murray, is out now (Doubleday). Murray is In Conversation at Yorkshire Festival of Story, a Crowdcast event, on 29 Aug. Register at 

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