With a specially baked cake from Mary Berry and a blue plaque in her honour on her favourite work chair, Dame Jenni Murray acknowledged that it felt “very, very strange” to be hosting her final edition of Woman’s Hour after 33 years.
Murray, the BBC Radio 4 show’s longest serving host, took up her post in September 1987 and ended her tenure on Thursday, played out by Helen Reddy’s anthem I Am Woman.
Ending her broadcast, Murray said she had to consistently remind herself that women are a “vast range” and there are “many, many, many different stereotypes that fit our gender, so there is no one stereotypical woman. But our sex, we share.”
She was joined live on the show by Labour politician Harriet Harman, barrister Helena Kennedy, theatre director Jude Kelly and writer Jackie Kay, all of whom paid warm tribute.
Harman said they were all from the first generation of women to say they were not going to choose between staying at home or prioritising going out to work, but would do both.
“That was an incredible, huge social and economic revolution which was invisible to most of the broadcasting world,” said Harman. “But Woman’s Hour, with you right at the heart of it, you made the space for all of these issues to be discussed day in, day out.”
Without that space, the progress that has been made would never have come about, Harman said. “You leave a tremendous legacy and I want to really thank you for that.”
Kay said she saluted Murray for “holding a mirror up to the real world and everything that’s been going on in that … and to the imaginative world and the cultural world.”
Kelly said Murray was not just a “national treasure”, but an international one – the programme has fans as far afield as Japan.
Lady Kennedy pointed to the issue of marital rape, which Murray and Woman’s Hour shone light on. “By giving public space for a debate … it actually ignited the shift that took place. By putting it on air, organisations like the Women’s Institute then invited me to go and speak … Women started making the demand for change. I think it was about being well informed.”
Murray told her guests that she preferred a solid chair to one that wiggles around. “It’s green and it’s been here for years. The studio managers have put a blue plaque on it: ‘Jenni Murray last sat on this chair on 1 October 2020’.”
The programme included a collection of her best moments over 33 years, revealing how Murray never shied from tricky questions.
There were snippets of her interviews with Hillary Clinton (“What is it about Bill that has enabled you to forgive his infidelities?”) and Edwina Currie (“How supportive to women can you call yourself when you have put Norma Major’s private life into the public sphere?”).
Within weeks of joining the programme, Murray interviewed Bette Davis, then in her 80s. The actor had a fearsome reputation, but Murray won her over, even managing to persuade her to deliver her line from All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
One of her most regularly terrifying interviewees was Margaret Thatcher, she said. Not so terrified that Murray did not bring up how François Mitterand waxed lyrical about Thatcher’s Marilyn Monroe lips and Alan Clark was attracted to her ankles.
“Did you play on that? Did you flirt if you had to?” Murray asked. “I didn’t even know they had made these comments,” Thatcher replied, looking aghast. “How should I?”
Murray said she was baffled by the reply, but later realised that Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, would never have dreamed of ever telling her these things had been said.
The “peak of her career” was telling Joan Baez that her favourite song was Diamonds and Rust, and being delighted as Baez performed it there and then. It left her “sobbing inside because she was so wonderful”, she said.
Barnsley-born Murray joined the BBC in 1973, working first for BBC Radio Bristol. After spells on BBC South Today, Newsnight and the Today programme, she became a regular presenter of Woman’s Hour in 1987.
Her colleague Jane Garvey has also announced that she is stepping down from presenting duties, in her case after 13 years. Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett will take over in the new year.