After years of failed diets, Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray tells Sarah Freeman why she believes a gastric bypass is now the only way she can lose weight and save her health
Dame Jenni Murray has made a career out of asking difficult questions.
So it should probably come as no surprise that the presenter of Woman’s Hour is equally direct when it comes to her own life.
“I am obese,” she says bluntly. “And I need to do something about it.”
Over the years Murray has tried every diet going. She’s consumed cabbage soup in large quantities, cut out carbohydrates and a few years ago, through sheer willpower, lost seven stone. The only problem was that she put it back on again, which is why at the age of 64 she is planning to have a gastric bypass.
“This is not about vanity, it’s about my health. I’ve had cancer, I’ve had a hip replacement and I want to live for a while longer yet. Surgery is not a quick fix, for me, it’s the only fix.”
Murray says her weight has always yo-yoed, but it was when she hit 50 that she began to resemble “a blow up balloon”. As is her nature, she turned to science, reading countless research papers into the causes of obesity. She is now something of a specialist in ‘gherlin’, the hormone which controls appetite and is sufficiently convinced that if she doesn’t have surgery she will never be able to shift the extra weight.
“Initially I was thinking of having a gastric band, but the more research I did, the more I realised that I would be better having a bypass. A band basically creates a new mini stomach, which limits the amount of food you can eat because you become fuller quicker. A bypass, which diverts food from the upper stomach to the small intestine not only reduces the amount of food you eat but also the amount absorbed.”
It’s also permanent, but Murray isn’t in the business of changing her mind. She’s already chosen her surgeon - Professor Francesco Rubino - and when we speak she is awaiting results of tests for type two diabetes. If they are positive she will be eligible to have the operation on the NHS. If not, she will pay for it herself. Either way, come this time next year she hopes to be significantly slimmer - and healthier.
The issue of surgery has proved contentious. However, with the NHS currently spending £5bn a year treating obesity-related illnesses, many see it as the only logical way of stemming the crisis.
“Prof Rubino doesn’t talk about gastric bands or bypasses, he talks about metabolic surgery,” she says. “That’s interesting and I think we need to have a shift in our thinking when it comes to dealing with the problem of obesity.”
When Murray first wrote about the possibility of surgery this summer she admitted she was worried about the response. It was understandable. Fern Britton and Anne Diamond were both heavily criticised for having gastric bands both by those who believed they could have achieved the same results through diet and exercise and those who saw it as a betrayal of real women with fuller figures.
“It was a concern, but there wasn’t a backlash. I was very careful how I wrote that piece. I wanted it to be honest, but I also wanted it to address some of the misconceptions surrounding the whole issue of weight-loss surgery.”
Barnsley-born Murray has a reputation for being open and straight-forward. It’s why she’s proved such an enduring host on Woman’s Hour, which she joined in 1987. Over the years she’s been as happy discussing the latest West End musical as the menopause and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 she didn’t consider once not sharing the news with the audience.
“My producer asked me whether I wanted to just slip away for treatment. It was nice of her to ask, but my response was, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, that’s not what I want to do at all’. Keeping quiet suggested that there was something to be ashamed of and that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want sympathy, but as soon as I went public the response from the listeners was incredible. I really valued that.”
Murray has been one of the most recognisable voices on British radio for almost 30 years. She took over the Woman’s Hour chair from Sue MacGregor, but despite the change of face, the show’s magazine-style format has always remained the same.
“A number of people have questioned whether in this age of apparent equality we still need a Woman’s Hour, suggesting that it’s now a little old fashioned. However, as I always tell them, 40 per cent of our audience are male so we have to keep it, if only to keep them intrigued.
“I remember when we used to be on in the afternoon my dad would often end up late for afternoon meetings because he got so absorbed listening to some item or other.
“Woman’s Hour was the first to talk about the menopause and about breast cancer. We have broken taboos, but while we do tackle some difficult subjects are always mindful of creating a balance. I was just listening to Jane (Murray’s fellow Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey) this morning and after talking to the scientist who discovered the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, she was straight into the cookery slot with Anjum Anand rustling up some stuffed aubergines for Diwali. Only on Woman’s Hour...”
While Radio 4 has traditionally attracted a more mature listener, Murray says social media has allowed Woman’s Hour to reach out to a younger audience, one which would never dream of tuning in every day at 10am.
“I suspect they are often surprised at what they find, but a good interview is like a symphony. There’s a pace to it and a definite beginning, middle and end. Perhaps because we’ve been doing it for so many years, but one thing we do know at Woman’s Hour is how to deliver a good interview.”
Through presenting the show, Murray has got to meet famous artists, singers, supermodels and the Hollywood elite. However, ask her who are the women she has most admired and she doesn’t hesitate.
“Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher,” she says without missing a beat. “Barbara Castle was an incredible role model and I will never forget her leaning over to tell me, ‘Jenni, if you want something doing ask a busy woman’. Shirley Williams was the same, a real inspiration, but I know people are often surprised by my choice of Margaret Thatcher
“Like a lot of women I have terrible trouble with how I feel about her. I admire her for her ambition and what she achieved, but I hated many of her policies. She was truly frightening to interview, but so incredibly sharp. In her early years she knew the importance of having people on side. When she forgot that, things began to unravel. That’s when she lost it.”
Murray’s own life began to unravel a little in 2006. Her mother died on the same day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, he father passed away six months later and while she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy she was also experiencing empty nest syndrome after her two sons, Edward and Charlie, had left home to study.
“As much as we might like it to be, I don’t think life is ever settled,” she says. “Just the other week Charlie, who is a photographer, told me he was thinking of going out to Sierra Leone with Save the Children. The brief was to photograph children dying from obelia in order to raise awareness of the outbreak.
“My first journalistic instinct was ‘what an incredible opportunity’, but my maternal instinct was screaming ‘please don’t go’. In the end he decided against it, partly I think because he didn’t want to spend four weeks in quarantine when he got back. He can’t afford not to work for a month, plus it’s a long time not to be able to sleep with your girlfriend.”
Charlie might not thank her for the admission, but as ever Murray struggles to be anything but honest.