With their warmth, wit and wisdom, radio presenters JANE GARVEY and FI GLOVER have added to their army of fans with an award-winning podcast and a laugh-out-loud book. Judith Woods meets the dynamic duo for a masterclass in ‘chuntering on’
Let me start with a confession. The first time I tuned into Fortunately, the hugely popular off-piste podcast hosted by Radio 4 presenters Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, I shrieked aloud. In a good way. It was a visceral jolt of recognition, relief – and something far more elusive that I struggled to identify. Here were two women in their 50s ‘chuntering on’ about everything and nothing, segueing from the challenges of radio phone-ins to the best footwear for sightseeing, name-checking their cats (ungrateful Mittens and amenable Nancy) but never their children, bemoaning bad manners, celebrating girl power in all its iterations – and all the while making listeners like me laugh like a drain. They overshared their menstrual cycles and happily revealed a reassuring laxness towards use-by dates. As a classic midlifer – too old to be hip, too young to need a new one – they made me feel I belonged, somewhere, for half an hour a week.
And not just me. Their enviably broad fanbase includes new mothers, millennials and, perhaps even more interestingly, lonesome teenagers. ‘During lockdown, when new students were trapped in their halls of residence, they would apparently have us on in the background, yakking away, because we reminded them of their mums chatting to friends,’ beams Jane. ‘And as a mum, I’m more than fine with that. Happy to help. All part of the licence fee.’ I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s nice of her to say so. Jane, 57, best known for presenting Woman’s Hour and before that winning a clutch of Sony awards on Radio 5 Live, has two daughters aged 21 and 18 with her ex-husband, the broadcaster Adrian Chiles.
‘He’s a very good dad and we get on. We spend Christmas together, it’s all terribly civilised and dull,’ says Jane. It wasn’t always so. Their marriage ended in 2008 after ten years. Press reports claimed that having effectively played second fiddle to his wife’s career, once he landed the high-profile gig of The One Show co-presenter, cracks started to show in the relationship.
‘It wasn’t anything like as acrimonious as the tabloids made out,’ murmurs Jane in a water-under-the-bridge tone. ‘Of course, there were grim moments but that’s what your girlfriends are for; you grit your teeth and bore the pants off them repeatedly so you can preserve your kids’ childhood. I didn’t reach for the wine as a coping mechanism; alcohol has never been my place of emotional safety. But I did eat an awful lot of those Gü chocolate puddings. I kept the little glass containers thinking they would come in handy. They didn’t.’
At this point Fi is nodding in recognition. ‘I tried to do the same with Bonne Maman jars. I feel weirdly compelled to accrue an impressive collection because the woman who founded the company hid Jewish refugees during the war but there’s only so much apricot jam you can get through in a year…’
This exchange between two seasoned, award-winning radio broadcasters – make no mistake, they are proper journalists to their core, who coincidentally both anchored Radio 5 Live shows as the terrible events of 9/11 unfolded – will either sound utterly bonkers or make perfect sense. I discover later that Bonne Maman was founded in 1971 and that there’s vanishingly little evidence of any previous anti-Nazi connection, but I’m with Fi on this rather than Wikipedia. Because I want to be. See how empowering they are!
Their upbeat chat is music to my ears; a couple of intelligent women riffing on what they call the ‘chuff’ of life. There are forays into feminism, parenting and divorce but leavened with wit and good humour. All in all, it’s rather like Woman’s Hour before its earnest preoccupation with transgenderism and intersectionality (nope, me neither).
Fi, 52, of Radio 4’s The Listening Project fame, has been married and divorced twice. She has a son aged 15 and a 13-year-old daughter with her second husband, former Google executive Rick Jones. They too are amicable exes; he lives at the bottom of her street, she tells me.
‘We were co-parenting in different houses and I had my fair share of being covered in vomit more often than glory. But don’t call Jane and me single mothers!’ cries Fi. ‘That implies we were entirely alone, which is simply not true. We had supportive friends and nice jobs and all sorts of privileges were available to us that other women just don’t have access to.’
Both agree on one peculiar facet of modern parenting: ‘Whatever the next generation says, they can’t reproach us for not telling them we loved them,’ says Fi, who also presents on the BBC World Service and has a column in Waitrose Magazine. ‘Every blinking time they went to nursery there would be huddles of mothers at the gate frantically calling, “Love you! Love you!” as though they were emigrating rather than playing at the water table for two and a half hours. Then when we collected them there would be more lavish declarations of love. Snacks too.’
But the parallels between the pair of women extend a lot further than tiny boxes of raisins. Both were privately educated; Fi in Winchester, Jane in her native Liverpool before attending the University of Kent and Birmingham University respectively. Neither received any encouragement to enter broadcasting. ‘My careers advisor told me the media was far too competitive and that there was no way I’d make it,’ recalls Fi. ‘So then and there I started sharpening my elbows in readiness.’
Jane confirms that she was briskly informed only Oxbridge graduates ever stood a chance at the BBC, before adding wistfully: ‘I would have loved to have been a footballer, but the women’s game just wasn’t a thing in those days. I reckon I’d have been a scrappy centre forward, a goal poacher. Like Kevin Keegan.’
‘Well you already have his hair!’ cries Fi right on cue. Her aching regret is that she never joined The Pretenders or played with Debbie Harry, although I’m not sure how either pop icon would have fitted in a Grade Eight oboeist. ‘I’m not too proud to compromise, so I’m willing to be a musician on Coldplay’s next album,’ Fi offers magnanimously.
Both women began in local radio and worked their way up the ranks before joining BBC Radio 5 Live and later Radio 4. Jane now presents the Life Changing interview series and is working on various other ‘secret missions’. She also writes a column for Radio Times, which seems oddly fitting.
Their Fortunately podcast, in which they shoot the breeze at a table in the piazza outside Broadcasting House, chatting to the likes of Clive Myrie and Sara Cox, has been downloaded 4.5 million times and received a few gongs along the way. Currently in the top five of the BBC’s most popular podcasts, it has also topped the Apple podcast charts. It took four years to get the green light from radio bosses – now it’s so successful it gets broadcast every week. ‘The fact we even got to make it feels like a victory for feminism,’ says Fi. The pair have always been friendly but geographically not close – Fi lives in East London, Jane way out West. In truth, the fact they still have new things to learn about one another injects a freshness into their exchanges.
Oh, and now they have a new book out, didn’t I say? My bad. Actually, their bad. They do have a tendency to sweep bystanders along and entirely off course, with random digressions about Countryfile and whether AI robots will be taking care of us all in our dotage. So back to the book. It’s called Did I Say That Out Loud? and claims to be ‘entirely different’ from the podcast. They squeal in horror when the dreaded phrase ‘perfect loo book’ escapes my lips.
According to Jane it’s ‘far more thought through and considered’. Fi’s take is this: ‘We have reached an age where we thought we would have everything sussed, but instead it feels like we have one foot on the dock and one on the boat and are still confused about our place in the world. I genuinely think that knowing there probably won’t be any great epiphany gives comfort to other women.’
My verdict is it’s a riotous, occasionally laugh-aloud read that will provide balm to the soul of any woman who grew up believing things really did happen after a Badedas bath. The chapter headings alone are humdingers: Steam-Clean My Gwyneth! tackles candles that smell of Paltrow’s vagina and the bizarre monetisation of orgasms. Oh Shut Up Roger caustically examines male entitlement and Hark at Her is a hilariously truthful stream-of-consciousness riff on the passive-aggression that lurks below the surface of much sisterly advice. ‘Are you looking a bit scrawny? I’m only asking because I’m worried about you,’ they write. ‘I know it’s never good to be carrying extra timber and you were always on the big side, weren’t you… but really, being thin can be terribly ageing… nothing wrong with a little of what you fancy… men like something to grab hold of. No, far better to be a little chunkier. Come on, ladies, don’t deny yourselves – life is for living. Enjoy! But not too much, because then you’ll be fat. And fat is wrong.’
In person, as on-air, their style is conversational. Jane is homely Thelma to Fi’s more buccaneering Louise, but both are freewheeling, generous in spirit – ‘we love a millennial!’ – and eminently reasonable. At times too reasonable; when I idly muse about the pressure women of my generation feel when confronted by the 56-year-old Elizabeth Hurleys of this world, rocking teeny-tiny bikinis on social media, Jane immediately pulls me up: ‘Oh no you don’t! I didn’t spend 13 years on Woman’s Hour to throw shade on other women.’ Of course not. They might push a few boundaries but are ultimately both still in the employ of Auntie. But it was worth a try.
Even the hot topic of militant transgender women pushing for access to female spaces and sports fails to bring forth indignation – although Jane used her departure to point out that the average listener to Woman’s Hour isn’t particularly exercised by the sort of transgender issues that dominate Twitter. ‘The business of caring and social care. That’s of vital concern to our audience,’ she said. Not that you’d guess from the Twitterati. ‘Social media has an overblown sense of its own importance,’ says Jane, pursing her lips. ‘And don’t get me started on the Instagram obsession with perfection that is really affecting young women’s mental health.’ Older women too, I sigh.
‘Oh, I think it’s a real indulgence to go on about ageing,’ Jane chides mildly. ‘If you’re in good health then I’m not sure there’s anything to complain about. I’m looking forward to grandchildren; I think I’ll be much better second time round.’
Fi snorts in response: ‘You’ll love it because you’ve always been about 87 in your head. I can’t ever visualise myself in really old age. You’re a slow-baked egg custard. I’m the soufflé!’
Then, amid the banter, Jane gets unexpectedly personal: ‘I’ve reached the stage where it would be really nice to have a partner,’ she confides. ‘But I worry I’m too set in my ways to make room. It’s also much easier for middle-aged men to find someone; let’s just say I’m the same vintage as Boris Johnson and I can’t see me bagging a man half my age.’
Fi declines to be drawn on her own affairs of the heart, instead snorting: ‘Jane, I can see you and your AI robot having a marvellous sunset together; fun and games all day then you can plug him in at night and he can recharge himself.’
A startled Jane hastily shushes her for being suggestive. Fi laughs raucously. Female friendship at its best. If you are looking for your tribe, chances are you’ve just found it.