An interview with Jenni Murray

The presenter of BBC 4’s Women’s Hour talks to Zoë McIntyre about beach shacks and Paris cabarets

Who inspired you to study French?

My French teacher, Madame Short. She was a dead-ringer for Juliette Greco with long dark hair with perfume that came across the classroom. She taught me all the way through school. I adored her and loved the language and went on to study it at university.

When did you first visit France?

With my parents after I passed the 11-plus thought it would be a good idea to take me to Paris. The minute we got off of the bus from the airport, I smelled Paris; that smell of coffee and croissant on every street corner. It was the café culture, the open doors – it was summer, it was glorious. We went up the top of Montmartre for that fantastic view and up all steps in Notre-Dame. I just loved it.

Did you spend time in France as a student?

I spent a year in France, most of it in Paris working as a tour operator for an American company. We’d pick up hoards of American tourists on a coach and take them around Paris. All we had to do was sell tours and accompany them. I think I have been to the Lido and Moulin Rouge more than any other Englishwoman. But it was great! I remember in spring walking across one of the Pont Alexandre to the Champs-Élysées because the office was there, and thinking ‘oh my goodness I am in Paris – it’s the most beautiful place on earth’. And I still feel the same way about it.

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What was it like studying in the South of France?

I did a month’s course in Montpellier. It was just gorgeous. We were about 20 and met lots of young men who were very charming and drove us around in their deux chevaux. One evening we went to Palavas which, in the 1970s, was just a long stretch of gold sand. On it was a shack with a covering but completely open to the sea and sand. The only food you could have was wonderfully fresh bread, moules marinière, chocolate mousse and local wine. It was the most perfect evening of my life; just looking at the Mediterranean, watching the sunset with the most simple, fantastic food imaginable.

Where have you travelled as an adult in France?

We have a friend with a gîte on the Atlantic side and we went there a lot when the children were small. It was easy and there were wonderful beaches. My younger son studied French and philosophy at university and managed to swing himself a year in Biarritz so that was an excuse to go there a few times. We spent a Christmas there and had a lovely time.

Your book Memoirs of a Not so Dutiful Daughter plays on the title of a book by Simone de Beauvoir. Was she an inspiration to you?

She was and that was thanks to my teacher, Madame Short, who made us read Memoirs of a dutiful daughter in French. What struck me, even then, was Beauvoir’s description of how different she was from her mother. And it wasn’t her mother’s fault. I was a teenage girl and it was the middle of the 1960s and I wanted wear makeup and put my hair down and everything was a battle because my mother had been brought up in a completely different era. So Beauvoir saved me really, because I managed not to blame my mother.

Have you interviewed any memorable French personalities?

Catherine Deneuve she was the scariest woman I’ve ever met! Her English was impeccable and she was so beautiful she just took your breath away. And scary. She said things like; “Ohh what a stupid question!”

Is there anywhere else in France you want to visit?

I’ve never been up the Eiffel tower! Every time I go, there are queues a mile long and I can’t be bothered. So I think for my 70th birthday I’m going to book the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower restaurant and I’m finally going up.

Jenni can be heard weekdays on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4 at 10am