Interview: Mariella Frostrup leaps out of lockdown and onto live radio

Making radio waves and debunking menopause myths - with @JanetChristie2

Mariella Frostrup is live on Times Radio, Monday to Thursday 1-4pm, with a new topical affairs, arts, culture and lifestyle show. Picture: Kate Martin

Scottish-Norwegian journalist, broadcaster, TV and radio presenter, author, agony aunt, former BBC Radio 4 presenter and Sky Book Show host, Booker prize judge, mother of two and chicken keeper, Mariella Frostrup was making the most of lockdown in rural Somerset, but new live radio channel Times Radio had other ideas.

Times Radio Afternoon show

The husky-voiced broadcaster was happy walking in the green rolling hills, pottering around the garden of the home she shares with her husband, human rights lawyer Jason McCue and “two grumpy teenagers”. The former host of Radio 4’s Open Book has been answering reader dilemmas for her Dear Mariella column in the Observer, making her popular podcast Books to Live By, as well as researching the book she’s writing on the menopause.

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Frostrup also has a popular podcast, Books to Live By, in which guests talk about the books that have influenced them most. As wells as her anthology of female explorers, Wild Women, she is currently working on a book about the menopause. Picture: Kate Martin

However, barely pausing to take breath after her last show forBBC Radio 4 was broadcast last week, she’s straight back on air with a new live radio daily afternoon show, a mix of topical news, lifestyle, culture, interviews, arts and social issues “with some levity along the way”.

One of a roster of voices, including Carole Walker and Giles Coren, she’ll be live on air Monday to Thursday from 1-4pm broadcasting from the 14th floor of News UK’s HQ News Building in central London.

Going from lockdown at home is a change of pace for the broadcaster.

“It’s going from having for the first time ever really, spent a lot of time at home, without too much to do, and now I’m jumping into the fire pit. I haven’t been in London for three months and suddenly I’m going to be there four days a week. In some ways it’s a return to a busier, more metropolitan period of life that I thought I’d left behind eight years ago when we moved to Somerset.”

With husband, human rights lawyer Jason McCue, with whom she has been working from home in lockdown in Somerset, where they live with their teenage children. Attending the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Party, 2013. Picture: Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Multi-talented

Frostrup has always avoided being pigeonholed, turning her talents variously to print, TV and radio journalism. As well as hosting current affairs – Panorama, Question Time – and film and arts programmes, she’s the author of an anthology of female explorers – Wild Women – and member of a raft of book, film and media awards’ panels such as the Booker.

Lockdown lifestyle

But from a bedroom in Somerset – her husband is outside “working in a little shed in the garden”, and her son and daughter elsewhere in the house, she’s doing publicity for her new show.

With her sister Danielle and brother Aksel in 1994. Picture: Geoff Wilkinson/Shutterstock

Blonde hair that’s a legacy of her Norse heritage pulled back in a pony tail, glasses on and mug in hand, she’s fired up and enthusiastic.

“I‘m so grateful and impressed with Times Radio because there are an awful lot of mature women out there who don’t get a look in.”

Frostrup is 57, though she has lately fallen into the habit of answering to 58. “Maths was never my strong point,” she says.

“We’re in a terrible place in terms of suffering at the moment, economic, and all other forms that people are going through, and I really am one of the lucky ones. This thing comes along that’s incredibly exciting, at a time in my career where you’re constantly putting your hand up going ‘what about me?’ How could I say no?

Frostrup has turning her talents to print, TV and radio journalism. As well as hosting current affairs Panorama, Question Time and film and arts programmes, shes been a judge on various awards panels, such as the Booker. Picture: Abigail Zoe Martin/BBC

Embracing new challenges

Despite her wide experience and long career, Frostrup doesn’t suffer from inflated self-belief, admitting to regular bouts of trepidation with each new challenge.

I decided that the regret would be worse if I turned it down and it would have felt like the terrible squandering of an opportunity and I’d never know how it might have worked out. So fear won.”

Frostrup happily confirms her what-the-hell attitude has increased with age.

There’s definitely a bit of you that becomes less fearful and embraces challenge in a different way. At the same time I think part of my life’s blood is fear. I thrive on agreeing to do things that at first I think ‘I can’t do it!’, and I sort of manage somehow or other to battle through. And then without taking any great satisfaction from that, I look to the horizon again.

“It’s probably not a very good way to live your life, but it’s all I’ve got,” she says and gives a throaty laugh.

Maybe she’s onto something, weighing up fear and regret as a way to approach decisions, but Frostrup points out that this doesn’t make it any easier.

“‘Cos you’re just guessing aren’t you? This could be the worst career move I’ve ever made. I could be a disaster on live radio. I’ve done live radio, but not relentlessly for three hours a day, four days a week…”

Yes, three hours a day, four days a week, Monday to Thursday…

“Shut up,” she laughs.

Wonder what she’ll be doing on a Friday?

“What’ll I be doing on Friday I think you’ve already guessed, but Monday to Thursday… Everything I’ve ever done is all encapsulated in this programme. Because, I was Music Mariella, then I was Film Mariella, then I was Books Mariella. Now I feel I’ve got the whole palette in front of me and that’s both terrifying and incredible.”

Leaving BBC Radio

For Frostrup leaving Radio 4 after nearly 20 years when “they decided it was untenable,” has been a wrench, especially with her commitment to public service broadcasting.

“It was quite heartbreaking at first, because it’s something I’ve been very invested in, but that sort of freed me up, so there’s an upside in that now I’m going to be able to do books, music, art, every single aspect of our cultural life that I’m interested in.

“So Monday to Thursday I’m probably going to have to live a religious order lifestyle but once things open up I’m hoping there will be plays and films to watch. But for now I’m just going to be in London on my own and on Friday I’m going to come back and probably be upset no-one even noticed I’d gone, then drink at least a bottle of wine with my husband and friends on Friday and Saturday nights, let my hair down.”

Time away from teenagers, grazing the smorgasbord of culture and bright lights the city has to offer, sounds like a blast.

“Thank you for being so positive,” she says. “Jason my husband was just saying to me the other day, you’re the only person who could put a negative spin on something this brilliant, ‘cos I was ‘I’m worried I’m going to be so busy’. But now that we’ve started to have production meetings I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. There will be interviews, social issues, panel discussions, people talking about books that have inspired them… there’s going to be a big chunky interview to kick off the show every day…”

Whatever the issues of the day, lockdown and post lockdown, Frostrup intends to take a sideways look at them.

“Something like kids going back to school, everyone’s talking about the impact of not being at school, but I’d like to talk about the impact of being in a deserted classroom, for young kids of kindergarten age, nothing to play with, a very sterile environment without physical contact with friends. I imagine that’s going to be much harder thing on them mentally than the lack of learning.

“I think it will be very interesting to take a left field view of things, and I don’t mean politically left field.”

With her politically to the left of centre pedigree, she might do that as well.

“I might do that as well,” she agrees and smiles.

Books To Live By Blog

As well as the Times Radio show, Frostrup will continue with her blog, Books to Live By, a format she finds opens up the pages of people’s lives.

“I’d like to know what Stormzy’s books to live by are, what Boris Johnston’s books to live by are, a multitude of people, because I think through books you can trace a journey through their lives.”

When she’s not doing the show or the podcast, Frostrup will be wading through reader dilemmas for her Observer column, Dear Mariella. Does she describe herself as an agony aunt or does the term rankle?

Dear Mariella

“At first I fought very hard against it. I must have been 35 when I started after Alan Jenkins who was editing the Observer Magazine said how about a regular column answering our readers’ dilemmas? I said you must be joking. I even said to Claire Rayner, does he think I’m kind of matronly and middle aged and she went, ‘I might look it but I’m not inside I can tell you!’ , she laughs.

“So I thought OK, I’ll give it a go for a couple of months. I just think you’ve only got one life, in my opinion, and aside from what other people might think of you, there’s no reason not to kind of put yourself out and try things. Forward momentum, I’m a great believer in it.

“I still feel unqualified. If I thought people read my column and went out and verbatim followed my commands, I’d be horrified. But I don’t think that people do. I think it’s a dialogue. People’s real help comes when they sit down and write the letter, because actually there’s no better way to sort out any problem you have than to put it on paper, honestly, with the thought no-one’s ever going to read it. Because once you look clearly at the things that are floating round your head, everyone knows really what the right thing to do is, it’s just a question of getting there.”

Menopause matters

Frostrup is particularly keen to hear from anyone with stories about the menopause, as she’s writing a book with Alice Smellie entitled A Menopause Survivor’s Guide and welcomes input.

“We’re deeply immersed in menopause at the moment and I’m reading books that make me as outraged as I always seem to get.”

She rushes off to get a couple and returns to show me. The first is Sex Matters, How Male Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health And What We Can Do About It by Dr Alison McGregor.

“It’s not about having sex but about how your sex matters. It’s shameful the state of ignorance in the medical profession about medicine and women and women’s bodies and how women have not been used in medical testing. The presumption has always been that we had lesser bodies than men, the spare rib theory if you will, and actually the fact is that our physiognomy, our whole make up, is completely different to men, in every way – mentally, physically, biologically, and we’ve really suffered as a result of being ignored.”

She raises the issue of there being more chance of a woman dying of a heart attack than a man because we don’t recognise symptoms of a female heart attack.

“And the most disgraceful thing about that is that a woman is far more likely to be offered psychiatric care, psychiatric attention when she reports for a heart attack because there’s that palpitating business that goes on. As soon as they hear the word ‘palpitations’ in women, they think oh you’d better get your head examined… nerves, yeah it’s difficult isn’t it stepping out into the world when you’re one of the fairer sex? The whole thing is just so infuriating.”

What’s particularly infuriating to Frostrup is the way the menopause has been taboo, leading to a misplaced mythology and suffering among women.

Trashing the taboo

“So many women have been made to feel mortified by something that’s purely natural. It’s the third phase in the magnificent miracle that is a woman’s fertility. One of the most interesting things I found out is that we’re one of the very few mammals that have menopause. The ones that do tend to be matriarchal societies that rely on the wisdom, intelligence and skills of older female creatures. Four different whale species are all matriarchal societies.

The grandmother hypothesis

She reaches for the other book, wrinkling her nose at the title, as someone who ‘probably isn’t a few drops of lavender and earth mother enough’. “But The Slow Moon Climbs, by Susan P Mattern, it’s a really great book. Stuff about the grandmother hypothesis, which is basically that there is a reason that we’ve evolved to have this period where we are no longer making babies because then we have so much more to offer society. It’s such a liberating thought.”

The thinking goes that there are great compensations for the passing of youth and fertility, chiefly confidence.

“One of the most liberating things post menopause is a much clearer sense of who I am, what I stand for, what I care about, yeah, a real liberation. Maybe you have to wait till you’re 50 to feel really good. But by then you won’t look as good,” she says and laughs. “It’s just a balancing act, you know.”

Lockdown lessons

With the easing of lockdown and a new start on a big new job, Frostrup is taking forward some lessons from the past three months, acknowledging there’s a lot about her country life she likes.

“It’s made me realise how much I like having less to do. And how much that is a good feeling. I’ve slept better, despite having crazy dreams, than I have in years. And I think it’s ‘cos I’ve got less immediate things to worry about and bigger things are being unravelled in my dreams rather than in my immediate psyche. So I’ve learned maybe just to value periods of inactivity as much as periods of extreme activity.

“Andthat I might possibly have a vague interest in, if not gardening in general, just in keeping things alive. Really weird… We’ve got chickens now, which I was really against, and I know it’s a terrible cliché but oh my god, once you’ve named them, you love them.”

Scotish roots

What’s not in her plans is any move back north of the Border to revisit her Scottish roots. The links are through her artist mother (her father was Norwegian), who lives near her in a home in Somerset for those with dementia, and first husband Richard Jobson, lead singer of punk band The Skids, ‘who I’m still very fond of and we’re still in touch 500 years later’.

“Yeah, I’m half Scottish, and I had a house in Ayrshire for nine years before we moved down here. I love it up there, but you know something, I find the weather quite bleak, and it affects my mood. Though we moved to the county in England where it rains the most, it’s still nothing on Ayrshire.”

There’s just time to point out it’s taps aff weather in Scotland while in Somerset the rain is hurling itself at her bedroom window, and wish her luck with the show of course. She laughs.

“Thank you. And if the show doesn’t work, I might just become a chicken farmer,” she says.

We don’t really see that happening, hen.

Listen live to Mariella Frostrup every Monday-Thursday from 1pm on Times Radio via DAB radio, smart speaker, online at Times.Radio and via the free Times Radio app from Monday 29 June

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