Vanessa Feltz: “Coughing is the acme of earthly anguish for a woman with (far too) much to say”

Ever wondered why radio hosts wear scarfs in summer? Vanessa Feltz explains the fear of the cough

Fortunately, radio is a forgiving medium. It hides a multitude of chins and frequently a great deal worse. Radio masks the ravages of time, generously cloaking crow’s feet and cellulite in perennially gorgeous invisibility.


Television, on the other hand, demands oodles of natural beauty followed by hours in make-up, surreptitious visits to cosmetic surgeons and at least two pairs of Spanx at all times. TV professionals still divide their careers into pre- and post-HD. High-definition, described by Eamonn Holmes in my hearing as “yet another way to torture innocent broadcasters”, plays brutal havoc with presenters’ fragile egos.

Presenters on the wireless have been known to broadcast in pyjamas simply because we can. Or in the day before’s clothing, in plaster, with chickenpox, in elasticated trousers after committing carbicide, head in hands, bin near in case of extremis while hung over, bestrewn with cuts and bruises, afflicted with outcrops of zits and in tear-stained states of chronic heartbreak.

Being invisible is liberating. We can cut to the nub of any subject without listeners fixating on our ringlets or spectacles.

We radio presenters need only one working weapon in our armoury. The distinguished critic Gillian Reynolds kindly described mine as “like lemon tea with honey, bright, light, clear and precisely sweet enough”. Of course, I’m talking about our voices. They must emanate mellifluously across the airwaves, soothing, rousing, riling, intriguing and tantalising. We speak, therefore, we are. That is why we live in perpetual terror of a hostile bug nuking our larynxes.

How do you spot a radio DJ in a throng? He will be wearing a woollen scarf in a heatwave. He will flinch in theatrical horror from sneezers, refrain from “eating dairy” lest the lactose bring on a thickening of laryngeal mucus and spoon mounds of expensive honey down his craw whenever there’s an “r” in the month?

First and foremost, we don’t want a cough as it’s impossible to cough attractively. Have you ever heard of a thespian celebrated for the timbre of their cough? Of course not. Coughs are germ-laden bursts of noise pollution. They’re a hideous adjunct to the latest bit of Michael Bublé or Boris Johnson. If afflicted, we chain-imbibe hot water with honey or, in Chris Evans’s case, consume lorry loads of vitamin C. If the beverages fail and an on-air cough looms, we begin swallowing, sucking in air, frankly anything to stifle the wretched cough before we’re forced to inflict its guttural cacophony on the Lovely Listener.

At BBC London there’s a cough button. It’s sheer joy when a guest or caller is in full throttle: I can depress the dear thing and cough my guts out with abandon. If, as often happens, I’m the person talking I have to warn the Listener: “Hang on a sec, I’m just going to cough.” Press the button and treat them to a few unsettling moments of dead air. On Radio 2, where a technical wizard mans the machines, there’s no such luxury. If I cough, millions share the misery.

Last week, a pernicious virus silenced me for two days. I’m building back to full capacity by shutting up and scribbling vital messages on a pad. Bliss, I’m sure for my nearest and dearest. The acme of earthly anguish for a woman with (far too) much to say.

Vanessa can be heard Mon-Fri on Radio 2 at 5am and BBC London at 9am