It’s not an easy thing, to set out, aged 16, from Dublin to London, having nursed your alcoholic father until his death, then live in a squat, work in music PR for a few years, decide that you want to be a journalist – because that way you can learn about new things all the time – and, four decades later, have the career and life that you dreamed of.
But that’s what Mariella Frostrup did. How? By being who she is. Frostrup is never described as an industrious autodidact and polymath – too blonde. But those words fit her perfectly.
Frostrup is having breakfast at the media club the Frontline, in west London, which she loves and which is near her London flat. Later in the morning she will turn up for her train to her family home in Somerset, only to find that it has been cancelled. Breakfast is avocado on toast, which you can eat until the cows come home – no judgement – once you are a solid property owner. The bread is white and soggy, so Frostrup leaves it.
In a while, a young man will come over and miserably say how very sorry he is about the bread. Frostrup will reply, in a voice that is less husky since she swapped Marlboro lights for a vape: “That’s all right! It’s not your fault!”
Yes, Frostrup is respectful and kind to waiters. Which, as all decent people know, is truly the mark of a decent person.
Frostrup’s Radio 4 show, Bringing Up Britain, in which various experts talk about various aspects of child-rearing, is oxter-deep in decency, good sense, practicality – all that. It’s also about to start its 11th series, would you believe.
The pram in the hall is supposed to be the enemy of promise, not a seemingly inexhaustible broadcasting payday. How much more bringing up Britain, one wonders, is there possibly left to do?
“Well, bear in mind,” says Frostrup, “that my own children are 13 and 12, so each year I have something else that I’m particularly captivated by. Basically, the whole thing is there to serve my own needs and desires as the years have progressed.”
She’s only half-joking. “That wasn’t true at first. The show dealt then with basic things Radio 4 had never really looked at. Which is amazing when you consider the demographic. The whole issue of children was dealt with in Woman’s Hour, but not in any programmes aimed at the general population – ie the other half of the population, who happen to be male and just might be involved in some way…”
Frostrup has always been a feminist. But the skill, success and subtlety with which she has negotiated her way to personal emancipation is often overlooked. She worked her old-school feminine advantages – beautiful, blonde, sexy, good fun – at a time when these were enough to undermine virtually anything a woman achieved.
She exploited the objectified image created for her rather than railing aggressively against it, but she also slogged away at rising above it. When Frostrup was hired as a columnist for The Sunday Times in the late 1980s, the rest of the media reacted as if Donald Trump had been made President.
Private Eye called her “the world’s worst columnist” – quite something when you consider how very wide open that field is today. A decade on, when Frostrup was asked to be a judge on the Booker Prize panel, the obsessive reader, who has now fronted Radio 4’s Open Book programme for years, was widely considered to be a glam-fluff publicity-stunt placement. It hasn’t all been gravy.
But Frostrup is not a complainer. She’s a realist. “Only now, in the last couple of years have I been suddenly able to just say, ‘Oh, I’m really interested in THIS. What can I do to explore THIS?
“It’s taken 40 years, but people listen to me now like I’m a human being, not just a stereotype of a woman who looks a particular way and therefore is a particular way. I could bang on about it.
“There have been times that have been frustrating. Now I’m only frustrated because I’ll be on the scrapheap before I’ve done half the things I want to do. But, you know, maybe it’s easier for the next generation. I hope.
“I think we walk about thinking that a lot has changed. But I’d like to be sure it really has. The last year has helped. People have been scrambling to catch up. But will it drift away, and will we still be being paid less? Will girls like my daughter still be at school, barely learning about a single woman who did something brilliant in life? I don’t feel like it’s seismically changed.”
Frostrup means #MeToo. But she had already been resisting – hard – the idea of a womanly scrapheap for her own generation. She has made a television series, for example, about the menopause, which she believes is treated, contemptibly, more like the woman-o-stop.
She’s thrilled with it. “The menopause is on BBC1! And I say menopause every two seconds! Menopause! Menopause! Menopause!”
Basically, she’s done it again. She’s done a show about the menopause to learn how to have the menopause. “Yes! But it’s retrospective. Don’t you see the altruism that’s apparent here? I’m doing it for the next generation!
“Anyway, I should probably mention, while we’re on the subject, that Bringing Up Britain wasn’t actually my idea. A producer I knew had kids at the same time as me, and realised that having a family was a challenging and complex thing.”
I could be chagrined that Frostrup has destroyed my interview riff in the final seconds. Instead, of course, I find it delightful. Frostrup is a great broadcaster, not because of her voice or her looks, but because she’s super-clever, quick-witted, great at establishing intimacy and thrums with warmth and charm.
All of which she wears lightly, like her floral dress, her cardi and her sneakers. Fabulous woman.
By Deborah Orr
Bringing Up Britain is on Monday 9.00am/9.30pm, Radio 4