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the firebrand taking on the challenge of Woman’s Hour

Listeners can expect surprises from an abrasive political interviewer, who also nurtures a warm relationship with her audience

For the past few days the airwaves and social media sites, and probably the bus stops, have been lively with chat about two impressive and charismatic women, both famous for taking no prisoners. One was Dame Diana Rigg, after the sad news she had died at 82. The other was Emma Barnett, in reaction to the BBC’s proclamation that she will take over as the main presenter of Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.

Comparison of the two women might seem forced, but for one happy chance. Back in 1968, Rigg was a nicely spoken guest on Woman’s Hour and a clip was played in a broadcast tribute to her talent. With missile precision, the star of The Avengers set the programme’s smarmy presenter right over what his phrase “pure femininity” might possibly mean, which is fun to hear. But the stand-out fact for most listeners will have been that this presenter was a man. Could that ever happen again? If not, is the fact it is now unthinkable a sign of just how far the representation of women’s lives has come? Or is it a symptom of outdated and restrictive views of what gender means? Rigg could probably have explained, but it is Barnett who now has the chance.

The debate about Barnett’s appointment has largely centred on whether there is still a place for a national radio show dedicated to women and their concerns. Some commentators argue the old-fashioned habit of distinguishing listener content by gender alone belongs back on the ark. (Not sure whether Noah or his wife, Naamah, was in charge of the radio dial then.)

Outgoing Woman’s Hour presenters Jane Garvey, right, and Jenni Murray. Photograph: David Bebber/The Guardian

But the mere fact that Barnett, up-and-coming in news and current affairs presentation, hailed Best Speech Presenter at the Radio Academy Awards this year, wants the challenge of handling this show has been widely read as a vote of confidence in the vintage format. After all, this is a woman who is on the Newsnight presenters rota and who has taken the helm on Question Time, The Andrew Marr Show and Politics Live, as well as covering the last election on the radio.

The Observer’s radio critic Miranda Sawyer has speculated on the future of a programme aimed exclusively at women, but she now expects the “estimable” Barnett to give the show “a kick up the bum”.

Barnett, who will move from her award-winning Radio 5Live show, has swiftly marked herself out among the new generation of BBC faces with her dogged pursuit of logic in interviews and her fearless discussion of taboo subjects, in particular menstruation. Her book Period: It’s About Bloody Time, out last year, examined the stigmatised discomfort that women have silently dealt with, and it received much praise. “I wish this book had been written before I stopped having them,” endorsed Jennifer Saunders.

To some readers it might have looked like a long job application for the role of full-time Woman’s Hour presenter, but it was in fact a revealing account of the author’s own struggles with debilitating endometriosis and a campaigning call for more discussion of the problems caused by periods.

“When she was publicising the book I was struck by how very capable she was of handling difficult issues and how more than able to handle someone who was gunning for her,” said journalist Cosmo Landesman, a fan of Barnett’s who first met her at books festival last summer.

She is surprisingly charming and easy to talk to, and that is not normal for a media person Cosmo Landesman, journalist

“She is surprisingly charming and easy to talk to,” he said. “And that is not normal for a media person. She actually seemed interested in other people. I think she will be a welcome replacement on Radio 4 to all those crusties and Kirstys.”

For viewers and listeners who have somehow missed Barnett’s dissections of political frontmen and women in action, there are fresh examples from the past few days. Try sampling her encounter with Tory grandee Bernard Jenkin on…

Vanessa Thorpe

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