For the past two months I have been suffering more than a little daily anxiety: not sleeping, waking each morning far too early. No, it’s not another case of the Covid blues — rather white-knuckle terror. Why? Because I have committed myself to taking off my clothes in public, for television.
Footage of me baring my breast (only the one, following a mastectomy 14 years ago) will be broadcast to the nation over Christmas as I take part, with ten other celebrities, in ITV’s reality programme The Real Full Monty On Ice.
And yet, now that I am here in Blackpool, doused in fake tan and actually filming, I’m not scared so much as excited.
I’ve come a long way. At the start of rehearsals, I wrote (in Femail Magazine) that I was hesitating about baring the breast at all. I worried it was betraying my feminist principles; and also, frankly, that my uncomfortable relationship with my own body would make it a humiliating and miserable experience.
The producers assured me it was my choice. But, wonderfully, as my colleagues and I have danced, sweated and skated (well, me not so much) together, I’ve become much more confident about my 70-year-old body. Who really cares about a few bumps and wrinkles?
In my case, I’m taking part in the programme — designed to raise awareness of breast and testicular cancers — to show what a mastectomy looks like and reassure other women that it’s nothing to fear.
All I can say is, ‘This is me, like it or lump it’. And that’s also why I’ve posed for this photoshoot for the Mail in the hope it might make you smile — and encourage you to feel a bit better about your own body, no matter what it looks like.
Here’s my diary of my experience so far of The Real Full Monty On Ice…
JENNI MURRAY: Footage of me baring my breast (only the one, following a mastectomy 14 years ago) will be broadcast to the nation over Christmas as I take part, with ten other celebrities, in ITV’s reality programme The Real Full Monty On Ice
JENNI MURRAY: But, wonderfully, as my colleagues and I have danced, sweated and skated (well, me not so much) together, I’ve become much more confident about my 70-year-old body. Who really cares about a few bumps and wrinkles?
THE FIRST MEETING… AND SPECIAL HUGS
SEPTEMBER 23: It’s a very strange week. I’m preparing to record my last ever episode of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, after hosting the show for 33 years.
And, although I honestly can’t remember at this moment why I agreed to it, I’m also stepping on to the ice for the first time — and meeting the women I’ll be doing the Full Monty with.
The day before, a nurse is sent to my home to do a Covid test, then I have to self-isolate until getting into a taxi (masked) to practise. All of us have to do this before every rehearsal — but it means a rare chance to escape the privations of Covid life.
Once our tests come back negative, we can get close to each other and even actual hugs are allowed. It’s lovely.
We’re all nervous but, luckily, there’s no proper skating today. We slip special grip soles over our shoes and edge gingerly on to a freezing ice rink in Bayswater, West London.
The producers get us playing a game of human curling to warm things up, and soon we’re all giggling like schoolgirls. I find myself sitting in a sort of inflatable doughnut while TV doctor Zoe Williams and former Page 3 girl Linda Lusardi push me across the ice.
LET THE FUN BEGIN…
SEPTEMBER 30: I have always loved to dance, in a pretty wild freestyle manner without having had any training. But following the steps of a routine? Disaster.
Were my mother here to watch me as I try to learn a routine to Beyonce’s Crazy In Love, I know exactly what her response would have been. ‘I hope you’re not going to appear on national television moving like a baby elephant!’
Oddly, for once in my life, I would have agreed with her.
I learn some pretty complex moves and do my best to keep up with the steps — but Beyonce does it rather better.
JENNI MURRAY: The producers get us playing a game of human curling to warm things up, and soon we’re all giggling like schoolgirls. I find myself sitting in a sort of inflatable doughnut while TV doctor Zoe Williams (pictured) and Linda Lusardi push me across the ice
THINGS GET A LITTLE SAUCY
OCTOBER 8: We go to a cabaret club to learn how to dance burlesque. Needless to say, I am way out of my comfort zone.
Imagine my surprise when it turns out that the dance teacher, and her three pupils who are helping out, have all had mastectomies, just like me. They are so comfortable in their bodies — it’s genuinely inspiring.
Which is how I agree to be filmed as I totter down a staircase covered with a huge, red, feather fan.
NO DIRTY DANCING FOR ME…
OCTOBER 18-20: We are told to meet at a sports centre somewhere in the depths of rural Leicestershire. We are to bring a warm coat, warm layers, dancewear, socks, outdoor boots, flip-flops, warm waterproof jacket and swimwear. Good grief, what are we in for?
We are all piled into a minibus and driven cross country to a very large lake. It is terribly cold.
There, at the side of the lake, is a large log. There are mutterings about Dirty Dancing, where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey danced on a log over a lake and fell into the water. No way!
JENNI MURRAY: My team is so impressive, from Coleen Nolan (pictured), whose family has been racked by cancer, to Shaughna Phillips, a star of Love Island who has millions of Instagram followers but is shy and not at all confident about her skills on the ice
It’s amazing how quickly a shivering, sniffly cold and rasping throat can manifest themselves when necessary. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say to the producers, ‘I feel really ill. I think I need to go home.’
I am in a car out of there as fast as you can say coronavirus. Phew! What a relief.
Our three-day stay in Leicestershire also brings our first chance to meet the men’s Full Monty team — who are doing their own separate routine and come to show us their efforts. Their team includes the former jockey Bob Champion, who famously won the 1981 Grand National after recovering from testicular cancer.
Unsurprisingly, it was to the famous tune from the original Full Monty film, You Can Leave Your Hat On. They stripped dramatically, and rather well, down to little silver pants. Not the Full Monty thank goodness. But I’ve never had so many men throw their white shirts at me in so seductive a manner!
A SILLY STUNT, LINDA TO THE RESCUE
NOVEMBER 5: Reality TV really is a whole different ball game to radio. Today, in a TV moment I would rather forget, someone, naming no names, has had the bright idea of us all being filmed on the top deck of a London bus, each wearing a huge breast strapped to our front like a reverse backpack, shouting at any passer-by to check themselves for signs of cancer.
It’s the first day of Lockdown 2.0 and the deserted streets are freezing, — but that won’t stop them. The plan is to make a video of us leaping about and singing on the bus to be shown on social media.
I am soon feeling chilled to the bone and very silly.
It is dear Linda Lusardi who saves my skin. She spots that I am on the point of expiry from the cold and suggests my role should be to sit quietly on the back seat, then end the video by simply saying to camera, ‘No need to make a song and dance about it, just check your breasts and your armpits.’
My lifesaver! As I have found so often, the most unlikely friendships can be formed when women support each other.
JENNI MURRAY: We are carried on to the ice on chairs by professional skaters who deposit us on a red carpet. We’re again festooned by grey fans and mutter instructions to each other incessantly. ‘You’re here, Jenni, and Hayley Tamaddon (pictured), you’re over there’
A VERY ICY RECEPTION
NOVEMBER 6: It’s the first day of ice rehearsals at Chelmsford, Essex. This morning I was sitting on the ice when young Albert, one of the brilliantly talented professional skaters, set off at hair-raising speed from the opposite end directly towards me.
I was sure he wouldn’t be able to stop. Then he did, right in front of me, and performed a long and perfect spin, just for me. ‘Gosh,’ I squeaked, ‘that was so beautiful. I don’t suppose you’d do it again.’
He did and now, if I look a little bored, Albert does a spin for me. Pure, unadulterated delight!
QUEEN OF THE ICE (SORT OF)
MID-NOVEMBER: We’re now really getting into the swing of rehearsals in the studio and on ice. But I am increasingly relieved that I made it a condition of my taking part that I will not actually be figure skating. Far too dangerous for a woman of 70 with two artificial hips and a dodgy left arm.
Don’t worry, though, our choreographer, Ashley Banjo (of the dance group Diversity) has seized the opportunity to put me in an ornate sledge and christen me Queen of the Ice!
My job, as a result, has been mainly sitting on a chair being slid in and out of the scene. The young pros could not be more respectful and helpful. My team is so impressive, from Coleen Nolan, whose family has been racked by cancer, to Shaughna Phillips, a star of Love Island who has millions of Instagram followers but is shy and not at all confident about her skills on the ice.
I’m in awe of the way they have all become amazing skaters. As for our choreographer Ashley, it has taken him all of six weeks to turn from a non-skater into Robin Cousins.
FILMING THE FINAL SCENES
DECEMBER 1: Finally, we are heading to Blackpool to film the final performance. We’ve spent weeks practising the moves for the final moments, miming letting our outer garments fall.
Now the moment of truth is looming. I don’t think there could be a more fitting venue. My family used to come to Blackpool for a week every year on the coach from Barnsley. The beautiful Ice Dome, now the Arena, was always my favourite place for indoor entertainment. It’s the oldest ice theatre in the world and the first ice shows took place there in 1936.
Mum would watch as Dad and I zoomed around the rink. I loved it and, as I recall, was rather good at it, but that was all of 60 years ago.
I’ve changed a lot since then — but as I look around our rather grotty dressing room, I suspect the Arena hasn’t.
JENNI MURRAY: It is dear Linda Lusardi (pictured) who saves my skin. She spots that I am on the point of expiry from the cold and suggests my role should be to sit quietly on the back seat, then end the video by simply saying to camera, ‘No need to make a song and dance about it, just check your breasts and your armpits’
GLORIOUS ROBE FIT FOR ‘ROYALTY’
DECEMBER 2: At last I’ve found out exactly what I’ll be wearing (or not wearing): a surprisingly decent red, sparkly number for a Christmas scene, followed by a rather more splendid outfit for my role as the ‘Queen of the Ice’.
It’s an icy grey, witchy robe with sparkles, long, pointed sleeves and, crucially, the whole thing is designed to slip instantly off my shoulders and be flung aside. I will have a bra on underneath but, for the first time, tomorrow night, I will be taking that off too as we all do the final strip. The others are wearing little pants but I have requested something longer.
When I think back to my wobbly first steps on to the ice two months ago, I feel like a different woman. Now I strap on my grip attachments and, although I still like taking the arm of one of the wonderful professional skaters when I can, I’m ready to go.
…AND ALL IS REVEALED
DECEMBER 4: And so the dreaded moment at the end of the show arrived: the baring of the breasts. First, into the costumes for the finale and Tom, responsible for dressing me, called out: ‘Come on love, let’s get your knickers on!’
There’s a first time for everything, I guess! I’d never heard a man say that to me before. I’d only ever heard it in reverse!
It was a welcome moment of levity in what was an increasingly stressful situation.
So I was to wear long-legged knickers, high in the waist, and strong enough to hold me in at the middle.
A strapless bra, decorated with tassels and sparkles, was filled out on the right-hand side to conceal the mastectomy.
Over the underwear came the Ice Queen’s elegant dress with its pointed, slightly intimidating sleeves.
I mount my little red sleigh, which is lit up all around and decorated with Christmas greenery.
I’m drawn on to the ice by some big, strong dancers to join my skating colleagues. We perform a dramatic flourish with me standing up in the sleigh and my skater colleagues on the ice.
We turn our backs to the audience, undo our dresses, let them drop and turn again to the audience, wearing nothing but bra and pants. I am dying with embarrassment — and so are the others. We smile wanly at each other. There’s a bit more dancing, we pick up a fan each and wield it dramatically. It’s so cold as we nervously leave the ice, carrying the fans to cover some of our modesty.
Coleen and I are only too well aware that we are older and considerably plumper than the others. We commiserate!
The younger, slimmer ones, though, are every bit as scared as we are of what we know has to come next.
We change our shoes into elegant silver slippers. Comfort is not a consideration.
We are carried on to the ice on chairs by professional skaters who deposit us on a red carpet. We’re again festooned by grey fans and mutter instructions to each other incessantly. ‘You’re here, Jenni, and Hayley [Tamaddon], you’re over there.’
We walk forward, we turn around. We raise our right arms. We undo the bras. We turn to the virtual audience. We drop the bras, fans held across our chests. On a count of three, in unison, we open our arms, a fan in each hand, as wide as we can. Three seconds and we close the fans again.
We’ve done it! No one bottled out. There’s a sense of triumph on each of our faces.
There was nothing sexy or seductive about it. Just six women proudly trying to say to others: ‘Care for your breasts. It doesn’t matter what they look like. Always be brave enough to say: ‘This is me!’ regardless of how you look, because checking for cancer and not being afraid of whatever treatment might ensue could well save your life!’
If that message gets across loud and clear, I will always be proud that I found the courage to deliver it, not just by talking about breast cancer but by showing the possible results 14 years on. I’m alive!
The Real Full Monty On Ice is on ITV at 9pm on December 14 and 15.