I started broadcasting at 13. A teacher said she thought I had rather a good voice, which was very nice of her, and she told me about Children’s Hour – she asked if my parents could write a letter for me to audition, and they did.
My audition was on 1 April, but thankfully it was after midday. Then I became an announcer for the BBC. I did my first announcement on 8 October, 1960. I’d never used Autocue before.
When I received my OBE in 1994, I promise you the Queen said to me: ‘I’m glad you’re in the country today.’ I couldn’t believe it! Somebody must whisper in her ear before you come up: ‘She’s about travel, always away.’ I’ve never forgotten that.
There was a little box which you operated with your foot. I did a quick run-through, put the box back and when the red light went on, I said: ‘Good evening, everyone’ and started pressing frantically with my foot but it wouldn’t move. I hadn’t put it back in properly. I managed to get through it.
So many people are called Judith Chalmers. I could have a club if I wanted to. On a holiday to South Africa – and this sort of thing happens all the time – a lady and a chap came up to me and she said: ‘I want to introduce you to Judith Chalmers.’ I thought: ‘Hang on, she must be a bit dippy.’ But her husband was called Judith Chalmers.
One day that changed my life was meeting my husband [sports broadcaster Neil Durden-Smith]. That was in BBC Broadcasting House. He was a producer and I was working on a holiday programme called Holiday Hour. Durders invited me to a party and when everyone else went off to dinner, we were still talking. We met and married in three- and-a-half months. That was 53 years ago.
I love beaches but I’m not a good swimmer. I’m a bit frightened of [water], to be honest. I was held under some water at school by someone thinking it was fun. I remember that to this day.
I’m trying to learn banter. I’m not used to it. When I hear a chap talking about another chap – quite openly and publicly – I will say: ‘Don’t say things like that to hurt him.’ But it’s just men talking. My son Mark [Durden-Smith, TV presenter] says: ‘Mother, you must learn what banter is.’ Last year at a friend’s birthday in Portugal there were three chaps at a table who were doing banter, but this year they said they wouldn’t because it’d upset me. That must be very dull of me to be like that, mustn’t it?
An expression I hear all the time is: ‘Does Judith Chalmers have a passport?’ Like: ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ I’m delighted about that after 30 years of presenting Wish You Were Here. Once, all these little boys were sitting on camels waiting for a race to begin and I had to do a piece about the United Arab Emirates but I couldn’t say it. They call me ‘Take One Chalmers’ – but this took 13 takes. By the time I finally got it the race had started and the boys had gone.
My husband would say my most annoying habit is that I’m a worrier. I’ll say: ‘Have you shut the garage door? Are you sure you’ve shut the garage door?’ He’ll say yes but then I’ll check. He says I must stop worrying and I’m trying. I’m not doing it deliberately.
I thought 80 was a terrible birthday to reach. But we all went to South Africa as a family, all 12 of us – our daughter Emma, her husband and their three children and our son Mark and his wife and their three. We’ve got six grandchildren, five boys and a girl. They’re the greatest joy and the reason for us to keep on living for as long as we can.
Broadcasting has given me – and still is giving me – a lovely life. I’ve just recorded something with Ken Bruce celebrating 50 years of radio, because I worked with people like Ken Dodd and Michael Bentine as well as doing radio commentary and royal and state occasions. This is a very unsettling time in the world but, as Neil always says, one has to crack on.
A Celebrity Taste of Italy, Friday, 9pm, C5
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