First-rate idiot (her words) or not, Jan Leeming is nobody’s fool. A week ago, the former BBC newsreader, 80, was rugby tackled to the ground in a ‘horrid’ attack by a mugger in a sleepy French village.
Today, there’s a deep gash on her right arm and dreadful bruising to her hip and thigh that make you wonder how nothing was broken.
‘HRT,’ she says airily. ‘If I’d not been on HRT for 37 years I’m fairly sure I would have broken an arm the way I fell.’
Hang on, Jan. You’ve been on HRT for nearly four decades? Isn’t that, well, risky, particularly given the links between prolonged usage and an increased breast cancer risk?
‘It’s my life and I want to live it. Give me maybe ten healthy years then beam me up Scotty,’ she says in the sort of precise RP accent that’s rarely heard on the BBC these days. ‘HRT prevents osteoporosis. A weak, fragile 80-year-old lady would have suffered a lot more damage than I have.’
Feisty: Jan Leeming refuses to be cowed after a nasty mugging in France
She presents a pretty good argument. Whether it’s down to HRT, ‘good genes’ or sheer bloody-mindedness, there’s no denying Jan is neither weak nor fragile. ‘I can’t think of myself as an old lady,’ she says. ‘I’ve worked hard to remain healthy and slim.’
She adds: ‘I started yoga last September. I’m twice the age of virtually everyone else in the class and could do most of it.
‘Although when people tell me I’ve got a lovely figure, I tell them “yes, but undress me and you’ll see I need ironing”. I cover my arms but, my goodness, that’s a problem. Try buying clothes with a little sleeve.’
But enough of sartorial concerns—back to that attack.
Jan, who’s gallivanting around this lovely part of southern France with the energy of a gap-year student, was visiting an antique market in the sleepy village of Mouriès, Provence, with friends when she was attacked.
‘A youngish man, shorter than me — I’m 5 ft 3 in, I’ve shrunk — was loitering close to an ATM my friends were using. He wore a Covid mask but it was below his nose. My friend offered to let him go first, but he said: “No, you”.
Jan Leeming’s first wedding to John Staple in 1961
‘He asked if I spoke French and I told him I understand quite well, but don’t speak it as well. He extended his left hand as though to shake mine. I thought I mustn’t be off fish. I’m a friendly person. I talk to supermarket check-out people. I talk to people on trains. I chat.
‘I thought it odd that he’d offered his left hand but, like a first-rate idiot, I took it. All I can remember is that it was as if his leg went between my legs and he wrestled me to the ground. I think it was a judo move or a rugby tackle. I suppose I must have fallen on my right arm from him.
‘He tried to pull my bag but it sort of fell under me. My watch came off but I put my hand over it. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I just couldn’t. One minute I was standing up, the next I was on the ground.’
Jan confesses she was ‘a bit shaken. It all happened so quickly’. Her friend of her moved towards him. There was an electric blue getaway car. Her assailant of her fled.
‘I looked down at my arm which was pretty awful. A passer-by — a very nice lady — said in French, “I have a first aid kit in my car. I will go and get it”. Bless her.
‘Everyone said I should go to the police. I said, “No. I’m all right. I’ve a nasty gash but nothing’s broken”. I’m not a drama queen and I know what it’s like going to the police anywhere. What I really wanted was a cup of tea or a brandy.
Jan Leeming and second husband Jeremy Gilchrist married in 1972
‘Actually the gendarmerie was only a few yards away, but it was shut. When my friends phoned the number it went to answer phone, so we got in the car and went to the pharmacy.
‘The pharmacist wanted to give the doctor, but I assured her I was fine. She disinfected [the gash] and put a huge one of these on.’ Jan waves her arm, showing off a large plaster. ‘I had to buy the box, which costs a lot.
‘We came home [to her friends’ house in Provence], I made the meal — I couldn’t actually cut things but supervised everything — had a few glasses of rosé. It was fun and I slept very well. As far as I was concerned that was that.’
Jan’s wound has finally stopped bleeding but the bruising from her attacker’s tight grip around her arm is still black and blue.
‘Occasionally, I shut my eyes and I see that man attacking me,’ she says. ‘It’s not going to give me sleepless nights. It’s not going to make me sick, although I will be more wary than I have been in the past and I’m not going to use an outside ATM again.
‘I suppose I’ve always had a strength which I didn’t really recognize. Many people have called me a survivor. I used to think it was an insult, but it can actually be a compliment.’
Jan Leeming with her third husband Patrick Lunt, the father of her son Jonathan
Indeed. This is not the first time the feisty Ms Leeming has been seen off muggers. In 1987, while at the BBC, she was attacked by three intruders who threw ammonia into her face as they tried to take her handbag from her. She ran ‘screaming’ — or so reports told — into the newsroom, earning the sobriquet ‘Screaming Leeming’, which didn’t cast the Corporation in a good light.
‘That was nasty,’ she says. ‘They sprayed me with acid and cut my bag but I did not run into the newsroom screaming. I was a little breathless but I’m not a panicky person. I was very, very calm. Like the other day, I looked at my arm and just thought, “Oh, I hope it doesn’t go septic”.’
Jan fits this interview in between lunch with friends and aperitifs before dinner. She has had, ‘one hell of a morning’ having spent most of it at a police station where she was interviewed about her ‘horrid experience’. ‘I knew it would be hours of my holiday,’ she says. ‘But, thank goodness, this gorgeous young gendarme was absolutely brilliant in English.
‘I took a map. You know I’m very observant and thought, ‘that will save time’. But, of course, it’s the police and they’re very powerful. You’ve got to make sure everything is accurate. Then I had to read the deposition in French.
‘I’m not a stupid person. I have a huge amount of common sense. I wouldn’t park in a dark place but when someone, who seemed OK, is offering a hand it would have been churlish not to take it.’ She shakes her head.
‘Hell will freeze over before they find them. ‘I don’t like the way the world is going. It’s one of the reasons I don’t watch the news that often. It depresses me. It makes me feel the world is just one horrible place and everything is doom, gloom and disaster.
‘It isn’t. You find kindnesses, you find niceness, you find beauty every day if you look for it. God knows how but I’ve had 475,000 hits [on Twitter since the attack].
Former Red Arrows pilot Eric Steenson was Jan’s fourth husband
‘Dozens have offered me counselling. I don’t need counselling. This is life and you get on with it. I’m fine but I do want to get across how lovely people can be and say [to those who have messaged] thank you very much for their love and warmth. It sends good karma to me and, of course, I don’t want to put anyone off coming here.
‘My friends usually invite me every two years. I love the way of life here. The French can make a feast out of nothing, but they eat so late. We started dinner the other night at 10pm.’
Jan is staying with two friends she’s known for almost half a century in their enchanting village home close to the center of Salon.
She fell in love with this part of France in the 1970s before it was ever fashionable. And so began an affaire de coeur that has outlasted five marriages and goodness knows how many liaisons. She tells of these times in her hugely entertaining podcast series Addicted To Love. Today Jan is on her own by her and has been since the age of 60.
‘I’ve had a very, very healthy sex life,’ she says. ‘But it was romance I was looking for. If you’d told me that when I was 60 I’d be on my own for ever, I think I’d have jumped off a cliff, but I’ve got used to it. ‘What people don’t see about me is I’m actually very, very, insecure,’ she says.
‘I care very much what people think about me. I get so angry when it’s, “What’s this harridan done that no man stays with her”? Every single one of my men has been a womaniser — every single one — and you can’t keep a man if he has wandering eyes.
‘As far as I’m concerned, three of my men mattered,’ she says. ‘The first (BBC sound engineer John Staple, whom she married at 19) I married to get away from home. He was twice my age and, within six months, was bonking his ex-girlfriend of him. I walked out before I fell pregnant. So that one I don’t count and the last (teacher Chris Russell, a marriage that ended in divorce in 2001 after four years and for whom she moved from Buckinghamshire to Kent) I don’t count as that was a rebound.
‘But I loved Jeremy (estate agent Jeremy Gilchrist). I loved Patrick (Patrick Lunt, the father of her only child Jonathan who is now a ‘strapping, great big 6ft 3in, 41-year-old’) and I loved Eric (Eric Steenson, a former Red Arrows manager to whom she was married for seven years). Those men who mattered have long since died.
‘I wish when I was younger I’d met the right man, had a couple of children and now we had the delight of grandchildren. Jonathan doesn’t want children, so I never will have them.
‘I love loving someone and I love to be loved. I’d like somebody who is there for Christmas. Somebody to come to my dinner parties, pour the wine, go away for the weekend. Somebody to go on holiday with.
‘Although my friends are well-educated and we do wonderful things — go to churches and cathedrals — they are a lot slower. My father used to say, “you’ve got ants in your pants. You never sit still”, and I’m still a kid at heart.
‘I want to be excited. I want to do adventurous things. I’m sure if I were to live my life again I’d make the same mistakes or I’d make mistakes in different ways. I’m very impulsive.
‘As they say, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.’ With which Jan dashes off for the evening’s entertainment—and whatever adventures will come next.