Lennie and Jessie Ware’s recipe for podcast success

How do musician Jessie Ware and her mother Lennie get everyone from popstars to politicians to tell all on their podcast? They cook them lunch

If the British media are still looking for the new Jeremy Paxman, she’s been hiding in plain sight under our noses for four years now: a Jewish grandma with sciatica who won’t retire from her social work job, who won’t let hairdressers touch her hair “because they don’t make it big enough”, and who every single week has a celebrity round to her house, gets them drunk and then they tell all about their life, and she records it for the world to hear. Yes, it’s Lennie Ware, the 70-year-old star of Table Manners, the food podcast she co-hosts with her daughter, Jessie Ware. Although she hates saying her age out loud, “because it’s so horrendous. I was never going to have a 70th birthday party. I wanted to have a soixante-neuf party, which sounded much more exciting. But now I’m soixante-dix.”

I’m talking to them both over Zoom, but I have also spent time with them in person, and they’re exactly as they seem on the much-loved show. Bickering, shrewd, droll, over-involved in each other’s lives, barging in and out, utterly alive. Jessie’s third child, born this year, is asleep in a sling around her neck while we talk, and another, a couple of years older, is pottering around. The firstborn is at school.

If you’re one of the diehard devotees of Table Manners, and there are legions, as it’s been going and growing for four years, you will know that Lennie’s life has become unexpectedly dominated by her flourishing media career. And that everybody absolutely adores her – something Jessie knew would happen, which is why she set the podcast up in the first place. Now they’re taking the double act to the stage, not only doing a live tour around the UK but a residency in Los Angeles, too. But why do they want to take their family show on the road?

“Yes why are we going on tour, darling?” Lennie asks.

“So that the fans can meet you, Mum,” Jessie replies. “People want to feel and smell the presence of Lennie.”

“I don’t smell, darling,” says Lennie.

If you’re wondering why I compared Lennie to Paxman, it’s not because she drills questions at people as he did so mercilessly on Newsnight, but because she gets just as big revelations by being charming and extremely direct. It’s Jessie who trained as a journalist before going into music, and Jessie who was in the world of the famous first, getting guests by inviting on mates of hers, like fellow popstars Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran. But it’s Lennie who actually gets all the scoops.

She once asked Sadiq Khan if he would stand again for London mayor and he said yes, then realised that he hadn’t actually announced that yet. She asked Olympic diver Tom Daley if his Speedos had ever come down in the pool, not a question that would have ever occurred to me, but suddenly one we all desperately wanted the answer to. (It was a yes.) Stanley Tucci came on in October, and only then did people find out quite how ill he has been with throat cancer, because of his special dietary requirements, which Lennie wasn’t expecting from such a gourmand. She always checks what sort of food people like to eat before they arrive, “and he had to explain that he can’t eat anything too spicy because it kind of sets off the spot where he had radiation, and it’s excruciatingly painful,” says Lennie. “Although he certainly liked to drink. We had a lot of wine, Stanley and I.”

Speaking of the champagne they offer to their guests with their dinner, Lennie also got Ed Miliband so unexpectedly drunk that he left her a cheeky note asking her to go skinny dipping in the Hampstead Heath ponds.

“Ed was a revelation,” Lennie says. “He was the most gorgeous… I don’t think he drinks very much, he’s quite abstemious normally.”

“But when he comes down to Lennie’s,” Jessie says, in an American showtime accent. “Well!”

“He was so handsome,” Lennie continues. “Very, very charming – and so flirty!

“Not with me, Mum. Just with you.”

I wonder how much the drink helps.

“Lots of people don’t drink – purposely,” Lennie says.

“They don’t want to fall into the traps we’ve laid,” Jessie says.

“Sandi Toksvig didn’t drink did she? Do you remember? She said, ‘I won’t drink till later, till the end.’”

“I felt quite complimented by that, like she was taking us seriously,” says Jessie.

“She was the candidate for the Women’s Equality Party, darling!”

Of her mum, Jessie says, “She gets the sexy headline, she is the sexy headliner. It’s so funny. Our generation, we kind of meander around a question because we don’t want to offend. But at Mum’s age, season by season, she gets more audacious. Someone will say something and I’ll think, ‘OK, that’s it, over.’ But then Mum goes, ‘But why?’ And actually they’re not offended at all, and then a whole new conversation unfolds. And then the Daily Mail seems to think every episode is slightly newsworthy.”

It’s true. I’ve no sooner listened to their latest episode, with Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix, than there’s a Daily Mail story about something she said about not yet having visited her bandmate Perrie’s new baby. The Table Manners podcast gets real traction; they get newslines, in journalism terms. But what they also get, not picked up in the Mail, is that same Little Mix star talking about her Arab heritage and how she grew up in South Shields eating mince and dumplings like a local but also her Yemeni grandad’s chicken soup and khobz bread, and how he had arrived there with the merchant navy, and that their freezer is still stuffed with his cooking since he died.

I ask if anyone has ever been reduced to tears on the podcast, because the conversations can get quite personal, or if they follow Graham Norton’s maxim that tears have to be cut out from the edit – this is entertainment only.

“I nearly cried when Liam Payne didn’t take all his clothes off,” Lennie says. I think she’s joking, but she continues: “He’d been exercising to do this advert where he wore nothing. When he came on, we said ‘We always do a selfie at the end, Liam.’ I said, ‘Could you just take your clothes off?’ He said, ‘What?’”

It was also funny when Lennie apologised to Paul McCartney for having raised her daughter so badly that Jessie didn’t know that there was a kind of food called scouse. Then Lennie and Jessie had a big row while recording at his house, the microwave broke, the bickering went on and on, and Macca took over the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentleman, we apologise for this interruption in broadcasting, these ladies are out of control.”

“Tell me about that row,” I say.

“Oh God,” sighs Jessie. “We never usually do this for other people, go to their place, but it was Sir Paul McCartney, with his daughter Mary, who was so enthusiastic for us to be doing it. I was like, ‘We’ve got one hour with him,’ and then Mum and Mary started nattering in the background, and that’s how the row started. Don’t get me wrong, I was mortified – but I thought, the listeners are gonna absolutely love this Lennie moment. It’s an iconic Lennie moment.”

Aha! They do know what they’re doing. And they play it up a bit, this sweary relationship, in which Jessie will happily tell her mum to fuck off, then both carry on as if nothing has happened. It’s banter, a grumpy comedy double act, which is why it will work on tour. They still can’t get everyone they want to agree to come on, though. Lennie dreams of convincing Jenni Murray, ex-Woman’s Hour presenter, but they have also tried and tried to get their hero Marcus Rashford and his mum. “I would lie on the floor and he could walk across me to get into the house,” Lennie sighs.

Jessie, meanwhile, has tried to get Meghan and Harry.

“That’s quite” – she pauses symbolically – “difficult. I used to be mates with Meghan. Well, mates… I mean we used to email each other and speak to each other. She changed her bloody email – I definitely tried! She came to a show of mine in Canada when she was filming Suits, a mutual friend said we would get on really well and we did. And we kept in touch. And then she became a duchess.” Another pause. “But no, she’s amazing!”

There are truly tender moments, too. Lennie, when not probing his sub-aquatic nudity, also asked Daley about coming out as gay, and he revealed that some of his relatives responded pretty badly. With that wound clearly still raw, he was very interested when Lennie, who is probably the same generation as his relatives, revealed she hadn’t been entirely OK when her own son came out either. (She has three children: Jessie; her son Alex, a doctor; and daughter Hannah, an actor. The other siblings have asked their mum and sister not to mention them so often on air, and Jessie also declines to name her children in public.)

As the Wares are both keen to stress: “It isn’t an interview, it’s a conversation.” Though Lennie’s knowledge of celebrity culture is pretty impressive, there are limits. She says doing it “is like Blind Date really”, because the first time she meets the guests is when they turn up at her front door in south London. While she works hard on researching them – reading their memoirs, watching their shows, often filling Jessie in on the details – their lives are sometimes a world apart from hers.

“I definitely don’t have a connection with Emily Ratajkowski,” she says, musing on their meeting with the very sexy model turned writer. “I’m not being rude – I’m talking about physically.”

“Mum thought she was Russian,” says Jessie.

“I didn’t know she was American!”

She’s the daughter of an American academic, isn’t she?

“A teacher,” corrects Lennie.

Mum! You’re such a snob!”

Lockdown provided an unlikely boon to the show: on the one hand, they hated doing it over Zoom, because they couldn’t feed the guests and share a meal and a drink. On the other, “we got huge A-Listers we’d never have got before: John Legend, Dolly Parton. People who wouldn’t have wanted to come to Clapham for two hours. And I decided we had to keep it going anyway, because I was worried about Mum’s mental health at that point. She was so terrified of Covid. We’d gone from all living together to completely abandoning her because we were scared of her getting sick.”

I wonder if they were always like this, the most frank and sweary and funny family. They both decide it came after Lennie’s divorce from her children’s father, a Panorama journalist.

Jessie adds that she and her mum are fiercely loyal to each other. “However, we’re also stuck to each other, and that can be problematic with us having boundaries. I feel like Mum’s always treated us… Maybe it was that sense of togetherness, having to be a team from quite a young age, us kids mucking in. There wasn’t that – not hierarchy, but – maybe there wasn’t that level of respect that we should be giving our mother.”

“I think after their dad left, which was awful, the house was still fun,” says Lennie, who was the sort of person to pick up everyone else’s kids, let them stay, and keep enough food to feed everyone. “It wasn’t a miserable home.”

“I think once Dad had left we had even more energy and life,” says Jessie, who took on a leadership role in the family and refused to speak to their father for years, though they were eventually reconciled. His affair left a long shadow. But the Ware family had been through a huge run of losses – not just the divorce, but the deaths of Lennie’s sister and then brother.

“It was quite a lot to have all that happen in our teenage years,” remembers Jessie, “but I think it must have pushed us even closer to each other. Also, trying to find the lightness in really shitty situations. I feel like the times we laughed the most was in that cathartic togetherness after a horrendous event. We found the joy. Do you know what I mean, Mum? We’ve always been able to laugh at ourselves, that’s how we’ve got through everything.”

“That, and you learning to carry your own suitcases,” Lennie says. “Getting wheelie suitcases for all the children when they were very young, now that was what changed my life.”

Table Manners, the debut live UK tour, starts in April 2022. Tickets are available to buy at tablemannerspodcast.com


Sophie Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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