TV Presenter Nicholas Owen on learning his trade in the North East
PUBLISHED: 14:38 21 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:05 20 February 2013
In 1981, the BBC had an Appointments Department just across the road from Broadcasting House, its headquarters in Londons Portland Place. I went in and behind a counter was a pleasant and helpful lady. It was like being in an old-fashioned shop.
Id like to work for the BBC, I told her. She, having no idea who I was, replied: Oh. What do you do? Fortunately I used a key word in reply.
Im a journalist. That set bells ringing and she opened a drawer to pull out some papers. Theres a vacancy for a Regional Journalist at the newsroom in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Would you be interested?
A couple of days after I started, I went out with one of the reporters on a story. I knew straight away that I wanted to be a TV reporter, rather than work behind the scenes. I was often on the big industrial stories of the day. It was a hugely significant time for what has always been an employment blackspot. The once mighty shipyards along the Tyne and the Wear were in decline. Terminal decline loomed too for the coal mines.
The big stories, and the hardest moments for local reporters, came with the miners strike which broke out in early 1984.
Foggy, freezing early mornings on picket lines outside collieries could be very uncomfortable assignments. Quietly-spoken threats to journalists were common. One large, glowering pitman whispered in my ear that if the camera was turned on, I would find myself tipped over the nearest wall. I complained to an equally large police sergeant. He turned away. He was a local man. He probably lived in the next street to the miner who would gladly have flattened me.
One feature I filmed for network television was about the dream of a car factory being built on Wearside. The opening sequence had a car appearing, headlights on, through the mist on the runway of an airport in Sunderland. I got out of the car and opened with the lines: One day, its hoped theyll be making cars here. It seemed rather far-fetched. But Nissan did come and one of the most successful car plants in the world grew where a few small planes once came and went.
Back in the studio I observed a master at his work. The Look North presenter was Mike Neville, a top-class performers from whom I learned so much of the essentials of this peculiar job. To hold it together when the programme is falling apart. To cope with the talkback in your ear, the instructions from the control room. To listen to them and talk at the same time. So many times I am asked: how do you do that? I always answer that if you cant youre in the wrong job.
It is hard to understate Mike Nevilles colossal following in the North East. First-hand experience of his god-like status came when I married Brenda Firth, a reporter on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, at Gateshead register office.
The registrar obviously thought she knew me from somewhere, although she could not quite place me. She managed to overcome her curiosity to get on with the business but her formal demeanour evaporated when my Best Man walked in.
The registrar could hardly speak. ItsitsMikeNeville, she started. The civil ceremony went rather sluggishly, with the registrar flicking her eyes back and forth from the Great Man to the marrying couple. Sometimes, she faltered over some of the crucial words. I have sometimes wondered whether I am legally married at all. Or perhaps I was married to Mike Neville.
* Nicks memoir Days Like This, is out now, priced 9.95.
The print version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of North East Life
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