Rocky rides in TV land

John Mair |
Wednesday 8 December 2010, 16:27

Adrian Chiles may be struggling to come to terms with finding himself captain of the good ship Daybreak, but his experience fronting what he told the Guardian was “one of the biggest crocks of s**** anyone has seen in years” is hardly unique. Behind many of TV’s hits lies a near-miss. Chiles only has to consult Nick Owen – ‘the boy next door’ who Greg Dyke brought in with Anne Diamond at TV-am in 1983 once the original ‘Famous Five’ presenters had failed to connect with the British breakfast public. Roland Rat helped to save that sinking ship.

Better still, he could consult the grand old man of popular factual television – Michael Barratt.
Forty-one years ago, the TV Titanic syndrome nearly hit a programme that went on to become a TV institution and a forerunner of The One Show – which made Chiles so attractive to ITV. BBC1’s Nationwide was lucky to survive its early storms. But survive it did, and today ‘Mr Nationwide’, Michael Barratt, now 82, lives beside the Thames at Bourne End – and in the Languedoc in France.
Nationwide’s success was largely thanks to Barratt and an errant but flawed genius of a BBC editor, Derek Amoore.

Barratt is still full of admiration for Amoore. “The best brain I ever worked with,” he says. “He could turn every story upside down and see the other side of the coin. He built a Nationwide style.”

Together, on 9 September 1969, they launched an institution, a genre, a brand which was to last for 14 years. The music, the programme logo, and the Barratt words “… after your own programmes, Nationwide”, became national teatime fixtures.
In the beginning, the BBC panjandrums were suspicious of this ‘pop’ implant, giving it airtime for just three nights a week and then giving it grief when the technical flaws all too often showed.

“After three months, we were teetering on the edge of becoming a laughing stock,” remembers Barratt. But they got their acts together and vanquished their corporate enemies to produce a seamless blend of the serious and the not-so-serious.
Barratt and Amoore set out to turn the nation upside down: centripetal instead of centrifugal, with every region given its due weight; and not just an adjunct of London.

“We were like a balloon hovering over the country,” Barratt recalls. The then 11 BBC regions could be called upon every night to help to tell a national story. The regional BBC viceroys, initially sceptical, had been won over by Barratt and by the programme choosing to broadcast from their ‘patch’ so often. It was literally ‘down your street’. Every street.

Barratt’s weathered face and gravelly voice were seen and heard by 11 or 12 million people, making him the king of early evening telly. And, unusually for the BBC, Barratt was given some real editorial power:

“I was never called the presenter. I was more important than that. Amoore called me the co-ordinator.”
For a decade, he was the tactical nuclear weapon used by the BBC in its ratings battle with ITV. Barratt was omnipresent. If he’d run for Prime Minister, he might have won. ‘Grumpy’, as he was near-affectionately nicknamed on the programme, was the nation’s voice.

Today, the only living room in which he is seen is his own. He’s not quite retired, but on the way. He lives with his second wife, Dilys Morgan, with whom he eloped from the Nationwide presenters’ desk in a small scandal three decades ago.
Barratt still likes to keep his hand in: “I’m busy as adviser on communications to the R&A [Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews] and editor of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association magazine.”

And he’s launching a new service – coaching young people in how to make the most of job interviews: “The website should be up and running by the end of this week.”

‘Grumpy’ is still recognisable and irascible; the Yorkshire terrier journalist in him ever present. He’s the boy who joined the Glasgow Sunday Mail at 17; then went on to reach the pinnacle of broadcast journalism at the BBC; before jumping ship to set up one of the first corporate video production companies and, like Chiles, moving to ITV.

In his prime, Barratt represented those outside London and outside the metropolitan chattering classes: “I was the first lead presenter in Current Affairs with a non-metropolitan, non-cut glass accent. Starting as a tea boy, I had my edges rubbed off early.”
Barratt’s Nationwide was – and is – one of the iconic brands of British television. It launched the careers of so many. The graduates from the presenters’ desk include Frank Bough, Sue Lawley, Hugh Scully, Bob Wellings, John Stapleton, Richard Stilgoe, Des Lynham and Sue Cook.

Behind the scenes, being a regional researcher provided a launch pad for the glittering careers of Helen ‘Bridget Jones’ Fielding, Jane Treays, the documentarian, and Steve Hewlett, the Media Guardian columnist.
On the production desk in London, the current BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, stalked out his territory; as did Richard Tait, who later became Editor in Chief of ITN, Nick Hayes, who went on to edit World in Action, and Kevin Marsh, who went on to edit the Today programme.

After Barratt, in 1977, Nationwide was holed, but survived another six years. The last editor, Roger Bolton, a transplant from Panorama, determined to make it serious. He did, and it died in 1983.
But it was never forgotten.

Then, four years ago, along came ‘the new Nationwide’ – The One Show with Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakly, both firmly non-metropolitan, presenting a mixture of the serious and the not-so-serious in an early evening slot on BBC1.
Barratt is to the point as always: “Not a great fan of The One Show, I’m afraid. Lacks the wit of Nationwide and the understanding of regional loyalties,” he says brusquely.

‘Grumpy’ Barratt is as combative and gossipy as ever. And the BBC runs through his veins: “I am passionate about it continuing,” he declares, “it is the only insurance we have of high-quality programmes. It is a national treasure.”

So too is Barratt. And so, one day, might be Adrian Chiles.

John Mair worked on Nationwide from 1981 to 1983. He is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University.

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