Harry Gration has been in broadcasting for 40 years. He talks to Neil Hudson about how it all began, being ribbed by Des Lynam and preparing for one of his biggest challenges.
News presenter Harry Gration MBE has to be one of the most down to earth people you could hope to meet. Although we have met previously, when I catch up with him on the phone to talk about his 40 years in broadcasting, he is walking into Leeds and between questions, he keeps having to stop to say hello to people.
“It’s something I’ve got used to,” says the 67-year-old. “I get recognised all the time but sometimes it’s by people who don’t know why they know me. I think it’s one of the great things about regional TV, in that we have access to people, whereas the network superstars do not. We meet them at charity events or walking into town, we talk to them all the time. I hope it’s never gone to my head, I’ve always been very grateful for the job I have. I love doing it and I will hopefully do it for a little while longer.”
His career as a broadcaster can be traced right back to his youth, when, as a cricket-mad youngster, he would invent matches in his back garden and then commentate on them. Born in Bradford to parents Morris, a chemist, and Nina, he attended half a dozen schools before the age of 11, moving whenever his father got new work.
“My dad was manager of a Boots store in Bradford but then he was moved to the all-night store (as it was then) on Boar Lane, in 1959 and later to York. We moved house a lot, I think I went to five or six schools before I was 11.”
The former Leeds Grammar School pupil trained as a teacher and was head of history at Rodillion School, which is also where his broadcasting career began.
“I started teaching in 1973 but my move into broadcasting began with Radio Leeds, I was given a chance to start presenting through a friend of mine, Doug Lupton, who used to cover Leeds United matches. He said ‘why don’t you have a go?’. Cricket was my love, so I went to do a game between Yorkshire and Somerset. On my first day I was so excited and my mum, who was very protective, was at home panicking because I had not taken my lunch and so she rang up to say she had left it on the gate outside… and they announced that over the radio.
“Eventually, the presenting just got bigger. I was doing stints on Radio Leeds not just at weekends but also covering events.
“I remember covering the Leeds Market fire, which happened on Saturday evening just after I had finished a rugby league programme, so we stayed on air until the early hours. That started to get me noticed in the minds of my editors, because there was always a thing that I had not been trained as a journalist in the traditional way.
“The other big story I recall was when they caught the Yorkshire Ripper – that happened on a Sunday night and they took him to Dewsbury Police Station. John Cundy was my news editor at the time and we both covered it, remaining on air until the small hours.”
Incidentally, Mr Cundy retired on Friday after 50 years in journalism and in March, Look North will mark its own half century, an event Harry is very much involved in.
“We have worked on all kinds of stories over the years and we will be doing a special programme to mark the half century, showing some of the stories we have covered down the years. One of those which springs to mind involved a vicar who liked to shoot moles in his back garden. We heard about him and went to cover the story and he had his rifle with him and while we were on air, he shot two moles. It seemed perfectly normal then but things like that would not happen today.”
Another interview which sticks in his mind came shortly after he joined Look North and was co-presenting with Judith Stamper.
“It was an interview with Dennis Skinner MP and we had a technical fault, in that the microphone failed. I was new to presenting and didn’t really know how to deal with it, but Dennis hit the roof over it. Then a producer literally crawled onto the set, went under the desk where Dennis was sat and put his hand up to attach a new microphone. If you imagine the sword Excalibur coming out of the lake, it looked a bit like that and we both just carried on as if nothing had happened.”
Harry, who has three grown up children – a daughter and two sons – is also father to twins, now 14, with wife Helen. The pair got together while working in London.
After presenting Look North for 13 years, Harry decided to try his hand at something new and went to work for the Rugby League but was later offered a presenting job on South Today in Southampton, which he did for five years.
“When I first went down there, I was presenting with a very sophisticated southern lady called Sally Taylor and here I was, this Northern oik. To begin with, the chemistry just didn’t work but then it suddenly took off because we started to have a bit of banter and people began to tune in for it. It’s the same kind of banter we have now on Look North with the weather presenters.
“I was very happy down there, very settled and everything was going well and then I got the call asking me to come back to Look North. My initial reaction was to say no, because I thought it wouldn’t be the right thing to go back to a job I used to do but then my boss down south was also leaned on and so, in the end, I came back.”
Returning to his Yorkshire roots has worked out well and it’s a move he says he is happy about.
“I love Yorkshire. Working down south for five years was my missionary work. Having worked in both places, I can definitely say there is a north-south divide and it just comes down to how people talk to you more up here. Up here, there’s a lot more chatter, people say ‘good morning’ when you walk in the office and are happy to have a talk.”
Harry’s ability to fill a silence has done him proud as a broadcaster but there have been occasions when he’s almost been caught out.
“You learn to talk gibberish,” says Harry almost self-mockingly. “And I had to put that to the test in 1998 when I was covering the Winter Olympics. I was asked to step in to cover the 50km cross country ski event and I said yes, but it meant me talking for two hours and I didn’t really know anything about the sport. I had a lot of statistics to hand and so I basically went through them. I got through it but the next day Des Lynam, who is a good friend of mine, phoned me up and the first thing he said was, ‘What a load of codswallop’, which made me laugh.”
As Look North prepares to mark its 50th anniversary – on March 23 – Harry revealed he is preparing for one of the biggest challenges of his career. “I do like to keep active. I have normally done two or three 10k runs a year, although I have to say that is becoming harder. For the 50th anniversary, we’re planning a charity event which is the biggest I’ve ever done and the most challenging physically, although I can’t reveal what it is yet.”
Looking back on broadcasting
Harry Gration began his career working on Leeds Hospital Radio and then moved to Radio Leeds.
He presented Look North from 1984 to 1994 and returned to the programme after five years away in 1999.
Look North will mark its 50th anniversary on March 23 – out of more than 13,000 episodes, Harry will have presented about 9,000 of them.
In 2013, he was awarded an MBE for his services to broadcasting by the Prince of Wales.
Harry says one of the biggest changes he has seen during his time as a broadcaster is the advent of technology, adding: “I now have an ‘app’ on my phone which would allow me to broadcast live if something happened.”