Long before he left for Westminster, Austin Mitchell created the template for down-to-earth Yorkshire personalities who were admired not only for what they said but for the way they said it. And Richard Whiteley was the quintessential regional broadcaster; a friendly presence who managed to make the nightly news something to be looked forward to.
Harry Gration is cast in the same mould, and the fact that his career has been entirely on the “other side” – the buttoned-up BBC – has made his success all the more remarkable and his departure the more regrettable.
He is a casualty, he announced this week, of the Corporation’s new policy of allowing only a single presenter to front the nightly bulletins in each English region, a stricture that serves the accountants better than the audience.
It also misses the whole point of regional programmes, which is to make them different and to reflect the places they come from; not to homogenise them like supermarket milk.
Harry’s last broadcast will be this coming Wednesday, the day before he turns 70. That’s a great run, yet it makes his removal more unpalatable still.
Television needs Northern voices and also mature points of view that speak to a section of the audience often ignored in the race to attract younger viewers who are neither dependent nor even interested in what’s on the box.
The cult of personality has always sat uncomfortably with the BBC in Yorkshire. There have been many fine presenters on Look North over the years – Ken Cooper, Judith Stamper and John Thirlwell come to mind – but the Corporation has always liked to imagine that the programme itself was the star. No-one was allowed to overshadow it, though Harry somehow managed, without even trying.
Calendar, in contrast, was happy to give Austin Mitchell free rein, having realised that trusted and larger-than-life local voices were exactly what people liked. It learned this the hard way, after initially signing up the future Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken as host. He was neither local, nor, as it turned out when he was later jailed for perjury, trustworthy.
What was most cavalier about the way in which Look North disposed of its principal asset was the absence of the standard, vague BBC promise that the departing performer would not be lost to viewers, but that “exciting new ideas” would be explored.
Producers in other parts of the country have been more pragmatic. The late Mike Neville had been the face of regional TV news in the North-East since almost before the transmitter had gone up, and he crossed the channel divide more than once, because both ITV and the local BBC management knew that the audience would find the news more palatable when it came from him.
Brian Redhead was a similarly trusted regional voice on the national stage, hosting Radio 4’s Today programme from Manchester and bringing to it an instantly recognisable non-Metropolitan flavour that is notably absent from the current show.
Within the BBC these days there is no shortage of diverse accents in entertainment and on those interminable announcements between the programmes, yet they are fewer and further between where they are needed most, in the news output. It was not always thus; during the war, the flattened West Riding vowels of Wilfred Pickles helped make the nightly bulletins more accessible to provincial listeners, and no-one considered the service to have been compromised when he branched out into hosting game shows. But that buccaneering spirit disappeared long ago and the departure of the most trusted broadcasting voice in Yorkshire does nothing to help recapture it.
Calendar missed a trick in not signing up Harry to replace Richard Whiteley in the late 1990s, especially as he was not on television at the time, having taken a public relations job with the Rugby Football League. Perhaps ITV will remedy that now, and give him his own regional show – or at least take a leaf from the BBC’s book and agree to explore those exciting new ideas with him. Anyone who can make the news worth looking forward to at the moment is a rare asset indeed.
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