Me? I’m most unambitious: It doesn’t seem to have done John Craven’s career any harm though – and his magical new memoirs retell the best bits from cub reporter to Countryfile
- John Craven who has been with Countryfile for 30 years has written his memoir
- The broadcasting icon began his TV career when there was just two channels
- He recalls moving from local newspapers to TV, before presenting Newsround
- The 78-year-old says his wife Marilyn, has kept him grounded as his rock
Call him old-fashioned, but John Craven says he’s always been what he calls an ‘appointment-to-view’ person, someone who likes to note that a particular show is on at a particular time, requiring you to make the effort to sit down to watch.
It’s why he likes presenting Countryfile.
Enough people – in fact more than five million of us – still make an appointment to settle down in front of it on a Sunday night, often with the whole family, which pleases him.
What a surprise, then, to learn that at home, John – or Uncle John as a generation of us think of him, thanks to his work on John Craven’s Newsround, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore – is slowly beginning to feel the lure of on-demand TV.
‘Just recently, Mrs C and I have started to move with the times and binge-watch box sets,’ he says.
John Craven, 78, (pictured with his four-year-old dachshund Dora) who has been with Countryfile for 30 years, has detailed his life and time working in broadcasting in a memoir
‘Killing Eve is rather good.’ Next, he’ll be saying he has an iPad.
‘No, I’m not terribly into technology. I don’t do Facebook or anything like that. I don’t tweet.’
I tell him that Kirstie Allsopp says if you’re on telly, you have to be on Twitter.
‘No you don’t,’ he says.
‘I suppose some people rely on how many people follow them to impress others. At my age I don’t need to.
‘And also, I’m told very nasty things can be said on Twitter, and I don’t want to read that.’
Surely no one could say nasty things about John Craven? He shakes his head. ‘I don’t know, but I’m not going to risk it.’
Nor is he going to suddenly pop up in sequins on Strictly. Mrs C, his wife, Marilyn, who’s been part of every career decision John has ever made, wouldn’t sanction it.
‘We’ve always worked as a team and I’ve been so grateful to her for her ideas and opinions.
‘We work out between us what’s going to happen. And we decided I wasn’t going to do things I might later regret, like Strictly or the jungle.
John (pictured with Keith Chegwin, Maggie Philbin and Noel Edmonds on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop in 1979) recalls starting his television career when there was just two channels
‘I have no need. My career isn’t faltering.’
But you don’t need to have a faltering career now to go on Strictly. Certainly not. It’s just showbiz, surely? He looks baffled.
‘I never think of myself as being showbiz.’
This from a man who’s whizzed through London in a sports car with George Michael as part of a Newsround story, and whose first celebrity interviewee was Sir Michael Caine.
How to pinpoint what John Craven is, then? A BBC legend, certainly.
A broadcasting icon. At 78, he’s just written his memoirs, which tell not just his life story but that of the British broadcasting industry.
‘A lot of it sounds out of the ark,’ he admits of the book, Headlines And Hedgerows.
‘When I started it was black-and-white television and there were only two channels, the BBC and ITV.
‘There was no career path as such, either. You didn’t need a degree to get into the BBC. I wouldn’t have got in even ten years later.
‘I was part of that group, with people like John Humphreys, who all started out in local newspapers.
‘It was still difficult to get in, but once you did the world was your oyster.’
For the book he went rummaging through the archives to remind himself of what happened when, but this was quite a difficult task.
No recordings exist of many early episodes of Newsround, which he presented from 1972 to 1989 in his trademark jumpers. Scandalous, really.
‘They were just wiped,’ he says.
The broadcasting icon (pictured with Margaret Thatcher on Saturday Superstore in 1987) was given his big TV break as a presenter on BBC Newsround
Back in the day, when the BBC decided John should present the first news show aimed at children, protocol went out of the window, along with his suit and tie.
He’s never needed them since, much to his delight.
Hilariously, one of the last TV appearances he made in a suit was in 1971 when he reported from the very first Glastonbury Fayre, as it was known in those days.
‘I was surrounded by hippies while wearing a business suit and talking about sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and mud.’
Still, he sometimes misses the jacket and tie.
A cheeky chappie
John (pictured on Newsround) recalls being fearful of what an interviewee would say on live broadcast
I worked on Newsround for 17 years, and in 1982 I was in Portsmouth as part of the live broadcast team for the return of the Falklands Task Force fleet.
Amid the cheering crowds of relatives, I pointed the microphone at one small boy and asked if he was excited.
He said, ‘My mum can’t wait to get my dad upstairs again.’
Wondering what on earth he was going to say next, and fearing the worst, I couldn’t stop him from adding, ‘Because he’s only half-finished painting the bathroom.’
‘I haven’t had to wear a suit for work since I was on regional TV, and sometimes I hanker to put one on.
‘Everyone else spends the weekend being casual because they’ve been in a suit all week, but if I go out I want to put a suit on.
‘I still have a few that fit!’
It’s the fact that his face has always fitted in the fast-moving TV world that is the true miracle.
My favourite anecdote in the book involves him pitching up at a showbiz party and being greeted by Simon Cowell.
‘John, you look great. What work have you had done?’ Cowell asked.
Today, John raises an eyebrow, and not just to prove he still can.
‘I had to say, “Nothing. No Botox.” I considered dyeing my hair once, but decided against it.’
Why is he still working? Because he can, and on his own terms. He picks and chooses his Countryfile assignments these days.
‘I used to do 46 programmes a year and the travelling was just too much.
‘Now I do maybe ten shows a year.
‘They say, “John, do you fancy doing this one?” and I say, “Yes please. Oh, thanks.”’
He once considered a more showbizzy career.
He wanted to be an actor and thought of applying to RADA, but opted for the more reliable weekly wage of a trainee reporter.
Who knows what might have been had he gone down that route?
John (pictured with the Countryfile team as they’re joined on the show by Prince Charles in 2013) says Jonathan Dimbleby who went to ITV instead of presenting Newsround, admits to wishing he’d been offered an opportunity on Countryfile
‘I was in an amateur drama group with Peter O’Toole and he did quite well,’ he says.
His early career sounds like a riot. He recalls trying to phone in his story after having been in the pub (‘I crumpled to the floor afterwards’), and sending the (very much alive) Dean of Ripon his own obituary.
He even helped save a life – wading into the sea to pull out a woman who was walking in fully clothed.
He was rewarded by being hit with her umbrella. It later transpired she had absconded from a local psychiatric unit.
He moved from local papers to local television, working first in Newcastle – where he met Marilyn – and then in Bristol.
But his big break occurred when he auditioned to front a children’s current affairs programme called Search.
Then along came a new show, a news bulletin aimed specifically at children.
His name was not in the frame at first.
‘They asked Jonathan Dimbleby to do it. But he’d just been offered This Week, ITV’s version of Panorama, and thought that was a better career move, so they got me.
‘Funnily enough we had an email chat about it recently. He said, “The only programme that I wish I had been offered but never was is Countryfile.”’
John Craven’s Newsround (‘they wanted to make it accessible, so I was the only person who had their name in front of the news’) was revolutionary, but also ‘a huge gamble.
John (pictured at Ascot in 2015) revealed he’s turned down many magazine offers for pieces on Life With the Cravens, as he doesn’t want to be part of the publicity circus
‘It could have been a disaster, and it would have been awful having my name attached to it’.
He says the show was a hit because it was so short that ‘in those days, without remote controls, it wasn’t worth getting up to turn the channel over’.
It meant pretty much every child in the land knew and trusted John Craven.
And when those child fans grew up to be BBC bosses themselves? ‘It served me well,’ he notes, recalling the day he went to see Danny Cohen, then controller of BBC1.
Bradford’s fab four puppies
One of the stories I wrote while working for a news agency in Bradford became national news the night the Beatles came to the city’s Gaumont Cinema in 1963.
The place was jam-packed with teenage girls who never stopped screaming.
So many were hysterical, long before the Fab Four were due on stage, that the warm-up comedian gave up trying to tell jokes and just kept shouting out, ‘John! Paul! George! Ringo!’ I met the boys briefly before the show, and we got a picture.
But the real news came the next morning when we learned that a litter of puppies had been abandoned.
We picked out the four males, and named them… well, have a guess.
Their photograph was carried in just about every national paper, and the whole litter was quickly adopted.
‘You think, “He’s a young thruster. Will he tell me I’ve been around too long?” Then we walked into his glass-panelled room and he said, “01 811 8055”, because he used to watch Swap Shop and try to get through on the phone lines.’
Alongside Newsround he paired up with the more madcap Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin on Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore, where he interviewed prime ministers and pop stars.
And yet the idea of celebrity for himself, or his family, is out of the question.
It’s striking how little of his family life is in his book.
‘I turned down so many magazine offers for pieces on Life With the Cravens, because I just didn’t want to be part of the publicity circus,’ he admits.
He was married before Marilyn, but that just gets one line in his memoirs.
When he met Marilyn, who was a production secretary on Look North, he was struck by the fact she was a ‘strong northern woman, and all I had been looking for’.
He squirms a little when I ask about how they managed to keep a marriage going in the fickle TV world.
‘It helped that she worked in TV. She knew how it was.
‘We hadn’t been together that long when I was asked to move to Bristol and I wasn’t sure if she would say yes, but she did, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
‘She keeps me grounded. She’s been my rock.
‘Without being too soppy, she was always there for me, which is the main thing in my business because it can be precarious.
‘You’re very exposed, and it’s always good to be able to get that reassurance.’
John (pictured on the Lorraine show in 2016) who says he hasn’t made millions from his TV career, believes he won’t be able to demand a big pay rise now
John was always a conscientious sort, only ever missing one day of filming for Newsround when his eldest daughter was born.
The second ‘had the consideration to arrive on a Saturday’.
He has always been Mr BBC. Has he never been tempted to go after the big money on commercial stations? ‘No. I’ve always dreamt of being on a big-budget programme but it’s never happened.
‘I’ve had a reasonable life out of it, able to pay the mortgage all these years and support my family, but I haven’t made millions.
‘Lots of people flit from channel to channel. I didn’t even flit from programme to programme.
‘I only did about three, really. Most unambitious.’
Has he ever demanded a big pay rise? He laughs. ‘You accept them when they come along, but no, it’s my dream but it will never happen now.
‘That idea someone will come along and say, “We’re going to pay you a vast amount to do this programme.” Ha. In your dreams, John.’
The biggest decision he and Marilyn made, he says, was for him to leave children’s TV.
‘I knew I had to make that leap. I’d seen too many people get stuck.’
Hello Countryfile, which, astonishingly, he has been with for 30 years now.
He puts his career longevity and his youthfulness down to the same thing – careful choices and being sensible.
‘I don’t do anything. A lot of walking, but that’s it,’ he says of his fitness regime.
‘Until four or five years ago I used to go to the gym quite regularly but I don’t feel the need for it now.
‘As long as I can still put one foot in front of the other.’
His mother suffered from motor neurone disease. Does he worry about his own health? ‘I’m past that. You just hope tomorrow you’ll still be alive.
‘My parents lived until their late seventies, but they seemed really old.
‘Now I know so many people around my age who are so young, doing all kinds of things.
‘I wouldn’t dream of being thought of as a pensioner. I feel 20 years younger than I am.’
He’s fully aware of how unusual he is. ‘Lots of new presenters are here today, gone tomorrow, but I’m still around.
Get carter half a lager
John’s first celebrity interview for TV was with Michael Caine (pictured)
My first celebrity interview for TV was one of the biggest stars I’ve ever met – Michael Caine, who was in Newcastle filming the classic 1971 gangster movie Get Carter.
We talked in a tough drinking den where he was shooting, and when we’d finished I suggested having a beer.
‘It’s a little early,’ Michael said, ‘so I’ll just have a half of lager.’
The barman shook his head. They didn’t serve lager.
‘Why not?’ asked the film star.
‘Because,’ came the devastating reply, ‘we don’t get many women in here.’
‘I’ve always been aware it could end tomorrow, though. One of the first things a new person in charge of a show will do is to change the face of the main presenter to make an impact.
‘Luckily, I’ve survived a lot of those people.’ Has he ever clashed with a producer? He stirs his coffee very deliberately.
‘I don’t think so, no. I’ve managed to do things my way most of the time. I think I’m quite easy-going. I’m not prima donna-ish.’
Hilariously, he recalls a news report in a tabloid newspaper when he was 46 which claimed he was about to be fired from Newsround for being too old.
That turned out not to be true. Yet when others have been let go for that reason, he’s survived.
We talk about the events of 2009 when Countryfile was overhauled and a whole swathe of presenters lost their jobs.
In 2011, Miriam O’Reilly, then 53, took the BBC to an employment tribunal, claiming age and sex discrimination. Her age discrimination claim was upheld.
Today, he concedes that he did not understand why the changes to the programme were necessary.
‘It had worked successfully for a long time,’ he says. He also calls the clear-out the ‘night of the long knives’, which hints at the brutality involved.
That said, he clearly feels that everyone has moved on. ‘Certainly it upset the people who suffered, but a lot of them have recovered,’ he says.
‘Charlotte Smith is back on the programme. Ben Fogle has done very well. People think it was just the women who were sacked, but Ben felt very bad.
‘Michaela Strachan accepted it, and she’s done very well since.’
As the father of Countryfile, so to speak, did he feel a sense of responsibility? He shakes his head.
‘I don’t see why I should. Obviously I was sympathetic to the people who lost their jobs. They were friends. But everyone moves on.’
John (pictured) says things have changed in the TV industry, he’s noticed an increase in older people on screen
Hold on, though. Miriam was right to make her stand, wasn’t she? The landscape at the BBC has changed, for others.
‘Well things have changed. Whether it’s to do with that or not I don’t know, but there are a lot of older people on TV and when I watch someone like Gloria Hunniford on Rip Off Britain, it’s good to see.’
Gloria is just a few months older than John. But would he have had his career had he been a woman? ‘How do I know that? I’ve no idea,’ he says.
The word retirement is still not in his vocabulary. He has said previously that he would have to be retired, rather than pulling the plug himself, and this is still the case.
As we part, he offers advice on writing up this interview – the sort of advice he gave younger reporters when he was Mr Newsround.
‘Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it safe,’ he says. It has served John Craven very well.
Headlines And Hedgerows: A Memoir by John Craven is published on Thursday by Michael Joseph, priced £20. © John Craven. To order a copy for £16 (p&p free) call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until 3 August 2019.
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