To 11 million BBC 1 viewers every weekday night, gruff but twinkly presenter Michael Barratt was Mr Nationwide. But the squadrons of nervous researchers like me had a different name for him: to us, he was Mr Grumpy.
Heaven help the trainee on this teatime magazine show who mucked up anything within range of Mr Grumpy.
In fact, heaven help the lot of us, even the producers, because trying to tell Michael what to do was often a thankless task.
He was, of course, a TV genius. Utterly unflappable on air, he could make any subject seem fascinating and switch from trivia to solemn affairs as easily as breathing. In my two years on Nationwide, I had some of the greatest experiences of my life and learned more about TV production than I could have believed possible.
And today, at a riverside restaurant in Oxfordshire, I shall join former colleagues to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary.
It first aired on September 9, 1969, running until August 1983, and forged the careers of countless first-rate presenters and executives — among them Hugh Scully, Sue Lawley, Alan Titchmarsh, Sue Cook and future director-general Mark Thompson, not to mention Helen Fielding, who went on to write the Bridget Jones books.
Nationwide was the Strictly Come Dancing of its day: it sometimes seemed as if almost everyone on the show was having an affair with a colleague. Sue Lawley was involved with the boss, Hugh Williams. More scandalous still, Michael Barratt had an affair with fellow presenter Dilys Morgan. Both couples later married and are still together.
Nationwide presenting team in 1974: Michael Barratt (left), Susan Stranks and Bob Wellings (right)
The racy mood behind the cameras was set by the man who devised the programme, Derrick Amoore. In the late Sixties, he had realised the Beeb possessed an advantage over the ITV stations — it could call on the talents from all its regions in the UK.
The show was made at the Lime Grove Studios in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, but, each night, when Michael said: ‘It’s time to go Nationwide’, the whole of the BBC was behind him. Researchers and producers all over the country scurried daily to generate countless ideas, competing to see their items on the 5.55/6pm show.
Viewers could tune in and feel they were watching local news, even if the item was filmed hundreds of miles away. This was cemented by Michael’s avuncular style — he had the knack of being able to talk to anyone without ever being condescending.
There was none of the BBC’s pomposity about him, probably because he didn’t join the Corporation until he’d learned his trade on a local newspaper and then spent a number of years reporting in Nigeria.
Derrick Amoore, who hired him, was gone by the time I joined the show. A priapic sort of fellow, even by Nationwide standards, the gossips said he was caught in flagrante with a woman while he was supposed to be covering a major story.
Few ever got sacked from the BBC in those days, of course. They just got sent to Siberia — which meant either producing films for The Open University or, in Derrick’s case, running BBC Radio London.
One former presenter who isn’t expected at the party is Frank Bough. His name is no longer mentioned in polite society since his dalliances with cocaine and prostitutes became public knowledge in 1988. It was quite a spectacular crash, because the public knew him as a cuddly figure in an endless array of patterned pullovers, equally at home with sports scores as current affairs.
He was impressively calm on screen, even when mayhem was breaking out in the control room, but, inevitably, there were rumours about his predilections.
I was told one rather sheltered researcher approached him when he was presenting the Miss World winner on Nationwide and wondered gauchely what his first question to the victor would be. Bough’s reply does not bear repeating in a family newspaper.
Frank Bough with the Nationwide youth club yacht race team who sailed from Cowes to Plymouth.
When I arrived at BBC Current Affairs, the department that produced Nationwide, I had no experience in TV and not much more as a researcher. On my first day, I was shown into a dark room and introduced to a presenter with the words: ‘John will be helping you today’ — and I found myself looking into the face of Robin Day.
Luckily for me, Robin was nothing like his TV persona. In real life, he was a pussycat. Perhaps he simply had enough confidence in his own prodigious abilities that he never had to bully an underling.
Politicians didn’t get off so lightly. In 1982, John Nott, then Defence Secretary in the Thatcher Government, faced the Great Inquisitor, who accused him of being ‘a here-today and gone-tomorrow politician’. Nott exploded, ripped his microphone off his jacket and walked out of the live interview. He is remembered for little else.
Three years earlier, I had been involved with a new, once-a-week format that replaced the Nationwide slot. It was called Question Time and was chaired by Robin.
After a show in Manchester, one of my fellow researchers went up to him with a little stack of change. ‘You left this money in the studio last week,’ he explained.
‘Ah, yes, 64p,’ said Robin, without looking at the coins. ‘Five ten pences and seven tuppences.’ He knew to the penny how much he had almost lost. Generous with his knowledge he always was, but not his cash.
Near the end of its run, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to the Nationwide studio during the 1983 General Election to face viewers. Schoolteacher Diana Gould, speaking from a studio in the West Country, completely floored her with a detailed question about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War.
Nationwide Presenters: Bob Wellings (L), Sue Cook and Hugh Scully (R) as they sort through the entries for the ‘Who Shot JR’ competition
In the green room, husband Denis spluttered and was heard to say that Maggie had been stitched up by ‘bloody BBC poofs and Trots!’
But life at Nationwide could also be profoundly silly. One day, I was tasked with filling a bath . . . with spiders. No one told me where to find them; I simply had to scour pet shops and studio cupboards.
Then, some poor man with arachnophobia — a fear of spiders — was asked to sit in the bath, with all these creatures crawling over him, and describe his sensations.
I have no idea if the shock treatment cured his fear. We didn’t do aftercare for interviewees in those days. It was a ruthless business. That was Nationwide: one week, a gut-wrenching, secret-camera report on the dangers of living rough in London; the next, a skateboarding duck. The higher-ups in the BBC corridors of power liked to pretend our show was below them — tabloid TV, compared with the weighty business of Panorama.
But they missed us when we’d gone. Years later, when he became director-general, Mark Thompson tried to revive the format. He called it The One Show.
To be honest, I don’t think he got it quite right — the show doesn’t take enough advantage of the riches of talent all around the UK.
No doubt, my old friends and colleagues at the party will accuse me of being too candid. I’ve said too much. Mr Grumpy, now 91, will give me a proper ticking-off. The thought of it makes me quite nostalgic.