'It's as if I've retired': Midlands Today's Nick Owen on life in self-isolation
For more than 50 years, he’s been reporting the news. For 42 of those, he’s been broadcasting to millions. But since the virus outbreak Nick Owen has been self-isolating at home.
Though he continues to report for and contribute to BBC Midlands Today, the anchor man says the most exciting part of his week has become his daily walk. But he is raring to go and get back on our screens, broadcasting to a vast population that watches regional TV news bulletins every day.
He’s also started a new talk show with Anne Diamond. The golden couple have reunited as a presenting duo via YouTube some 24 years after they after they last hosted together.
Anne, 65, and Nick, 72, were hugely popular on TV in decades past, hosting Good Morning Britain for TV-am together from 1983, before presenting Good Morning With Anne And Nick between 1992 and 1996. They do the weekly programme remotely from their homes, inviting famous guests and discussing the news.
Nick was born in 1947 and educated at Shrewsbury School. He was awarded a BA (Honours) in Classics at Leeds University. His career in journalism started on the Doncaster Evening Post, the day after the moon landings.
He then worked on the Birmingham Post and what was then BBC Radio Birmingham before joining ATV Network’s sports department, covering the World Cup in 1982.
When Central won the Independent Television franchise in the Midlands, Nick became a general presenter and teamed up with Anne Diamond for the first time. In 1983 he joined TV-am as sports presenter, but took over the main presenting role within eight weeks.
He renewed his partnership with Anne Diamond and they presented the main programme together until late 1986. Nick then joined ITV Sport as presenter of their flagship programme Midweek Sport Special.
He also hosted the Olympic Games for ITV in 1988 and the World Cup in 1990, as well as a variety of other sports programmes, including athletics and boxing. He then went on to anchor the game shows Sporting Triangles and Hitman, as well as presenting all ITV’s Royal Premieres between 1986 and 1992.
In all of his years, however, he’s never witnessed anything like Covid-19. “It’s the biggest crisis in my lifetime. It’s so all-embracing, it’s not just us it’s the world. Besides the fact that we’re restricted and can’t do what we want to do, it’s scary. Normally, two and three days a week or more, I’d be going to work at lunchtime.
“I start at lunchtime and go until 11pm at night. So going to work has completely gone. I’m still in touch with the office and contributing to Midlands Today, but basically it’s as if I retired. I’m at home most of the time and my day centres around going for a good long walk. My partner, Vicki and I are very sociable. We have six children and five grandchildren between us, so there’s a lot of phoning going on.”
Nick thinks Covid-19 will have long-lasting effects, with many changing the way they live. Even when restrictions are eased, he thinks some people will chose to live life at a slower pace, making sure to stop and smell the roses.
“I look through our diary and it used to be so busy. Now it just says ‘stayed in’. It is something that gives you pause for thought and time for reflection. It’s a time when you think about life and how quick life sometimes is. You realise how you don’t stop and smell the roses. Usually, life is just a whir. Now I see the garden, you appreciate things like that and the countryside. You appreciate conversations instead of all the time thinking ‘I have to go’. A lot of us will realign our way of thinking.”
Nick paid tribute to the bravery of essential workers and said the selflessness of carers, NHS staff and others had been remarkable.
“I think the people on the front line are so brave. I know it’s their job and their calling and they wouldn’t do anything else. I cannot speak highly enough of people who work in hospitals, from cleaners to top consultants. They are taking their life in their own hands. The disease is so infectious and insidious, they can’t be sure they can stay safe. We have a very close friend fighting for life on a ventilator. It’s been horrendous and that’s made us appreciate how fortunate we are. This thing is so devastating and so dangerous. I’m terribly aware of the victims in hospital and the patients and those whose lives are being saved.”
Though Nick’s first day in journalism saw him report on the moon landing and though he also lived through the Asian Flu, which happened while he was at Shrewsbury School, Covid-19 has put everything else in the shade as the single biggest news event of his life.
“I remember some big events, like Winston Churchill dying or Nelson Mandela being released. I also remember in my early days as a radio reporter covering the Birmingham pub bombs in November 1974. That was a staggering night to be on duty. I still think about that. I remember the Worcester cricketer Basil D’Oliveria story, which changed the world and not just sport. He became a friend and I had very boozy nights with him.
“I remember the World Cup in ‘66. We were watching it on a black and white telly with mates while my father was at a wedding. That night we went to see The Who at Windsor Jazz Festival and the band supporting them were The Move. They featured Bev Bevan and Roy Wood, who both became great pals. But I have never experienced anything like this.”
Nick’s family hails from Shropshire and he retains a passion for the county. “I love the Long Mynd and the Stretton Hills, Ludlow and Much Wenlock. I have a huge affinity. My father was born and bred in Shrewsbury. I was at school in Shrewsbury from 7-18. Michael Palin was my house captain.”
Nick studied classics at university before turning his back on a conventional career and heading into journalism. He wanted to do something different each day but did not envisage going into broadcasting. He moved from Doncaster to Birmingham to work on the Birmingham Post before signing up for BBC Local Radio, applying three times before getting the job.
He pieced together stories and also started to report on sport, watching Cyril Regis make his WBA debut and playing squash with Baggies boss Ron Atkinson and spending time with Jeff Astle. Eventually, his love of sport led to a dream job as a TV sports presenter. Wolves and England legend Billy Wright hand-picked him to work at ATV and his career took off. “It was all down to Billy. He changed my life.”
He commentated on the World Cup and European Football Championship before becoming friends with a young reporter called Anne Diamond. When TV-AM was launched, he took the gamble and signed up for a job. Within eight weeks, he’d replaced the great Sir David Frost as anchorman, bringing Diamond along to share presenting duties. The ratings climbed and soon it was the most profitable show on TV. He’d leave home at 3.10am each morning, before going to bed with his briefing note at 8pm that night.
His love of sport led to his becoming President of Derbyshire Cricket Club and chairman of Luton Town.
“My grandfather had an affinity for Derbyshire and my mother was bought up in Buxton. I supported them since 1958 and they asked me to be president for two years. I’m very closely linked with the club even now.
“With Luton FC, my father used to go. I was about 10 when I saw my first game there, against Leeds. I saw those great big stands and the beautiful pitch. I fell in love for life. I remember people eating menthol sweets and drinking Bovril. Becoming chairman was incredible. I was a figurehead, I didn’t have any money. The people who did the hard work were all diehard childhood Luton fans.”
As lockdown bites, Nick is looking forward to getting back in the office. His YouTube broadcasts with Anne Diamond have featured Jonny Vegas, Chris Tarrant, Alastiar Campbell and Joe Lycett but he yearns to be back in the BBC studio.
“I absolutely adore the job. I love the region. I love the colleagues. I love the office banter, it’s wicked and brilliant. I miss that so much. I am very proud to be part of regional TV. It’s just so, so strongly watched. Regional TV is a bit more tangible and accessible; people see us as their friends down the road.”
His friendly presenting style has made him a perennial favourite. “I like to feel that I talk to people, to the viewers, rather than at them. There’s a big difference between being an announcer and telling the people what time the trains are running and actually talking to people. You have to have a punchy delivery with a gentleness about it so that people can connect.”
After 42 years on TV, it won’t be long until Nick is back on our sets, presenting the news to viewers across the region.
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