For nearly half a century he has been a reassuring presence in our living rooms. While the black-and-white set may have been replaced by the latest flat-screen, and the lava lamp next to it long gone, Bob Warman has remained the same – calm, unflappable, authoritative, and unquestionably self-assured.
Now, on July 4 this year, the Roger Moore of regional news broadcasting will celebrate his own independence day, when he retires from his role as the face of Central News after almost half a century.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had some great times,” says the Walsall-born newscaster, looking back on a career when he joined the fledgling news programme ATV Today as a 25-year-old reporter in 1973.
Yet it was a career which he feared might have been over almost as soon as it began.
“I became famous for putting the programme off air within weeks of my arrival,” he recalls with a glint in his eye, recalling a time when he fell foul of the unions just after arriving at what was the then ATV Today regional news programme in 1973.
“I was sent to report on some 12ft-wide houses being built in Yardley Wood, but when I arrived on the location, there was nothing there, just a field.
“Thinking about what I could do, I got a couple of stakes, and stuck them in the ground, 12ft apart, to show how narrow the houses would be. I arrived back at the studio with the film ready to go, feeling pretty pleased with myself, but somebody asked me where I got the stakes and the tape measure from.
“When I said I bought them from a nearby hardware store, the unions went mad, saying I should have used the props department, and the programme was blacked out.
“I thought I was in real trouble, but when the programme controller phoned he said ‘it’s not your fault, but let that be a lesson, these are the times we are living in’.”
But if his father Jack had his way, he would never have gone near a television studio in the first place.
“When I left school I worked in civil engineering for a couple of years, and didn’t like it at all,” he says.
“My father was a schoolteacher, and thought I should go into a profession, and journalism at that time wasn’t considered to be a profession.
“My older brother Mike was working as a journalist on the Evening Gazette, and seemed to be having a much better time than I was. One day my mother said she knew what I wanted to do, and she would square it with my father. And she did, but he was still furious, he thought it was a total waste of time.”
Bob was born in 1946 in the Chuckery area of Walsall, attending Chuckery Infants School before moving to the Birmingham Road area of town. He was later sent to board at Kingsland Grange Prep School in Shrewsbury, where his close friend and BBC Midlands Today presenter Nick Owen was also a pupil.
He later moved moved on to Wrekin College in Wellington, and admits he was not a model pupil: “School never interested me, which is strange, because I now love learning about the things I was never interested in at school.”
His first break in the news business came from Bill Webb, a former submarine commander, who was editor of the Walsall Observer: “I turned up with shoes polished, a fresh shirt and hair cut. He gave me a pencil and notebook, and gave me three weeks.”
Bob later moved on to the Birmingham Post and Mail group, and for a while was the paper’s London correspondent, but he left shortly after his return to the Midlands in 1971.
“My news editor said he wasn’t happy with what I was being paid, which wasn’t a lot, and asked the editor Frank Owen if I could have a pay rise. He said no and added: ‘ I don’t see you lasting here very long’.
“A few days before, I had met the station manager of what was then the relatively new BBC Radio Birmingham. When they offered me twice what I was being paid, I wrote a letter to Frank Owen saying I had thought about what he said, and decided to take his advice.”
It was during his time at the BBC that he made his first appearance on live television, and admits he was terrified.
“There had been a murder in Handsworth, and I was in the Midlands newsroom when somebody from the TV studio suddenly came rushing in, saying he needed a piece for the 6pm news.
“I wasn’t given time to think about it, if I had it would have been much harder. But strangely, once I had done it, I had got over it, and didn’t find it so hard after that.”
His move to television came almost by accident, when he stumbled across some of the ATV film crews outside a pub in Broad Street, Birmingham.
One of them mentioned that legendary reporter John Swallow would be leaving to take over the family business – he later returned – and that the team would be a reporter down. He approached the station manager and landed the role – despite the reservations of his older brother.
“Mike was news editor at ATV at that time, and I don’t think he was too keen on his younger brother coming in,” recalls Bob.
The early 70s were a hugely exciting time to be working in television, he says, which in many ways was still in its infancy. It was also a busy time news-wise, with the fake suicide of Wednesbury MP John Stonehouse, the kidnap and murder of Lesley Whittle, and the miner’s strike which brought down Ted Heath’s government.
“1974 was an extraordinary year, something seemed to be going off all the time,” he says.
The atmosphere in the newsroom was very different to today, with “booze flying around the place if you wanted to partake in it.”
He says: “It was very relaxed, the day used to start with a morning meeting at 9.45am, and there were no lunchtime bulletins.
“In those days the old building had three bars, and every producer would have a drinks cabinet. It was the ruination of some, but it also led to a lot of wonderful creative work.
“We produced a lot of spin-off programmes, we had Angling Today with Terry Thomas, Farming Today, Format 5, Citizen’s Rights, Gardening Today, and of course we had Miss ATV which was exceptionally popular.”
Bob became the ‘face’ of ATV Today in 1979, when he took up the role of the main anchor, a post he has held to this day.
The programme has seen many changes over that time: ATV was rebranded Central following a shake-up in 1982, and was later absorbed into the national ITV plc; the vast Broad Street studios, where 1,500 people once worked, have also gone, replaced by a much leaner operation at the canalside Gas Street basin.
“Today’s reporters are very well equipped and very highly trained,” says Bob. “When I first started, we would send three cars out on a job, I would do my interview, somebody else would process the film, somebody else would do the editing.
“If we wanted to do a ‘vox pop’, we would have to take a full ‘features crew’ out, and when we stopped people in the street they would be surrounded by a team of nine, it must have terrified them. Today’s reporters can do it all themselves.”Highlights include interviewing Sir John Mills – “he was always a delight” – and presenting youth awards with Sir Richard Attenborough.
“They were supposed to have been presented by Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary at the time, but the last minute we got a message that he had been called back, and Dickie Attenborough stepped in at the last minute.
“He was a wonderful speaker, he saved the day.”
Now 75, Bob – who lives just outside Stourbridge, says it will feel strange no longer being on television, but looks forward to having more time to pursue his hobbies and interests.
“I’m an outdoors person,” he says.
“I’m interested in travelling, and want to pursue that more. I also want to get back into my painting, I used to do it some years ago, painting mainly landscapes in water colour.
“Water colours are difficult, if you can master the water you are doing pretty well.
“I would like to get into oils as well, that is something that is very old-fashioned.”
Bob says he is not averse to doing a bit of occasional television work if the right opportunity came up – “I’m not going to go looking for it” – and hopes he will be able to use some of his time doing charity work.
Bob joined the ATV the year after his fellow reporter Chris Tarrant. Does he have any regrets about not following him down to the bright lights of London?
“Well Chris of course worked for many years as a DJ on Capital Radio, and I was never a DJ type at all,” he says.
“I did the Price Is Right on Sky Television, but I’ve never really wanted to work in London.
“I sometimes get stopped in Broad Street by people in their 50s or 60s, with grey hair like mine, and they say ‘I have grown up with you since I was a child’.
“It makes me feel very old, but it also shows you what a great responsibility you have.
“These people trust you, and you have to live up to that.”
But the burning question: What did his father make of it all?
“I think he always struggled to understand it, but I think he came to realise in the end that it didn’t turn out too badly,” he says.
“I’ve been very lucky, it’s been a wonderful life, and I’ve made some great friends.”