My Mentor: Nicholas Owen on Mike Neville

'He taught me that television news is not acting, but it is a performance'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In 1981, after 17 years of working for papers, I got a job at BBC Look North in Newcastle, where the local news anchorman was Mike Neville. He is a Geordie legend and has a towering local reputation, in a way that no one in national television does.

I had a vague idea I might like to do some presenting, but what Mike did was take that unfocused approach and shape it into something I've made a comfortable living from.

First of all, he has this ability to make the readers feel part of what is going on, to keep them on side and not embarrass them through awkward links or patronising coverage.

He once told me: "Forget what the reporters, cameramen and producers are doing; you can't be remote, you have to have an intimacy with the viewer."

Along with that was the ability to cope in a crisis. Mike has this ability to ad lib and fill the awkward gap, but done in a way that doesn't make the viewer squirm. Once the team wasn't ready when it came to broadcasting time, so Mike just started with the weather forecast, and made it seem like the most natural thing in the world.

I learnt how to do this the hard way, sitting alongside Mike in the studio. On several occasions I got into the most awful tangle, and he'd come up with some wonderful phrase and get me out of another mess.

He taught me how, in the same programme, to switch from a serious story - a murder, a crash, a strike - to a lighter item, maybe sport, without awkwardness.

Because of his inspiration and help I got some presenting experience, and when the ITN job came up in 1984 I was able to make the most of the chances I was given on screen.

If I hadn't been in the Mike Neville school I might have made a right hash of those early appearances and never been given another chance. But I was able to prove I was unflappable.

When things go pear-shaped, Mike's persona inhabits me and I'm calmer. He taught me to talk slower and ignore the shouting in the ear and the people running and the hot lights.

Mike taught me that television news is not acting, but it is a performance. The only way to carry any conviction is to be genuine.

He's in his mid-sixties and still going strong. I often get an e-mail from him after I have a major breaking story, saying "Well done lad". I always reply, "Well, we know who taught me."

Nicholas Owen presents 'ITV Lunchtime News'