Profile: Trevor McDonald - Voice of Middle England

On Friday he will usher `News at Ten' off the air, but the show goes on.
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The Independent Online
Britain's television audience this week faces an unprecedented crisis. In a country where viewers are so add- icted to their favourite TV fare that a furore spanning the spectrum from the Labour Secretary of State for Culture to the Tory Daily Telegraph can be aroused by the potential demise of a programme about sheepdogs (One Man and His Dog), news as we know it is about to come to an end.

News At Ten, the most popular of all TV bulletins with its viewing figures currently and ironically very favourable, has been axed by the ratings- crazed ITV. Next Friday the final 10.30pm "And finally" will be uttered by television's star anchor man, Trevor McDonald. But never mind. Seeking to reassure everyone that God remains in his terrestrial-TV heaven, that same McDonald will be the presenter of ITV's successor bulletin, The ITV Evening News, that starts the following Monday at 6.30pm.

In a period where the nation is - rightly - lacerating itself about pervasive racism following the publication of the Lawrence report, an overwhelmingly white TV public will be made to feel safe and secure by the continuing presence on its screens, albeit at an unaccustomed time, of a black man from Trinidad. McDonald's supreme achievement is that, while everyone of course knows that he is black, nobody notices the colour of his skin.

It is no accident that the man he most admires is not Martin Luther King (though he reveres King's "I have a dream" speech) nor Nelson Mandela, but General Colin Powell. Powell, of course, is the only black man in the USA who could be elected president: not because he is black but because he, like McDonald, has attained success on his own terms in the white world.

McDonald's achievement is all the greater because to the uninitiated all he seems to do is sit in front of a camera and read from an Autocue. He does not interpose his personality between the viewer and the news, as does Jeremy Paxman, nor even project himself as a bit of a character like one of his earliest predecessors as an ITN newscaster, Sir Robin Day. Yet, almost self- effacing though he may be, McDonald is one of the most popular faces on British television. And, although he does not seek attention, he is noticed all the same, as I observed at the first night of the recent production of Showboat, where other members of the audience nudged their companions as McDonald moved down the row towards his seat.

In his 60th year he is, indeed, an English gent who has garnered every sort of recognition for which a public figure in Britain can hope: an OBE (from a Conservative government in 1992); a hero of This Is Your Life, for which his elderly mother was flown over from Trinidad; a castaway on Desert Island Discs. Not long ago he was a Booker Prize judge.

Acceptable in the deepest Home Counties as curator of Trevor McDonald's Anthology (of poems) in each Monday's Telegraph (his safe choices featuring such uncontroversial versifiers as Dylan Thomas and Hilaire Belloc), he is compiler of a popular collection called Trevor McDonald's Favourite Poems. Unpretentious, decent, almost dull, McDonald if he were white would seem the very epitome of all that Middle England means. Yet he stems not only from the fringes of the globe - a tiny island in one of the world's smaller seas - but from the fringes of society in that island. He describes himself as "a West Indian peasant".

His father worked in an oil refinery and raised pigs. The eldest of four children, he once recalled that "we lived in a terribly small house with cracks in the walls, which we used to paper over with newspaper, and an outside loo." He has left those origins far behind; so far that when he returns to the Caribbean, as he does regularly, he shows irritation at the slackness of local standards compared with the jump-to-it response he can expect here in Britain. Yet it is impossible to understand him without being aware of his boyhood in the constricted island in which he was brought up.

And very properly brought up he was. His father and mother were neither martinets nor even strict, but they were firm. McDonald tells how, playing cricket as he habitually did, he would be shamed among his friends by being ordered home by his mother to do his homework. Far from resenting this experience, he values it: "I am what I am because of my parents. I was very lucky to be born to these particular parents." They inculcated in him the strivings he discerns in Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. "My parents saw a future for me in law, medicine, engineering or being another Gary Sobers."

Despite his parents' aspirations, McDonald did not get much of an education; he does not refer to his schooling at all in his Who's Who entry. Yet the English language meant a great deal to him from the start. He read Dickens, Thackeray and Hazlitt. He began winning public speaking contests. He refined his spoken English by listening to the BBC World Service. One reason for his popularity in Britain today is the classlessness of his accent, cultivated but not toffee-nosed. It was to work for the World Service that he came to London in 1970 after being in radio and TV in Trinidad.

Here he has married twice (though he mentions only one marriage in Who's Who) and has two children, a daughter by his first wife and a son by his second, with whom he lives in Richmond. Both women are white.

Although he returns regularly to the Caribbean, he has now lived more than half his lifetime in Britain and in many ways he has become almost a stage Englishman, calling colleagues "dear boy", and with rather a posh taste for champagne. His mannerisms do not please everyone. On the left some blacks - and possibly more whites - have described him as an Uncle Tom. But he has not sold out; he has simply succeeded in a multicultural society. He has a proper sense of his own worth and is unwilling to allow himself to be demeaned. Invited to take part in Noel Edmonds's Noel's House Party, he walked out when Edmonds tried to get him to read out a series of messages in regional slang, saying: "I don't do this kind of thing. I'm not a comedian."

For, however bluff and conventional McDonald may present himself in his work he is a thorough-going professional. He is not simply a diplomatic correspondent but a diplomatic editor (as well as a sports correspondent). He has been a producer. He has twice been named Newscaster of the Year. He was awarded the Royal Television Society's gold medal for an outstanding contribution to television news. He is an institution and he knows that, as such, he carries a responsibility to keep faith with the mass audience.

He is one of the decreasing number of denizens of Channel 3 who take the ethos of public service broadcasting seriously. Despite the big money on offer to him, he would not have agreed to be anchorman for The ITV Evening News if he had not been assured that there will be an 11pm bulletin as well to make up for the abolition of News at Ten. He is enthusiastic about the potential for information and education of the weekly peak hour ITV news programme Sixty Minutes, which starts in April and which he is to present, even though cynics regard it as a token G-string to conceal the sell-out to comm- ercialism by those who have killed News At Ten.

Meanwhile, he is host of a new chat show, Trevor McDonald Meets, which he hopes will transfer from the wastes of digital ITV 2 to the mainstream channel three. McDonald has a habit of being there for the big stories and clearly hopes to go on getting them on Sixty Minutes. He was in Berlin for the fall of the wall. He was in South Africa to get the first interview when Mandela was released from jail. He obtained an exclusive half-hour interview with Saddam Hussein at the height of the Gulf crisis. His seven- year stint as anchorman for News At Ten has made him one of the most authoritative figures in British TV.

Now the man described by his proud father as "my son the famous broadcaster" is ushering News At Ten off the air. Can the West Indian peasant ensure that news remains important on the dumbed-down Channel 3? What is undeniable is that McDonald, who asserts that "Britain has been very good to me", has been very good for Britain.