Mike Neville

By Andrew Bowden

A North East television legend is leaving the air

Mike Neville

When the main presenter of a regional news programme decides to leave, there's a procedure. A set of rules to be followed.

First, a press release is issued. A handful of local newspapers then pick up the story and bury it in a narrow column on page seven next to an article about creative uses of wheelie bins by a local youth group.

The story doesn't get a mention in the regional news programme. (Well, unless they get a lot of fan mail in which case the programme does a quick "Yes, it's true, I really am going and I'll miss you all" segment just after the weather. But that's rare.)

The day the presenter leaves is the first and last time it's properly acknowledged on air. The final few minutes of the show are reserved for them to say goodbye. If the presenter has been there for more than a few years, some sort of blooper reel, or series of clips of them in action is shown. Possibly the cast and crew turn up and wave goodbye and people eat cake.

What doesn't happen is that on the day of the announcement, the main news story on the programme is devoted to the presenter leaving. They certainly don't spend ten minutes of the show on the subject, nor do they go to the expense of getting a colleague and friend on the line from London.

The rival news programme on the other side definitely doesn't mention it in their news programme, nor do they put a gushing article on their website. Oh and it's a dead cert that the Prime Minister doesn't pay tribute to the departing presenter as well.

... Unless the presenter in question is Mike Neville.

The word 'legend' is probably bandied around too much when it comes to television personalities, but it's hard to deny that in the North East, Mike is one. Not just because he'd been presenting Tyne Tees's North East Tonight for ten years, but because Mike had been welcomed into the regions homes for other forty years.

Ironically it was a career that almost didn't happen, for although Mike got a taste of journalism early in his life (spending eighteen months as a Junior Editorial Assistant in the Daily Mail's Newcastle office), he took a different direction after being demobbed from his National Service in 1957. His love of acting saw him join the Repertory Company of the Newcastle Playhouse.

As such, it was not the news that would give Mike his televisual debut: it was as a jobbing actor that Mike landed a small role in Tyne Tees's children's programme Happy Go Lucky playing a policeman, just a few months after the station went on air in 1959.

By chance he then landed a role in a new Tyne Tees series by David Croft - later to find fame as co-writer of Allo, Allo, Hi-de-hi, and of course Dad's Army. The comedy, called Under New Management saw Mike again playing a policeman. Originally intended to be in only one episode, the character was kept for the rest of the series.

However, it was not acting in comedies that would make Mike a household name. After a couple of years in theatre and living in London, Mike applied for a job back at Tyne Tees, joining the station as announcer and newsreader in 1962.

Eighteen months later, and Mike was presenting Tyne Tees's nightly evening news programme, North East Newsview, beginning with the launch edition on Easter Monday in 1964. Later that year he moved on again - this time to front the BBC's rival news show, Look North, taking over from Frank Bough.

It was to be an association that lasted years - thirty two years in fact - and would see Mike become a firm fixture in peoples' homes. His banter with co-presenter George House became the stuff of legends throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and the pair were also responsible for a series of recordings beginning with Larn Yersel' Geordie - a not entirely serious attempt to bring the Geordie dialect to the rest of the country.

During Mike's career at the BBC, he would see off many a rival for the North East's news crown, despite very tough competition from another North East legend, Paul Frost, host of Tyne Tees's Northern Life in in the 1980s.

The 1980s also saw him on Nationwide, as well presenting an edition of Come Dancing, and even appearing on the The Paul Daniels Magic Show. His fame nationwide was so great that he became the only regional news presenter to get the rather dubious honour of receiving a Gotcha Oscar from Noel Edmonds. In 1990 he was awarded an MBE for Services to Broadcasting.

Mike had clearly made an impression - so much so that there were many attempts to lure him to the capital full time. They were offers which Mike would decline, preferring instead to stay in his native North East. However there was one job offer that Mike would not refuse.

Mike Neville signs off from Look North in 1996

The news that Mike was to move to rival Tyne Tees in 1996 was greeted with shock - reputedly more so in the North East than the news that Des Lynham was to quit the BBC for ITV around the same time. His sign off from Look North in the summer of 1996 was heartfelt, but with a touch of joviality, leaving with the phrase "I'll be back!".

Mike was offered the role of presenting a new sixty minute nightly news magazine programme for Tyne Tees - the eponymous North East Tonight with Mike Neville. The show would be a cornerstone in the channel's rebranding to 'Channel 3 North East'. The station made the most of their new signing, running trailers featuring Mike extolling the virtues of the new show, and including the cheeky catchline of "I've switched. So should you!"

The new show was an instant hit. Ratings were up, as viewers did just what Mike had suggested. Not that they moved just because of Mike: North East Tonight was making its mark. Within six weeks of being on air it would be voted 'Best Regional News Programme' in the 1996 Royal Television Awards. In 1998 it won a World Medal for Best News Magazine Programme at the New York Film and Television Festival - beating over 2,500 entries from across the world.

North East Tonight would also see the creation of new kings of banter with the combination of Mike Neville and the ever-jovial Bob Johnson (seen (!) below). Their rambling conversations at the end of the programme were a firm favourite of the viewers.

Mike Neville with Bob Johnson

Throughout his career, Mike had been famous for rarely missing a show, but in June 2005, he did just that, taking time off air to recover from a mystery illness. He returned on 4 July to present the first show from Tyne Tees's new studios in Gateshead (below), but it would turn out to be his last.

Mike Neville in the Gateshead studio

Later that month Mike was admitted to hospital and had emergency surgery to remove a blood clot in his leg. He later revealed in an interview how he was told that if the operation had been an hour later, it would have needed to have been amputated.

Hopes of returning to work after his traditional month long break during August were dashed after investigations by doctors found that the blood clot had been caused by his kidneys failing.

The extent of Mike's illness was not revealed to the public until a frank interview in January 2006 with local newspaper, the Sunday Sun. In it Mike told how a combination of 20 drugs designed to get him back to health was instead leaving him exhausted - even sleeping through Christmas dinner. Despite the struggle, he was still determined to get back to work.

However he wouldn't be returning to North East Tonight. On 5 June 2006, it was announced that Mike had decided to stand down from the show. North East Tonight led with the story, complete with an interview from ITN presenter and long-time friend, Nicholas Owen.

Pam Royle and Kenny Toal starting the show on North East Tonight (North) on the day the news broke. North East Tonight (South) did exactly the same thing (even down to a near-identical interview with Nicholas Owen).

Despite being 69, Mike proclaimed that he was "not quite ready for retirement yet", adding that he was exploring possible new projects, and keeping the door open at Tyne Tees.

However one era has certainly ended - after almost 40 years on air, Mike departed with a wealth of well-wishers and tributes. His boots are certainly almost impossible to fill - Tyne Tees has replaced him with a rotating team of six presenters, and split the programme into two editions, one for the north of the region, one for the south. His record as the UK's longest serving daily news presenter is unlikely to be matched or bettered any time soon.

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Article ©2006 Andrew Bowden

Compilation ©2006 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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