Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

A Little Chat With… John Craven

In early 2007, me and my BBC Tees co-presenter Shack launched a radio feature called ‘Little Legends’… basically tracking down some of our childhood heroes and persuading them to chat live with us on the wireless. I thought it might be fun to transcribe some of these genial ramblings for the Wiffle blog, and so – kicking us off – a chinwag with Newsround and Country File broadcasting legend MR JOHN CRAVEN. Shortly before we spoke to him, John had been reunited on TV with his former Swap Shop colleagues Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin for a special BBC2 theme night…

Hello John! It was really nice to see you on TV over Christmas, reunited with the rest of the Swap Shop team. Was it fun to do?

It certainly was. It’s quite amazing really that we’re all still alive, we’re all still in the business and we all still talk to each other! We keep in touch, and I have dinner now and again with Maggie or with Noel, and it was fantastic to get together again on TV. We all walked in the studio the morning it was being recorded, and they’d rebuilt the set just as it was thirty years ago, there was Posh Paws sitting on the desk, and when they played the theme tune we all just about burst into tears… (laughs).

I do remember the shock I got as an eight-year-old when, on the very last episode, you were revealed to be the master puppeteer behind the Lamb…

That’s right! (laughs) That all came about because something went wrong – as it often did – during the show, they couldn’t run something that they’d intended to, and we were told that they were coming back to the studio for ten minutes and we’d have to fill. And round the desk we used to have all these soft toys… so I grabbed one, popped under the desk, and stuck its head in the air so Noel could talk to this thing. And it was a lamb… so Lamb became a bit of a Little Legend! And he had to be adapted so I could put my hand up him properly…

You weren’t tempted to pass the duty onto somebody else after the first occasion?

No, I liked doing it! I should have been a bit more streetwise, I think, and patented Lamb. I could have made a fortune out of him…

Do we recall you as a Bee Gee at one point as well, or have we imagined that?

No, I walked down the staircase with a funny wig and sang Massachussetts. The things we did… and I was supposed to be the sensible news man on the show! Of course when Swap Shop first started, there’d never really been anything like that on TV before, a three-hour live entertainment programme. The longest running programmes previously had been the sports programmes, but there’d been nothing like this in the studio. So they were a bit concerned that three hours of froth would be a bit too much for the children, and they wanted a bit of grit as well… and I was dropped in as the grit. And although we kept that grit – we had people like Margaret Thatcher on after all – we had a lot of fun as well.

You’re from Leeds aren’t you…?

I am, and I very nearly worked for the BBC on Teesside at one point…

Really?!?

Yeah, because I started off my BBC career in Newcastle for regional radio… and I think BBC Radio Teesside, which was the forerunner of your station, started in about 1970. And I was invited to apply for a job there, but at the same time I was offered a definite job with the BBC in Bristol. So not wanting to take a chance I went to Bristol. But who knows what might have happened if I’d gone to Teesside instead…

There should be a plaque here to commemorate you…

Yes, “John Craven Was Almost Here”!

You must work with the current generation of young journalists at the BBC these days, do you meet people who have been inspired to enter the profession by watching Newsround throughout their childhood?

It’s actually true, that. And it’s great to know. A lot of people tell me they got their interest in current affairs from watching Newsround, and that watching me made them want to be a journalist or broadcaster. Which is nice, because at the time you don’t think that you’re having such an influence, it’s just a hectic job – it was a live show, we were a very small team, we had to put it together quite late with no time for rehearsal. And you’re so busy concentrating on getting it right and doing it properly that you don’t really think about the impact that it’s having on the other side of the screen. And so it’s great now that a whole bunch of people in their… I guess their thirties…?

That’s us, yes!

You’re all my children! (laughs)

Was it a tricky balance to strike? You want to get important news issues over to kids, but without patronising them…

That’s right. I didn’t want to appear to be like a teacher, which is why I rarely sat behind the desk… I always sat in front of the desk, or perched on top of it – which was a bit awkward at times when the scripts fell off my knee! But I wanted to be relaxed – maybe not quite as relaxed as they are these days, but then television has changed enormously since Newsround began. And so has Newsround itself, obviously. I was always a bit ‘Sit down, be quiet and listen to this,’ I think… (laughs)

Have you seen Newsround recently?

Yeah, I keep an eye on it from time to time. And I went back to do the thirtieth anniversary programme a few years ago. But mostly these days I’m in the fields in my wellies, and I don’t get to see much children’s television.

How long is it now since Country File began?

It’s coming up to twenty years. It started without me, and I joined after about eighteen months – I left Newsround on the Friday, and started with Country File on the Monday.

What made you fancy the move?

I think I was getting too old for children’s television. The old grey hairs were starting to come along, and it’s a very bouncing up and down business – you’ve got to be young and fit, and there doesn’t seem to be a role these days in children’s television for the‘uncle’ figure.

Which I think is a little bit of a shame… I remember when I was a kid, even the Blue Peter presenters – John Noakes and Peter Purves, must have been well into their thirties at that point…

Yes, and then you had people like Johnny Morris and Tony Hart, who were kind of grandfather figures, really – and I think that’s important for children.

Are you an outdoor kind of chap, then?

Oh yes, absolutely. Country File is a dream job for me.

Did you get marooned in snow anywhere last week?

No, we were lucky actually – we were in Ironbridge in Shropshire, and snow was forecast, but it seemed to go over the top of us and missed us completely. But I have been snowed in many times over the years.

I guess it’s an important programme to be presenting on TV these days, with environmental issues so prominent in the news…?

That’s right, and rural affairs as well, of course – with all the food scares we’ve had, and concern about the accountability of where our food is coming from… so yeah, it’s amazing that we can do all that and get nearly three million viewers on a Sunday morning.

It’s a great programme to start the day with. I watch it while I’m doing my ironing.

Do you really? (laughs). Well, we’re getting a magazine soon as well, you know… there’s a Country File magazine being published by the BBC from the Autumn, so look on your supermarket shelves for that…

Will you be contributing to it?

I hope so! I’ll have words to say if I’m not!

So Country File’s been on air for nearly twenty years, and Newsround for eighteen before that, do you have any other ambitions left to fulfil in the broadcasting world?

Well I don’t know, some people would say I’d not been very ambitious – if you include Swap Shop, that’s only three jobs in thirty five years! Although I was trying to think the other day actually, I’m not sure many other people have been on BBC1 almost every week for that length of time… and I’ve just signed another contract to do Country File for another year. We live from year to year in this business, don’t we?

Month to month for us John, if we’re lucky

(laughs) At least it isn’t day to day…

Country File is now on Sunday evenings on BBC1, and BBC Countryfile Magazine can be found at www.bbccountryfilemagazine.com. Thanks to John for the chat!

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1 Comment»

  Geoff wrote @

3 jobs in 35 years but a legend! Me and my mate Mark used to play a game on long all nighters at work where one of use would make up a tricky scenario for the other who would then have to name which childhood celebrity’s help he would enlist to deal with said problem, justifying the rationale in the process. e.g: you’re having some building work done and you think the builders are dragging their heels. Who would you trust to deal with them? Anyway in the end Mark had to adapt his questions to feature the phrase ” and John Craven is in available because he’s on holiday” because he was usually the person I picked. Childhood bonds are very strong! The serious point of course is that the reaso I always picked John is because even all these years later I see him as a reassuring figure as I’m sure many people of our generation do. Also my Mum was sat at a table next to him in a restaurant once and listened in on his conversation. She said he was a lovely man!


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