Newsreader Nicholas Owen on Reigate life, chasing stories and allotments
PUBLISHED: 20:30 08 November 2011 | UPDATED: 09:53 22 February 2016
One of Britain's best-known newsreaders, Nicholas Owen has lived in Reigate for many years where he always has a ready smile for his fellow townsfolk. Here, he talks to Paul Murphy about why he'd never live anywhere else
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2008
Photos by Kate Eastman
I'm sitting at the pavement table of a Reigate café chatting with one of the most famous faces on British television when a lost-looking lady approaches us. "Is this Church Street?" she inquires. "Yes, it is," say the man by my side. "Number 22?" she continues. "Where exactly do you want?" he asks kindly. "Not sure," she says. "It'll be along there," he reassures her with a smile, pointing, and off she goes.
Five minutes later a car with a group of four lads pulls up to the kerb and they shout across to us: "Police station?" "All the way around the one-way system and on the right," my companion waves cheerily.
He turns to me with a smile. "I'm not really a newsreader at all, you know, I'm Reigate's tourist information officer!"
One of Britain's most respected newsreaders, when Nicholas Owen is not helping out lost visitors to his home town, he spends most of his time these days presenting BBC News 24 where he has worked for just over a year.
Before that, he had "23 fantastic years" with ITN, during which he anchored all of their major bulletins for over a decade including their daily lunchtime news, News at Ten and Channel Four News. He was also ITN royal correspondent and played a major role in reporting the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, for which ITN won a Royal Television Society Award.
Having such a well-known face, however, does have its occasional pitfalls...
"We were on holiday recently when an old-ish lady came up to me, totally unannounced, poked me hard in the ribs and said, 'I know you from TV', then strode off!" says the 61-year-old. "My wife wanted to run after her and thump her!
"On the flip side, though, a young man, around 25 or so, recently came up to me in the street and thanked me for the way I reported the death of the Princess of Wales on TV. That was both surprising, because of his age, and also very gratifying."
The Diana story may be the one he will always be best remembered for, but over the years he has broken countless exclusives to the nation.
"The one that made my heart really beat was in 1994 when the Prince of Wales admitted adultery," he recalls. "We broke the news just before the famous Dimbleby interview and then we had to watch the recording of it in full before we knew if our story stood up - if Charles hadn't admitted it, and of course they could have cut it out... As they say, 'this better be right'!"
In the course of his job, he has met all sorts of amazing people - including prime ministers, royalty and celebrities - though it was someone he encountered quite recently who made the biggest impression.
"I've met Diana, Nelson Mandela, US presidents and every British prime minister over the last 50 years ever since Harold Macmillan," he says. "Recently, though, I presented the BBC2 coverage of the Proms and I was terrified. I love classical music but my knowledge is limited...
"While there, I met Bernard Haitink, who is conductor of the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, regarded by many as the greatest orchestra in the world. He is an extraordinary man who grew up during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Because his mother was half-Jewish it was an extremely dangerous time for his family. As he spoke to me about first watching the Concertgebouw with German army officers in attendance, he closed his eyes and I knew he was back there..."
Childhood in Surrey
Though Nicholas was born in London, his family relocated to Surrey when he was a small boy, moving to Kingswood when he was ten and later to the Redhill and Reigate area. He went to a variety of schools, starting out at Hamsey Green primary school in Sanderstead and later going on to attend West Ewell secondary modern (now a primary school) in Danetree Road. He left school with five O-levels and began his first job aged 17 on the Surrey Mirror.
"I covered every major story in the area, including an armed siege in Betchworth," he recalls. "In those days, there wasn't a single TV camera out this far!"
He moved to Fleet Street in 1968 working for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times, before switching to television reporting in 1981 with the BBC North East.
"It wasn't planned," he admits. "They said to me, 'there's no one else to read the news tonight, you'd better do it!'"
His national television break came with What The Papers Say, one of the longest running programmes on British television. He remembers a colleague deliberating on his performance: "Dear boy, I think you've found your métier." How right he was.
"I love handling breaking stories," he continues, "knowing you need, in the words of my first ITN editor-in-chief, Sir David Nicholas, 'a well-stocked mind' to be able to cope."
Despite having followed stories around the world, Nicholas has remained grounded (in the nicest sense) here in Reigate.
"Even when I left for three years, working for BBC North East, I kept my house on knowing I would return," he says. "I can't imagine living anywhere else. I've even gone back to writing a monthly column for the Surrey Mirror - it's lovely how things have come full circle."
He lives with his wife Brenda, who is a freelance journalist, and they have a son, daughter, stepson and stepdaughter, as well as two grandchildren. It seems journalism runs in the family - his stepdaughter, Justine, is a newspaper reporter and spent seven years on the Daily Mirror. "She's much braver than I am, though," he says. "She has reported from some of the world's most troubled places."
When he's not reading the news, or hanging out with the family, one of his other great passions is trains and he is the author of what has been described as "the definitive history of the trolley bus". He also enjoys working on his allotment in Brockham village. "I've had my allotment for the last two years," he says. "I hardly have time to look after it, and it's not well organised like the others around it. I do so enjoy the tranquillity that you get there, though."
Back to the good life
And with that, it's time for him to get back to his tomatoes... but just as we are shaking hands goodbye, the car with the lads reappears, and screeches over to the kerb (have they realised he's a celebrity and come back to mug us, I wonder nervously...). "Found it, thanks a lot!" the driver shouts, "They didn't lock you up then?" Nicholas calls back with a twinkle in his eye. The lad takes the joke in the spirit it's given. "No, not this time," and drives off laughing.
Nicholas Owen tends to have that effect on people.
My favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: There are lots of good restaurants around here but I think La Barbe in West Street, Reigate, is one of the best French restaurants anywhere.
Shop: The Cancer Research Shop here has wonderful staff, including a lady in her 90s. They're lovely with everyone. [In July 2002, Nicholas was diagnosed with kidney cancer but has since recovered. He became an honorary patron of Kidney Cancer UK in 2003.]
View: My own back garden! It's in sight of the North Downs and is a mass of colour in spring and summer.
Place to chill: My wife, Brenda, and I love to walk. Despite the fact that we're so close to the M25 and Gatwick, Reigate Heath is a lovely place any time in any weather. If I'm feeling under a little bit of pressure, it always clears my mind.
Place to visit: Brockham village, where I have my allotment, is a beautiful place - and a reminder that there are so many lovely villages away from it all in this neck of the woods.
Nicholas Owen meets...
(a long running Surrey Life series of interviews)