Nicholas Owen on his love for classical music, breaking news and Reigate's independents
PUBLISHED: 09:34 22 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:52 17 April 2018
One of our nation's most respected newsreaders, Nicholas Owen has also indulged another passion for the past five years by lending his calming tones to classical radio. Matthew Williams goes behind the scenes at London's Classic FM to meet the popular Reigate resident
In contrast to the neon billboards and manic shopping dodgems of Leicester Square outside, subtle string harmonies wash over us in the calmly-lit studios of Classic FM. In front of me, the man air-conducting the piece from behind the microphone is presenter Nicholas Owen, best-known for his career as a TV news anchor, and still commuting up to town from his long-term home in Reigate.
“To be honest, the news can be a grim place some days, so it’s lovely to be able to get away from it all and immerse myself in these shows,” says Nicholas, who has been orchestrating his Saturday show at the station for five years now.
Slightly surreally, only metres away in separate branded studios, Toby Anstis and Kate Garraway fight their own battles for the nation’s ears, on Heart and Smooth, respectively.
“We see it all in here,” says Nicholas, as another successful show comes to a close and Surrey Life is whisked off to one of the meeting rooms in the labyrinthine radio hub.
“It’s taken a little time for me to get used to someone reading ‘my’ news for me, but I think I’ve learnt to leave them to it,” he laughs, tucking into a well-deserved lunchtime croissant and coffee. “They know where I am if they do ever need any advice!”
With 30-something years in TV news (and a background in the papers that started as a 17-year-old at the Surrey Mirror before that), he certainly has a wealth of knowledge to share. These days still fronting news programmes for the BBC, he remains perhaps best-known for his role in reporting the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, for ITN, which won a Royal Television Society Award.
“I’m incredibly lucky that for most of my career it’s never really felt much like work,” he continues. “I’ve been in the right places at the right time and thrown myself into every story, from the blockbuster headlines to the ones some might consider slightly inane. You have to, otherwise why should the viewer carry on watching?
“It was all terribly exciting when I first joined ITN, as we had some extremely clever people setting out to make sure we didn’t just follow what a news programme was ‘meant’ to be at the time. Things were always changing and that was a real thrill.
“I feel very lucky though to have been around at the time I have, when news programmes were key set-pieces in the day rather than a stream of 24-hour coverage. The way we consume news has changed dramatically, and the extra skills young people need to learn to do the job seem to be growing by the day. Let’s just say, you won’t find me on Twitter!”
Away from the nation’s screens and radios, and the numerous events that he hosts with such infectious enthusiasm throughout the year, home with his wife Brenda remains the house they’ve long owned near Reigate Heath. The family home was where they brought up their four children, who now return to visit with the nine grandchildren.
“I’ve always felt incredibly comfortable there, and we’re so lucky to have such easy access to walks around the heath – it’s one of the most beautiful places I know anywhere – and, if we’re feeling particularly energetic, up the steep slopes to the North Downs. I’ve given some thought to scattering my ashes when the time comes, and they’re both on the list.
“We also love Ranmore Common near Dorking and one of our very favourite walks is between the villages of Brockham and Betchworth, along the River Mole if it’s not too soggy. We might stop in for a quick drink at The Dolphin in the latter, if the urge strikes. I’ve always loved Brockham, adore it, and had an allotment there for a while, with a view to spending more time there. The most important thing I bought in the end was a chair. Unfortunately, work had other plans, but I still visit. We took some American friends there to show them the quintessentially English village and they loved it.”
He remains a keen golfer, too, and is president of Bletchingley as well as a member of Reigate Heath, where he’s learned “things about the area that I never would have done, if I hadn’t been chasing lost golf balls.”
Like many golfing enthusiasts, he doesn’t get out on the course as much as he would like due to a packed diary of commitments. Still very much a man about the county, as well as being a keen supporter of Cancer Research UK (he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2002 and Brenda with lymphoma in 2014 – both have since made a full recovery), he can often be found out and about in Surrey supporting his main local charities, Tadworth’s The Children’s Trust, Dorking’s The Brigitte Trust and Lingfield’s Young Epilepsy.
“It’s a shame, but you do have to be selective,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be just a name on the list, as it were. If I can’t actually offer something, then I won’t sign up. We’re very fortunate to have so many people doing so much good locally.”
A keen supporter of independent businesses too, he’s hosted the Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards since they first launched in 2013. Last year’s event at Foxhills, however, proved particularly close to his heart, as he handed the posthumous Pride of Surrey award to the family of Fanny’s Farm Shop’s larger-than-life creator, Fanny Maiklem.
“It was incredibly poignant to celebrate Fanny’s life at this year’s awards,” he says. “My wife and I had been very close to her and her family, so she is extremely sorely missed. She must have taken holidays, but whenever we were lucky enough to visit, there she was with a warm welcome and her latest innovative ideas coming to fruition – all still off the power grid, using only a generator. One of a kind! It’s sad to see the place shut since her passing, but what a place to have been able to enjoy.”
While Fanny’s Farm Shop, which was located just outside Merstham, may now be nothing more than a nostalgic memory, Nicholas says that he thinks we’re very lucky to have some amazing small businesses locally.
“Whether it’s the likes of Serge Tassi at La Barbe and Tony Tobin at The Dining Room, or the lovely Marc and Joelle at Cullenders deli, they all do wonderful things and work so unbelievably hard,” he continues. “The little coffee shop by the station (Beryl and Pegs) has done brilliantly since opening, too, and I’m a regular at Simon’s Eggs in Hookwood. That’s just a few of those around my hometown; I’m sure the same thing is happening across Surrey. I’m a great admirer of anyone who manages to start up and run their own business.”
Home sweet home
Having lived in the county since his family relocated here when he was a small boy, Nicholas clearly remains very proud of his roots.
“We’re lucky in a way that Reigate hasn’t really changed that drastically over the years,” he says. “Yes, there’s probably one or two too many chain cafés and restaurants, which I leapfrog to get to the independents, but otherwise it’s in pretty good shape.
“They used to say the borough (which was just Reigate and Redhill back when I started, before Banstead got involved) had more pubs in a smaller area than any other part of the country, and whether it was true or not, it certainly made the quieter days on the newspaper drift by a little easier. It’s a shame that a lot of them have closed, as they were landmarks on every corner and such hubs of the community and hospitality. We need to be careful not to lose that heart, as I’m still not sure restaurants etc have quite the same effect.”
As he looks forward to celebrating his 69th birthday (“I’m not a big one for birthdays but I think I might struggle to escape the big 70 next year…”), will there come a time when trekking into London for work does eventually take a back seat to days on the golf course?
“Honestly, I’m very lucky that work has always been such a pleasure. Sometimes, I get so swept up in it, I forget that I’m working at all, so as long as that feeling stays I can’t really see things changing. One of my bosses once told me that I’d wake up one day and want to leave it all behind, but that has never happened for me. News has been part of my life as long as I can remember – and as a lover of classical music, I almost feel like a listener still with this job; I’m always learning fascinating new things. These five years at Classic FM have flown by. I’m a firm believer that whatever you do, you do it 100%. If I had an infinite life, I suppose I’d carry on doing absolutely everything in all sorts of directions!”
As his fans will be well aware, Nicholas has the kind of voice that you could sit and listen to for hours – and the stories to entertain you throughout – but as our time together ends and he heads back to the office, I’m back out into the hurly-burly of Leicester Square. Steam trains, green and pleasant lands and violin concertos quickly seem a distant memory.
My Favourite Surrey
View: I’ve always loved trains and have a friend who lets me know whenever one of the old steam engines is passing through the North Downs near my home. If I’m around, I love watching it from the fields. They still retain a magic and most people can’t fail to smile at them, which leads me to the conclusion that we’re all railway enthusiasts really!
Place: This is going to sound a little bad as a presenter on Classic FM, but I still haven’t gotten round to visiting Leith Hill Place, the National Trust owned former home of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams on Leith Hill. So that one is definitely on the 2016 hit list!
Restaurant: I remain a big fan of French restaurant La Barbe and Tony Tobin’s The Dining Room, both in Reigate town centre. They are great.
Pub: As well as The Dolphin, I’ve always been a fan of the Skimmington Castle (or The Skim as we call it) on Reigate Heath. In fact, I’ve probably been going there since I was old enough to drink… and possibly a little bit before then.