Nicholas Owen meets Juliette Foster, television presenter and mayoress of Surrey Heath
PUBLISHED: 21:30 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 06:29 20 May 2014
Working in the world of television news, Juliette Foster was already a familiar face to many, even before she became the Mayoress of Surrey Heath. Surrey Life columnist and fellow newsreader NICHOLAS OWEN went to meet her
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2010
For quite a while, she planned to be a missionary. Then later, she thought seriously about becoming a barrister. Instead, Juliette Foster ended up as a television presenter. And now she is also a member of Surrey’s ‘chain gang’.
The chain is the one she wears round her neck as the current Mayoress of Surrey Heath, where along with husband John May, the Mayor, she has the usual busy round of fetes to open, local people to see, and good causes to support. All very different from TV work.
“When I knew he was going to be Mayor, I just said, ‘Oh, will I have to cut ribbons?’” says Juliette. “Actually, it’s very, very interesting. We are always meeting new people. And the other Mayoresses, the other members of the chain gang in Surrey, are super.”
Tea at Pennyhill
We meet today at the plush Pennyhill Park Hotel, in Bagshot, not far from her home in Camberley. Over a cup of tea or two, 46-year-old Juliette chats away cheerfully about the meandering and intriguing path she has followed through the often bizarre world of television news, a world we both know quite a bit about. Some of her experiences have not been so wonderful. In fact, some of the people she has worked alongside sound pretty frightful.
However, Juliette may be about to get her revenge, at least in a roundabout way. She is busy finishing a book with the provisional title of Breaking News – and, although it’s a novel, it promises to lift the lid on some of the goings-on behind the cameras.
“The central character,” she explains, “is a very unpleasant woman, a female presenter. She is vile. I have worked with some fantastic people… and some really horrible ones.”
One of four children born to parents who came to the UK from Barbados, she was brought up in the genteel North London suburb of Southgate, where in the 1960s and 1970s black faces were rare enough to make her often feel uncomfortable.
“We were the first black family on the street,” she recalls. “It was very, very middle class. We went down like a lead weight. Fortunately, there was a lovely couple next door, a Jewish couple. From the first day, they were genuinely friendly.”
Other neighbours were not so. Their children would often shout abuse at
her mother when she appeared at the front gate. “But my mum was feisty. She said they won’t expect you to answer back. So I developed some great one-liners. For instance my hair was very ‘Afro’. Other kids would call me ‘brillo pad’. And I’d say, at least a brillo pad is useful!”
Once she got to school, where she did very well in most subjects, life became easier. She thought at first of a career in the law as a barrister. Eventually, however, she decided to study for a degree as a Bachelor of Divinity at Lampeter College, part of the University of Wales. Her religion has always been essential to her. “My God is very important to me. I think every day is a gift and that life is a fantastic journey.”
Her own journey was about to take a sharp turn. The divinity degree was not going well because she found classical Hebrew too difficult to master. She finally switched and took joint honours in history and church history. The calling to be a missionary faded, however, when she got to know a press photographer with whom a friend was going out. Attracted to the media, she decided to take a radio journalism course.
“I’d done some work on a community radio station in north London,” she says. “And at home my mother and father always watched the TV news: the BBC at nine o’clock, the ITV at ten o’clock. I grew up watching TV news. Whatever was on we had to switch over. I vaguely remember when Bobby Kennedy (brother of the assassinated President John Kennedy) was shot… I remember Elvis Presley dying…I remember the IRA bombing campaign in London.
“People would say, ‘How can you remember those things?’ It was because I watched it all on the news.”
There was one reason that might have put her off radio broadcasting right at the start. “I hate my voice. It sounds so… nasally.” Actually, the voice was and is fine, and she landed a job at a local radio station in Birmingham. After that came stints on the local BBC station in London. So what does she think makes a good reporter?
“It has always seemed to me to be about getting a most uninspiring brief, going somewhere, talking to people, and coming back with an interesting story.” As we talk, she looks out of the window at Pennyhill Park’s manicured grounds. “I could go out now into the grounds of this hotel, and find a story, I know I could,” she says.
Many radio reporters gravitate towards television, and she began doing
research for BBC TV current affairs programmes. To become a TV reporter, the Corporation sent her first to their newsroom in the North East of England. A busy area, it should have been a great place to learn the TV ropes. I started my news broadcasting there – many years before Juliette, I should add – and I had a delightful time. Sadly, it was very different for her. “I spent five months in Newcastle. I was miserable. I found it very clannish. I guess I was an outsider.”
She had a much better time when she was moved over to Northern Ireland, even though in the 1980s the Troubles there could make the job tricky. “I learned such a lot, especially from the man who was then the BBC’s marvellous Northern Ireland correspondent Denis Murray. You know, people outside thought it was like Lebanon, a war zone. Most days it was very quiet. We often had a struggle to fill a 30-minute local news programme.”
Juliette’s break into national news came when she joined the new TV AM station, going out on ITV at breakfast time. Fellow performers included Ulrika Jonsson, who was the resident weather forecaster. Juliette was appointed the station’s reporter in the Midlands. The set-up was not a ratings or business success, and one day the London HQ rang to tell her she was out of a job.
Back in her schooldays, mathematics had never been her strong suit. Yet, when the chance of a new job in London with the Bloomberg business channel was offered, she jumped at it. Reporting the ups and downs of the financial world – another experience she and I have shared – is demanding. Making it both interesting and comprehensible for a wide audience is extremely demanding. At Bloomberg, she needed all the skills of keeping on top of fast-moving and highly complex events, while looking cool and in control in the frenetic environment of
a TV studio.
From there, she went to the business and economics unit at Sky News, where she was fortunate to work alongside the highly knowledgeable and affable financial editor, Michael Wilson. He is rightly recognised as one of the best of business broadcasters.
We discuss what qualities a TV presenter needs. She is quite clear. “You need to get your hands dirty, like you have done... You have to have been out there, otherwise you’re not credible.”
Unfortunately, four years ago, Juliette and even the redoubtable Michael Wilson were made redundant as Sky cut costs and slimmed down their department. “It didn’t really bother me. When businesses change, there will always be casualties. There is no such thing as a job for life.” Her last move was back to the BBC, where today she works in the Business and Economics Unit of BBC World TV.
“I really enjoy it, especially working alongside presenters like Zeinab Badawi, who I respect so much.”
In the chain gang
During all this, there had been little time in Juliette’s busy work schedules for her personal life. That changed when she met and went on to marry John May, a Surrey-based businessman, who is doubling this year as Surrey Heath’s Mayor. One indulgence they do not have is a chauffeur driven mayoral car: “We use our own. We put a portable mayoral badge on it. Mustn’t drive too fast, otherwise we were warned it might fall off!”
When they married, Juliette acquired a ready-made family. John had five children. However, their new-found happiness was shattered when the Boxing Day tsunami struck. John’s 25-year-old daughter Lisa, who was visiting Thailand, died in the disaster. “It was devastating for John, devastating for all of us,” says Juliette. “You never really get over a thing like that.” A charitable foundation in Lisa’s name has been set up, to help desperately poor people in places like Thailand, Burma and Brazil.
Many journalists find themselves having to report on tragic events and the sufferings of families when someone’s life is suddenly taken. For Juliette and John, it has obviously been an incredibly painful few years.
Today, no longer needing to work full-time in television, she is glad to have her part-time role at BBC World. And if a publisher takes up that book, it may be the start of another career. “By my early 60s, I’d like to have written a number of novels and a few screenplays. I’ve always worked damned hard. But I have always thoroughly enjoyed it.” Apart from one or two unpleasant characters, of course.
- For more information on the Lisa May charity, visit www.lisamayfoundation.co.uk
Juliette Foster now writes Surrey Life's monthly Book Corner review pages