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Bob Warman - "I'm happy here, this is my patch"

Wolverhampton | Entertainment | Published:

From the good old days as a reporter to being the face of ITV's local news, Bob Warman talks long days, big changes and the thrill of the job...

For four decades he has been a constant in the lives of folk in the Midlands. That friendly face and instantly recognisable voice on our television sets delivering the local news every lunchtime and evening.

The wallpaper in the front room may have changed, along with the carpet, the furniture, and probably the TV itself more than a few times, but Bob Warman remains largely unaltered.

The brown hair is silver now and, just short of his 70th birthday, Bob himself claims to be 'falling apart' – he's just been to see the doctor and a session with the physio – but retirement is fortunately still some way off.

"I still enjoy it," he says. "They'll probably have to carry me out in the end."

Watching him in action is a lesson in professional newsreading. Cool and smooth, with just seconds to go before a live broadcast he makes sure he's got the pronunciation of an Eastern European name correct, tweaks the script for accuracy – no one argues with 40 years of experience – and delivers it word perfect. You'd never know that up to five people are speaking in his ear, counting him down, telling him to speak slightly faster or slower to keep him synchronised with the film clips on the screen, and then its that familiar, avuncular goodbye.

It sounds frantic in the gallery, the hi-tech production suite, where you can see and hear all five staff led by director Pip Brain. But Bob never breaks a sweat. No fuss. The occasional joke, lots of warm chuckles. The embodiment of good humoured professionalism.

Afterwards, wandering around ITV's Gas Street offices in Birmingham, he is unfailingly polite with everyone. The room for our interview is double booked but, over Bob's protestations, everyone clears out to make way for us.

He's brought in some old photos. There's Bob making his first radio broadcast, at Radio Birmingham, and another of him on the picket line during a strike in 1979, one with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs when Bob managed to get an interview in Rio in the 1980s, another of him with a group of Central TV colleagues including Anna Soubry, now Minister for Small Business. There are promotional shots for The Price is Right on Sky, with Bob as compere, and the ITV charity telethons in 1988, 1990 and 1992.

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Another is more relaxed. Two mates leaning on a fence and smiling happily at the camera. It's Bob with his close friend and fellow TV presenter Richard Whiteley. The host of Countdown and equally well-known for getting bitten by a ferret live on TV, Richard died aged just 61 in 2005.

"We got to know each other when I worked in Yorkshire back in 1976 and became very close. I still miss him enormously. To think he died over 10 years ago is, to me, quite extraordinary. And very sad; he was a very, very close chum. We were always on the phone gossiping and holidayed together all over the world.

"Now I am approaching 70. I don't like to think about it but I am two or three times the age of some of the young people working here."

On air - Bob's first broadcast for Radio Birmingham in 1970

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One of the accelerating changes in the world of TV is the rapid development of new technologies. The newsroom at Central is just being refitted, and Bob ensures he keeps on top of things. "You have to keep up, it's part of the job," he says. "I enjoy learning new skills, which is just as well otherwise you get left behind.

"IT has changed everything about this job. When I first worked at Central, or ATV as it was then, there were 1,500 people here in Birmingham. Now there are about 60."

Bob was born in Chuckery on October 11, 1946 – part of the post-war baby boom.

He went to Chuckery Infants School before the family moved to Birmingham Road. His father Jack was a schoolmaster at Richard C Thomas Secondary Modern school in Bloxwich.

"There was a deference to school teachers in those days, and he could rule you with a look," Bob recalls.

"I was part of a post-war experiment and sent away at the age of eight to Kingsland Grange School in Shrewsbury (now Shrewsbury High Prep School). In those days it was quite a tough school but they thought it was good for me. It was part of the big changes going on in this country at the time, there was quite an optimistic feel about things."

He went on to Wrekin College in Wellington from 13 to 17. "It was also quite a strict school at the time. I was given the cane quite liberally even for minor infringements. I don't think it did me any harm. I wasn't terribly interested in school; there was no teacher that particularly inspired me. Strangely, now I can't learn enough, particularly about history and the arts. I read a lot. Almost from the moment I left school I started being interested in things I should have been interested in when I was there.

Bob on The Price is Right in the late 80s

"I left school at 17 and went into civil engineering. I did it for a couple of years because my father thought I should get into a profession. But my older brother was in journalism and seemed to be having a much better time than I was. I knew quite a few journalists locally and they seemed a great crowd. I decided that was for me."

He got an interview with Bill Webb, the former submarine commander who was then editor of the Walsall Observer. "I turned up with shoes polished, a fresh shirt and hair cut. He gave me a pencil and notebook and gave me three weeks. That was 50 years ago."

After a short spell on newspapers Bob started working at the new BBC Radio Birmingham in 1971 and, 18 months later, moved to ATV as a news reporter.

Three years later came the story that, in many ways, changed his life. The Black Panther, Donald Neilson, was a murderous armed robber operating in Yorkshire and the North who turned to kidnapping. But his victim, teenage Shropshire heiress Leslie Whittle, died and Neilson was subsequently jailed for 35 years, dying in prison.

Bob worked on the joint ATV and Yorkshire TV coverage of the case and was recruited to join the Yorkshire team working on the Calender nightly news show. The following year Calender's senior presenter, Austin Mitchell, left to pursue a career as an MP and Bob was asked to become the new presenter.

When ATV's presenter left in 1979 Bob was asked to come back to Birmingham. "It was my patch, so I was very happy to return. And over the years I have been much happier working here. I have no regrets about not going to London or somewhere else."

Alongside his TV work Bob has set up a string of successful businesses, from a shop selling seconds of china and a video production company to his Warman PR group, which collected clients such as the M6 Toll, West Midlands Co-op and First Choice Holidays before it was acquired by rival firm Seal in 2004.

There was even a tea and coffee bar in Walsall, a frequent haunt of local reporters, although an attempt to turn that into a wine bar was less successful, says Bob.

"At that stage of my life I was very happy doing 16-hour days," he recalls. "When you are in your 30s or 40s you don't mind the hours. It's not work really if you are enjoying it that much."

That saw him combining his presenting role with compering Sky TV's revival of the game show favourite The Price Is Right in 1989, and also fronting ITV's three charity telethons in 1988, 1990 and 1992.

"In television terms they were like climbing Everest," he says. "We were broadcasting for 36 hours without a break. I did the whole thing. It was very successful and a lot of fun."

Things have slowed down a bit since then.

His prominence in local life has led to a number of approaches with offers of a political role, most recently to run as a candidate for elected mayor of the West Midlands. "It is very flattering and I feel I could provide some sensible input into the role. But I'm not a good committee man, I don't do long meetings and these public roles all involve a lot of that. There's a lot of bureaucracy and that's not for me."

Happily married to wife Diane for the last 27 years, they live in a large, Georgian house in a Worcestershire village, where Bob has become an enthusiastic gardener. Their son, Guy, aged 24, works in London 'in the dark arts of political lobbying', says Bob, while daughter Claudia, aged 22, is just finishing her film studies course at university.

While his time on screen is now down to three slots a week, Bob is keeping busy. "I walk the dog and spend a great deal of time gardening, I am president of the Birmingham Press Club and work for a couple of charities. I don't seem to have a minute spare during the day, I always seem to be doing something."

But that doesn't include a lot of watching television. He may be famous for appearing on the screen, but much modern TV holds little interest. "I watch University Challenge to test my brain, but modern celebrity culture doesn't do anything for me at all. Facebook and Twitter leave me cold."

And over his time he has seen a lot of changes in what is permissable on TV. "A lot of stuff years ago would be unsuitable now, in this day and age, but in years to come will they look at what we broadcast now and say: 'Dear oh dear, did we really put up with that'?"

Perhaps the secret of Bob's success is his consistency. "I had a granny in Wolverhampton and that is who I am talking to really, every time I go on. I don't want to offend her, but I want her to understand what is going on in the world. I want her to think I am reliable."

By Simon Penfold

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