John Craven: ‘I think TV is less ageist now than it has been’
By Hannah Stephenson. Published 2020-02-12
John Craven: A British icon that has grown with the generations
They say never work with children or animals – yet TV presenter John Craven has spent much of his life doing just that, firstly on his eponymous Newsround bulletin for youngsters, later as the face of Countryfile.
The 78-year-old Yorkshireman – who has interviewed everyone from film stars Sir Michael Caine and Dame Judi Dench, to prime ministers (Tony Blair and David Cameron) and royalty (most recently the Princess Royal) – remains a modest and understated national treasure.
He says he hasn’t been a victim of ageism on TV; in fact far from it, having worked predominantly on three shows – Newsround, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Countryfile – throughout his career.
“Other people have had experience of it [ageism], but I think TV is less ageist now than it has been,” he notes.
Of course, he keeps up with the news, but Craven is not on social media – a mobile phone is as far as it goes.
“I use it for making telephone calls and sending text messages. I can’t send emails on my mobile. I don’t need to be on Twitter.”
Many of his encounters with the famous – and not so famous – are recorded in his autobiography Headlines And Hedgerows, from cutting his teeth as a reporter on the Harrogate Advertiser to clinching a job in the north-east with the BBC’s Look North, before getting his big break in 1972 with John Craven’s Newsround, the world’s first TV news bulletin for children.
After presenting 3,000 episodes, Craven left the programme in 1989, feeling he’d become too old for the job.
“I was in my late-40s, the grey hair was appearing. I was the editor of Newsround and one day I looked out of my office into the main Newsround office, and suddenly I realised that everybody there used to watch it when they were at school. I was a generation apart,” he says.
But the show continued and is still going strong, albeit now on CBBC and with its own website.
“It’s probably more important now because there’s so much fake news, and children have such access to things that maybe they shouldn’t have. It’s great to have a Newsround website that they can look at on their iPads and their mobiles and get the real truth,” says Craven. “That’s probably more important than the actual broadcast side of it all now.”
But he feels there is still room for older figures on children’s TV.
“I think there’s a role still for that kind of father, uncle, grandfather figure. In my day of doing it, you had people like Johnny Morris and Tony Hart, much respected by the audience. I don’t think there are those kinds of figures around any more.”
His peers – the likes of John Humphries, Martin Bell and Michael Buerk – were eager to help in the early days of Newsround, he recalls.
“They wanted to be a part of it, partly because their kids were watching and they wanted to see what Dad did for a living.”
Indeed, Craven’s own two daughters, Emma and Victoria, would watch it when they were growing up.
“I think they liked it. It was just the thing that Dad did. I sometimes got quite upset when I got home and they hadn’t watched the show and I thought it had been a really good one, but that’s life!”
The way of life for children has changed since those days, he reflects.
“Whenever you’re out and about, children seem to be glued to their mobiles – it’s just a way of doing things now,” Craven observes. “Certainly, in my time of broadcasting to children, it was very different. There were hardly any channels on TV, so we had a huge challenge of winning them over to watch their own news bulletin.
“Some people thought we were destroying the garden of childhood, which could be applied today to social media, but we were in that garden with them and I was there to explain to them what they were seeing over the wall in the adult world. That was the mission to start with and still is.”
Television has also changed immeasurably, he muses.
“Attention span has changed enormously and I blame that on the remote control button.
“When I started, there were only three channels. Now there are hundreds of channels and people just flick. When you watch dramas now, each little sequence is about 30 seconds. Nothing is allowed to develop because of the remote control button.”
He doesn’t watch much television these days, although he does tune into Countryfile on Sunday afternoons.
“I’m an ‘appointment to view’ person. We do record a lot and we have Netflix at home, but because my wife and I are both quite busy, we don’t settle down to watch TV together until about nine o’clock at night and usually over some supper.”
Countryfile, which he joined shortly after leaving Newsround, celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. He recognises countryside issues are probably more important now than ever.
“Ever since we started, rural issues have gone higher and higher up the national agenda. People are much more concerned about where their food comes from, about how it’s produced and tracing it back to its origins,” says Craven.
“Things have changed so much in the last 30 years. Nearly a third of small farms have disappeared, people are losing lots of things associated with village life. Pubs are going, shops are going, post offices are going, bus services are going.
“It’s easy to feel very isolated now, especially if you don’t drive. It’s not all roses around the door. I’m worried about it and the programme reflects that.”
Throughout it all, Marilyn, his wife of 48 years, has been his rock, he admits. They met shortly after he’d moved to the north-east, when she was a production secretary for Look North.
“I have never taken on any offer of work without consulting her and heeding her advice,” Craven writes in his book. “She has been my manager as well as my wife for more than 40 years. In fact, Marilyn says she’s been married to me for more than 80 years because she has always had to say everything twice, whereas I’ve been with her around 20 years because I’ve only half listened.”
They now live in a rural village in Oxfordshire, close to their two daughters and five grandchildren.
He says he’s semi-retired, doing a dozen or so Countryfile shows a year, but doesn’t know if he’ll ever fully hang up the microphone.
“It depends on health. I can still stride across fields and climb the odd hill,” Craven reasons. “I was never ambitious. We’ll wait to see what happens.”