Michael Barratt, who died aged 94, was an outspoken Yorkshireman with an engaging smile who became one of the most familiar faces on British television in the 1970s as the avuncular presenter of the newsmagazine of BBC’s early evening, Nationwide.
Launched in 1969 to follow the early evening newscast, Nationwide quickly became a popular teatime fixture. At the top of each programme, viewers were sent “across the country”, with BBC regions choosing not to feature their own local news and current affairs before handing it over to Barratt in London.
With his eye for a good human story, he presided over a mix of news articles, political discussions, consumer affairs and light entertainment every evening – often featuring quirky side lights on British life, including including a particularly famous piece about a skateboard duck. Often calling in live contributors from BBC Area Studies across the country, the program was notoriously prone to technical glitches, when audio or visual links (sometimes both) flickered, crashed or failed altogether.
It was, as has been noted, “the Golden Shot of the news – something always seemed to go wrong”, and it took all the skill of the brilliant Barratt and his fellow presenters, including Frank Bough and Sue Lawley, for everything to continue. .
For all its technical issues, however, Nationwide has built a formidable early-night following in a niche where it has traditionally been difficult to attract and retain an audience. BBC bosses have tried several approaches, including quiz shows, but viewers have consistently fallen. It was television news editor Derrick Amoore who recognized the potential to tap into the large and loyal audiences for the various popular regional newsmagazines.
Wondering how to capitalize on those numbers, Amoore proposed the Nationwide format, which embraced and built on regional loyalties. “The kind of stories we covered also reflected regional thinking,” Barratt explained. At morning conferences, regional editors would flag their best stories, many of which would be picked up and expanded on Nationwide.
“We would go from a story like the skateboarding duck straight to a live interview with the prime minister and have a serious discussion,” Barratt said. “We could go from light and frothy things to serious stories with no problem – and we covered all the major stories of the day.” At its peak, Nationwide commanded a nighttime audience of 11 million.
When Barratt left the program in 1977 after eight years, he complained that the editors were trying to make it too serious. “I felt he had wandered off,” he added. Nationwide was finally wound up in the early 1980s, by which time the show’s character had completely changed.
Tough, talkative, enterprising, with a persistent investigative approach, Barratt was an accomplished television professional, though he never forgot his provincial roots and liked to describe himself as “the hillbilly.” As television historian Richard Lindley said, his passion was for the here and now. “He didn’t take an intellectual approach to a story,” Lindley explained, “but he politely and firmly ripped the guts out of it.”
The son of a civil servant, Michael Fieldhouse Barratt was born on January 3, 1928 in Leeds, and studied at Rossall in Lancashire and at the Paisley Grammar School near Glasgow. His mother died when he was nine and his father had college ambitions for his son. But young Michael, an admittedly shy boy, was obsessed with the idea of going into journalism.
At 16, having learned shorthand, he joined Kemsley Newspapers in Glasgow, starting as a tea boy and horoscope editor on the Sunday Mail, then learning virtually every trade in the business. Starting at 30 shillings (£1.50) a week, at the age of 18 he was deputy editor on the sports pages of the Daily Record, earning a modest £3.15 (£3.75).
Throughout his life, Barratt was consumed by restless ambition. From Glasgow he moved to Leicestershire, where he became sports editor of the Loughborough Monitor and married Joan Warner, with whom he had six children. In 1956, he was appointed deputy editor of the Nigerian Citizen in Zaria, northern Nigeria, where he covered the horrors of tribalism, including the massacres that marked the start of the Nigerian Civil War.
Returning to England unemployed, he began his connection with the BBC drawing on his African experiences for some Bush House shows. More concretely, he became deputy editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star, then deputy editor of the Chronicle.
Then, in a characteristic gamble, he went freelance – and it paid off handsomely. Taking the milk train from Wolverhampton to London, he began working regularly for the BBC World Service. But it was a domestic political scandal, the sensational Profumo affair, that launched him into network television in 1963 on the world’s most famous current affairs program, Panorama.
From London, Barratt was abruptly sent back to the West Midlands to help Panorama gauge the effect of the scandal on the Tory base. In the Birmingham studio, he was told he had a one-minute slot and that the show’s presenter, Richard Dimbleby, would contact him live for his reporting. Within 10 minutes of going on air, Barratt got a call from Panorama editor Paul Fox: “Come see me.” Barratt signed a program deal at £4,000 a year.
He was not surprised to find a nest of “pinkoes” in the program, and when Harold Wilson led Labor to government in 1964, “joy was boundless” in Panorama’s office. For the next two years, Barratt reported on apartheid in South Africa, Eoka terrorism in Cyprus and, in London, he memorably hunted the Jamaican “enforcer” of slum landlord Peter Rachman. , known as Michael X, on the streets of Notting Hill.
But Barratt’s greatest triumph as a television journalist was securing an exclusive interview with philosopher and physician Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in the African jungle, which earned Barratt and his team many ” BBC’s herograms from the editorial board.
Leaving Panorama in 1965, he then presented the BBC’s late-night current affairs program 24 Hours, a precursor to Newsnight. On radio, he chaired the Gardeners’ Question Time from 1973 to 1979. After working on Thames TV’s Reporting London, Barratt set up his own successful commercial video production company until his retirement in 1997.
Worldwide assignments in which he sometimes broke the law earned him publicity which in 1973 resulted in his election as rector of the University of Aberdeen, despite opposition from some students who called him “jelly baby Barratt “.
He was considered by some to be a confusing and contradictory figure, with beady blue eyes and a mop of curly hair; his autobiography revealed great affection for his first wife as well as his scruples of conscience over the failure of that first marriage and pride in his 11-acre poultry farm.
He wrote a memoir about his television career in Mr Nationwide (2012) and has authored other books on golf, gardening, media and retirement.
In 1977, after his divorce from Joan Warner, and the year he left Nationwide, Michael Barratt married BBC colleague Dilys Morgan, with whom he had two more sons and a daughter.
Michael Barratt, born January 3, 1928, died July 10, 2022
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