The beauty of being a news reporter, as the young Reg Harcourt soon discovered, is that you never know what’s around the corner.
From grisly crime scenes to transport disasters and from temperamental showbiz legends throwing a wobbly to politicians loading all of their chips on the roulette spin of one speech, there is rarely a dull day in the office.
After ATV Midlands news began on May 7, 1956, Reg was in the right place at the right time to make a career out of new-fangled regional television news which then spawned ATV Today on Monday, October 5, 1964.
Favourite memories include meeting Screaming Lord Sutch on the campaign trail in 1963 and the RSC’s Hamlet star David Warner (now 72) holding court by the River Avon in Stratford.
You could say that he made it up as he went along were it not for the need to be impartial, factual and legally responsible.
“It annoys me when Radio 4’s flagship Today programme quotes something on Twitter because you don’t know how accurate it is,” he says.
“I would be frightened of it, so I am resisting Facebook, Twitter and blogging.”
Not so watching Enoch Powell robbing himself not only of the potential to become prime minister but even of his own place in the Conservative Party.
The date was April 20, 1968, four days before the Labour government’s Race Relations Bill was to have its second reading.
“My editor, Bob Gillman, had received a copy of the speech he was going to make at the Midland Hotel,” says Reg.
“Both of us realised it was going to be a special day.
“It was a Saturday and I was the only TV journalist there. There was still no regional evening news on a Saturday so my report was shipped to ITN.”
Addressing a Conservative Association meeting, Enoch predicted that “in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’’.
He wondered if by the year 2000, the number of ‘‘Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants’’ would be ‘‘in the region of five to seven million, approximately one-tenth of the whole population’’.
Approaching his final words, he added: ‘‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’’.
Looking back on his single-most memorable day at work, Reg says: “Listening to Enoch speaking, the language he used was riveting.
“I managed to find out that the next day he would be at a riding school near Wolverhampton with his two daughters.
“So we turned up and interviewed him again and asked him: ‘Why did you do it?’
“From then on, he always remembered me.”
Interestingly, although Powell had put himself in a political straitjacket, he never had any issues with Reg – unlike some modern footballers who blame the media for their own ills.
“I carried on interviewing him about it every year,” smiles Reg. “One year later, two years later... five years later!
“A lot of the live stuff was never recorded that day and five years later some idiot said the (whole) archive was taking up too much room so a lot of it was thrown away, along with early episodes of Crossroads!”
Having watched Reg in a new DVD exploring the history of ATV as well chatting to him in person, it seems to me that times haven’t changed quite as much as we might think.
A woman being decapitated at the then YWCA on Wheeleys Road, Edgbaston, sounds hideous even by today’s standards of crime.
Certainly, newsrooms are still as hard pressed as they ever were in terms of staffing numbers and the need to master the available technology and systems before they inevitably change again.
When Reg started, the cameras were ‘mute’, unable to record sound.
The scripts were produced in Edmund Street in the city centre and filmed reports edited in Slade Road, Erdington – both had to be united on time at ATV’s studios in a converted former cinema in Aston.
If the mind boggles as to how this could possibly have worked, Reg fills in the blanks with his own dashes.
“We’d end up running through the streets just so that they could read the news,” he laughs. “That’s how chaotic it was.”
Eventually, motorcycle despatch riders were used and then on March 19, 1970 ATV opened a purpose-built studio in Bridge Street close to where the Hyatt Hotel is now.
As he sits at home whizzing round the TV information channels – old habits die hard and he still loves Prime Minister’s Questions in particular – Reg says it’s a good question as to whether our modern 24-hour breaking news services offer anything better than the properly digested bulletins of old.
“I am glad that we have the immediacy today, but I am not sure we handle it as well as we might,” adds Reg.
“They have straplines rolling across and they keep using the same pictures in the same report – I think I would rather see the newsreader.
“There are some good ones about now – though not all of them are.”
What’s the definition of a good ‘un?
“Someone who looks as though they know what they are talking about and who has a commanding presence,” says Reg.
In 1965, Reg gave evidence in court following his police-authorised interview with Norman Jones about the murder of missing Diane Minham.
Jones’ inconsistencies regarding his version of events led to his conviction.
“It was drummed into to us to ask questions like ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what’s the reason?’,” he says.
“Today, too many people ask ‘do you’, ‘would you’ and ‘are you’ which can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Born in East Dulwich Hospital, London, Reg is now long retired. Wife Anne is a former Birmingham Mail journalist and their only child, 28-year-old Jennifer works for L’Oréal in Paris.
An only child himself, Reg, whose mother was widowed when he was young, says he grew up as a “non-Cockney, for whatever reason, which helped me to get a job in broadcasting.”
His arrival at ATV came via the Nottingham Evening Post and the Evening Despatch in Birmingham as well as helping news agencies such as Caters.
Given how censored cinema was at the time, and how comparatively restrained newspapers were in the 1960s, covering the murder of a headless woman must have been quite something for a young reporter.
“Her name was Stephanie Beard and she was living in a block of flats that was a YWCA hostel,” recalls Reg.
“It was exciting from a news point of view, but it was gruesome and one of the coppers was distressed for some time.
“After that I was doomed to cover crime, there were so few of us.”
Reg’s road to becoming a ‘political editor’ began while covering the regular Midlands’ car industry strikes.
“You had to win the trust of convenors like Dick Etheridge and Derek Robinson (Red Robbo),” he says. “They weren’t anti-media in those days and, if you could get on with them, you would know what they were up to.
“I naturally took an independent view but in those days you got more out of the unions than the management.
“And from there I ended up going to party political conferences and hosting programmes like Midland Member, Central Lobby, It’s Your Shout and Central Weekend with Sue Jay and Andy Craig.”
Reg interviewed Margaret Thatcher twice, bravely telling her the first time that her answers had been “too long” when she tried to cut him off after 10 minutes.
On the second occasion, his rivals took the ‘mickey’ out of him for not realising it was her birthday.
Reg had already been hammered on the TV anvil by the peanut-munching Spike Milligan.
The former Goon Show star insisted on eating his way through the packet of peanuts while being interviewed on camera at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre.
“Well you have to eat. And this is how I eat... so that I can afford to hand out peanuts to drunken bums like you,” he said to Reg.
“That was my worst interview ever,” admits Reg. “And Morecambe & Wise weren’t easy either.’’
* Reg Harcourt features on an award-winning six-hour DVD package called Headlines to Tight-Lines – The Story of ATV Today, published by ATVLAND.productions to help to illustrate the depth of resources being compiled by Media Archive for Central England. This and other MACE archive DVDs (including Regenerating Birmingham) can be purchased using the online shop at www.macearchive.org or call 01522 837750.