Today Keith Wilkinson celebrates 30 years as an on-screen journalist at ITV News Central. This month, he is also celebrating 40 years in journalism.
Keith, who has won numerous regional and national journalism awards, has covered many big stories.
Yet he says his personal favourites are the ones that made him laugh!
In this question and answer session, he reveals a few stories have made him cry. He also tells of his most terrifying on-screen moments, how a royal prince “saved his bacon”, and how his first live TV appearance involved him pulling his tongue out at millions of viewers!
- Have things changed much in 30 years?
Loads. Thirty years ago we always filmed with a cameraman, sound man and an electrician. Now we often film our reports ourselves with our own cameras, and we frequently edit our news reports ourselves on laptops or at our desks. This is probably the biggest change. It’s largely because advances in technology have made this possible.
- What was the most scary live moment in 30 years on The Box?
There have been quite a few. One day when we first got robotic cameras in the studio, one of them went berserk as I presented a bulletin. First, it took a shot of the floor, and then it zoomed in on my nose and wouldn’t budge. My editor said it was the worst piece of television he’d ever seen.
- Out of all the famous people you have interviewed, have you any favourites?
Some people – and, I think it’s extremely rare - have real charisma. Norman Wisdom was one of those. He also totally fooled me into thinking he had had a heart attack when he fell to the floor. It was just one of his practical jokes.
Another megastar who had that special “something” was the forces sweetheart, Vera Lynn. I interviewed her in Coventry in front of thousands of people. That’s something I will never forget. In Russia, I met some of the first men ever to go into space. That was a real privilege. True heroes. We owe people like them such a lot.
- Have you had any tricky interviews with well-known faces?
I interviewed Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. She became extremely indignant when I butted in on her answers. Then when I recently interviewed former NUM leader Arthur Scargill about Thatcher, he refused to say anything about her at all. It was a classic – and the silent interview made Have I Got News for You. A few years ago Michael Winner launched into a long series of unrepeatable expletives when my cameraman’s phone went off in the middle of an interview I did with him.
- Have you had any interesting moments with members of the Royal Family?
I have to admit to really liking Prince Charles. So to get a few funny words from him was one of the highlights of my career. He was on the footplate of a steam locomotive and I asked him on camera if he had ever driven a steam engine before. “Does it look like it?” he asked. “No Sir,” I unwisely joked. “Well I have and probably before you were born,” was his answer (thankfully with a smile on his face).
Prince Andrew once saved my bacon, for which I am eternally grateful. He’d given an interview in the middle of a massive press scrum, and my cameraman and I missed much of it. He came over to us and said: “You seemed to be having trouble at the back there. Would you like me to do it again for you!?” I couldn’t believe it.
- Have you ever been upset whilst covering a tragic story?
More often than I care to remember. Once, while interviewing a woman who was about to die from cancer, both the cameraman and I were in tears. There have been a few moments like that over the years. You cannot help relate things to your own experiences. My mum died of cancer when I was two years old.
- What was the most outrageous thing you ever did for a story?
As a non-sporty person, I became The Human Guinea Pig for six gruelling months on Central News. I did a triathlon, a half-marathon in sea water, and increased my fitness to a level described as “supreme”. Sadly, I am back to being a slob again.
- What are your favourite stories?
Funny ones. I once climbed through appalling conditions – bogs, fog, torrential rain and howling gales - to the source of the River Severn to do a piece to camera. When I got there I fell over and banged my head on the wooden post that marks the spot. Laugh? I nearly died.
- What do you like most about working for ITV News Central?
This is going to sound insincere. But it isn’t. It’s the viewers. There are nice folk to be found everywhere. But the Midlands seems to have more than most.
- What sort of things have you done where you have thought – wow! And I am getting paid to do this!?
For goodness sake don’t tell the company accountants. But there have been a few moments like that. Meeting those first men in space in Russia; crossing the Namib Desert; doing loop-the-loops in a flying display team; driving very fast cars and steam engines (not with Prince Charles); coming face to face with wild elephants…
- What was the most terrifying stunt you ever did on camera?
By a million miles – truck racing at Donington Park. The grey hairs on my head…I blame that entirely on being in a lorry cab while truck racing. Just recalling it still makes me turn white with fear.
- Tell us a few personal things about yourself the viewers might not know?
My wife was brought up in the grounds of the Royal palace in Sweden and the king used to pop in for tea. My dad saved my life when I almost choked to death. I used to go on 40-mile cycle rides on my own when I was ten years old. I was named after town of Keith in Scotland because of my Scottish roots.
- How did you get into journalism?
I got my first by-line on the front page of an evening newspaper at the age of 13. I pestered a local editor until he gave me a job at the age of 18. He said I was the worst of several candidates but he thought I should be given a chance as he’d never seen anyone more determined. My tip of the week to budding journalists: stick with it!
- Was there a Golden Era of TV journalism?
We all like to think so. But in truth it’s probably right now. Look at some of the reports of James Mates and John Irvine, for example. Brilliant.
- Has anyone inspired you in TV journalism in the past 30 years?
Quite a few people. The best of the best was my friend Terry Lloyd who was killed in Iraq.
- When did you first appear live on television?
When I was a small boy I appeared on Songs of Praise. I pulled my tongue out at the camera. I got told off the next day by my teachers!
- Have you any unfulfilled ambitions?
To interview Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.