Simon Parkin grew up in Manchester and worked on no less than three hospital radio stations through his teenage years before landing his first professional radio engagement at Radio Tees.
Children's BBC followed soon afterwards. Simon arrived in December 1987 as presenter of the Christmas holiday morning links. During his time at Children's BBC Simon introduced almost all variants of the service, including afternoons in the Broom Cupboard, Birthdays in the morning, Now On Two and three seasons of BFT.
Simon left Children's BBC in February 1992. He became GMTV's children's presenter from the station's launch, fronting a host of shows including It's Not and Parkin's In....
In more recent years, Simon returned to radio, hosting shows on a number of stations including RealRadio, Bath FM, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Somerset Sound, where he can still be heard on Saturday mornings. Now he's back on TV, and I caught up with him at ITV Westcountry in Plymouth...
Let’s start off by catching up with you. Here we are at ITV Westcountry in Plymouth - you’re the weatherman. How did that happen?
Very flukily. My home region is ITV West, based in Bristol, and about a year ago they recruited their own team of weather presenters, having been sharing ITV Central’s team in Birmingham. I’d just left Real Radio in South Wales, where I’d been for four years, and I was freelancing and I thought “I could go for that. Why not?” So I did the research, I went to the library and got books out and I actually got very interested in what I was reading. So I went to Bristol for a meeting, audition and screen test and was surprised to be told “Oh you don’t need to know any of the science! Don’t worry about the actual weather!” Anyway, I did all right, but didn’t get the job. However, a couple of months later an e-mail popped up in my inbox from the Head of News here, explaining that they were looking for someone to cover maternity leave, and could I come in for a chat. So I did – and here I am!
And are you enjoying it?
Yes, very much so. What I’ve liked more than anything else is that at my great age – and I’m pushing mid twenties – is to be doing something completely different. To be working on a news show, to be going out and doing news-related weather packages as well as writing seven or eight minutes' worth of weather bulletins in an entertaining way is really enjoyable.
You’re getting out and about a bit too, aren’t you? You’ve just flown back from Launceston in Cornwall, haven’t you?
In a nippy Fiat, yes. You see we’re very spoiled here - because of the shape of the region, and the position of the region, a lot of the country’s weather arrives here first, and we’ve got stunning backdrops to show it off. Throughout the summer I’ve been all over. It's been great - I'd often be somewhere visually stunning and you'd be able to see the changing weather approaching!
In more recent times you’ve been more of a radio presenter, and that is where you started off. Can you tell us what sort of radio you’ve been doing most recently?
Well I’ve mentioned Real Radio, where I did the evening show for about four years. A great company and a fantastic situation. Lovely bit of South Wales to be based in. And brilliant ratings too, not just for my show but for the whole station. But doing evenings meant that my children were growing up without me, and my wife was starting to feel a bit like a single parent. So I thought, “OK, if they don’t promote me to daytime when next there’s an opportunity, then it’s never gonna happen.” And sure enough, they didn’t promote me, so I left! I did a bit of freelance stuff for BBC Somerset Sound, where I’m still doing a Saturday breakfast show, and some work work for BBC Radio Wales. That was great fun – because that’s where they make Doctor Who and it felt great to be back in the Corporation, to be part of it once again. In fact they offered me a year’s contract - evenings again - when this job came up. It was a tough call. While I loved BBC Radio Wales I didn’t really want to do evenings any more. But I’m still doing BBC Somerset Sound - a foot in the door, I’m thinking.
So - TV or radio?
Varies. I suppose if you’re Ant and Dec you can take your pick of what bit of TV you want to do - I’ve not really had that choice! Radio’s been great: I was allowed to grow up and become a presenter of adult material – and no, not in the filthy sense. At Real Radio, I was talking to an audience who, much like me, had young children, who were going through that kind of daily struggle of never enough money and never enough hours in the day. It was fantastic in terms of audience relationship. In TV you sort of don’t get that, though having said that the last six months here have been fantastic and I’ve had a brilliant time. I’ve learned so much about news and reporting. Given the choice, I’d like to do more of this for a while, before I worry about doing radio again, although radio is very much an easier environment in which to be natural. Also it’s instant - been and gone. In TV you plan, you check and then you trek off somewhere – like me today for a 40 second piece standing in a flood!
Let’s turn the career clock back to Radio Tees - your first professional radio engagement. How did that come about?
Well, I was doing Hospital Radio in Manchester. I’d been doing it for years at three separate stations – Park Hospital Davyhulme at first, then Stockport Hospital Radio which covered two hospitals and then Manchester Hospital Radio which covered about thirty! All the time I was I focussed on wanting to be on the radio. I was sending demo tapes out left, right and centre - and getting nowhere fast! I think Radio Tees then advertised for presenters, so I sent a tape in - and heard nothing. But I phoned the Programme Controller – a man called Peter Craig - and we had a really nice chat .He asked me to send him another tape, which I did, and I think it was that conversation which opened the door and won him over. Subsequently, I firmly believe that timing in this business is crucial. If I hadn’t phoned him on that day, God knows what I’d be doing now! But I really wasn’t really at Radio Tees very long – despite imagining that I’d start in local radio, then go to Radio 1, then do Top of the Pops and so on, within weeks of starting there the whole Children’s BBC thing happened.
So how did that come up? How did you first hear about it?
It was 1987. Phillip was doing the Broom Cupboard in the afternoons. I read in the Daily Star that Phillip was leaving and moving to the new Saturday morning show – Going Live! At the time I was doing a morning show, and I said to the guy that was on before me – Mark Matthews, very nice man, very keen to get on TV – “Oh Mark, you should go for this.” And he said “Oh no, I’m too tall”, or some other moany reason. Then when my show came to an end, the next presenter - Andy Hollins – came in and had exactly the same conversation with Mark. So Mark suggested I apply - but I’d only been there for two months, and I said “Oh no, I’m happy." And I genuinely was. But Andy actually found out who was in charge at Children’s BBC – a man called Pat Hubbard, but it wasn't until I'd had a really bad day that I decided to phone. And amazingly, Pat answered his phone. I can only imagine he’d had a long boozy lunch and wasn’t quite himself... but he was as nice as pie to this random bloke from up north asking after a presenter job. He asked me what I did, so I told him, and he asked me to go and see him. So two days later, I went off to London. I was cock-a-hoop that I was going to get to look around Television Centre. I met Pat and he showed me around, and then asked me if I’d mind auditioning. So I did. It was the usual “chat about yourself for a minute”, and afterwards he said “That was really wrong of me, I should have given you time to prepare. But you did really well, and how would you like to work here?” And that was it! It was as simple as that. Obviously I said yes. The next opportunity was the Christmas holiday morning links and that’s when I started. So again, if I’d not phoned when I did, I’d probably still be at Radio Tees.
You were unveiled on Children In Need night 1987 when you popped out from behind Andy Crane’s chair. You’ve already said you were recruited to look after Christmas morning links – what are your earliest memories of going on air with those Christmas trees on casters?
Disbelief! I really couldn’t believe that I was there. I really didn’t have any training – but it was a very relaxed, friendly place in which to be and learn. And you know, to look back, I had BBC1 to play with for three minute chunks at a time - it wouldn’t happen now. There I was, and only five months previously I was on hospital radio.
What sort of things did you learn quite quickly about television, and how it differs to radio?
Smile and look down the camera. With radio it doesn’t really matter whether you smile or not – thought it sounds better if you do. With TV, you’ve always got to focus and be down the camera. I curse when I see myself with my eyes looking shifty – I did it today, in fact. Some people are just really good at smiling – Michaela Strachan is a great example - her face just falls into a smile whereas mine just falls miserable! But there are similarities with radio – the disciplines, being good with timings, stopping when you need to, all of that is common with TV. So I took that with me rather than learned it, I suppose. But I don’t think I learned how to do TV properly until Andi Peters came along!
Because he just knows what works on TV. He has that brain that thinks visual, that knows “that’d be great on TV.” We immediately got on really well and I was able to learn a lot from him. I liken it to a football match when the ball lands at a player’s feet with a minute to go... and the player stops, thinks, and then kicks – and has missed his chance. He should have just kicked the damn thing! Andi taught me that’s what you have to do with TV. You instinctively know where the line is drawn, but around that line you can have a laugh, say what you like and to a degree, that method of presenting is what became the Chris Evans / Zoe Ball style.
So, you’re 21, in London, and you’re on BBC1. How does that feel?
It feels fantastic. You’re meeting people you’d never imagine you’d meet. You’re being invited to parties that you’ve no right to go to. It’s great. I wasn’t earning earning astronomical money but for a 21-year old I was doing quite well! I had the best few years of my life.
Any highlights that you recall with fondness? Whether on air or not?
We just genuinely had a really good time, on screen and off. Myself and Andi, and Stephanie Lowe and later Philippa Forrester, we all got on really well. We’d do a Sunday show and then all go out for lunch. I remember my flatmate used to moan at me for being on the phone at length to Andi. We’d just be chatting and coming up with ideas. It was just a really good, energised period of my life. I was very happy!
Do you have a favourite Children’s BBC show from that era?
Now that I’m a parent I watch things differently. Newsround is faultless. John Craven was fantastic. So to have been linking around that, it was great to be a part of that. In terms of a show I watched regularly - Going Live! was great to wake up to and watch on a Saturday morning.
You did various other shows connected with your role on Children’s BBC – Children In Need, UP2U and even Top of the Pops. Any memories of those experiences?
Presentation was the gatehouse of the BBC. Everything went through the department, meaning you’d naturally be in contact with lots of other programmes. To be able to go downstairs and just have a look at Top Of The Pops, which I did when I first started at Television Centre, was incredible. To then be allowed to present it – wow! Andi and I would wander round the studios and nip into Blue Peter or whatever. In fact, I can remember having a bit of a thing about Julia Sawalha – she was in Press Gang at the time - and we found out that she was starring in a new comedy show, and there was a pilot being made. We knew nothing about it, but Andi and I stalked Julia Sawalha around Television Centre for a day. To be able to do that, to watch them rehearsing what became Absolutely Fabulous – incredible. And you’d park your car next to Noel Edmonds, Bruce Forsyth would be in the tea bar and I remember once Thora Hird pushed in the queue in front of me one day. Just unbelievable. But that’s what being at the BBC was like!
As a presenter are there any big secrets that you’re told, things you have to do or ways in which you have to behave, that people might be surprised to hear about?
Never. There’s no boot camp where they send you and tell you what to do. The only thing I can remember is being told by Paul Smith (Editor, Children’s BBC) after Andi and I went to the premiere of Dick Tracy in t-shirts that we were representing the BBC and should have worn suits! But no secret briefings, no.
You presented the But First This (BFT) for three years. That was a magazine programme with more than one presenter and involving filming assignments and even outside broadcasts. Any highlights from that?
The thing I liked most about BFT - as opposed to the Broom Cupboard – was that you had room to do different things. Not just physical room – because we had a studio and an outside set – but we’d muck about much more. And the fact that you had another presenter with you usually made things more interesting. As for filming, we used to do it in job lots. It’d be a couple of days in Scotland, a couple of days in Jersey or wherever. And that was great because everyone went away together. But I’ve never been very good at filming! Some people are great at outtakes. I’m not – I get eaten up if I make mistakes and it depresses me. I’d much rather be live, when it’s done and you go straight on to the next thing. And filming is so boring - it’s about waiting around, driving two hundred miles for one shot and then spending fourteen years in an edit.
You’ve said you love live TV, but do any of your on-air blunders still keep you awake at night?
I don’t think blunders do, but missed opportunities do. For example, for one Children In Need I was reporting from a children's party in Plymouth. In another item on the same programme, Debbie Jones from People Today was going to dive into a big vat of jelly. At my location, I was surrounded by cornflake cakes and little tubs of jelly, and when they came to me I should have said “Tubs of jelly here, stand back, Debbie Jones could dive into them at any moment!” But I didn’t! And fifteen years on, I still regret not saying it! As for blunders, it was part of the fabric of Children’s BBC that things were supposed to go wrong sometimes. That was part of its appeal.
Edd the Duck. What’s he like?
Edd is great. What I love about him is that he can say things you wouldn’t dare to. Edd was a joy to work with. In fact, I spoke to him only recently!
Well Wils didn’t say a lot – which was not a bad thing, really. I watched one of the old Children’s BBC Christmas pantomimes back recently with Charlie, my 8-year old son, and what struck me is what a fantastic performer Wilson is, because you only ever see his hands. It’s quite incredible, the emotion that comes through!
What do your kids watch now? And what do your kids think of you being on the telly?
Emily is already a fan of Coronation Street and Emmerdale and Charlie loved Dick & Dom In Da Bungalow. I also showed Charlie some of the GMTV stuff I did - which is almost forgotten now - but he really loved It’s Not, the magazine show we did early on, which at the time was all new. I’m proud that they’re interested although they’re often fed up that they have to watch me doing the weather when they’d rather be watching The Simpsons. But I put my foot down.
What advice would you give to any aspiring young person who wants to presenter or who craves that lifestyle?
It’s so different now. When I was starting out, there were just 4 TV channels. Now there are thousands. And there are about 600 radio stations in every town. It frustrates me - probably because I’m old and bitter – that nowadays you do a bit of reality TV and you’re suddenly able to present TV! I always knew I wanted to be on the radio and I worked for years in Hospital Radio before I got my first job. Nowadays you’ve got people just falling into TV jobs and a lot of them don’t realise how hard it is, and sometimes it shows. My advice to wannabes is watch and learn, and don’t just assume it’ll happen for you if you get to be a contestant on Deal Or No Deal, or whatever.
What were you doing in Launceston today?
Well, we’ve got severe gales down here this weekend. You see when you have high pressure – and I can see you glazing over – things are settled. And when you have low pressure, you have very unsettled conditions, random burst of rain, strong winds and so on. Last night we had some very heavy rain which has caused various flooding, there’s some in Plymouth and a lot in Launceston, which is on the Devon/Cornwall border. So I nipped down there to stand next to what yesterday was a road but what today looks more like a river with an abandoned car in it, to say look at this and watch out - there’s more on the way.
What about the future?
More high pressure. Oh, *my* future. I don’t know. You know, I’d quite like a holiday – I’ve not had a day off for ages. I’ve definitely enjoyed the last twelve months, having taken a brave step and left the comfort and security of Real Radio, and gone into something completely new. I’m doing News, which I’ve never done before, and producing my own stuff. It’s nice to be still learning given that I’m a bit older now (mid-twenties, obviously.)
Where’d you like to go on holiday?
To be honest, it’d be nice to stay in bed with no alarm clock.
Speaking of which, are you commuting every day to Plymouth from your home in Somerset?
Yeah. My alarm goes off at 0630, and I’m here for 0845, and then at the end of the day I do it in reverse. It’s tiring, but having lived in London where you can drive two hours and get nowhere, it’s bearable. The days are packed! You might think my weekends would be better but after the radio show the dogs need walking, the kids need time and then the ironing needs doing...
One tends not to think of TV presenters doing the ironing!
Alas, it’s gotta be done.
Simon Parkin has since become the permanent weather presenter for the new ITV Thames Valley service.