Nicholas Owen spoke to Country Life ahead of his appearance as the host of the Children's Trust annual Christmas Concert.
Nicholas Owen has been one of the most recognisable faces in British television news for over thirty years. He’s perhaps best remembered for his stint as ITN’s royal correspondent from 1994 to 2000, one of the most extraordinary periods in the recent history of the British monarchy. He turns 70 next February, but still presents the BBC news and has a radio show on Classic FM.
He is also active in all sorts of spheres, and will be the host of the annual Children’s Trust Christmas Concert at Cadogan Hall on Monday December 5. It’s a cause he clearly feels very strongly about: while he is involved in several charities, he calls it ‘the one that’s closest to my heart.’
He spoke to Country Life about his life and his 52-year career at the forefront of British news reporting.
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Working as ITN’s royal correspondent was the most fascinating time, but I don’t miss it.
It was a very turbulent period, full of very interesting stories, and one very sad story in the case of the death of the Princess of Wales. We’ll all be marking the 20th anniversary of that next year, which seems unbelievable. But I’ve always been a believer in moving forward, not looking back. I enjoyed most of it, found it very challenging, and great in that it was always very interesting, with lots of interest in the stories all the time. But when it came time to move on, I did so.
There was an enormous amount of overseas travel involved – the royal family travelled a lot more than they do now.
Back then the Queen was about the age I am now – and she’s got plenty of vim now, let alone what she was like back then! But there was a lot of travelling with all sorts of the members of the family, and I got to go to places I’d never have imagined going to in the normal course of events: all over South America, the Falkland Islands, Europe of course, the Far East, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, in the heart of the Himalayas which very few people get to go to even these days. It was an incredible adventure from that point of view.
There was such a lot of interest in what was going on in the royal family back then.
It was a very difficult time for them, of course, but was a source of endless fascination for the public. And I was there: as somebody once said, a ringside seat for history – that was certainly the case.
I always found the Queen to be the most direct and straightforward person to deal with.
I’ve got many happy memories of meeting her, and managing to have conversations with her. And of course the Queen Mother – of course she’s been dead a long time now but that was quite something. I always thought it was extraordinary to have a few words with somebody who embodies so much of recent British history, right the way back to the abdication and the Second World War. You think, ‘Oh my god, I’m actually talking to this person!’ It seemed extraordinary at the time.
Then there was the Prince of Wales. He’s about a year younger than me, and I always thought to myself, well, I was divorced father of two children as well, way back; I know how difficult that can be.
There was a quite bit of identity of interest there – of course he lived a very different life from me and we didn’t always get on. There were times when we did fall out a bit. But overall we got on pretty well… I’ve subsequently become an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, which I think is a wonderful organisation helping loads of young people who had a very difficult start in life, helping them to get into business, employment or some sort of training. I’m very, very pleased and proud to be involved in that.
The Duke of Edinburgh is always… erm… a very interesting person to meet.
He’s famous for the occasional acid aside, and I’ve had one or two of those from him. But I don’t mind that: when you consider all he’s had to do over so many years – he and the Queen were married just after the Second World War – the way he’s carried off his role as consort has been amazing. I think he’s an extraordinary man. I was always mindful of that when we had our encounters. They weren’t all bad news any means – but sometimes he wasn’t very keen to see me, and I was very wary of seeing him.
For the royal family their interest is in being seen to do things, for the public to be kept informed, and they accept that.
But, like everybody, they’d rather reporters didn’t push too far into areas they weren’t keen on – yet that’s bound to happen, and as a reporter you’ve got to get on with it.
You’re not always going to see eye-to-eye and you’re going to have to weather some storms along the way.
But we did that, and overall I think from my involvement with the royals, both sides have got something out of it. They were a great cast of characters to get to know.
I’ve never been very keen on the sound of gunfire.
When I worked on national newspapers I went to Northern Ireland for a while. Was I ever in fear of my life? Well, once or twice you have to be, a bit. If you’re anywhere near where a bomb goes off, first of all you know it’s a bomb, straight away. Even if it’s some distance off, there’s no mistaking it: the sound of it, the feel. You just know. I’ve never been very keen on being in harm’s way, never been a war correspondent, nor wanted to be. I’m an enormous admirer of those who do – thank goodness there are people who will do it, and tell us what’s going on.
I was involved in the first days of rolling news in this country, back in 1990.
It came when I worked on a programme covering the first Gulf War through the night for Channel 4. It was called the ‘Midnight Special’. Rolling news had started – but it was nothing like the sort of instant detail and endless repetition you get now.
A lot of things have changed, not just in television but in society.
I’ve been thinking recently about the Princess of Wales – with the 20th anniversary of her death next year I’ve been asked to do a few things. I mean, imagine how she’d have coped in the world today. Imagine how many selfies she’d have been asked to be in. Every mobile phone would have tracked her every step. It would have been five, ten times worse.
“Imagine how many selfies Princess Diana would have been asked to be in. Every mobile phone would have tracked her every step. It would have been five, ten times worse.”
I started off my career in the Surrey Mirror in 1964 and have lived in Surrey more or less ever since.
I still love to live in this part of the world and I know it extremely well. At the time I started there were still a lot of survivors of the First World War, so the chance to get to meet and talk to some of the old soldiers was extraordinary. I think I was aware of that even back then. They’re all long gone, of course. Now we’re talking about even the Second World War generation going.
I’ve always loved Surrey, and thought it’s an exceptional county.
My house looks out over the North Downs. I love the woods, and there’s masses of those and masses of walks nearby. I can go out of my house and, if I’m feeling energetic, walk up into the Downs. And if I’m not, I can turn the other way and stay on the flat! My wife and I have lived in the same house for 32 years, and we’re thoroughly planted here.