Dad Of The North East: Reflections on Mike Neville

A laugh that spoke of cigarettes and beer; a gravitas that understood the tribulations of his home region; a warmth that made news not simply something to be endured but something to be enjoyed. For 40 years Mike Neville informed the North East of largely bad news, bad football and bad weather and – like so many from the area – I was genuinely saddened to hear of his death.

Mike Neville was the voice of the North East for two, perhaps three generations of people across Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside and rural Northumberland and Yorkshire. And my destiny was intertwined with the news he was delivering: the risk to North East industry were forever at the forefront of my family’s fortunes. Had my father lost his job among the retrenchment, sale and ultimate loss of a British Steel Mike Neville would have delivered the news. Yet he was never resented in the region’s living rooms.

Mike could be relied on to treat the news with the respect it deserved, very much giving the impression that he understood the significance for the North, without ever breaching his objectivity. This was a fine line to walk, but we always understood that Mike was one of us.

Despite the grim news it seemed he was constantly delivering, Mike remained forever avuncular to me. He had to be stern, solemn, regretful on a daily basis but there was something incredibly reassuring about the appearance of Mike Neville on Look North every night. Had there been such a thing as regional mayors – and had he wanted the job – I have little doubt that Mike would have walked it, such was the trust in him across the region.

After 32 years fronting Look North on the BBC he went to work for Tyne Tees, the ITV franchise where he started his career and whose big-money advances he resisted for decades until in his dotage, in 1996. Although we missed Mike on Look North I doubt anyone begrudged him the move: he had long since earned the region’s affection and respect.

Tony Wilson once said this of him: “Mike Neville means more to five million people in the North East than the Prime Minister ever could. At the time Tony Blair, notionally an MP of the same region, was Prime Minister. And the feeling was mutual: when the national Six O’Clock News came calling, in search of a new presenter, Mike rebuffed them.

For all the region’a problems through the 80s and 90s – Swan Hunter, British Steel, ICI – Mike always gave the impression that there was a dogged pride to be found amid the North East’s woes. He was a link back to the glory days of pits, ships and steel and though he documented their decline over several decades, there was never any impression that there was any shame to be attached to being a geordie, a mackem, a smoggie or a yakker. No shame; simply a resolute pride.

Mike Neville may not carry the same nostalgic heft for me as the children’s programmes I enjoyed in the 80s and early 90s, yet he remains an indelible part of my childhood – hours upon hours of news magazine programming delivered with an effortless professionalism and tempered with a relatable warmth during North East tea-times.

I will never forget him, nor will millions of others from the Tyne-Tees regions. Not simply a broadcaster but a friend, a figurehead, the Dad to the North East. Whenever I look north I will think of Mike Neville.

Winter Well: Sport and Mental Health

I spent three months of one winter never seeing daylight: getting up at 7am to go to work, spending the day in a windowless room then returning home around 6pm. It was a profoundly unpleasant existence and I spent those walks to the train station thinking about Summer.

In the grips of icy, black winter one thing I noticed was that I literally couldn’t imagine what Summer was like: the idea of walking around in a t-shirt and shorts seemed utterly impossible. In much the same way the thought of a better day can seem similarly remote in the blackest mood.

It’s not news that longer nights and lack of daylight can affect emotions or even mental health. But in Winter socialising is harder, there are fewer holidays and events. And there’s no cricket.

Much like the shortening days, cricket in itself might not be any great loss. But the end of the season also means a jarring break from friends and teammates. Often I view the end of the season as a release from aching joints and Saturdays that are not my own. But I know there are some who view it with dread. A support network suddenly vanished, regular contact with friends ended and the structure cricket can bring to long weeks collapsed.

I’ve often mused on this oddity. I spend six months playing cricket, drinking and carousing with my teammates. I share some of the most intense, joyful and depressing moments of the year with them. We go out to bars together, long days chewing the fat on the field or in the pavilion. I’ve been on holiday with my cricket comrades for many years. It’s occurred to me that there’s probably good mileage filming the conversations that go on in a pavilion, on a balcony or in a changing room.

Last year I spend a good deal of time listening on in what might be called ‘locker-room talk’. But I also discussed politics, race, economics, science, literature. I found out about the ten – or 21 – other people I happened to be sharing my day with and was enriched by the experience. And then, in September, it all stopped. I’ve barely seen any of them since.

There are plenty of reasons why cricket can be a positive force in the lives of those who play. Socialisation, fitness, positivity, endurance, collaboration… But there’s something that is often overlooked. Cricket’s ability to give a coherence to people’s lives: to force them out once, twice or three times a week to share company and endeavour.

Think about how hard it can be to arrange for a group of friends to be in the same place at the same time. In an age of social media and the perception (often illusory) that we don’t have time to fulfil our comradely obligations, playing a team sport forces people together.

I suspect we all recognise the value of this, whether we admit to it or not. And I also suspect that we all miss it when it’s gone. Shorn of the social pressure to turn up every Saturday if your name is on the teamsheet, it’s too easy to let friendships and solidarity slide twixt September and April.

Many a teammate has spoken about not knowing what do with themselves on the first Saturday without a fixture. They might miss the cricket, but they’re missing their friends too. And looking apprehensively to a long winter.

“Winter well”. It’s no coincidence that this is how cricketers say goodbye to one another. They know better than anyone what an isolating place the longer, darker days can be. Already they’re looking forward to the sunny days ahead: of leather, beer and collective spirit.

Originally written for Opening Up Cricket