Bob Wellings, who has died aged 87, became a television mainstay in the 1970s as one of the regular hosts of the BBC’s popular Nationwide magazine programme.
Tall, charming and with a winning distrait air – a sort of highly tuned bewilderment, in one critical estimation, and a manner of inspired muddle – the Cambridge-educated Wellings joined the gruff Yorkshireman Michael Barratt as one of the programme’s presenters almost at the outset.
As a nightly teatime fixture, Nationwide, with its motley crew of anchormen and women, proved hugely successful and went on to attract audiences of up to 20 million.
In its 1970s heyday it was renowned for championing consumers as well as its quirky takes on life and its sense of the absurd, notably the skateboarding duck that followed a farmer’s wife everywhere. One television critic reckoned Wellings the programme’s only concession to eccentricity other than the kind it uncovered for itself among the viewing public.
Even so, Wellings made an unpromising early outing when he interviewed the comedian and satirist Peter Cook. “Tell us about your school days at Radley,” he asked. “Were you beaten?” “Not really,” Cook replied, tout court.
More alarming was the moment Wellings was moving along a line of actors in costume when to his dismay a woman dressed as a High Court judge apparently sank dead – live, as it were – on the studio floor. “Carry on, Bob,” the director whispered into his earpiece, “let’s have the next one.”
Wellings sighed, looked down at the recumbent woman and with a polite “Do just stay there” carefully stepped over the body and carried on. Fortunately she had merely fainted under the heat of the studio lights, but the telephone calls of complaint jammed the BBC switchboard for the rest of the evening.
It was on Nationwide in 1979 that Wellings introduced the then unknown gardener Alan Titchmarsh on his television debut. Another milestone was Wellings’s participation in a Give Up Smoking With Nationwide campaign, only to disgrace himself by resuming the habit and being caught puffing smoke rings through the wood knot holes in his children’s Wendy house.
But his lapse earned him the gratitude of women workers at a cigarette lighter factory in Dagenham who sent him an engraved lighter enclosed in a card: “Welcome back! You’ve saved our jobs!”
He interviewed countless celebrities on Nationwide, including Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck, who admired his snazzy tie (a gift from Wellings’s wife, bought at a department store in Ealing; Wellings sent him a gift of an identical one) and Kirk Douglas, whom he quizzed about his habit of picking up hitchhikers. He enjoyed recalling Douglas explaining how he had once wound down his window to ask a young hitchhiker where he was going. The youth looked at him aghast and said: “Do you know who you are?!”
Nationwide was finally axed in 1983. Two years later, when Wellings and other reporters including Glyn Worsnip and Hugh Scully were told their contracts would not be renewed, several news programmes, including the main early-evening bulletin, were blacked out by industrial action.
Wellings had first worked for the BBC in 1964, making his name nationally when in 1973 he joined Esther Rantzen and George Layton in the presentation line-up of That’s Life! With its camp mix of campaigning consumer investigations, jokes, talking dogs and obscenely-shaped vegetables, the show was an instant hit and reckoned a refreshing antidote to the BBC’s then somewhat fusty factual output.
The son of the chief geologist for the Iraq Petroleum Company, Robert Arthur Wellings was born on Easter Day, April 1 1934, in Jerusalem. His mother was from Texas and young Bob spent much of his peripatetic childhood in the Far East.
During the war, the family moved to the United States, where he attended an American military school before settling in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, from where he was sent to board at Downside. After National Service in the RAF, he left Trinity College, Cambridge, without taking his English finals but having appeared in Footlights amateur dramatic productions.
After a spell as a hack writer of children’s books and as a cartoonist for Tatler and Punch magazines using the moniker “Robert”, Wellings taught at a boys’ prep school in Stow-on-the-Wold, but a chance meeting on a train with a senior executive at Anglia Television led to an audition and a job on the regional ITV news magazine About Anglia, in 1960 still broadcast in black and white.
As a reporter and presenter he excelled at interviewing camera-shy ordinary people such as farm labourers and bus conductors, as well as more seasoned celebrities, among them the novelist Angus Wilson and composer Benjamin Britten.
As his own fame grew, Wellings became something of a celebrity in his own right. But recalling his Anglia days in 2011 he summed up the experience of stepping out of his local personality zone by pointing out: “The moment you arrived at Liverpool Street station, you were nobody again.”
Moving to the BBC in 1964, he started as a reporter and presenter on South Today, based in Southampton, although one of his earliest jobs was as a one-off co-presenter on the regional edition of Come Dancing. He also did some radio work but in January 1966 he was poached back to television by Anglia, and was still working there when Nationwide launched in September 1969.
When he reapplied to the BBC for a job on the new venture, his letter went astray, but as it happened he was already being actively headhunted by the programme, which he joined in January 1970. When it was wound up 13 years later, he continued in local news on London Plus until his contract expired in 1986.
Wellings soon found another BBC berth in Manchester as one of the presenters of Open Air, a daily phone-in about television which became a staple of the expanding daytime schedule. He subsequently appeared in several freelance roles, including a stint as co-host with Douglas Cameron of London Talkback Radio’s breakfast show, but he was never offered the job he coveted, that of chief announcer on Radio 4.
He played himself as a television interviewer in the sitcom Don’t Tell Father (BBC, 1992), the bleak satire If You See God, Tell Him and The Buddha of Surburbia (both BBC, 1993).
On camera Wellings was a sensitive inquisitor with the knack of putting people from all walks of life at their ease (The Listener magazine once called him “a quiet and useful champion of the little man”).
Cars were an abiding interest, but if he had a blind spot it was pop music, and when in 1979 he co-hosted the British Rock and Pop Awards with David “Kid” Jensen, Clive James gleefully pointed out that Wellings was “square as a brick”. Fortunately, the only pop song Wellings knew – Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty – was one of the award-winners.
Many of Wellings’s Nationwide interviews have been preserved by the University of East Anglia.
He married, in 1963, Pennie Tennyson, a great, great grand-daughter of the Victorian poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who survives him with their two daughters and a son.
Bob Wellings, born April 1 1934, died March 1 2022