Harry Gration, who has died suddenly aged 71, was one of Britain’s longest-serving regional TV news presenters, anchoring Look North for most of four decades from the BBC’s studios in Leeds. He was also known to national audiences for his rugby league coverage as a radio commentator and TV presenter.
Through two periods fronting Look North, from 1982 to 1994 and 1999 to 2020, the Yorkshire-born broadcaster became an institution.
“I’ve always lived the story,” he told the Yorkshire Post on his departure. “Horrendous events such as the news of Jo Cox’s death, the Bradford riots, Hillsborough, have always affected me.”
When Gration won the first of his two Royal Television Society regional presenter of the year awards (2015 and 2017), the judges noted: “His emotional involvement with Yorkshire’s biggest moments – notably Le Tour de France – really connects with viewers.”
However, he disappeared from BBC North for five years when he felt that his “lightness of touch” style was falling out of favour with his bosses. In 1994, he left to take a PR job with Rugby Football League, his favourite sport’s governing body, in Leeds. “They weren’t terribly unhappy about losing me,” he later said of his BBC bosses. “I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole.”
He soon regretted the move and returned to television as an anchor of the BBC’s South Today in Southampton (1995-99). When Look North suffered a drop in ratings, he was lured back to it. “I agreed, on condition that I was allowed to present the programme in my own way,” he said.
His way included getting out of the studio to the scene of some of the region’s big stories, even stationing himself in a rescue boat during the 2007 floods. Colleagues remarked on Gration’s energy and enthusiasm, and his second spell in Leeds, with Amy Garcia as his co-presenter from 2013, brought him a considerable following.
The presenter’s status was confirmed when Jeremy Clarkson, a fellow Yorkshireman, featured him as one of three celebrities from the county who helped when, for Top Gear in 2010, the Robin Reliant he was driving there repeatedly rolled over.
A native of Bradford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Harry was the son of Nina (nee Smith) and Morris Gration, a chemist. After attending Leeds grammar school and St Peter’s school, York, he trained as a teacher, eventually becoming head of history at Rodillian school (now the Rodillian academy), in Lofthouse, between Leeds and Wakefield.
Out of the classroom, Gration’s love of rugby league led him to commentate for BBC Radio Leeds, beginning with a Batley v York match in 1971. He also reported on other sports and thought he had secured an exclusive interview in 1974 after hurrying to Leeds United football club’s Elland Road ground and arriving as Brian Clough was leaving the boardroom after being sacked as manager. He made the mistake of asking Clough: “Brian, can you give me two words for Radio Leeds?”
In 1978, Gration gave up teaching when the station offered him a three-month contract to cover sport. He stayed for four years, becoming sports editor in 1980, as well as covering general news, before switching to TV.
One of his early studio interviews, with Dennis Skinner, ended up on the bloopers show Auntie’s Bloomers. A technical fault with the Labour MP’s microphone meant that a producer had to crawl under the desk to attach another one while Gration carried on as if nothing was happening. “He made the most of it, suggesting we were trying to gag his controversial views!” Gration recalled.
Taking on challenges such as riding the Tour de France’s Yorkshire grand départ on a tandem and walking 130 miles in a three-legged race helped to raise more than £1m for Sport Relief, Children in Need and other charities.
During his early years presenting Look North, Gration was also seen nationally as a stand-in presenter on Sunday Grandstand in 1987 and Final Score between 1986 and 1989.
As well as commentating on rugby league for national radio (1983-93), he presented TV coverage of the sport in the Super League Show from 2006 to 2011 and was a judo and taekwondo commentator for Olympics coverage between 1988 and 2004.
Gration also fronted the networked BBC series Goin’ Places (1986), featuring country shows and sports such as horse-driving trials, slalom canoeing and drag racing. Two sports documentaries he presented, White Rose in Africa (1992) and Dickie Bird: A Rare Species (1996), won Royal Television Society awards.
He was appointed MBE in 2013 and became deputy lieutenant of North Yorkshire in 2019.
Gration’s first two marriages, to Hilary Gardner (1974) and Rowena Cluness (1984), ended in divorce. In 2001, he married Helen Chene. She survives him, along with their three sons, Harrison, Harvey and Hamilton, as well as Hannah, the daughter of his first marriage, and Frederick and Samuel, the sons of the second.
• Harry John Gration, broadcaster, born 22 October 1950; died 24 June 2022