Michael Barratt obituary

In the late 1960s, the BBC was looking to create a popular early evening TV magazine show, bringing together regional news programmes for the first time. The resulting show was the successful Nationwide, fronted by Michael Barratt, who has died aged 94.

The programme turned local presenters into national figures – with Barratt as the ringmaster. It was conceived by an inspirational news editor, Derrick Amoore, who had spotted that audience figures remained high while regional programmes were on. “The show understood the great strengths of regional loyalty and accents, so the regions became well known and feted,” said Barratt.

Nationwide was launched in September 1969, three nights a week and in black and white (since some BBC regions did not yet have colour). Initially it stretched BBC technology to its limits. Going out live was an essential part of its appeal, but having 11 studios live on air simultaneously was a major exercise. Barratt later wrote: “Only too often I’d say something like ‘In our Glasgow studio is Jock McGonagle’ and up on screen would be a man in a kilt with no sound coming out of his mouth or nothing but wavy lines. On the second night, I suddenly found I had a blank screen and I was left to my own devices for two of the longest minutes of my life.”

Barratt, unusually for a BBC presenter, also had some editorial power. “Derrick wanted me to be much more than a presenter – he called me the ‘co-ordinator’ and required me to be deeply involved not only in the content but in helping bringing our regional colleagues ‘on board’.” Together they set out to turn the BBC’s national agenda upside down, treating each region seriously and not just as adjuncts to the capital.

Nationwide’s mix of serious journalism and lighter items proved hugely popular. “We mixed humorous – often truly witty – items with serious social or political comment. Thus we might follow a piece on our famous skateboarding duck by interviewing the prime minister,” Barratt said. There were consumer items, too: Nationwide was the first home of Watchdog, which later became a long-running consumer programme in its own right.

It launched the careers of many presenters, including Frank Bough, Sue Lawley, Hugh Scully, John Stapleton, Richard Stilgoe, Des Lynam and Sue Cook. Those who worked behind the scenes included the creator of Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding, the documentary maker Jane Treays, and executives such as the later media commentator Steve Hewlett, BBC director general Mark Thompson and Richard Tait, editor in chief of ITN. Barratt himself stayed on the show until 1977.

At its peak it attracted 11m viewers and made Barratt a household face and name. The UPI news agency called him “the British counterpart to Walter Cronkite”.

Barratt also worked on Panorama and 24 Hours. After nine years at Nationwide he left the BBC to set up his own business, one of the early media training and corporate video companies.

Born in Leeds, Michael was the son of Wallace Barratt, a tax inspector, and his wife, Doris, who died of tuberculosis when Michael was six. Wallace remarried when Michael was in his teens, and the family moved to Scotland. He attended Rossall and Paisley grammar school.

Aged 16, he started work as a tea boy at the Sunday Mail in Glasgow. This was during the second world war, in 1944, and he had to pluck up courage to tell his father that he was turning down a university place at St Andrews to join the newspaper. His father – who had ambitions for him to become a doctor or bank manager – was horrified. A year later, the young Michael became assistant sports editor and progressed from there, he said, “rising through the ranks with various newspapers and moving on every two years to try something new”.

In 1956, he answered an advertisement to become assistant editor of the Nigerian Citizen, in Zaria, northern Nigeria. While there, he was invited to start a radio discussion show to introduce Nigerians to Westminster–style government as the country approached independence. This was his break into broadcasting.

Returning to Britain after a year’s “tour” in Nigeria, he began writing news scripts for the African section of the BBC World Service, as well as reporting for the Wolverhampton Express & Star and freelancing as a TV reporter on the BBC’s Midlands Today.

Michael Barratt with a a two-month-old Donna in 1970. Nationwide had rescued her during an investigation into puppy farming in Scotland.
Michael Barratt with a a two-month-old Donna in 1970. Nationwide had rescued her during an investigation into puppy farming in Scotland. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Having married Joan Warner in 1952 and started a family, he was constantly on the lookout for new outlets to earn more money. He soon gave up the newspaper job for television: his big break came when he was asked to provide a one–minute report for Panorama on the effects of the Profumo scandal on grassroots Tories in the Midlands. When it was over, he said, he was at “near collapse with an excitement that, for me, only live television can bring”. He was invited to make three more film reports, including one on the Rachman property scandal in west London, then, in 1963, was asked to join the team.

Barratt said he was terrified, because Panorama was the flagship news programme, with Richard Dimbleby at the helm. “He was the ultimate professional, a star to guide me by, and he taught me the basics: get your facts right and learn them,” Barratt said. He reported from all over the world, securing the only interview with the missionary, theologian and surgeon Albert Schweitzer at his leprosy hospital in what is now Gabon. Closer to home, he set out “with rash bravado” to expose the East End gangsters the Kray Twins. His report “wasn’t the end”, he said, “but I like to think it was the beginning of Ronnie and Reggie’s ultimate exposure and conviction.”

After two years on Panorama, he was asked to help set up a new daily magazine programme, 24 Hours, with Cliff Michelmore and Kenneth Allsop, two stalwarts of the groundbreaking Tonight show. He stayed for four years, first as reporter, then as a presenter, before the launch of Nationwide.

Another Nationwide presenter was Dilys Morgan, who in 1977 became Barratt’s second wife, and this influenced his decision to leave the programme. They had two sons and a daughter – from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, he had three sons and three daughters – and set up home in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where he wrote books on golf, retirement and gardening, and launched his production company, Michael Barratt Ltd, training people in business, media coaching and public speaking.

In his last few years at the BBC, Barratt was asked to host two programmes for which he would not have been the obvious choice. Songs of Praise (1977-82), he said, was “not my cup of tea, as a non-believer who only attended church for other people’s weddings and funerals”, but his appointment was intended to revitalise the programme – and the audience went up.

On Rado 4 he presented Gardeners’ Question Time (1973-79), even though he said his knowledge of gardening “could have been printed on a postage stamp”. What the producers wanted was his warm, avuncular way with audiences.

After leaving the BBC, he presented Reporting London for Thames Television (1983-88) and helped the Alzheimer’s Society and other charities. He also devoted much time to golf, becoming a regular on the charity/celebrity golf circuit and writing a book with Tony Jacklin, with whom he became great friends. He also advised the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, leading to measures to improve the sustainability of golf courses.

His 2012 memoir was titled, inevitably, Mr Nationwide. On the programme’s 50th anniversary in 2019, he hosted a reunion party near his home for 60 of the original production team.

• Michael Fieldhouse Barratt, television presenter, born 3 January 1928; died 10 July 2022