It wasn’t long before television came calling

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Justin Leigh, as one of the presenters of the BBC Spotlight, the South West’s local news programme, has provided the narration to some of the most important moments in the history of our region.

Whether it be the Foot and Mouth outbreak, the Boscastle flooding or the bomb in the Giraffe Café in Exeter, many of us will associate these events with the expert broadcasting of Justin and the Spotlight team.

Justin has been on Spotlight for over 20 years, and so has been the face of local news since I was a boy. As a journalist myself now, meeting him at BBC Plymouth is, to me, indeed a special occasion.

We started off, as ever, with discussing our beloved Dartmoor: “Interestingly, we have just done some filming on Dartmoor for a film that is coming up on Spotlight soon. I visited a spot on Dartmoor that I had never been to before, near Merrivale, close to where King Tor Holt used to be – where the trainline used to go from Yelverton to Princetown.

‘We are recreating a journey made by a sailor in 1954, which was filmed for the BBC back in 1954, and we are following his journey back around the routes he took. One of the spots he went to was King Tor Holt – and so he gets off the train in the old film in 1954 and we’ve gone back and recreated that spot – even though the Holt isn’t there anymore and the trainline isn’t there anymore, we’ve roughly found the spot.

‘I spent a day on Dartmoor at a place I had never been before and it was just stunning.”

The film in question was made by the BBC to mark the launch of the North Hessary Tor transmitter. The BBC decided to make a promotional film to show off Devon. They filmed a sailor getting off his boat in Plymouth, walking through the city centre and getting a train up to Merrivale before going to an auction at Merrivale Farm.

Justin’s childhood was spent in somewhere equally as picturesque as Dartmoor: Cornwall, having been born and raised in and around Truro. “It is quite funny when I do stories about the Royal Cornwall Hospital because I always think ‘That’s where I started!’” His father ran a butcher’s shop but sadly died when Justin was three in a boating accident, leaving Justin’s mum to bring him and his sister up alone.

His fascination for the world of television started from an early age.

“Probably from the age of six or seven, I was fascinated by broadcasting. I was fascinated by how it all worked and how people could be sitting in a television studio in London or Plymouth or wherever it might be and I could see them where I was.”

Justin suspects this came from the fact that his dad had bought one of the first colour televisions.

“I grew up with a good colour TV to watch. That is probably what got me fascinated and interested in it – growing up with Spotlight and Westward TV. Seeing local places on the TV was amazing. Dare I say it, working for the BBC, but we particularly watched Westward television, the ITV channel, and they seemed like a happy family. All the presenters and all the reporters seemed happy, fun and like it was a jolly job.

‘In the early days I was fascinated by the technology…and behind the scenes. ‘How do the cameras work?’ ‘Where is the director?’

‘Where do the people in charge of the control room sit?’”

It wouldn’t be long before broadcasting was a lot closer to him than he ever could have imagined when he first sat down to watch his dad’s colour TV: in 1982, BBC Radio Cornwall was built in Truro.

“Suddenly the BBC was on my doorstep. Having been this remote organisation to me for years and suddenly it was down the road.”

Hardly into his teenage years, Justin tried to get in to the newly built station for work experience but was unable to. Careers advisors at school recommended starting with newspapers: “I wasn’t sure if it was journalism I wanted to get in to. I thought it was more general entertainment and general broadcasting.”

Justin wouldn’t give up so easily. He ended up writing to local hospital radio and started to help as a volunteer and was eventually given his own evening slot.

“What I did learn, and it’s still relevant today, is the art of timing. Everything had to be back-timed and finish on time. We had to stop recording at 10pm, so I had to make sure I had stopped recording by 5 seconds to 10pm so we could take the pips from Radio 2. Never crash the pips! It was a great place to learn to make mistakes. You never wanted to but by making those mistakes to a relatively small audience, it didn’t matter as much.”

Justin would eventually find himself at the place he had coveted since he was a child. He managed to get into BBC Radio Cornwall helping out a presenter for his show. Eventually he would be given the role of collating a ‘gig guide’ of local artists before eventually being allowed to present the gig guide live on air.

“I remember on one occasion  – and this was a valuable lesson as well – there was a famous broadcaster on American television called Casey Kasam who used to do the American Charts and one day I was racing to finish the gig guide and was doing it in like a countdown and at the end of it the presenter said ‘That was the Casey Kasam of Cornwall!’ – who was obviously an older guy – and I said ‘oh you cheeky sod!’”

Justin would find himself reprimanded in a less lenient age of the BBC: “That is not a word we use on Radio Cornwall. Can you please explain yourself?”

“It was a valuable lesson of, when a microphone is live, engage brain and think before you speak!”

Eventually, the presenter of the show would leave and, of all people, the man who had reprimanded Justin for his language would offer him a chance to take over the show.

However, this left him in a bit of a dilemma as he was considering going to university. In the end, he decided to take over the show for the princely salary of £7.50 which included the preparation, the production and the show itself.

Justin would find himself having to work as a suit assistant in Marks and Spencer in Truro to make up the wage.

“The more I did with the show, the more Radio Cornwall were asking me to do.”
Justin was working this schedule of working for the BBC and M&S before being offered a package of freelance work that was essentially full-time hours.

“I ended up doing anything and everything that BBC Radio Cornwall were asking me to do. I ended up going out and doing interviews about arts exhibitions. Art on the radio was always a challenge!”

It was not long after this that the BBC began the process of moving away from music to talk radio. Journalism was never Justin’s first choice but he realised quite quickly that that was the way radio was going at the BBC.

He would find himself sent on a journalism course, by which time he was on the weekday evening show, before moving over to a two hour drive time news show, then eventually being given the much sought-after Breakfast Show slot.

“That was amazing because I had watched the inception of Radio Cornwall from its foundation stone being laid to the station going on air and now I was hosting the Breakfast Show.”

Justin continued: “I did the show for three years, loved it and, actually, even though I said for a long time that television was what I was interested in doing, to me, at that point, I was doing the best job as a broadcaster in the whole of Cornwall.

‘Television then came calling.”

At that point, the BBC offered its staff five week job swaps where they could go to another area of the organisation and learn another skill. Justin would find himself working as a reporter for Spotlight in Plymouth. His talent was noticeable enough that he was offered the chance to join BBC Plymouth as a reporter permanently.

“Having spent years aiming towards a television career, I was enjoying my radio so much and I thought ‘Do I really want to go work for Spotlight and go racing all over the South West and all sorts of different hours or do I want to carry on being at the heart of news and broadcasting in Cornwall?’”

After some deliberation, he decided to go for it and hasn’t looked back since. “I think the first day I was reporting, there was some flooding in Ottery St Mary and I was sent out to report on it. I had never been to Ottery St Mary before and that was the biggest challenge! I knew Cornwall really well and now I was suddenly having to know how to get myself around Devon!”

It would only take a matter of weeks before Justin would find himself thrown in at the deep end.

“I remember getting a phone call when I was out  – we must have had early forms of mobile phones back then – it makes it sound prehistoric doesn’t it?! – and I was told that Russell Labey – who was the presenter of Spotlight at the time along with Teresa Driscoll – was going on leave and asked if I would stand in.

‘I was given some early morning newsreading for experience and some dummy Spotlight runs. I was told ‘We will test you. If it all breaks down and technology fails you, how you will respond etc’.”
On Justin’s second ever night standing-in on Spotlight, Teresa Driscoll was supposed to present an outside broadcast from Navy Days in Plymouth but was forced to phone in ill.

“The Editor said to me ‘You’re doing the outside broadcasting.’ I had just got over the night before of doing my first ever Spotlight and the second night ever I was asked to do an outside broadcast where you don’t have an autocue and you have to do it all from memory! It really was in at the deep end.

‘The Editor of the show was a great stickler for anything military. We were on board warships and he had arranged for the programme to end with the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines marching up and down the quayside playing. He drummed it in to me ‘Whatever you do – I don’t care whatever else you do – do not get the name of the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines wrong!’

‘That petrified me for the rest of that show and was all within three weeks of arriving!”

The professionalism Justin showed during that first week would continue and, after Russell left in 2001, Justin would come on to Spotlight full time as a presenter. After more than 21 years of presenting, covering breaking stories, county events and producing historic films, I asked him what he considered to be his most challenging moment.

“Boscastle certainly ranks up there. Spotlight is a very structured programme. We work all day working out what will be the top story, what will be the bottom story. On the night of Boscastle, we started hearing reports about an hour before going on air that something major was going on there. We started sending reporters to the scene and by the time we went on air we had one reporter there, on a phone, and we had managed to ring a few people in the village.

‘We went on air and were told ‘no running order, no scripts, we will just throw people at you.’

‘We sent a helicopter about an hour before the programme and it had just got back as we were on air and the raw video was raced  and we played it out unedited from the helicopter. That was a really challenging show. It was completely seat of the pants.

“The other big story that had an effect on me was Foot and Mouth. I was doing the  phone-in and Spotlight. The two programmes were dominated by Foot and Mouth, the phone-in programme especially. Because people couldn’t get out of their farms on Dartmoor and places like that – there were lots of sanctions imposed – the only contact with the outside world was on the phone to radio stations like ours!

‘One day we had the idea to combine the two. So we had Spotlight, with a phone-in. We were getting farmers phoning into Spotlight. It was invaluable to the audience and still sticks in my mind because of the harrowing stories of losing livestock and the fact it started in one farm in Devon and the numbers kept on going up and up and up. It felt like it was never going to end.”

With the skill that Justin and the team deliver these kinds of stories, it is hard to believe just what a challenging task it would have been to put them together.

At just 48, Justin had dedicated well over half his life to bringing the people the South West’s most important stories. The enthusiasm and love for the job burns just as brightly as it did when he first saw his dad’s colour television or the construction site of the BBC Radio Cornwall.

I suspect Justin will continue to narrate Devon’s story for a rather long time to come.

Local Life