TM2 – From the highs of flying to the lows of submarines: life as a Spotlight presenter

Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith

Having grown up amidst the troubles in Belfast in the late 1960s, Johnny Rutherford’s life and later career hasn’t been without excitement and life changing moments.

Having built up his experience across various organisations before joining the BBC, Johnny tells of how the scariest moment of his career was whilst filming the unrest in his own home town for Ulster TV in Northern Ireland.

“I can remember going to an IRA funeral and getting a bit too close with my camera.  As we’re leaving, next thing I know a Land Rover pulls out in front of us, there’s a tap at the car window, and it’s a guy with a hood on and a gun.”

Working as a cameraman’s assistant on work experience at the time, Johnny was ordered to hand over the tapes at gun point. “I was absolutely petrified…I’d been in bomb scares, I’d even been to places where if I’d have been moments earlier I would have been in a bomb, but I’d never had a gun pointed at me before,” Rutherford explains.

Despite his early run ins with the troubles during the early stages of his career, Johnny has pursued a lengthy and varied role in the BBC since, which spans 35 years of events and filming opportunities.

Born to his actress and presenter mother, and the famed journalist Bill Rutherford being his father, Johnny’s childhood was pickled with famous faces attending Ulster Youth Theatre amongst the likes of Jimmy Nesbitt and rubbing shoulders with athletes such as Mary Peters at various sporting events.

Adamant from a young age that he wanted to break into the film industry so as to forge his own path, the father of four now reflects on how “I never knew I’d end up doing a very similar thing to what my father did – it wasn’t a conscious choice at all.  He was a fantastic storyteller and I’m rubbish; I’m a good storyteller yes, but I can’t write!”

Having grown his love of photography with the help of his family members while at school, it was Johnny’s first developed photos – dried on the bathroom window – that formed the portfolio which earnt him a place at Plymouth College of Art in the 1980s.

A move he made while “looking for a new adventure”, Johnny fell in love with Plymouth on his first trip to England during his hunt for college courses and never looked back, despite “going to a very rough school and never really being any good”.

Proud to share his connection to Plymouth College of Art, Johnny studied Photography while “filling up summers with working for small amounts of money or for free to just build up a portfolio”. With one of these work placements being within the BBC, Johnny was unaware of how much of an impact his two week long summer placement as a video editor there would have on his future career.

Recalling his first week at the famous broadcasting house in
Plymouth, Johnny says; “I was quite cocky from college, thinking I knew all the trendy stuff and how it was all a bit slow in the BBC.” Assuming a faster pace in week two by chance, Johnny was asked to step in for his accompanying editor who had gone sick.

Not knowing at the time that he was editing and putting music
together for the opening sequence of the famed series “Floyd on Fish”, Johnny’s work became the theme tune for the series and made quite the impression on the series producer, David Pritchard. Simultaneous with his efforts at the BBC, Johnny was in the midst of editing his college year’s drama “Child’s Play”, which was successful enough to be awarded a BAFTA in 1984 for Best Outright Film.

Making a name for himself now at the age of 22, Johnny began to think that he may have made it onto film producer and award presenter David Puttnam’s radar, hoping for employment in the film industry. Having been featured on the BBC’s spotlight program for his involvement in the BAFTA winning film, it was in fact the Floyd on Fish producer David Pritchard that gave Johnny his chance at a job in video editing.

After having worked on the program’s opening sequence, Johnny asked Pritchard to extend his work experience placement with the BBC, at which point Pritchard was shocked to learn that Rutherford was not already a member of staff. With other members of staff also recognising him from his award success, Pritchard exclaimed “What do you mean he’s not employed? You better employ him quick!”

Taking on various contracts across the BBC and the country, Johnny was eventually offered full time work in Plymouth, enjoying his role in documentaries, drama and wildlife film editing.  As the transition to video filming began, Johnny was quick to become involved in VT editing and soon noticed problems with the quality of film bought to him for editing.
Once again making a name for himself, it was not long before his boss urged him to put his money where his mouth was, sending Johnny out on the road as a staff cameraman in 1993 after just two weeks training in how to use a video camera.

With his work as a cameraman having taken him across the world ever since he began, just three years into his new path Johnny was picked to film at the Atlanta Olympics.  Meeting up with his father’s old friends and colleagues while he was there, Johnny recalls how it felt as if his father was with him, especially as as a child, Johnny’s long-jumping abilities had seen his father hopeful that one day his son would be at the Olympics.

Now at the event following more in his father’s footsteps than he would have previously imagined, Johnny’s time at Atlanta was to be the first of seven summer Olympic games in his career.

Unbeknown to him at the time, Atlanta was to mark another new path to add to Johnny’s ever-varied position at the BBC. Walking back to his hotel after a Guinness party with some of his Irish friends, what Johnny thought was to be his night off quickly became a different reality. With the BBC hotel being adjacent to Centennial Park, Johnny, who had just filmed an exclusive interview with Michelle Smith, was greeted with a crowd of people running towards him as he made his way to his room.

“A guy was shouting to me “There’s a bomb in the park! You’re going the wrong way!”, but I thought don’t be so stupid, I’m from Belfast, I grew up in the troubles, there’s no bomb in the park. I go against the flow of course, following my instinct instead.”

‘Eventually I see a guy with his arm all bleeding and I stop him and ask him what’s happened. He says “it’s a nail bomb, there’s nails everywhere, there’s a nail in my arm” –this 2 inch nail is sticking out of his arm, and so I said “hang on I have to film this.” Pulling out his radio mic and camera, Johnny instinctively asked the man to repeat his recount of the events on camera.

Making his way through the crowd asking others to do similar, it wasn’t long before Johnny became the first British journalist at the scene,
filming scenes of ambulances and the injured being stretchered away.

Rushing his tapes to the nearby International Broadcasting Centre, Johnny’s footage was shown straight out onto the world’s TV, including his interviews with the witnesses he found at the scene. “Of course I’d not trained as a journalist, but I’d worked alongside them and had seen the kind of things they asked,” Johnny recalls.

Having stumbled his way accidentally into reporting, Johnny was subsequently chosen to be one of the 10% of cameramen who took part in training to be a journalist in Bristol. “At the time I thought, I can’t spell, my spelling is terrible, and I’m mildly dyslexic…how is this going to work?”

Enjoying his training course nonetheless, Johnny then went on to build his reporting experience alongside working as an editor and cameraman, even earning himself the BBC’s award for top video journalism in 2002 as part of their “rubies” celebrations.

Looking back on the beginnings of his time as a video journalist, Johnny can remember the head of the BBC sharing that; “Johnny Rutherford is one of those pioneers; you can tell a pioneer from the arrows in his back.”

Caught between the cameramen, who saw Johnny as selling their art to the journalists, and the journalists who saw him as just a cameraman, Johnny remained unperturbed, later going on to train journalists, editors and cameramen across the world as he still does today.

16 years on, and now a firm favourite for his light hearted approach to stories on BBC Spotlight, Johnny shares that if he had to choose between all of his experiences at work, it would be Spotlight that would trump his Olympic experiences.

“Come Tokyo in 2020, I will have done 7 Summer Olympics, 1 Winter, 2 Paralympics and 3 Commonwealth Games…they are all starting to get a bit similar.  Yes, there’s some fantastic feelings involved, but I guess if I had to chose it would be the variation of Spotlight that I love most.”

Sourcing most of his stories himself, Johnny has become “the kind of reporter that’s up for a challenge.” Passionate about telling people stories, Johnny tells of how with “a good character, a quirky angle or some theatre and arts, I’m in my element!”

Having thrown himself into many an unusual story, Johnny has been seen wing-walking, sleeping amongst torpedoes aboard Nuclear Submarine HMS Trenchant, and hanging upside down from a trapeze during his time as a reporter. “I like to have a bit of fun, and I don’t mind having to look a fool in order to do that,” Johnny surmises.

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