The Man Behind The Stubble
PUBLISHED: 15:31 22 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
Nick Knowles has presented dozens of TV shows, but he is also a talented director, writer and history buff, and has just co-written his first novel. He talks to Pat Parker about his childhood in Suffolk, his obsession with hard work and his love life
Nick Knowles is a selfconfessedworkaholic.He spends most of hislife living in hotelswhile filming the manyshows DIY SOS, Real Rescues, LastChoir Standing, Wildest Dreams, toname but a few which have madehim a household name. In the last 10or 12 years, Ive spent about fournights a month at home, he tells me.Since Ive been with Jessica, Ivetried to improve that, so now itsmaybe eight nights a month. Itsbetter than it was.Nick, 48, a divorced father-of-three,has been with 23-year-old JessicaMoor for the past two years. Does shemind him being away from home sooften?Shes a social media consultantwith her own business, so she quiteoften travels to where Im staying andworks during the day, and then wellcatch up with each other in theevening, he says.Nick says it was far more thanJessicas stunning looks whichattracted him.It helps that shes great to look at,but theres a deliberation and acalmness about her, which is veryhandy for someone like me. Shesvery independent and successful,shes travelled a lot and has a goodworld view. There are a lot of thingswhich are attractive about her mainly her bum!That is a typical Nick Knowlesthrowaway line the slightlyunkempt, streetwise Londoner withthe designer stubble is often seen asthe BBCs bit of rough.
But hes alsointelligent, successful, versatile anddriven; hes presented everythingfrom Saturday night quiz shows (Who Dares Wins, Secret Fortune) towildlife films, history documentaries as well as the ever-popular DIY SOS.And hes far more than a presenter hes involved in developing most of theshows he presents, and began his careeras a reporter and then director. Heresearched, wrote and presented theHistoryonics series of quirky dramas,much used by history teachers toengage their pupils in 1066 and all that.Hes just co-written his first novel apirate adventure romp and is trying tosecure finance for a film, which will bea black comedy highlighting the plightof old people in this country, inspiredin part by his friendship with a semiretiredUSAF pilot when he wasgrowing up in Suffolk.
Nick was born on a council estate inSouthall, west London, in 1962, and hasa brother, who now has a recordcompany, and three sisters, all of whombecame dancers. But his life changeddramatically at 11, when the family leftLondon and moved to Suffolk.His father was a 45-year-old civilservant when Nick was born. But in his50s, he suffered two heart attacks andtook early retirement.
But he was bored, so he retrained asa careers officer and as a result, wemoved to Mildenhall, Nick tells me.It was quite a culture shock,swapping London suburbia for ruralSuffolk, but Nick quickly adapted.It was a real Famous-Five styleyouth, he remembers. I used to gofishing a lot in the rivers, and illegallycatch trout from a trout river and sellthem to a restaurant. I used the moneyto buy fish and chips!
He attended St Louis Middle Schoolin Bury St Edmunds (currently underthreat of closure), where, he says, hediscovered girls an expensive hobbyof mine ever since! But he alsobefriended many of the American kidswhose fathers were serving with theUSAF at the nearby RAF Mildenhall airbase. Many of them went to my school,and I used to swap dandelion andburdock for root beer!
He has fond memories of his years inMildenhall. I loved living in Suffolk,and have often thought about movingback to the area, he says.
After a few years, however, his fathertook a new job in Tunbridge Wells,Kent, and the family uprooted again.Every time dad retrained, we movedsomewhere else, so we hopped aroundall over the place, says Nick. It waswhat started my gypsy lifestyle. Itprobably made me the person I am, andexplains why I do the job I do. Im verygood at making new friends quickly,and making them feel comfortable, andthats an important part of my job.Nick went to Skinners, a boysgrammar school in Kent, and wasconsidered bright, but disruptive. Itwas a very academic school, butunfortunately I wasnt very good withauthority, so I was constantly gettinginto trouble. I got eight O levels, butthey refused to let me stay on in thesixth form because I was too much of atrouble-maker. I used to work out longvengeance campaigns on teachers whowere bullies.
He plotted for five months to takerevenge on one teacher who had pickedon a friend who had a stutter. The plotresulted in the teacher being suspendedfor a month. To this day, Nick detestsbullying, and regularly supports thechildrens charity Act Against Bullying.After quitting school at 16, Nickfended for himself in a bedsit. It wastime for me to get out into the world and do something with my life.
He had a variety of dead-end jobs,labouring on building sites, working ina petrol station, selling shoes andcarpets. But he dreamt of better things,having played in a band with hisbrother since he was 14, and constantlywriting music, poetry and comedy.
Then an old school friend, whoworked on a local paper, told him abouta BBC2 programme in which kids wereinvited to make a video about theirhome town. He promptly wrote a script,and they gave me a film crew to shootall the film I wanted to make. I loved itso much I thought, Thats what I wantto do, and I spent the next two yearstrying to get into television.
He started as a runner for the BBC,and then went to Australia, where hebecame a TV news reporter, and later aproducer and director. After a spell inArizona, USA, he returned to the UKand joined TVS and later Meridian as anews reporter, producer and director.He became a presenter almost bychance. I was directing one day andcouldnt get the presenter to do thepiece the way I wanted, so I did itmyself. The producer saw it and askedme to present other things. In the end Ihad to become a presenter as they wereoffering me a lot more money!
He presented a variety of mostlydaytime shows before being hired to copresent5s Company on the newlylaunchedChannel 5 a live 90-minutechat show. I didnt really want to be apresenter, I wanted to be a director, so Ididnt really care what I did ontelevision, Nick remembers. If I gotsacked, Id go back to directing, so I wasvery relaxed I was just having a laugh.I had a very casual, street style, whichvery few people had at the time justme and Davina McCall, really.
His laid-back style got him noticed,and in 1999, he was asked to present anew BBC series, DIY SOS. The showproved immensely popular, and is nowin its 12th year. What does Nick think isthe secret of its success?
Its genuine and honest rather thanbeing pretend. Also, its very rude andfunny, and we just get on and do thingsfor real.
Nick and his team of colourfulbuilders genuinely get on well. Thereare days when my sides hurt withlaughing, and my cheeks hurt fromcrying with laughter with the guys Iwork with. Were more like a family andwe spend a lot of time together outsideof work. On most televisionprogrammes, people pretend to get on,and as soon as the lights are off, they allgo off in their different directions.He also enjoys encouraging localvolunteers to help, and gets a real kickout of handing over a finished house topeople who suddenly realise their liveshave been completely changed by theteams efforts.
But, although hes presented DIY SOSfor so long, Nick has made a canny andrisky decision to avoid being pigeonholedin his TV career. Hes alwayslooking to try something new hencethe vast variety of shows hespresented, from BBC1s New Years Evebash to Mission Africa.
Filming in Africa has developed hisdeep passion for wildlife, which beganas a boy when he used to watch JacquesCousteau programmes on TV.
I just have an endless fascination forknowledge and experience, really, hetells me. When he first went to Africa,he learnt how to track animals. Hemade a moving film about orang utansfor the BBCs Saving Planet Earthseries, and in 2009, spent nine weeks inAfrica filming Wildest Dreams with theBBCs Natural History Unit.
While filming in Kenya, he becamepersonally involved when he discovereda group of hippos dying because thesprings had run dry and the grass theylived on had been eaten by cattle. Nickhelped pay for hay and alfalfa to betransported to feed the hippos.When youre making a naturalhistory programme, youre notsupposed to interfere in any way. But Idecided it was a manmade disaster, ascattle had been allowed to eat thehippos grass, so we put together amanmade rescue plan.
The supplies kept the hippos aliveuntil the rains came, and Nick believesthat a small population of hippossurvives there to this day.
Of the many shows Nick has beenpart of, he is probably proudest of theHistoryonics series he wrote, researchedand presented back in 2003. He began bywriting Guy Fawkes and theGunpowder Plot for BBC1, which toldthe familiar story in a wacky andengaging way, and went on to script aseries of funny but informative dramastelling the story of colourful historiccharacters from William the Conquerorto Mary Queen of Scots.
Teachers use them in schools, andIm really pleased about that, because Ididnt even take O level history, as thelessons were so dull. When I travelled toAustralia and America, I becameinterested in the culture of their nativepeople, and I realised I didnt knowmuch about my own. So I became avoracious reader of British history,especially Elizabethan and Romanperiods. If Im out with my family, Illtend to disappear up a hill to visit anIron-Age fort!
His love of history is evident in thebook hes just co-written (working title,Ice Witness), which is set both in thepresent and in the age of Elizabethanpiracy. And the blackly comic moviehes hoping to make, about the plight ofthe elderly, stems from his fascinationwith talking to older people about theirmemories of the not-too-distant past.He has a journalists curiosity aboutother peoples lives, and he think this isone of his strengths as a presenter andprogramme-maker.
Im interested in people andeverybody I meet has somethinginteresting to tell me. he says. I alsothink Im just not very showbizzy.People come up to talk to me in thestreet and chat all the time. A lot ofpeople who do presenting are not thesame in real life as they are on the telly.Im lucky I can just go to work and beme and thats quite unusual fortelevision.