Bob Wellings, who has died aged 87 after a fall, was an “everyman” television presenter. He will be best remembered on Nationwide, the BBC’s early-evening news magazine program, throughout the 1970s, his relaxed style and affable manner di lui putting interviewees at their ease.
It was populist TV with a mix of hard news and quirky, lighter items, covering subjects from industrial action to a skateboarding duck. The format was intended to unite viewers across Britain by following each region’s news bulletin with a national program bringing together items from BBC studios around the UK. The frequent technical hitches, in an era before satellite, seemed only to increase viewers’ affections for the show.
Wellings was first seen on Nationwide as a London and south-east of England reporter and presenter in early 1970. The program had begun six months earlier, with Michael Barratt anchoring single-handedly. In 1971, Wellings was added as a co-presenter, with Frank Bough soon joining them. Others later at the helm of Nationwide included Sue Lawley, John Stapleton and Sue Cook.
“As a Nationwide reporter, you had to be able to tackle anything, from interviewing, say, Edward Heath to some extraordinary animal,” Wellings recalled in the 1991 TV documentary Let’s Go Nationwide, before a clip of him with a piglet during his early days on the show. “Daft, really – and, of course, there’s no program nowadays where that kind of thing could happen.” He then turned to a llama and asked: “I wonder if I could have your views on Tibet and the chances of its independence.”
Alongside features on “ordinary” people, there were star interviews. After an exchange with Gregory Peck, the Hollywood actor said to him: “Mr Wellings, I do admire your tie. Could you tell me where you got it? ” It turned out that Peck was opening a mayor’s gala in France and Wellings posted him an identical one.
During 1973, Wellings also appeared weekly on That’s Life !, the consumer show presented by Esther Rantzen and originally billed as “a late-night collection of the jokes, dramas and problems that happen in real life” – like Nationwide it featured a mix of serious and light items. He and the actor George Layton were Rantzen’s co-presenters for that first series.
In 1980, after 11 years on Nationwide – and three years before it was axed following more than 3,000 editions – Wellings was replaced by Richard Kershaw as the program tried to become more serious. Wellings and Joan Bakewell then presented the regional show On the Town (1980-81), a Friday night look at entertainment in and around London.
He was back in front of a national audience as a reporter on Nationwide’s shortlived successor, Sixty Minutes (1983-84), before being teamed with Eamonn Holmes and Pattie Coldwell to present Open Air (1986-89), with viewers venting their thoughts about the previous night’s television and wider TV issues.
Wellings was born in Jerusalem, to Louise (nee Dalzell), an American from Texas, and Francis Wellings, the chief geologist of the Iraq Petroleum Company, originally from Shropshire. During the second world war, the family lived in the US, where Bob attended a military school, then moved to Amersham, Buckinghamshire, in 1947. On leaving Downside school, Somerset, he did national service in the RAF, then studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge, not taking his final exams but acting with the university’s Footlights Club.
Failing to find a theatrical agent on auditioning with his mime and monologue act, Wellings worked as a “hack writer” for a children’s book publisher, taught at a boys’ prep school in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, then found his way into television in 1959 when he landed a job with Anglia, ITV’s newly launched east of England franchise holder.
He joined as a reporter on the regional news program About Anglia, and later recalled being summoned by his producer after three weeks there and being told: “Bob, look, with most people who are new to television, our problem is to make them look relaxed. With you, we don’t have this problem – you just look… asleep! “
Although he switched to the BBC’s South Today as a presenter in 1964, he returned to anchor Anglia’s news magazine from 1966 to 1969, as well as hosting other regional series.
Wellings moved back to the BBC in 1970 and, following Nationwide and Sixty Minutes, presented the newly launched regional news program London Plus from 1984 to 1985. His last nationally screened series, The Solent Way, in which he followed the route of Hampshire’s coastline, was broadcast in 1989.
In 1963, Wellings married Pennie Tennyson; they divorced in 1984. He is survived by their daughters, Emma and Sophie, and son, Matthew.