The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Unbelievable Jeff — Brown reflects on a stellar career

When Jeff Brown calls time on his 21-year stint with the BBC tomorrow there won’t be a dry eye in the house. Simon Rushworth caught up with the popular Wearsider ahead of his final Look North shift
  • From newspapers to local TV, meeting wife, making mam and dad proud
  • Brian Clough interview stands out as most fulfilling assignment
  • Trouser trouble live on air now a favourite clip on blooper shows
Jeff faces Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham

Given the fluffy texture and moreish taste of his freshly baked blueberry muffins, it’s easy to imagine Jeff Brown’s future lies in cakes. “It’s my first attempt at making these,” he tells me, proudly transferring his debut batch from tray to plate. They’re delicious — but surely Jeff should be baking Brownies?

Or perhaps, once he’s delivered his final bulletin at the BBC tomorrow (Fri), the 42-year veteran of local and regional journalism could get a job fixing fire alarms. According to his colleagues at the Pink Palace — Look North’s iconic home since 1988 — there’s no better qualified man for the job.

“You’re talking about the new showers,” he sighs. Yes, Jeff. I am. You see, three times in a week, the cleanest man in broadcasting (apart from the infamous ‘trousers incident’, but we’ll get to that) managed to force a full evacuation of the Beeb’s regional HQ after new sensors picked up plumes of smoke engulfing the refurbished building.

“Work’s been ongoing at our place for some time now but I was one of the first people to try out the new changing facilities,” explains Jeff, rather sheepishly. “On the Monday I’d been for a run before work and decided to take a shower. A few seconds later I heard the fire alarm go off and I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I had to stand in the car park wearing nothing but a towel while it was all sorted out.

It was third time lucky for Jeff after a colleague lent him a coat

“The next day I’d played tennis. Same thing. I jumped in the shower and the alarm went off. I started to think it couldn’t be a coincidence. So as I stood in the car park wearing nothing but my towel again I made it clear to everyone who’d listen that I thought it must have something to do with the new showers. 

“I wasn’t back in until the Friday. I’d been playing tennis again. You guessed it. Straight in the shower and the alarms went off. I naively assumed someone would have fixed the problem by then. They hadn’t. For the third time in a week I was stood in the car park in my towel — with everyone else who’d been evacuated. There are plenty of pictures. I was mortified.”

Jeff, of course, is more used to telling the stories than being the story. However, 21 years after Carol Malia introduced her new colleague live on air as Jiff Brown — the following evening she called him Jeff Braun — he’s moving on from the famous Look North couch and retiring from frontline journalism. 

His longstanding love affair with the profession started with copies of the Sunderland Echo, the Daily Mail and his mam and dad’s reel-to-reel tape player. From the tender age of nine Jeff had a voracious appetite for sports news — reading it and delivering it. “I used to devour newspapers,” he admits. “We got the Echo and the Mail every day and then the Sunday Express and the Sunday Post at the weekend. I’d jump out of bed and run down the stairs as soon as I heard the letterbox.

Jeff Brown always had a face for television… but kicked off his journalism career in newspapers

“I was a big reader of sport but my dad always said I should read the front page too. He wanted me to know what was going on in the world.

“I’d also record games off Shoot — a Sunday afternoon football programme — and then I’d add in comments from the newspaper and give my own comments on the match. Deep down I always enjoyed telling stories.”

On FA Cup third round draw day — historically aired live on Radio Two at 12.05pm on a Monday — Jeff would leg it back from school where his mam would greet him with a carefully prepared sheet of paper containing a vertical row of ‘v’s. “I was quite a tubby kid and so it wasn’t easy sprinting home,” he recalls. “But I always made it and I’d fill in the draw as it happened — one team either side of each ‘v’. Then I’d wolf down my lunch, peg it back to school and read out the full draw to my mates.”

Jeff’s first published work was a badminton report in the Sunderland Echo. Still to turn 16, he swiftly graduated to filing speedway stories from Newcastle’s Brough Park and, with encouragement from his dad, finally persuaded the Echo’s sports editor to pay him the princely sum of £1.25 per report.

“Even aged 15 or 16 I knew that’s where my future lay,” he adds. “I even studied CSE typewriting as I thought that might come in useful. It did — I was the only lad in a classroom with 15 girls! I can probably use about three fingers on each hand these days. But what a skill.”

Jeff poised to cover his first ‘live match’ from Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park

Persuaded to attend university by an enthusiastic teacher — the first member of his family to do so — Jeff studied economics and social history at York. He managed to relate most of the course’s key topics to his favourite sport and wrote thousands of words on ‘the history of football’ and ‘the history of football crowds’. “I loved my time there,” he adds. “And it was close enough to home that I could come back and cover local sport as often as I wanted.”

Of course, what Jeff really wanted was a job with a North East newspaper but he spread his net far and wide — nationwide, in fact — in pursuit of that first full-time role. Two hundred and fifty applications later and he’d had six replies and a brace of interview offers. The Birmingham Post and Mail were the first to make a firm bid for Jeff’s services just as the Evening Chronicle dithered. Their loss. Jeff was West Midlands bound but he was soon back up north — attending the Thomson fast track training course on the Bigg Market, just around the corner from the Chronicle’s newsroom.

“I got shorthand, law, all that stuff and then it was back to Birmingham,” explains Jeff. “I did six months on the Sunday Mercury, six months in the courts, six months in Sandwell, which was the West Bromwich office, and six months in Redditch on the weekly paper there.

“All that time I was offering to do extra work for the sports desk and purely coincidentally, the junior sports reporter left just a week before I finished my general training. I don’t suppose there was any need to advertise — they knew how much I wanted to make the move from news.”

Jeff and Durham’s David Graveney

By the time Jeff’s dream job on a North East newspaper did come up he wasn’t too fussed. With his eyes firmly fixed on the nationals, he had no intention of heading home and it took some serious persuading from his best pals to swap the fast track to Fleet Street for a job on The Journal.

“My friends kept telling me it was the perfect job but I wasn’t convinced,” admits Jeff. “Of course they were right. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made — not least because I met my wife, Susan, who was the Gateshead reporter at the time. I was also around for the last 30 years of my mam and dad’s life. It was a great move.”

Jeff never looked back. Breaking what he describes as the ‘biggest story of his career’, the long-time cricket fan teamed up with colleague Ian Murtagh to exclusively reveal Durham’s historic move into the first-class game. Jeff travelled the world reporting on the county’s remarkable rise through the ranks and cut his teeth as a future broadcaster, sending reports through to local radio.

“There was always a demand for Durham updates and the radio stations knew I was at every game,” he says. “So they’d ring me up and ask for a 30-second — or maybe a minute — voice report. The more I did it, the more I realised that it was an absolute piece of cake compared to grafting away on a 2,000-word match report, worrying about every comma and grappling with a Tandy (laptop) and its tiny little screen.”

Jeff and fellow journalist Tim Rich on Durham’s 1995 tour to South Africa

When he hadn’t been covering cricket, Jeff was the Journal’s number two football writer. He loved being around Gazza, found former Sunderland manager Lawrie McMenemy ‘very, very difficult to deal with’, enjoyed trips on the Black Cats team bus during the Denis Smith era and was once on the wrong end of an irate Willie McFaul — the then Newcastle manager screwing up a copy of Jeff’s transfer story and throwing the paper at him, before describing the offending feature as ‘a pile of rubbish’.

You didn’t get that kind of treatment working in TV. And thanks to his occasional turns on local radio, Jeff already had one eye on broadcast journalism. A tip off that Tyne Tees was recruiting for new reporters led to a meeting with the station’s legendary head of sport, Roger Tames.

“It was the day Alan Shearer signed for Newcastle and we were both at St James’s Park,” recalls Jeff. “Roger asked if I wanted to meet him the following day for a chat. When I turned up I realised that chat was actually an interview and a screen test. I almost backed out. 

“I wasn’t even wearing my best tie! I’ve still got a copy of the screen test and if you saw it then you’d wonder how on earth that bloke Brown ever got a job in TV.” But Jeff did. And then he got another. And another. But more on that in a moment.

The Roger Tames All-Stars from left: Brian Swanson, Dawn Thewlis, Jeff, Simon O’Rourke, Roger and Ian Payne

Under talent spotter Roger, a stalwart of the regional media scene, Tyne Tees proved to be the perfect breeding ground for TV’s rising stars. Jeff, Dawn Thewlis, Ian Payne, Simon O’Rourke, Brian Swanson, Pete Graves, Chris Ford and more cut their teeth under his expert stewardship. Jeff looks back on those days with great fondness.

“I was 35 when I moved to Tyne Tees,” he says. “I was an experienced journalist but television was new to me. It wasn’t like I was starry-eyed or anything but I do remember Roger taking me into the green room for a drink after showing me how things worked. Dawn was there. I remember standing there and thinking to myself ‘it’s that Dawn Thewlis off the telly — what am I going to say?’. Whatever I said must have been ok as we’ve spent the best part of 25 years working together!”

During his time at Tyne Tees, where he would eventually go on to co-present alongside his hero Mike Neville, Jeff travelled Europe tracking down former North East footballing favourites.

He visited Heini Otto in Holland, Liam O’Brien in Dublin and Pavel Srnicek in Brescia. “Pav lent us his club car while we were in Italy,” recalls Jeff. “We got chased by an angry mob who tried to drag me out of the passenger window and then we ended up flooring it back to the hotel with the hand brake on. Pav, being Pav, was fine about it.”

Jeff and Tyne Tees ‘rival’ Simon O’Rourke

But perhaps Jeff’s crowning glory for Tyne Tees’ much-missed Football Flashback was an exclusive interview with Brian Clough. The former Middlesbrough and Sunderland striker might have been famously irascible and yet he always retained a soft spot for his native North East. “He agreed to talk to us only because it was Tyne Tees,” explains Jeff. “It was amazing. Brian Clough telling me stories for an hour and a half at the coffee table. It became a half hour documentary called The Life Of Brian and it was probably the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done because he was my dad’s hero.”

Jeff joined Look North in 2003 and feels the time is right to row back on a comment that failed to recognise the immense influence Roger and the Tyne Tees team had on his fledgling TV career.

“Growing up in the 1960s in the North East you were either a BBC house or an ITV house,” says Jeff. “We were a BBC house and so when I got my job with Look North my mam loved to say ‘now you’re on proper telly!’. Of course, I foolishly used this phrase in my potted history for the BBC. I actually said ‘my mam and dad think I’m on proper telly’. It went online and it’s still online now. When I saw Roger he said to me ‘well what does that make us then!’ I was genuinely mortified. It’s time to finally apologise to Roger and my former colleagues — I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Jeff and Dawn Thewlis at the RTS awards

Jeff underpinned his reputation as a firm viewers’ favourite after switching channels and fronting a nightly sports bulletin for the Beeb. Five years into his Look North tenure, Carol (who had started to get her co-presenter’s name right by then) took time off on maternity leave. 

“I applied to cover for her,” adds Jeff. “The job was advertised nationally but I played the continuity card. It worked. When Carol went on maternity leave for the second time I just slotted straight back in and since then we’ve been sharing the role. It’s a great team and we all get along so well. People say it looks like we’re all good mates — and we really are!”

Jeff’s gone toe to toe with Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and more live on air in the presenter’s chair. He’s had to deal with emotionally draining studio interviews telling stories of personal tragedy. And the day before his own father’s funeral he found himself reporting on Sir Bobby Robson’s memorial service, live from Durham’s Palace Green.

“Dad would have wanted me to be there,” insists Jeff. “And I wanted to be there. People always said my dad looked like Sir Bobby and he did — dad was 10 years older than Bobby but looked 10 years younger! 

“Anyway, I was just about managing to hold it together when, right at the end of the programme, it started to drizzle and two rainbows appeared. All I could think of was my dad and Sir Bobby. As soon as I was told I was off air, I just burst into tears.”

Jeff catching up with ex-England footballer Jill Scott at the Stadium of Light

Jeff readily describes himself as a ‘bit of a softie’ but it’s his empathetic approach and personable nature that always marked him out as the perfect fit for TV. If only his trousers had fitted just as perfectly.

“The infamous trouser incident,” chuckles Jeff. “I was switching off at the end of a long week and thought I was going to be off air for a few minutes as my colleague, Keith Akehurst, was reporting live from the Tyne Bridge. I assumed he’d have a guest, archive footage and all of that so I thought I had plenty of time before the sports bulletin.

“At the time we presented the sport from a couple of armchairs and, as I sat down, I realised my trousers were sticking up at the front. I just thought it looked really bad so I started shuffling around and trying to pull my trouser legs down.

“Carol turned to me and I asked her what she was planning to say to introduce the sport. She said ‘It’s a big weekend of sport and this man’s very excited’. I thought she was just saying it for a laugh!

“I said ‘yeah, yeah’ and by then I’d decided the only thing I could do was actually get up and physically pull my trousers down. So the mid shot that had been of my head was now a shot of my crotch. 

Jeff and cameraman Dave Edwards following Gateshead at this month’s FA Trophy final at Wembley

“I heard the producer say in my ear ‘Jeff, what are you doing?’ I replied that I was pulling my trousers down so that I didn’t look too ‘excited’. And as I sat down again Carol said ‘this man doesn’t realise that he’s live on air’. And I honestly didn’t.

“But then it dawned on me. Keith had been introducing his Tyne Bridge feature for later in the programme and all that time I’d been fiddling with my trousers on camera. I suddenly thought ‘what would Mike Neville do?’ I knew he’d just laugh it off and carry on and so that’s exactly what I did. Carol was chuckling away in the background and I was mortified. But she’d saved me… and probably saved my career!”

So what’s next for gentleman Jeff? “I’m 63 next month and, touch wood, I still have a bit of time to get out and about and do a few other things,” he says. “Playwriting is something I’m hoping to develop and I’m looking to breathe new life into The Bench (Jeff’s play about two strangers meeting in a park premiered in South Shields last autumn).

“I’ve got a project that I’m working on with the BBC and I’ll have a bit more time to host events. I just wanted to give myself some breathing space but I’ll not be gone forever. How was the muffin?” Unbelievable, Jeff.


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