Mysteriously, the BBC weather forecast has come to represent something good and timeless and genuine in a superficial, changing culture. For millions, those moments after the TV news when a nerdy, middle-aged type prances around in front of a map, talking about weather fronts and making bad jokes, has a peculiar emotional importance. It is a matter of weird national pride, almost as if the British invented weather. “There was a time when the BBC weather broadcasters were world leaders,” former weatherman Bill Giles has said with all the solemnity at his disposal. Now, with a slow drizzle of predictable clichés (blizzards, gathering clouds, a perfect storm), there are press reports that radical changes are being made to the weather forecast as we know it.
Three weather celebrities, Rob McElwee, Philip Avery and Tomasz Schafernaker, have been invited to leave the studio and spend more time with their charts and the BBC Weather Centre’s platoon of presenters is to be slimmed down. There has even been brave, heretical talk of the job being taken away from the specialists, and given instead to professional broadcasters.
Before hysteria breaks out among weather fanatics, it is worth remembering the various illusions which are contained within this peculiarly British institution. Of these, the most bewildering is that the person working from a Met Office script needs to be some kind of expert.
It was not that long ago that newscasters tried to pretend that theirs was a tough, journalistically demanding job. When the laughter died down, it was generally admitted that what was needed was the right kind of face, the ability to read naturally off an autocue, and a talent for adopting the appropriate facial expression for the particular news item being read at the time.
Only in weather forecasting has the idea persisted that the presenter should know what he or she is talking about. Why is this? Is there ever a moment when, mid-broadcast, they have to go off-script and respond instantly to complex data? Do we expect those reading the traffic reports to be able to explain the complexities of how a motorway spaghetti junction works?
There is another, deeper illusion. It is that these men with their interesting accents, their studious little eccentricities and their suburban-dad looks represent an old, 1950s-style ordinariness in the increasingly slick world of modern broadcasting. They could almost live next door to us, we are encouraged to think. They are grounded, normal people – the sort one can imagine being caught in a shower while waiting for a bus.
It is not necessary to recall press stories of the past 10 years, in which the bullying, competitiveness, egotism and vanity of forecasters has been revealed, to see the full absurdity of this idea. In weather, as in other areas, it takes no time for professionals to throw off their academic personae in exchange for the heady pleasures of showing off in front of the camera. At some point, perhaps back in the days of Michael Fish, it was decided that weather forecasters should be characters. Since then, they have worked hard to impersonate ordinariness in a zany, amusing way. As an act, it is as gratingly unconvincing as those Michael Parkinson interviews when he was trying to convince us that he was just an ordinary bloke from Barnsley.
Yet the role of predicting the weather is important. Not only do forecasters provide useful information, they often provide regular companionship to millions. Here, surely, is an area in which it can be accepted without controversy that good looks and a charming, sympathetic manner are an asset. The rich variety of human ordinariness on TV – in looks, accent, age and personality – can be left to specialists and reporters whose unscripted, instant expertise is important.
The weather report, on the other hand, can be written by a Met Office expert and then presented by a personable, good-looking, nicely spoken professional broadcaster, whose main qualification for the job is straightforward. He or she should cheer us up.
Independent, Tuesday, 19 October 2010