BBC journalist Clive Myrie reflects on where his career has taken him, from interviewing Stevie Wonder to reporting on Obama's election and the war in Ukraine
Clive Myrie finds his voice
Not talking for the first few weeks of pre-school. I was incredibly shy. The only person I’d really interacted with was my mum, Lynne. My dad, Norris, would be at work all day, often on building sites in Bolton, where we lived. Then he’d come home and I’d already be in bed asleep.
The teachers were very worried about me, but Mum told them to give me time. Eventually, I uttered my first words: “My mum has lions and tigers in the house!”. The teachers were even more worried about me, though I was actually talking about the ornaments on our mantlepiece.
I started to enjoy things like reading aloud in lessons and basically haven’t really stopped talking since.
"I uttered my first words: 'My mum has lions and tigers in the house!'"
My mum felt happy making things. She had been a teacher in Jamaica before she and my father emigrated to Britain in the early Sixties. Then I was born, and finding time for childcare and getting her British teaching qualifications was too difficult, so she fell back on dress making.
She was a wonderful seamstress and so content while she was creating. She loved making wonderful Jamaican food for us to enjoy, too.
Suddenly being part of a crowded house. My little brother Garfield was born, and then, when I was about six, my older sister, Judith, and half-brothers, Lionel and Peter, came over from Jamaica, where they’d been living with grandparents.
I didn’t mind, though. They all seemed to me to fit right into our family. But it was hard for them. Lionel and Peter were in their early teens and my father was stricter than what they were used to. There were shouting matches with him.
My siblings also had to adjust to the industrial grey northern landscape of Bolton. Judith, who was seven, didn’t know much about the current pop groups and the two boys preferred cricket to football. They spoke in Jamaican patois, too, which definitely would have been quite alienating for them in a Lancashire school.
Later, my mum had two more girls, Sonia and Lorna, so there were seven of us. You had to make your voice heard.
A growing appetite for stories
My dad insisted we all watch the news. But he thought BBC News was a bit snooty so we sat down in front of ITV. I grew up with ITN reporters like Gerald Seymour and presenters such as Reginald Bosanquet—I didn’t really even know who the BBC ones were.
Watching ITN and the likes of Alan Whicker and Judith Chalmers on Wish You Were Here—and reading the newspapers on my paper round—I became fascinated by the world outside Bolton and becoming a journalist. Seeing Trevor McDonald on TV made me think it could be possible for someone like me.
Having a minor hit record—almost. I played violin and trumpet and was part of my grammar school orchestra and concert band. We played gigs around Lancashire and recorded a version of “Hey Jude” that sold quite a few copies.
I had a great time at school because I loved the idea of learning things, particularly history and geography, though I hated anything technical, like maths.
"I got to interview Stevie Wonder at the top of the BT Tower"
Enjoying the nightlife more than law at Sussex University. I did a law degree as a fallback, but my heart was already set on journalism. What I did really enjoy in college, though, was dancing in clubs.
Brighton was wonderfully vibrant. I once saw a chap with a beard, white stilettos and a poodle on a string in a record shop. I was very naïve and had no idea about Brighton being a gay mecca. I was enriched by the diversity and it welcomed me. I felt free and alive.
Stevie Wonder gave me my big break. After college, I was a radio journalist at the BBC in Bristol. But I really wanted to get into national and international journalism. So I left the BBC, even though people thought I was crazy, and did some freelancing, working mainly for Independent Radio News (IRN) in London.
I got to interview Stevie Wonder at the top of the BT Tower. He was very charming and funny and I edited his music into the interview. Thankfully, the package earned me a full-time IRN job. I went on to speak to the likes of Margaret Thatcher and meet Nelson Mandela.
Reporting the world's biggest stories
Being a black journalist in Japan wasn’t the novelty you’d think. I rejoined the BBC in the Nineties and they made me their Tokyo correspondent in 1996. Japan was one of the least diverse countries on Earth. But the people took to me because things like baseball and jazz, which I love, are big parts of their culture, following the American post-war occupation.
It was wonderful that the BBC realised that a Black journalist like me didn’t have to just report from a Black country or do Black stories.
Feeling pride after being embedded with the army. I was with the 40 Commando Royal Marines in Iraq in 2003. I am a child of empire. The British military suppressed my ancestors. But these marines were cultured people who were dedicated to the mission they’d been told they were on fighting to remove a dictator, destroy weapons of mass destruction and foster an idea of democracy.
A shocking realisation that black and white Americans are on different planets. They might work together, but they go their separate ways at night.
In Britain, though we’ve had problems, you feel like the objective is for us all to live, cheek-by-jowl in harmony. But the legacy of the brutality of slavery in the US means there is still division. A sense of superiority is also entrenched in many white Americans' minds.
Covering Obama’s election in 2008, when I was the BBC’s Washington correspondent, was a highlight of my career. But he turned out to be the outlier, not the rule. His election didn’t really create long-term meaningful diversity.
"It was wonderful that the BBC realised that a Black journalist like me didn’t have to just report from a Black country or do Black stories"
Fewer wars and more time spent with my wife. Catherine, a furniture restorer, and I have been married for 25 years. She’s grown used to my travelling for work.
But, since I’ve been doing more presenting based in London over the last ten years or so, it’s been brilliant to be with her in our North London home. We have so much in common, like music and coming from big families. She used to be in publishing and our house, overlooking the canal, is full of books.
Just thinking about starting on Mastermind makes my heart pump harder. I was so, so nervous. John Humphrys had been host for 18 years and had a sharp, angled way of doing it. I worried: That’s not me!
It felt like being handed a broadcasting crown jewel. What if I drop it? Do I need the grief of this being a complete disaster?
But the production team eventually got it into my head that I just needed to be myself. "The BBC is willing to entrust you with this this," I told myself. Try to enjoy it!
Understanding why the public were worried about me hosting the news from Ukraine. We took the News at Ten anchor desk and put it in a warzone. That hadn’t been done before.
As a presenter, you’re in people’s houses every night and they think of you as a a friend. To see this friend in harm’s way, fumbling to put his flak jacket on with air-raid sirens going off, is not nice.
I also think some people don’t really know that I’ve been in conflict zones for much of the last 30 years. They were wondering what the chap from Mastermind was doing on a roof with fighting going on around him.
Preserving a sense of wanderlust
Making my wife the unseen star of my travel series. I recently did a programme called Clive Myrie’s Italian Road Trip. Catherine and I go to Italy frequently so I mentioned her throughout the series, even though she wasn’t there.
“Oh, Catherine would love this,” I’d say of some beautiful vista in Tuscany, or whatever.
In the summer, Catherine and I were back in Italy and I was stopped by a British couple who said, “Oh, one of the reasons we are here is because we saw your road trip. And this is Catherine!”. They were easily as pleased to see her as they were to see me.
I’m doing another road trip series. this time in the Caribbean. Catherine will come to visit, but whether she’ll be on camera, I don’t know. I’m wondering if keeping the mystery might be quite good.
"The reason I got into this job was to travel and tell stories"
I never want to lose my sense of adventure. I’ve been all over the world. But I can’t see myself ever saying, “Oh I’ve done it all. I want to stay home now.”
The reason I got into this job was to travel and tell stories, because that’s what Alan Whicker and Trevor McDonald did. Some of the moments I’ve covered were huge and written about in history books. And others are tiny. But everything has been a wonderful experience.
I’m presenting the Proms now and a whole new range of music is being opened to me. Stuff I’d never have encountered. That’s wonderful. I hope I’ll always be curious.
Clive’s new book about his life, Everything Is Everything: A Memoir of Love, Hate and Hope, is out now (Hodder & Stoughton)
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