The men and women of the Met office are among the most well known faces on British television. Kieran Kinsella recently had the opportunity to speak with perhaps the best known weatherman of all: John Kettley. John spoke about his new book, his recollections of the huge storm that swept the British isles in 1987 and his love of Burnley football club.
How did you first get involved in meteorology?
“Well it was really from school and then I joined the Met office since that was the only place to get a career in meteorology at that time. So I joined the Met office after I did my A-levels, did two years working at Manchester airport then went to get my degree in Physics from Coventry. Maths and physics have always been the degrees that you need to have in order to advance through the Met office. After that, television came along quite by accident because I would never have volunteered to be on television. Someone from one of my long and protracted meteorological classes within the Met office suggested that I take a screen test. I went with that suggestion and passed the screen test in Nottingham in 1980 and I have been on TV and radio ever since for the last 30 odd years.”
One of the things that you cover in your new book “Weatherman” is the fact that you were at the Met office at the time that Michael Fish famously brushed off a viewer’s suggestion that a major storm was going to hit the British Isles. We all know what happened next but what are your recollections of that particular incident?
“My memory of that incident is very clear because the storm hit on Thursday night/Friday morning and I had been on BBC One on the Sunday before that saying that it was going to get pretty stormy at the end of the week. After that, I was broadcasting weather forecasts on the radio during the week at which point the Met office were saying that the storm was going to miss Britain and instead hit Northern France and Spain so that was disappointing since I had forecast the storm earlier in the week. Strangely enough that Thursday night the forecasts were saying that it would be breezy up the English channel and nothing more than that.
I was due to be on television on the Friday morning and I went up to London where there were power cuts everywhere and there were trees down on the side of the road. I got to television center, or Lime Grove as it was in those days and everybody was standing outside. I think they were waiting for the weatherman ! There was no power in the studios so we had to abandon those studios and go up the road to a back up studio which was used for making children’s programs. Very little information was getting through to me but we went on air at about 7.15am. I didn’t have my usual specialized set of graphics as it was impossible to get any kind of graphics at all so I was just spouting off with whatever information I could get about what had happened and what was possibly going to happen for the rest of the day. I did 22 broadcasts and left the building at 2pm.
It was a moment of high drama. A lot of people lost their lives. From a weather perspective we had gone full circle from predicting it, to playing it down, to reporting how it had been worse than anyone expected. I was involved at the beginning and the end but Michael Fish is the one that everyone remembers.”
Has technology improved now to the point where something like this would no longer be missed in the forecasts?
“Yes, 24 years on, the computer technology we have now is far superior to what we had then. We used to think back then that we had good technology but clearly it was not good enough to predict that storm so it was downplayed too much. We have much better warning systems in place now although that does not mean that we will not have situations where we have people dying and a lot of destruction from trees coming down because you cannot stop that. With the technology we have now though I think everyone would have been 100 percent sure that something very nasty was on the way.”
Tomorrow in part two of his interview, John Kettley talks about the pop song dedicated to him and his involvement in sport.