Nick Knowles on his teenage years in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and his career, family and hardwork

Nick Knowles is often seen as the BBC's bit of rough. His easy, laid-back style means he is constantly in demand to present game shows and documentaries...

Nick Knowles on his teenage years in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and his career, family and hardwork

Nick Knowles is often seen as the BBC’s bit of rough. His easy, laid-back style  means he is constantly in demand to present game shows and documentaries, including DIY SOS, Last Choir Standing and his latest, 

the Saturday night primetime show Secret Fortune. But the former Skinners’ School student, who grew up in Tunbridge Wells, takes his craft very seriously and is a self-confessed workaholic.

“In the last 10 or 12 years, I’ve spent about four nights a month at home,” says the 49-year-old divorced father of three. “Since I’ve been with Jessica, I’ve tried to improve that, so now it’s maybe eight nights a month. It’s better than it was.”

Jessica Moor, 24, has been Nick’s girlfriend for more than two years. Does she mind him being away from their west London home so often? “She’s a social media consultant with her own business, so she quite often travels to where I’m staying and works during the day, and we’ll catch up with each other in the evening,” he says.

Nick says it was far more than Jessica’s looks which attracted him to her. “It helps that she’s great to look at, but there’s a deliberation and calmness about her, which is very handy for someone like me. “She’s very independent and successful, she’s travelled a lot and has a good world view. There are a lot of things which are attractive about her – mainly her bum!”

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That’s a typical Knowles throwaway remark; he enjoys living up to his irreverent image. But there is a serious professional behind the designer stubble.

He is a talented director, writer and history buff, has just co-written his first novel, and is currently trying to secure finance for a film, a black comedy highlighting the plight of old people in this country.

Nick was born on a council estate in Southall, west London, in 1962. He has a brother who has a record company, and three sisters, all of whom became dancers.

His father was 45 when Nick was born, and retired from the civil service in his 50s after two heart attacks, later retraining as a cartographer and then a careers officer.

The family moved to Suffolk when Nick was 11, and to Tunbridge Wells three years later. “Every time dad changed jobs, we moved somewhere else,” he tells me.

“It was what started my gypsy lifestyle and probably made me the person I am, and explains why I do the job I do. I’m very good at making new friends quickly, and making them feel comfortable.”

Nick started at The Skinners’ School, a boys’ grammar, where he was considered bright, but disruptive. “It was a very academic school, but unfortunately I wasn’t very good with authority, so I was constantly getting into trouble.

“It was authoritarian, and I was a disruptive child. If it hadn’t been for rugby, I’d have been expelled much earlier than I was. I studied very little, fought quite a lot, and was quite often caught in the grounds of the nearby girls’ school!”

Despite his prowess at rugby, and passing eight O-levels, the school decided Nick was too much of a trouble maker to allow him into the Sixth Form. So he left school and embarked on a variety of jobs.

“I worked at Cheeseman’s selling carpets, at Smith’s the greengrocers selling fruit, and at Wilman’s selling photocopiers – all unsuccessfully!”  

Living in a bedsit, he learnt to survive on very little money. He laboured on building sites, worked at a petrol station, took on an apprenticeship designing nuclear boilers, returned to college and dropped out again.

But Nick dreamt of better things, having played in a band with his brother since he was 14, and constantly writing music, poetry and comedy.

Then an old schoolfriend who worked on a local newspaper told him about a BBC2 programmein which kids were invited to make a video about their home town.

He promptly wrote a tongue-in-cheek script, and “they gave me a film crew to shoot all the film I wanted to make.”

The result was controversial. “I upset a lot of people by describing Tunbridge Wells as the centre of commuter wife-swapping. I also said that if you want a good night out in Tunbridge Wells, go to London. I was surprised by the level of upset it caused, but in retrospect, I was really just trying to cause offence anyway.”

But Nick loved the experience so much he spent the next two years trying to break into television. He worked as a runner for the BBC before going to Australia to work in TV news, and later Arizona, USA. Returning to Kent, he joined TVS and later Meridian.

“I started as a sub with TVS news in Maidstone, and then became a reporter, producer and director, making all kinds of films and documentaries about Kentish life, from air-sea rescue to wartime evacuees, and comedy pieces about skateboarding ducks!”

Despite sending up the town in his youthful video, Nick loved living in Tunbridge Wells. “There was lots of music and theatre, lots of nice places to go out to, I played rugby and cricket and I made friends who remain friends to this day.”

He went on to present national daytime shows before being hired to co-present 5’s Company, a live, 90-minute chat show on newly-launched Channel 5. His laid-back style got him noticed, and in 1999 he was asked to present a new BBC series, DIY SOS, now in its 12th year. What does Nick think is the secret of its success?

“It’s genuine and honest rather than being pretend. Also, it’s very rude and funny, and we just get on and do things for real.”

Nick and his team of colourful builders genuinely get on well together. “There are days when my sides hurt with laughing, and my cheeks hurt from crying with laughter with the guys I work with. We’re more like a family, really.”

But, although he’s presented DIY SOS for so long, Nick has deliberately avoided being pigeon-holed. He’s always looking to try something new, hence the vast variety of shows he’s presented, from BBC1’s New Year’s Eve Live to Mission Africa, in which 15 apprentices worked to provide security, safe drinking water and a wildlife reserve.

Filming in Africa has developed his passion for wildlife, which began as a boy when he watched Jacques Cousteau on TV. Nick has learnt how to track animals, and made a moving film about orang-utans for the BBC’s Saving Planet Earth series. While filming in Mzima Springs, Kenya, he became personally involved after finding a group of hippos dying because the springs had run dry and the grass they lived on had been eaten by cattle. He helped pay for hay and alfalfa to be transported to feed them.

Of all the many shows he’s been part of, Nick is probably proudest of the Historyonics series he wrote, researched and presented in 2003. His Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot for BBC1 was followed by a series of funny but informative history dramas telling the story of colourful historic characters.

His love of history is evident in the book he’s co-written (working title, Ice Witness), set in the present and the age of Elizabethan piracy. And the blackly comic movie he hopes to make about the plight of the elderly stems from his love of talking to older people about their memories.

“I’m fascinated by people. People come up to chat to me in the street all the time. A lot of people who do presenting are not the same in real life as they are on the telly. I’m lucky. I can just go to work and be me, and that’s quite unusual for television.”

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