Interview: Bill Turnbull

PUBLISHED: 10:57 18 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013

Interview: Bill Turnbull

Interview: Bill Turnbull

BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull's debut book isn't an account of his career as a bullet-dodging, top-flight journalist, but about his passion for something much closer to his South Bucks home

For a well-respected TV journalist, who has reported on plane crashes, hurricanes and uprisings worldwide, from a war zone in South America and from Washingtons Capitol Hill, it might seem a little strange that the subject of beekeeping is what really gets Bill Turnbulls adrenalin going. He may have dodged a few bullets in his time as a foreign correspondent but they are as nothing compared with the numerous stings he has endured from his apiarian assailants.
Ive been stung dozens of times. It always hurts and I used to swell up a lot at first, but your system gets used to it, Bill tells me stoically.
We are sitting in the office of Gerrards Cross Library just before the popular, laid-back presenter with an easy manner and smile, is due to give a talk on his first book on - you guessed it - beekeeping. It was really easy to write because its based on a subject a lot of people dont know about, he says.
Since 2001 Bill has been presenting Breakfast for the BBC, sharing the big TV sofa with co-host Sian Williams since 2008, but his fascination with bees began long before. Seventeen years ago he and his wife, Sarah, together with their three children, had just moved into their home in Jordans when their builder came charging inside, looking terrified. Outside, the garden was being invaded by a swarm of bees.
If it happened today, Id be clapping my hands with joy and running out to greet them. But that day we did what most people do in such situations: we shut the windows and called the police, recalls Bill.
Soon afterwards a man from the local beekeepers association came to the rescue. He dispensed them into a cardboard box using nothing more than a pair of secateurs to clip the branch where they had swarmed off the tree. There seemed to be something rather Zen-like about his ability to tame a large cluster of potentially ferocious flying insects and coax them into captivity, reflects Bill.
While the incident left an indelible mark on his psyche, Bills journalistic career was really taking off and his thoughts turned to other things. Understandably he admits: Amid all the bullets, bombs and ballot boxes, I never once saw a bee, or even thought about them much, if at all.
It was a visit to the vets, however, with one of the familys chickens - they still keep six - that changed his life. He saw a advert for beekeeping classes. It was clearly a sign. It was meant to be, he jokes, adding: I decided that the moment had arrived to take on the challenge. And, I have to say, Ive never regretted it.
He went along to the Pinner & Ruislip Beekeepers Association and in his first year won a prize for the Best Novice Beekeeper - there was only one. I thought about joining the Chalfonts association but theyve made me president of the Pinner and Ruislip one so theyve got me for life now, he smiles.
He admits to accidentally killing three precious queens - hence being a bad beekeeper - and has between six and nine hives in his garden that produce anything between nothing to 200lb of honey each year. Much of it he gives away to charity. (In the book he relates how TVs Chris Tarrant was stung for 800 for a jar of Bills honey at a charity auction.)
Bill is also patron of the Ian Rennie Hospice at Home and for the past two years has started off their Midnight Walk and Three Peaks Challenge events.
But when it comes to sport, his local football team is his passion. Ive become an aficianado of Wycombe Wanderers. I am the official commentator for all their home matches, so I get to 26 or 27 games a year. Its tragic this season of course because they got relegated.
As far as plans to move the club from their High Wycombe home into a bigger stadium are concerned, Bill has mixed feelings. From the fans point of view I can see their nervousness about rattling around in big stadium. I like Adams Park; its semi rural. Its the only football stadium where Ive ever seen partridges land during a game!
In fact, it was the work he did with the Wanderers that led to Bill being awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Bucks New University last year. When they got in touch with me I thought this is a wind-up. I thought it was a Sunday newspaper fishing for something, so I didnt respond. Then the Club called me up and said it was true. I was tremendously honoured and felt very unworthy of it, he says.
Another highlight in Bills recent career was his participation in Strictly Come Dancing in 2005. His unique torn-ligament tango and good natured sparring with the judges made the series memorable. It was an unforgettable roller coaster ride, he reflects. And in many ways it did change my life for the better because it raised my profile as a broadcaster and a lot of other things came my way as a result. Its just amazing fun but incredibly nerve-wracking as well.
Another nerve-wracking episode for Bill came when he entered Celebrity Mastermind three years ago. It was in filmed in September, but it was terrifying and ruined a summer for me. I foolishly chose beekeeping as a subject because I had reputation to defend and I was worried I was going to blow it completely, so I spent two months revising. In the end he scored a creditable 16 point in his specialist subject and 11 in general knowledge.
In 2007 he appeared on Who Wants to be a Millionaire with Sian Williams Together they raised 150,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Presenting BBC Breakfast means that Bill is up at 3.45 every morning and leaves the house at 4.30pm to catch the train into London. He says: Not only is Bucks the prettiest of all the Home Counties, its got a fantastic rail service and while I was a reporter it was handy for Heathrow.
When hes not working, or looking after his bees, Bill loves to take his two Labradors for a walk. You go down our drive, turn left and youre onto a public footpath. Thats one of the joys of living in Bucks. There are so many good places to go and see, like Chenies, which we love too.
Going to bed before 10pm every night severely restricts Bills ability to make the most of the areas nightlife but he and his family enjoy Maliks in Gerrards Cross and the award winning Jolly Cricketers at Seer Green, which he says is a terrific pub and serves very good food to boot. The China Diner in Beaconsfield is also a favourite. He recalls: Id often admired a painting of a Chinese man standing guard over some bicycles with an AK 47 and when they were redecorating, they gave it to me. Its now in my study.
As for his early mornings, he says hes hardened to them, rather than got used to them, adding: Its unnatural to be up at that time of the morning. You could say he is always up before the lark - or should that be the bee?


The Bad Beekeepers Club by Bill Turnbull (Sphere, 12.99).Bill will be talking about the book at The Bear Hotel, Hungerford on Thursday July 29, 7pm. For more information call The Hungerford Bookshop on 01488 683 480.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Berkshire Life