Outlook's gloomy says TV's Michael

The outlook is devastating, unless we change our ways. That's the apocalyptic warning weather expert Michael Fish is bringing to Essex. Steven Russell reportsIN a moment we'll ask Michael Fish about the Great Storm myths that have stalked him for nearly two decades.

The outlook is devastating, unless we change our ways. That's the apocalyptic warning weather expert Michael Fish is bringing to Essex. Steven Russell reports

IN a moment we'll ask Michael Fish about the Great Storm myths that have stalked him for nearly two decades. We'll also discover that retiring wasn't his idea, his thoughts on weather presenters without a background in meteorology, and even about his trademark moustache.

But, before such relative trivia, we must deal with The Big Stuff.

The Big Stuff is global warming and climate change. The former BBC TV forecaster will focus on these crucial issues when he gives the 2006 Colchester Lecture next month - following in the footsteps of Time Team's Tony Robinson, fertility expert Lord Robert Winston, entertainer Johnny Ball and inventor Trevor Bayliss.

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He's unlikely to pull any punches.

Ask him if it's already too late to reverse the damaging trend and he concedes: “I'm extremely pessimistic. The way things are going at the moment it is becoming, if anything, too late, because certain countries - like America - just put their head in the sand and hope the whole thing will go away.

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“Of course, it won't. Even if we stop polluting the world now, which is absolutely and totally and utterly impossible, we would still be locked into a scenario that would go on for hundreds if not thousands of years.”

What's going to happen, then?

“I've thought this - and I've said the same line to Prince Charles . . . I call it 'the ultimate weapon of mass destruction', because it will kill more people than human conflict has ever done on this planet.”

Presumably he agreed with your verdict.

“He's absolutely of the same mind, yes. We have had little bit of correspondence, and he's given some talks as well. Obviously anybody with any sense should be extremely concerned. We can see it all around us: the trees are dying, we know the climate's changing, we know we've got a drought this year - which may or may not be connected.”

And if we don't heed the warnings . . .

“If it carries on too badly, and things get out of control, then we could have a runaway scenario which means no more earth. We could end up like planet Venus.

“The other message, of course, is that we only borrow this planet and that we should hand it on to our children not totally destroyed - if anything, in a better state than when we inherited it.”

It is difficult to persuade some of the greedy, selfish, desperate or misguided nations and peoples to change tack, but Michael won't countenance defeatist talk.

“Every individual can make a small effort, and all those efforts add up,” he insists. “It doesn't really cost you much to insulate your house properly, change your lightbulbs (to low energy alternatives), and things like that. In fact, there are subsidies for many of those things for people who can't afford it.”

He was once said to be part of a Government campaign to combat global warming. Is he still involved?

“Indirectly so. I have had some meetings with Number 10 and they have suggested that they will be asking for my help in the future to do some sort of campaign, but as yet I haven't heard anything definite.”

Michael Fish was born in Eastbourne 62 years ago. He joined the Meteorological Office on November 5, 1962, being posted to Gatwick Airport and then, in 1965, to the Met Office HQ in Bracknell.

His broadcasting career began in 1972, when he made his bow on BBC radio, and he joined the team of forecasters for BBC Television early in 1974. Michael celebrated 30 years of TV forecasting on January 4 and was one of the longest-serving meteorologists to work in broadcasting - if not the longest-serving.

Sadly, that year also marked his departure from national television - his final forecast part of the Ten O'Clock News bulletin on October 6, 2004.

Retirement definitely wasn't something he sought.

Were you ready to retire?

“No, no. I never wanted to retire. It was compulsory in the civil service. Once you got to 60 they'd take your key away and tell you to go away! There's no choice in the matter.” A bit premature, surely? “It is in this day and age. There's all this fuss about pensions, and all the rest of it, yet they make you retire and collect your pension whether you want it or not.”

Happily, retirement from the Met Office hasn't meant the end of his TV forecasting days. Michael still does some weather presentations for BBC South East, covering Kent, Surrey and Sussex, “so I'm not completely out of it at the moment”.

“Although I've retired from the civil service, I certainly haven't retired from working, which is one of the reasons why I'm in Colchester next month. I've no intention of sitting in the corner and dribbling, or something,” he laughs. “I can't do nothing. I was far too young to retire and never wanted to retire.”

Michael saw many changes during his time forecasting for the BBC. He gave the last bulletin using magnetic symbols and the first with computer graphics. He was also the first to present satellite pictures. In the beginning, they were biked over to West London from Bracknell and the coastline was outlined with felt-tip pen!

“They were clipped on to a tatty old music stand with broken magnetic strips and pointed at with a knitting-needle from the Co-op!”

Times change. A few months after Michael's last national broadcast, the BBC revamped its weather graphics - not to universal acclaim. Does he think that - as with many Hollywood films nowadays - there's a risk of technology getting in the way of the story?

“I don't know . . . The problem we've always had is that the BBC has never, ever, given us enough time to get the message across properly. That was certainly true in the old days.

“Now, I think they may well have the same amount of time, but people are considering that the graphics tell the story themselves, and that people just need to watch what's going on on the screen and you can see more or less what time it's supposed to start to rain in your particular area - whereas in the old days we had to try to get that across in words of two syllables in a very limited amount of time, which was never very easy.”

Slots often ran to only 45 seconds. “Two and a half minutes is the ideal duration.”

Michael and colleagues took technological developments in their stride.

“It was easy for us because we were all scientists and all had computers. I mean, I started using computers shortly after I joined the Met Office, so I've been familiar with computers for over 40 years. So it certainly didn't come as a shock.”

Which brings us neatly on to the thorny subject of TV and radio weather bulletin presenters without a background in science or meteorology. Bit of a red rag.

“I feel that's totally wrong, because first of all they often make a complete muck-up of it; and, secondly, it can often be completely out of date and totally wrong,” says Michael.

“With the best will in the world, you can't get a script through to people at the last minute, whereas if a professional meteorologist is doing it, he is literally able to alter the forecast while he's standing in the studio, five seconds before he goes on air.”

Now: time to consider the enduring myth of The Great Storm of 1987 . . .

You've no doubt seen the snippet from his evening weather bulletin on October 15, the night the storm struck, where Michael says “Earlier on today, apparently, a lady rang the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well, don't worry; there isn't.”

If I had a penny for every time the “hurricane clip” was broadcast, I'd be a millionaire, he says.

In fact, his comment referred to Florida, where a member of staff's mother was due to go on holiday. There had been a news story about devastation in the Caribbean and the question had been raised about the Sunshine State possibly being in the firing line.

If the full bulletin were screened, all would be revealed, says the forecaster.

Why didn't he make a big fuss. Didn't he get tired of being gently lampooned over and over again?

“Well, I did get extremely cross at the time. You know what it's like: if the facts get in the way of the story, never print them.

“As you know, I wasn't even on duty (later on). . . I was talking about Florida and my forecast, which of course never got mentioned because it spoilt the story, started off by saying 'Batten down the hatches. There's some extremely stormy weather on the way.' I don't think you can get more definite than that. But, of course, the national press didn't want that, because it spoilt their story.”

And thus it became legend, trotted out every time a newspaper wrote a feature about forecasting errors or a film editor made a programme about things going wrong.

“I know, I know. If I hadn't been a civil servant I might have had grounds to sue for defamation or something. As it was, I just had to sit back and take it, in the hope that when I retired, some 20 years later, I could use that particular event to make money.

“I'm still waiting . . . I quite honestly thought advertising agencies would be clamouring to use that sort of tongue-in-cheek joke as part of an advertising campaign, but so far nobody's thought of it.”

He's warned in the past that forecasters needed thick skins. Presumably that's because of the potential for things to go awry occasionally - either with a forecast that was off the mark or a magnetic sun symbol slipping off the United Kingdom.

“Yes. Thankfully that was many years ago. Our forecasts have got much more accurate as the years have gone by.”

When he's not doing holiday relief forecasting and giving talks, Michael quite enjoys travelling. He says he was the first tourist to enter Albania, “and there are places I'd like to see before I die”. Like where?

“Anywhere there aren't British tourists!”

Today he lives in West London with wife Susan. Daughters Alison and Nicola, in their 30s, have long flown the nest. Neither have followed him into the forecasting game, and he's pleased about that. “I wouldn't have wanted them to join the civil service - I suppose too much red tape and too little salary.”

His trademark moustache is still there, though grey these days, he points out.

“I can't remember being without it. I certainly had it when I started on television, and that was 33, 34, years ago. I can't remember when I actually made a decision; it was probably when I went away on holiday for a couple of weeks, got lazy, didn't shave, and then decided to keep it.”

If we remember anything about him, though, it's his rallying cry about the environment, rather than facial hair.

“We need to bang the drum about global warming and climate change,” he insists. “People need to make an effort, however small.”

The Colchester Lecture is on Monday, June 19, at Colchester's Mercury Theatre, starting at 6.30pm. Phone the Mercury booking office, on 01206 573948, for details on ticket availability. They cost £7.50.

The Colchester Lecture is organised annually in association with National Science Week programmes to promote among young people an interest in science, engineering and technology.

Cold front

Michael Fish prefers cold weather. “I don't like hot weather at all. Give me a nice cold day in winter, with snow on the ground, rather than some horrible heatwave in the summer.”

Young at heart

Michael Fish's summers are usually badly affected by hay fever badly. “I was quite pleased, at one stage, because my doctor tells me it's a symptom of adolescence!”

The science bit

While working at London Weather Centre, from 1966-68 he did a sandwich course in applied physics at City University

A brush with Basil

As well as his normal weather forecasts, Michael Fish has appeared on Tomorrow's World, The Sky at Night - and even The Val Doonican Show and with Basil Brush!

Air miles

When he was posted to Gatwick Airport (which the quirky Met Office crowd rechristened Fogwick Gatport) Michael Fish was living in Eastbourne - a good hour away. The shift system also played havoc with travelling. He was paid £25 a month - £5 less than his travelling expenses

Weather woe

In his early days at The London Weather Centre, Michael became proficient in forecasting for oil rigs, pigeon racing, gas and electricity supplies and transport, as well as for the general public. He told BBC online: “Whilst there I had the honour of wiping out more pigeons on one day than anybody else in history (over 2,000 in unexpected fog) and the largest error of 15C in a forecast for the Gas Board!”

Early days

When he started doing weather forecasts on TV, Michael was one of three people working from 10am to 10pm and delivering three broadcasts a day

Stormy outlook

Michael Fish loves thunderstorms - even though one hit a tree next to his house in the summer of 2004 and blew up his computer

Bright outlook

Michael was awarded the MBE in 2004

Sky's the limit

If he hadn't been a meteorologist, Michael Fish would have fancied being an RAF pilot

Reign gauge

Honours garnered by Michael Fish include being named Weather Presenter of the Year by the Television and Radio Industries Club, Tie-man of the Year, Worst Dressed Man on Television, and Best Dressed Man on Television

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