I met Sally, Alastair Stewart’s wife, in the yard of their Hampshire farm. She was busy organising the donated tack and riding clothing collected for the charity Ebony Horse Club which they both support. I was clutching a bottle of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, a gift to Alastair, I know it’s one of the ‘Five things he can’t live without’ according to the Daily Express that day and I felt in need of an icebreaker.
My gift is met with a guffaw of laughter, as we were seated in the living room Sally apologises for the roaring fire that Alistair has lit despite it being summer; he asks if I mind if he smokes.
Any nervousness I felt quickly disappeared over mugs of tea and it became apparent that Alastair Stewart OBE is not only shorter and slighter than he appears from his commanding position at the ITV News desk, but is extremely generous of spirit, interesting, humorous with a boundless pride and love for his family.
“Having been born in Emsworth I’m genuinely happy in Hampshire, it has such lovely scenery – the rolly polly Candovers, the coast and the New Forest where Sally and I courted! I was with Southern Television in Southampton in 1976 and Sally and I were married in 78, we’ve been married nearly forty years and have lived in six houses across Hampshire.
We are lucky to have a small and very close-knit group of friends here who we’ve known for years. All of us enjoy eating out so we meet up regularly at our favourite restaurants- Lime Wood in the New Forest, The Thomas Lord in West Meon and the Chesil Rectory in Winchester.”
I wonder how Alastair became a broadcaster.
“I was Deputy President of the Student Union between 1974-76. At that point there was a move to close some teacher training colleges, the NUS was keen to promote keeping colleges open. I was interviewed at Southern television by Barry Westward, I arrived in jeans and t-shirt looking like a ‘lefty’ but made an impression on Terry Johnston who said Southern TV should sign me up!”
Alastair Stewarts OBE career has spanned some thirty-eight years making him the longest serving male news broadcaster on British television. From his first post with Southern Television he moved to Channel 4 for three years and then onto ITN and ITV. During his career he has commented on the Royal weddings of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew and many momentous moments now resigned to history such as the tragedy of the Challenger space mission, he was the first broadcaster to report live from the liberated Kuwait city.
Do accolades mean a lot to you?
“Yes I think so it’s nice to win Television Presenter of the Year, as one gets older the industry’s awards mean so much. I have four Honorary Degrees from Plymouth, Winchester, Bristol and Sunderland universities. But the OBE, I was so thrilled that I was awarded for services to broadcasting and to charity.”
How do you think Social Media has revolutionised news?
“Revolutionised is right. I follow around two thousand people on Twitter it’s great to have a ‘heads up’ on things, it’s so quick. But it can be dangerous too and there is jungle confusion regarding the legalities of what said or rather written. My son Alex has a new equestrian site and finds it an invaluable aid for promoting his business which is going really well”.
With so much news and Tweeting surrounding the Europe debate is Alastair in or out?
He gives me a rye smile, ”Impartial. Impartiality is a crucial part of my job, Charles Clarke MP once said to me ‘ you have more influence than I have – what goes on television and what doesn’t.”
Do you miss being the face of ITV News at Ten?
“ No, genuinely not. There have been some outstanding moments- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, Tony Blair winning the election, more recently the formation of the coalition with David Cameron. But the one thing that reduced me to tears and I really struggled with on air was the Russian Beslan massacre, those poor children- the epitome of mans inhumanity it was heart breaking.
My work takes me to many places, often lovely, but normally for sad reasons: I was recently in delightful West Yorkshire but only because of the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP. I found it deeply moving.”
Would you like to host your own political program again?
“I’ve done that, I’m sixty three and winding down now.
I joined ITV News at Ten taking over from Alastair Burnett who represented everything that is good in our business. I’m the one having to give way now and it’s never easy but Tom Bradbury is excellent and I do a Friday night for him and I present the lunch time ITV News.
I don’t get the argument that men last longer than women on television I’ve worked with many powerful women, Diana Edward Jones, Dame Sue Tinson DBE now Vice President of MBC, Anna Ford, Selinna Scott, Natasha Kaplinsky and Julie Etchinham they are all very successful and excellent mothers too, I think ITV is pretty gender neutral.”
Over the years have you come to love or loath politics?
“I have never loathed it, I love it and had aspirations to be a politician myself. It’s a great principle that everyone over eighteen regardless of race, creed etc. can have a say.
I’ve known politicians on many levels and some have become friends. People like John Denham MP, Alan Whitehead MP and the Rt. Hon. Anna Saibry MP, they all could make more money in business but politics is what they are passionate about.”
What is it like being Alastair Stewart?
“I’m just me and those who know me well would agree with that. As I get older I have become more guarded, ‘to thy self be true’ I stand by that.”
What does Alastair do to relax?
“I listen to a lot of music – Strauss, Beethoven, Pink Floyd and my favourites The Rolling Stones. I have a very varied taste and there’s very little music I don’t like. I really love costume drama anything by Julian Fellows, Downton Abbey was fantastic. Also Cromwell staring Mark Rylance, who is a personal friend and such a lovely man, I interviewed him for the Radio Times.
Walking too, we have twenty-two acres here and at times, if the kids come over, four dogs and then there are the horses, they are a passion, we currently have eleven! I am an Ambassador for British Show Jumping and my son Oscar is a professional show jumper. I was at the Royal Windsor Horse Show the night of the Queen’s birthday tribute which I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Is it right that you are a real fan of The Rolling Stones?
He laughs, ”Yes! I’ve seen them about twenty times, they were my specialist subject when I was on Mastermind, they are without doubt the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time!”
Knowing now what Alastair cannot live without- family, horses, Worcestershire Sauce and of course The Rolling Stones- what could he well do without in life?
“Ah smoking it’s a constant weakness, whenever I go for a walk I realise I should give it up, it would be a wise thing to do. I wish I had planned better financially to give one flexibility to do other things – Mr. McCorber that’s me, readers take note!
Oh and people who disrespect the countryside, littering and churning up tracks with off road vehicles. We shouldn’t disrespect what we have been given.”
Alastair Stewart OBE may be considering winding down on screen but off screen he is passionately involved with a number of charities.
“My parents instilled a sense of the importance of thinking of others. I’m associated with The Royal British Legion, Home Start along with Alison Wakeham who is brilliant. I’m the National Vice President of Action for Children and a Patron of Brooke International Equine which funds help for working horses, donkeys and mules all over the world and of course Naomi House and Jacksplace Children’s Hospice of which I am also Patron are hugely important to me.”
Though very at home by his fireplace in Hampshire, Alastair Stewart OBE with his busy television career and his enthusiastic involvement with his charitable work means he won’t be lingering there for long.