Bill Turnbull: ‘I don’t know why people want to make you feel so awkward about having belief’

The early-morning chat show talks about his Christian faith, life after BBC Breakfast – and bees

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After 15 years in the same job, your boss should probably take you at your word. I meet Bill Turnbull on a bleak Tuesday morning at the BBC Breakfast studios in Salford. He’s just come off air, he’s perky, warm, upbeat.

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But before we get going… there’s something we need to get out of the way. Bill’s just returned from a day off work. Yesterday, out of the blue, he called in sick.

Which wouldn’t normally raise an eyebrow, were it not for the fact that the day in question just happened to be his 60th birthday. Did the celebrations get a little bit out of hand, perhaps?

“No, it wasn’t a hangover,” says the presenter. Sure, they had people round to their house at the weekend to celebrate, but that doesn’t explain his absence from the studio: “I had a stomach bug. It was utterly miserable, to be honest.”

Given the straightforwardness he goes on to display in our interview – about his schooldays at Eton, about swearing live on air, about his life as a practising Christian – I don’t doubt his explanation for a moment.

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We’re here because Bill Turnbull is saying goodbye to Breakfast after a decade and a half on the early-morning sofa (he’ll be replaced three days a week by Football Focus presenter and devout Christian Dan Walker). He may have reached 60, but “don’t call it retirement! No.” He will continue to pop up on TV, both in his current berth at Songs of Praise and in a new BBC1 daytime quiz called Think Tank… and, he hopes, plenty of other places too. “This,” says Turnbull, “is just a change of direction.”

True, but it’s a big one. He and his wife Sarah McCombie will leave their rented home in the Peak District – they moved north after Breakfast relocated to Salford in 2012 – to a permanent base in Suffolk. There’ll be more time for family, and for his well-known hobby of bee-keeping.

And, of course, he will begin to train his body to live – and sleep – like a normal human being again.

He won’t miss the early starts. “At the moment, the first alarm goes off at 3.35am. The second alarm is set for 3.36 but I very rarely need that. I get up, shower, shave. I do ten minutes of yoga, then leave the house at 4:20am.” Has he ever slept in? Only twice in 15 years. And even then he didn’t miss the start of the show at 6am.

“The one time I didn’t wake up, I said to the driver afterwards: ‘Why didn’t you ring the doorbell?’ He said: ‘I was worried the dogs would bark and wake everybody up.’ I said: ‘That’s kind of the point.’”

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The high points of his 15 years on Breakfast? He picks a random selection: the 2012 Olympics (“like a big party, day after day”), reporting from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, meeting Eric Burden of the Animals. The low points? A painful (and hilarious) 2008 interview down the line from the seafront at Poole harbour with Bill Oddie, at the end of which Turnbull expressed the wish that Oddie might fall in the sea.

So when did it first cross Turnbull’s mind to leave all this behind? Wasn’t he tempted when BBC bosses ordered the Breakfast team to up sticks and move to Salford? “It must have crossed my mind to leave then, but I suppose I was intrigued by the experiment. The challenge of it… can you move three hours of news and current affairs television 200 miles up the motorway without missing a single programme and make it work?”

So can you? Yes, he says, they’ve proved the doubters wrong. “You get guests on the programme, you’re still covering all the main stories and, if anything, the audience has gone up slightly.”

At the time of the move, Adam Bullimore, then the deputy but now the editor of Breakfast, said that the show’s “tone of voice might change a bit”. Has it? “Well,” smiles Turnbull, “we haven’t put on northern accents. No, I don’t think the tone of voice has changed.”

Ah, yes, tone of voice. Most viewers probably won’t realise that Turnbull’s background is a rather privileged one. Turnbull went to Eton – he was in the same school year as one boy who entered the Cabinet (Oliver Letwin), one who went on to edit The Daily Telegraph (Charles Moore) and one – Justin Welby – who is now the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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“When Justin was appointed, I remember thinking: ‘He looks familiar’, and then when I did an interview with him, I said: ‘Were you – the phrase is – “at school”?’ He said yes. We worked out we were both in Mr Armstrong’s class for English A-level, but we never actually spoke.”

Some people might wonder how a product of the grandest school in the country – fees are currently £36,000 a year – could share the concerns of a TV viewer about to set off to work in a shop or factory. 

Turnbull takes umbrage. Despite the fact that he was at school with “duke’s children, earls, lords, all that” – and that he has three Christian names, one of which is Jolyon – “just because you go to Eton doesn’t make you posh. Of course not. No!

“It irritates me when people just look at where I went to school and form a judgement,” he says. “Because I’m not a toff. In fact I felt rather socially inferior at Eton. I was definitely near the bottom of the ladder.

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“It was never an issue until David Cameron” – also an Old Etonian, of course – “became prime minister. Never once. When I started working for the BBC back in the early 80s, it never came up. Only in the past couple of years have people suddenly gone, ‘Oh, you went to Eton.’ Where you go to school doesn’t affect your attitude – or shouldn’t affect your attitude – to life, people, things that happen. Not going to a comprehensive doesn’t disqualify me from reading the news.”

If there’s one thing an Eton education should have taught Turnbull (and it has, he’s charming), it’s manners. Which makes it all the odder that he is one of a very small number of people who have uttered the rudest swear-word – the dreaded “c-word” – live on TV.

It happened last July. “I was reading emails off the screen. And the words ‘clients’ and ‘customers’ came up in close succession. Now, there are two ways you can confuse these words. One is to say ‘cliestomers’ and the other one isn’t. And it happened. Normally there would be some kind of response from the gallery. Either a gasp of horror or laughter. But nobody noticed. I thought I’d got away with it.”

Until, that is, he got out of the studio – and news of his slip-up was all over the internet. “By the time I got home, there was even a newspaper in Malaysia reporting it.” Turnbull knew he needed to issue an apology, so he did – on Twitter. Was there a BBC inquiry into the matter? “No. Why would there be?”

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And so to Turnbull’s plans for the future. What does it hold? The daytime quiz aside, there will also, he hopes, be documentaries, work on the radio and who knows what else. One thing will stay the same, though – he will continue to be one of the presenters of Songs of Praise. (Interesting note: at Eton, the future Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t in the choir; the future TV presenter was.)

One of the things he says he’ll do more of when he leaves Breakfast behind and moves home is go to church. (He has, in the past, led Evensong at his local church.) It’s unusual, I say, to hear a prominent TV presenter talk in public about their religious belief. He thinks that’s a shame. “I always say I have faith. I have very strong beliefs. But we are embarrassed in Britain about [saying that]. When we lived in America it was the exception not to go to church. Church was absolutely packed and it was wonderful. But here there’s something about our culture that makes people feel as if they have to apologise for having faith. I think people are actually a lot more religious than they let on. I think secretly, within their hearts, they have beliefs that they keep to themselves.”

In the US, I say, it would be impossible to stand for president without saying you’re a practising Christian. Would he prefer it that way here? He answers a slightly different question.

“I prefer the fact that there you don’t have to apologise for being religious. I don’t know why people want to make you feel so awkward about having belief. I don’t understand it. Sometimes here if you express a belief in God, people will say: ‘Oh I’m sorry, I just swore.’ They treat you as if you’re lily white. That’s just ridiculous. I’m as human as the next person – my friends certainly know that.”

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Bill Turnbull? Swear? Most of us assumed he only does that on television.