You would expect a woman who appears on national television a dozen times every weekday morning, often buffeted by wind and rain, to be unfazed by a photoshoot. Not so. “Oh, my goodness, look at these chins! Look at these bags! Look at these lines!” exclaims Carol Kirkwood, describing how she feels when she sees a photograph of herself. “Where did they come from?”
There’s little wonder she’s hypersensitive. Whereas male colleagues are only occasionally chastised for wearing too bright a tie, Kirkwood’s appearance is scrutinised incessantly. “The wardrobe is a nightmare. It really is,” she confesses. “You do get people who will write to you and be quite blunt about what you’re wearing and tell you in no uncertain terms that they don’t like it. So you need to develop thick skin.”
Kirkwood, who admits to receiving “a wee bit” of mail from viewers (a colleague confirms that she receives sacks more than all the other BBC weather presenters), is also criticised for her accent and, bafflingly, being “too Scottish”.
However, she’s quick to point out that “99 per cent of the mail I get is lovely”. As well as sacks of birthday cards, she’s sent boxes of chocolates and even jewellery. Letters griping about inaccurate forecasts are relatively rare, to her relief.
“I always wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter but never had the guts. I was far too shy,” says Kirkwood, without irony, recounting her roundabout route to BBC Breakfast. A degree in commerce led to jobs in recruitment, management consultancy, television training and eventually her own show, Talking Issues, for HTV West. In 1996, a US broadcaster set up a British version of the Weather Channel and Kirkwood auditioned.
It was love at first forecast: “I adored the challenge of having nothing behind me – running my finger down an invisible front that would magically appear on the screen.” Unlike newsreaders, weather presenters don’t have the aid of an autocue; they have to ad-lib. Between forecasts, Kirkwood must constantly check the observations, radar picture, satellite, temperature, visibility if there’s fog, and alter her charts accordingly.
When the Weather Channel closed its doors a mere 18 months later, Kirkwood underwent the Met Office training necessary to be a BBC weather presenter. She’s since won best weather presenter at the Television and Radio Industries Club (TRIC) Awards three times – more than any other forecaster – and become a fixture of many Britons’ mornings, as essential as a cup of tea and slice of toast.
“If you can rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time, you can probably do this job,” says Kirkwood modestly, as cheery in person as on screen, although it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and she’s already been up for 12 hours.
Of course, the real litmus test for weather presenters is broadcasting outdoors – which Kirkwood loves, despite having had her fair share of “humdingers”. “I’ve been in many a blizzard where you’re being pelted by snow that feels like pins and needles on your face and it’s so cold your lips freeze.”
One unforgettable forecast – which has racked up over 10,000 hits on YouTube – was from the Glenshane Pass in Northern Ireland. “We begged the studio not to come to us because we could see the blizzard coming but they came,” recalls Kirkwood, chuckling at the memory. “I remember the director yelling down my ear: ‘This is great telly, you can have another 30 seconds.’ And I was thinking, ‘Nooooo, I can’t speak!’”
Does she ever wish she were a forecaster somewhere like Spain? “That would be boring. I would love to be a weather presenter in America because I adore the diverse weather they get there – the hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms and snowstorms where four feet can fall in as many hours.”
The UK might be too temperate for Kirkwood, but The Great British Weather has given her a new appreciation of something we do very well indeed: clouds. In the second instalment, which is about rain, you’ll see Kirkwood investigating clouds in a hang-glider.
“Oh, my giddy aunt, I was petrified! I had my eyes closed for a large chunk of it,” she exclaims. “There was a fair bit of turbulence so it was a bumpy ride. At one point I was absolutely convinced we were going to crash…” Perhaps being a weather presenter isn’t as easy as rubbing your tummy and patting your head after all.