‘Smiling is my default position': How BBC Breakfast's forecaster Carol Kirkwood keeps the grey days at bay
The weather forecaster's life hasn't been sunshine all the way – she talks early starts and why she's braver after her divorce
"Quick, in here,” says Carol Kirkwood, pulling me through a door way at Broadcasting House in central London. “And leave your mobile outside.” Behind the door I find a very small room where a very big television camera stands in front of a green wall. Kirkwood, nine times winner of the weather presenter of the year award, ushers me into a corner and then squeezes in front of the camera. “Whatever you do,” she says, “don’t sneeze or cough.”
Immediately I want to sneeze and cough, but too late – Kirkwood checks her earpiece, presses the button in her hand that begins the on-screen graphics, looks into the camera and says, “Hi Naga, hi Dan.” It’s just past 8am and, apart from those chasing the last cornflake out of the box, in the order of 1.5 million people are watching her deliver the BBC Breakfast national weather.
I just about get through without sneezing. The multi-tasking Kirkwood walks it, of course, gently declaring the end of this summer’s hot spell – “Temperatures could be as low as nine degrees in Scotland” – while using her hand to show the progression of an occluded front across the British Isles. On screen, the map appears to be behind Kirkwood, but she can only see it on the camera display in front of her. Nonetheless, she always points at exactly the area she’s referring to (I try this afterwards – it’s impossible).
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Weather delivered, Kirkwood then exchanges live pleasantries with Naga Munchetty and Dan Walker, 200 miles away in the BBC’s Salford studios. All this with her trademark mile-wide smile resolutely in place and without benefit of an autocue, just as she has been doing since first joining Breakfast in 1998.
Most of us are fast sleep when Kirkwood’s alarm goes off at 2.45am at her home outside London. “If I don’t get up, Donald starts poking me with his paw,” she says (Donald is her cat). “I shower, have a cup of milky builders’ tea. Then I check the BBC Weather online.” On the drive into London she is looking out of the window at the skies, listening to the Radio 5 Live forecast and “thinking about what I can put in my first bulletin”. She doesn’t have breakfast until 8.20am. “I bring it with me.” Granola? Muesli? “No, no. Weetabix.” One? “Two! Are you having a laugh?”
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Kirkwood didn’t set out to be a meteorologist. She took a degree in commerce at an Edinburgh college and then joined the BBC as a secretary, answering telephone queries. “One woman caller heard my voice and said, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, girl, speak the Queen’s English.’ That shook me,” Kirkwood says. “I thought, ‘I need to speak more clearly.’ So I slowed it down.”
Newly refined, she was given presenting roles across BBC radio and then, after marrying property developer Jimmy Kirkwood in 1990, took a break from the media before working for cable stations and ending up at the Weather Channel. When that folded, bosses at the BBC grabbed Kirkwood back and sent her for further training at the Met Office.
Kirkwood arrives at the BBC at 4.30am and chats to the duty forecaster. “Then it’s down to make-up, where we have a conference and discuss the weather again.” To remember all this weather, Kirkwood imagines two triangles, one inverted on top of the other, around which she arranges the various fronts and the high- or low-pressure areas that will shape the day. Then she rushes back upstairs for the 6.15am report. Loo breaks, like teas, are taken on the hoof. “It’s not far to the loo. I run over between reports.”
Throughout the bulletins on Breakfast and the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2, the smile rarely drops. “Gosh, I hate saying these things,” she says, “but I’m a natural smiler. When I’m happy, I smile. it’s my default position.”
Kirkwood is 56 and the first weather she recalls is snow falling around the family home in the West Highlands that she shared with seven siblings, close to the hotel her parents ran. “I come from Morar, it’s a gorgeous part of the world. Because of the Gulf Stream, the water is warm, and you get tropical trees and beautiful silver sands, but you seldom get snow. When we did, even if it was five flecks, we’d be straight out there riding on trays or oilskins.
“Summers were filled with awe at the wonder at everything. We’d come in from school, jump on our bikes and cycle off to the beach and then back home to watch Blue Peter or Newsround.”
As a teenager, Kirkwood would sit in front of Top of the Pops with a tape recorder waiting for her favourite singer. Which led, recently, to a heart-rending discovery. “My dad died a long time ago, but I could remember him coming in when I was recording David Cassidy and saying, ‘Carol, have you tidied your room?’ and me saying, ‘Dad! SHHHH!’ And I found the tape at home. It made me cry, hearing my dad’s voice after such a long time. I asked myself, ‘Why have I kept this tape?’ And maybe that’s the reason.”
Her father didn’t see Kirkwood achieve her present level of fame. “He would have been very proud,” she says. “But when I was a production secretary he saw my name go up in the credits once on a programme called Beat the Teacher, and he was well chuffed!”
Her mother, now 92, still lives in Scotland, and the eight siblings remain close, gathering in the home country every year. “There’s so many of us, lots of nieces and nephews as well, so we all bring something for the buffet.”
What do you take? “Cheese. I’m hopeless at cooking.” But when you appeared on Ready, Steady, Cook you won? “That was down to James Martin. I’m rubbish.”
She was brought up as a Roman Catholic and Kirkwood says she still believes in God, but doesn’t think he controls each cold front with his finger. “No! But I wish he’d sort out the seasons. They’re all running into each other.”
According to scientists, climate change means more freakish and dangerous weather events are on the way, but if there is one thing Kirkwood absolutely won’t be drawn on it’s global warming. “I’m not a climatologist, I’m a weather reporter,” she says. “I wouldn’t talk about it.” Ask her if there is a BBC edict on the subject and she just repeats the same answer.
She says she’s passionate about what she does partly because she enjoys being in the weather team so much. “They’re my friends, all doing a job we love. It’s just good fun.” The truth of that becomes apparent at the 9.30am meeting when the big names of weather reporting, Kirkwood, Thomas Schafernaker, Darren Betts and more, gather round like pals in the pub to discuss a trough that has developed over the Alps. “None of us are stars,” she says. “We’re absolutely equal.”
That’s not how the public feels. When I ask how Kirkwood deals with knowing millions of viewers are watching her, she says, “I like it if my hair is neat and my make-up is OK and I’m not having a fat day!” What’s a fat day? “Oh, when you just feel bleurgh.” She refers to her appearance regularly. “I didn’t get this figure eating salad,” she tells me at one point. “But I go to the gym and I run. I try to be healthy. When I put on weight, it’s annoying, but I try to get it off. Perhaps I’m under a little bit more pressure because I’m on the telly.”
Like everyone who takes part in Strictly, Kirkwood lost weight when she appeared in 2015, an experience that still brings a flush of excitement to her face. “I will remember Strictly for as long as I live. No matter how scary it was, I will never regret doing it. It was the most amazing experience.” When I ask her why she’s so fearless she says, “I got divorced.”
In 2008, Kirkwood separated from her husband after 18 years of marriage. “I’m braver now. I’ve flown with the Red Arrows, jumped out of planes with the Red Devils. When I was younger I would never have done that because I’d have thought, ‘Too dangerous!’ Now I think, ‘Oh, you’ve got to live your life!’ I found myself when I got divorced. I started to do things and to think, ‘I’m not going to say no, I’m going to say yes!’”
Even so, on work nights she tries to be in bed by 9pm. “It’s lights out by halfpast,” she says. “I used to work five days a week on Breakfast. I cut it back to four days but I’m still always sleep-deficient. It’s like having permanent jetlag.”
She avoids alcohol during the week. “I know it would have gone through my system by the morning, but if I stumbled on air, I would think, ‘I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine last night.’ I won’t allow myself that, because I do take my job seriously.”
Twenty years is a long time: shouldn’t Kirkwood move on? Could I tempt her with a variety show so she can dance more, or her own travel series? For once the smile drops.
“I’d never give up the weather on Breakfast. If they showed me the door I would hang on by my fingernails. So, as long as Breakfast wants me, I’ll be there, because I love it.
Breakfast airs Monday—Friday from 6.00am on BBC1