A tribute to my great friend and BBC Breakfast colleague, Bill Turnbull.
Bill Turnbull was the kindest and most generous of friends, and the best man to spend eleven years with on the BBC Breakfast sofa.
But we first met in Arkansas in America, thirty years ago, during the 1992 Presidential election campaign. As a rookie BBC Radio 4 producer, I’d been sent to work with the BBC’s Washington correspondent and make a programme about the then Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton. I was nervous. It was my first big assignment away from base, I’d just returned to work after having my first child and I was anxious to prove myself as a capable producer. Half an hour after arriving in a hotel in the state capital Little Rock, I met Bill in a hotel restaurant to discuss the programme and, over a meal, promptly keeled over and collapsed. He called the paramedics and we spent the first evening of our trip in the hospital’s ER Department. I was fine, it was probably jet-lag and nerves and the trip was memorable, the programme (eventually) was a good one and Bill vowed never to tell anyone what had happened. He kept that secret for 25 years. On the flight back home from America, we talked about how we’d want to work together again ‘as long’ he said ‘as you don’t pull another stunt like that’.
Less than ten years later, I’m working at the weekends on BBC Breakfast as a presenter, when Bill joins me as co-anchor. And that friendship, forged in adversity – and laughter – continued and deepened. You don’t get up at 3.30am every morning to go to work if you don’t like who you’re sitting next to, and we trusted and respected one another. It meant a partnership based on companionship and support, never competition. When things went wrong, which they often did, we had each other’s backs. When we were interviewing a star and it had gone on too long and one of us was stumped for questions, we had a code phrase to ask the other to jump in: ‘So, what’s next for you?’ We also had code words for when we were wanting to laugh but not allowed to and both knew not to look at one another if we were reporting a very sad story because we’d both start to cry. We held each other up. Always. He bought me chocolate for my birthday, I bought him ties for his. In three decades, we never fell out or bickered. The viewers loved him, because he was on-screen who we all knew him to be off-screen.
When Bill was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, I was asked to do an interview with him for the Radio Times. I arrived at his home in Suffolk and we cried, and then got on with the business of talking about a disease that had previously hit me – and now, had hit him. We joked, darkly, about setting up ‘Bill and Sian’s Cancer Club’. But we knew – and he spoke openly about – how his prostate cancer had spread to his bones. He was optimistic, as was his manner. His surgeons had said ten years or more, but he was hoping that new treatments might extend things. He spoke openly about how he hadn’t been aware that ‘something was going on inside him’, how perhaps, if he’d got it earlier, he’d be in ‘a better state’.
I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve said how much Bill’s honesty helped them to get checked and potentially, catch cancer before it got worse. He helped saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives.
He was surrounded by love, from his wife Sesi and his children Henry, Will and Flora. From his friends and colleagues. From the viewers to BBC Breakfast and latterly, the listeners of Classic FM. He was devoted to his family and relentlessly positive. We texted each other with updates on life – the worst he’d say about his cancer was that ‘he’d been through the wringer a bit’ but even in his final text to me a couple of weeks ago, he was optimistic and hoping to ‘get my energy levels up enough’ to return to work. ‘Watch this space’ he wrote ‘sending lots of love, Billy xx’
That’s Billy. Lovely, gentle, kind, unfailingly positive. And that’s how I’ll remember him. With a smile and with thanks for many years of laughter and friendship.