Harry Gration, popular broadcaster who was the face of Look North for nearly four decades – obituary

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Harry Gration in 2020, when he announced his retirement from broadcasting - Charlotte Graham
Harry Gration in 2020, when he announced his retirement from broadcasting - Charlotte Graham

Harry Gration, who has died suddenly aged 71, was the self-effacing host of Look North, the BBC’s television news show in Yorkshire, for the best part of 40 years and was an authoritative sports reporter on TV and radio specialising in rugby league.

With no formal journalistic training, he was among the last of the “personality” presenters to front the nightly digest of regional news, taking a populist approach to local events. Even so, he regularly handled tough stories, among them the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the Bradford riots in 2001 and the murder of the Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox in 2016.

Modest and droll, Gration was happiest projecting a relaxed persona to the camera and was often to be seen making a fool of himself, particularly when fundraising for good causes, once tying himself to his weatherman for a 121-mile three-legged walk across Yorkshire which raised more than £190,000 for Sport Relief. With his work for Children in Need and Comic Relief, he was reckoned to have raised some £2 million for charity.

When he returned to Leeds after four years on South Today, billboards announced: 'Harry's Back' - Charlotte Graham
When he returned to Leeds after four years on South Today, billboards announced: 'Harry's Back' - Charlotte Graham

His broadcasting career began in 1971 when he was teaching history at a local secondary school and began picking up freelance shifts for BBC Radio Leeds as a rugby league reporter. When the station offered him a three-month full-time contract in 1978 covering all sports including cricket, his other passion, he left his teaching job and became the station’s sports editor in 1980. Two years later he branched into television as a presenter on Look North while continuing to cover rugby league for network radio.

Gration attracted further national attention when he reported on the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and anchored the Saturday teatime Final Score on television between 1986 and 1989. In 1987 he stood in as presenter on Sunday Grandstand, but was passed over as a permanent replacement and freelanced at weekends for the Today programme on Radio 4 and Radio Five Live as well as BBC1’s Match of the Day.

In the 1990s he moved to Southampton, where his on-screen partnership with Sally Taylor boosted the ratings for South Today, the southern equivalent of Look North. Four years later he returned to Leeds, where advertisements and billboard posters proclaimed “Harry’s Back”.

Gration in 2013 following his appointment as MBE - John Stillwell/PA
Gration in 2013 following his appointment as MBE - John Stillwell/PA

Although his repatriation marked an increase in viewers to Look North, by 1999 the programme was having to compete with the flagship early-evening news programme on ITV. Approaching 50, Gration was uncomfortable with an instruction to generate “sexual chemistry” between himself and younger female presenters, and the edict was quietly shelved.

Meanwhile, he maintained a national profile as the co-host of The Super League Show, a weekly magazine show on rugby league in the Monday-night slot on BBC2 scheduled opposite Coronation Street.

The son of a Boots pharmacist, Harry John Gration was born on October 22 1950 in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and educated at Leeds grammar school and St Peter’s school, York. His first job was in the photographic department of his father’s store, but after training as a teacher he became head of history at Rodillian school (now the Rodillian Academy) in Lofthouse near Wakefield.

His boyhood passion for rugby league led to a booking at Radio Leeds commentating on Batley v Wakefield Trinity, for which he was paid £3 10s (£3.50). By his early forties, Gration was a full-time local broadcaster as a television host on Look North and as BBC Radio 5’s rugby league correspondent.

Although he reported on nine summer Olympic games, Gration was conscious that he lacked the journalistic training and background of his colleagues, and in 1994 he left the BBC to become the Rugby League’s public affairs executive, a move he considered the biggest gamble of his life. But he realised almost immediately he had made the wrong decision following a clash of personalities with the League’s chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, and Gration resigned within a year.

He returned to the BBC to co-host South Today, and after a four-year hiatus was back at Look North in Leeds co-hosting the show with Clare Frisby. Some of his light-hearted exploits were featured on the Auntie’s Bloomers blooper show.

Gration, who retired in 2020, was twice named best regional presenter by the Royal Television Society. He was appointed MBE in 2013 and deputy lieutenant of North Yorkshire in 2019.

Harry Gration’s first two marriages, to Hilary Gardner (1974) and Rowena Cluness (1984), ended in divorce. In 2001 he married Helen Chene, a former television news director, who survives him with their three sons, a daughter from his first marriage and two sons of his second.

Harry Gration, born October 22 1950, died June 24 2022