Carol Malia marks 20 years as the presenter of flagship BBC regional news programme Look North this month. Sarah Millington talks to her about her time in the public eye

CAROL Malia remembers vividly breaking the news of her appointment to the role of BBC Look North presenter to her parents. She was just 28, and had worked as a reporter on the programme for only a year. It was the last thing she – or her mum and dad – expected.

“I remember walking into my parents’ house and the news had just broken that Mike Neville was leaving and they said, ‘Mike Neville is leaving!’ and I said, ‘I know – I’ve got his job!’,” laughs Carol. “They were just astonished, but incredibly proud. All I did really was work hard as a reporter, doing a bit of presenting, and – bang – it all happened.”

This modesty is characteristic of a woman who, for two decades, has broadcast nightly to the region’s living rooms. When we speak on the phone she’s on a day off, trying to cram in as many things as possible, and we’re interrupted by someone at the garage where she’s waiting for her car. Carol is apologetic – “Is it okay if I break off for a while, or would you rather I rang you back?” She also excuses her croakiness – “Because I’m a broadcaster, when I have a cold, it always affects my voice.” It feels like chatting to a friend, which is precisely the key to Carol’s success.

Over the past 20 years, she’s perfected a balance between delivering the news in a clear, straightforward manner and allowing just enough of her character to shine through as to be personable. She’s instantly recognisable, yet down-to-earth, and doesn’t shy away from discussing sensitive matters like her recent weight loss. It’s this underlying confidence – of being who she is and unapologetic about it – that hints at why she was singled out for the flagship role at such a young age. She mightn’t have expected it, but when the opportunity arose, she grabbed it with both hands.

“It’s a great job – I’ve always half pinched myself about it,” says Carol, 48. “I didn’t expect to have it for 20 years. I feel very privileged, especially following in the footsteps of Mike, which was a big act to follow.”

Carol counts herself fortunate to have worked alongside the veteran presenter, who, in 1990, received the MBE for services to broadcasting. He left Look North after 31 years on the programme, having made a huge impression on her. “When you saw him at work, he was very professional,” says Carol. “He would come in, look straight away at the running order and get acquainted with the script. He was uber-professional.

“In the studio was when he would become really animated. I remember sitting there as a reporter and watching the way he worked. He put everybody at ease. I like to think we’ve got that today.”

Carol admits that in the early days, Mike’s shadow loomed large and that it took a while for her to establish herself. “I was nervous about how I would be received by the region,” she says. “For at least two years, I looked as though I had a poker up my back, then I realised that you can put a little bit of yourself in there. It took a while to have the confidence in that.”

An added pressure was being a woman in what was still a very male-dominated industry. Carol took it in her stride and feels that things have improved immeasurably. “I would say a decade ago, it may have been different,” she says. “But in the past ten years, massive strides have been made. Now, the men are told if they are wearing something garish or distracting. Sexism did exist and I think that was a lot from the audience. They were given to expect a certain look and perhaps women were judged more harshly. Now, at least at the BBC, things are done properly and they’re done fairly.”

Carol is often asked about her career highlights and there are two that stand out – interviewing sculptor Antony Gormley walking along a wing at an erection yard in Hartlepool ahead of the Angel of the North’s installation, and travelling with a shoebox to Serbia, where the first thing the little boy receiving it did was offer her a Smartie. Now that she has children – Anna, seven, and Nicholas, six – she always makes sure they fill a shoebox for the annual charity appeal.

Motherhood has come as a blessing after Carol and her husband, Gary Hudson, tried for children for some time. Now she combines work with family life, and feels she’s lucky to get home to just outside Corbridge, Northumberland, in time to tuck the children in at night. It’s not an easy balance. “I worked out quite early on as a mother who works that whatever you do, you feel guilty,” Carol admits. “I haven’t met a person yet who thinks they’ve got the right balance.”

One thing she feels she’s mastered is a recent struggle with weight. She’s lost three-and-a-half stones and feels “like the old Carol – the pre-baby Carol… It was all food,” she admits. “I just got bigger and bigger and I didn’t know what was happening. I wanted a healthy BMI again. I was reading out health stories on Look North and I was starting to feel embarrassed and I thought, this has got to stop.”

In typical down-to-earth style, Carol joined a local slimming club with friends and, having lost the weight, began corresponding with viewers also struggling with their weight. She’s delighted to be a role model. “I get the loveliest emails from people saying, ‘Carol, you’ve been an inspiration to us’ and I ask them to get back to me and they email me about the weight they’ve lost,” she says. “It’s the best feeling to know that other people are getting some benefit as well.”

For Carol, the best thing about the job is this connection she has with her audience. She knows it’s a privilege to be invited into people’s lives – and never takes it for granted. “It’s like having a lot of friends everywhere,” she says. “People do chat to me as if they know me. They sometimes say, ‘Our Carol’. I love it when they say that.”

  • Look North, BBC One, weeknights at 6.30pm