What is the greatest - and very possibly proudest - achievement of Mike Neville?

Almost alone among North-East TV presenters, he has evaded all attempts to press him into the Great North Run. For let's face it, if Mike did run, it would be his not-quite-trim frame that the crowds would look for. Eat your hearts out Sir Jimmy Savile and world champion marathoners from the ends of the earth.

The Tyne Tees tribute to the legendary Mike's 40 years in broadcasting was quick to highlight his national status via the old Nationwide programme. Truth is, Mike was never quite himself in that national arena. As though facing the stern gaze of the Beeb's director general, his easy-going style became stilted - especially when uprooted from his native North-East to perform in the capital. Mike has rarely looked more uncomfortable than when sharing thoughts with Angela Rippon in an item that paired them up to view pictures in the Royal Academy's summer exhibition. Yes, the very thought is bizarre isn't it?

But, "Up North" - ah, what a difference. Just as Phil Silvers was born to be Sgt Bilko, and Alistair Cooke came to us to deliver Letter from America, so Mike Neville was put on this earth - this North-East earth - to present Look North and North-East Tonight. Shame it's always had to be one or t'other. Ideally, Mike would have fronted both nightly. For throughout his illustrious four decades, there has never been an adequate substitute.

We all know he is a consummate professional - scarcely ever stumbling over a word, giving perfect pitch, of gravitas or levity, to each item. And yet, even with these fundamentals, he is not an automaton. A distressing item, perhaps an attack on an old person, or abuse of a child, can bring a slight shadow of disgust to his face. Never enough to impair impartiality, but just enough to mark Mike as a man, as well as a newsreader.

But what we half watch for though, besides the news, are those more obvious Mike Neville moments. There was an occasion when somone handed Mike a late item about a power cut somewhere in the region. Mike read out when the power would be restored and then said: "Wait a minute. The people cut off won't be seeing this. Who gave me this rubbish?'' - and tossed the paper into the air.

Another occasion confounded the notion of Mike as a North-East institution. An elderly pigeon fancier from East Durham, a man to whom, you would swear, Mike Neville was as much part of the North-East as Durham Cathedral, repeatedly addressed him as Neville, believing it was Mike's Christian name. Mike remained straight faced but signed off as "Neville Mike".

Neither of these gems figured in the Tyne Tees tribute. Nor did the Northumberland woman who, button-holed for a vox pop about heavy lorries, rounded off by asking: "How's Mike Neville. I don't think he's been looking too well.'' Back in the studio, Mike assured her: "I'm fine, m'dear. Best wishes to you too.''

Through this extraordinary rapport with his audience, Mike Neville created inter-active TV in the North-East before the concept was born or the technology existed to provide it. And that is his greatest - and rather special - achievement.

Published: 20/02/02