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All points north

Christa Ackroyd was a Calendar girl before she decided to Look North. MAXINE GORDON meets the new face of BBC local news.

TRAFFIC jams on the A64 were keeping Christa Ackroyd from our lunchtime appointment in the heart of York. Christa was bound for the City Screen caf in Coney Street to talk about her move from Yorkshire TV's Calendar programme to her debut this week on the BBC's flagship regional news show, Look North.

After breaking free from the gridlock, she rang on her mobile to apologise for the delay and ask for directions to our meeting spot.

Two caffe lattes later, she arrives, with not a hair out of place, totally unflustered and with a welcoming smile. It's a display of the professional polish she's no doubt perfected over her 26 years in the business.

She takes a moment to reapply her lipstick, run a comb through her hair and have her picture taken, before nestling into one of the caf's comfy leather sofas for a chat about her new job.

Dressed more for a day out shopping than a shift in the TV studio, she's wearing brown trousers, a loose-fitting brown jacket with the print of a zebra on the back and cream high heels that she kicks off during the interview. She's clutching a giant Burberry check bag and matching personal organiser and has a dinky, chrome-coloured mobile phone that she answers every so often throughout the interview.

She reveals she buys all her own clothes for work, "although I never pay full price," she adds, quick as a flash. The unusual jacket proved a particularly astute buy. "I bought it ten years ago and I paid a lot for it - about £100 - but I've worn it so much and get it cleaned about 20 times a year, so it was worth it."

Her bargain hunting brings her to the McArthurGlen designer outlet at York. Is that where she got her Burberry gear? "Oh no, I go to Castleford, it's much cheaper," she reveals in a tone of conspiratorial glee.

In joining Harry Gration as the co-presenter of Look North, Christa has jumped ship after more than a decade at Yorkshire's rival nightly news programme.

"I had 11 fantastic years at Calendar," she says. "It's a great wrench to leave and I've a lot of great friends. But I'm 44 now and if I'm going to make a career change, it's time to do it now."

The BBC tried to poach her three years ago, she reveals, but she refused to budge. So why the change of heart?

"I felt the BBC from London didn't have much interest or input into BBC in the North, but that's changed since Greg Dyke the York University-educated Director General of the BBC took over.

"He knows what's going on in Leeds, he's interested, and the North is no longer the poor relation. He's going to look at placing lots of new programmes in the North and wants more regionality in the BBC."

Christa can't stress enough how committed she is to local journalism. "You can watch the same EastEnders in London, Southampton or Glasgow. The only thing that is unique to a TV station is what it broadcasts in its regional hours."

During her lengthy career, which began on the Halifax Evening Courier at the age of 18, Bradford-born Christa has managed to pull off the unusual feat of building a regional and national profile without having to leave Yorkshire.

She has worked on various local radio stations and writes a weekly column for the Sunday Express. She tells me a survey across the region showed she had "97 per cent recognition factor" - which perhaps explains the BBC's persistence in trying to poach her from Yorkshire.

Home is just outside Bradford, where she lives with husband Chris, an industrial accountant, and their daughter Briony, 16, who has just completed her GCSEs and is swaying between a career in law or journalism.

Two older children, Rebecca and Stephen, are in their 20s and work in the financial industry.

She has three horses, which are a passion but her riding is limited because of rheumatoid arthritis, which she has had since she was 18.

The legal world is another attraction and Christa says she'd love to do a law degree.

"I love crime and crime stories. My father was a policeman. I think being a lawyer is quite similar to being a journalist: it's about assimilating the facts and dissecting the reality."

It was her coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper hunt and trial, which spanned five years, that helped make her name in broadcasting. She stood out from the crowd, being a sole female face amid the male detectives and journalists.

"Back then, no women really did crime and there were no female detectives. And yet it was the ultimate female story: a man murdering women."

She was the first female news editor of a radio station, at Leeds-based Radio Aire in 1981. And she reveals she had to put her foot down when a Calendar producer suggested there should be an all-male presenting team during the Gulf War.

Despite the fact more and more women are entering journalism, she's dismayed by the TV industry's increasing focus on the looks of its female presenters.

"There's a kind of mentality that unless a woman is under 30 and under eight stone, she's not going to make it on to TV. If you want to start a career in television now, you have to have your foot in the door in your early 20s.

"For me, it was fantastic not to go into television until my 30s because I had built up a strong journalistic background and was confident in my voice because of my years in radio. If I'd done it when I was 23, I'd have been paranoid."

Viewers may be surprised by how hands-on presenters are in preparing news shows such as Look North and Calendar.

Christa helps choose the stories, does her own interviews and writes the scripts. As for those 'ad-libs' between presenters, that's exactly what they are, she insists.

"I'm not an actress. I find it harder if I'm given a line to say... by the time I go on air, it's my words that come out."

But, she admits, no amount of experience can banish new-job nerves.

"I am so nervous, I can't help it, it's live TV. But one of the reasons for the change was I stopped getting those sweaty palms at Calendar."

She says she's not worried about making mistakes - in fact she readily expects to make cock-ups.

"Something goes wrong at least once a week. I've had chairs collapsing, light bulbs exploding, the scenery falling over. One colleague had someone die on her on air. The art of a good presenter is how quickly you recover. I'm a real giggler and I sometimes have to nip myself until it hurts to stop myself."

At the last count, she says she has appeared on It'll Be Alright On The Night eight times. "It's great, they send you a cheque for £50 each time. I'm sure now I'm going to appear on Auntie's Bloomers with great regularity."

Ah well, all the more royalty cheques with which to go bargain hunting.



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