Steve Partner: The man who inspired a generation

Go Fishing star John Wilson recently received an MBE for his outstanding contribution to the sport but, as Steve Partner points out, the honour was long overdue….

1987 was a great year for angling – John Wilson first appeared on our TV screens. I can remember where I was, too, when the opening bars of his first Go Fishing show were broadcast. It was a Thursday evening in early May and the three of us – me, my brother and dad – had gathered on the sofa, the collective anticipation at the prospect of a brand-new angling programme enough to unite three-quarters of a family with typically disparate viewing tastes.

And there he was. Bedecked in red jumper and deerstalker, he sat afloat on a gravel pit somewhere in Norfolk, tackling autumn pike. The infectious enthusiasm, the boundless energy and the booming laugh that was to become his trademark were all in evidence and despite the rough-around-the-edges feel that accompanied that first series, it still felt brilliantly fresh. 

Remember, this was an era when choice meant four not 400 channels, a time before mass-produced DVDs and an age when the internet – and video sharing sites like YouTube – were still a figment of someone’s imagination. Terrestrial TV was a desert for fishing programmes, the likes of Jack Hargreaves’ ‘Out of Town’ long since dismissed as old-fashioned, while the lamentable ‘Hooked’ was an insult to the nation’s millions of anglers. Go Fishing came along and it felt like the end of a drought.
In truth that first show wasn’t exactly my bag. But that didn’t really matter. The 30 minutes passed in an instant and anglers everywhere had a new hero.

Even so, I don’t think any of those who tuned in on that May evening would ever have imagined they were watching the start of a journey that would take its former hair-dressing-cum-tackle-shop-owning presenter all the way to Buckingham Palace. In 23 years, Britain’s most well-known angler has been on one hell of a ride.

In the interim, he has filmed more than 160 shows in 20 countries across the globe, bringing both the exotic and the familiar into 3.2 million homes from Barnstaple to Barnsley. Today, at the age of 65, he is currently working on his latest 12-part extravaganza – John Wilson’s Fishing World – and he shows no signs of slowing up.

The TV landscape may have changed beyond recognition since he began, with the current penchant for reality-driven rubbish meaning satellite and not terrestrial is now his home, but the simple yet effective formula that has proved so successful over so long has remained the same.

“I think people enjoy my enthusiasm and appreciation of the natural surroundings,” was how he described the secret to great angling television when I interviewed him at his Norfolk home in 2004.

He was, of course, adding a huge dose of modesty to an answer that is the absolute epitome of understatement. Doing anything with a camera pointed in your face is tough, but add variables that include wild, unseen creatures, inclement weather, often dangerous locations and guests who can be a bag of nerves and you have a mix that requires an unflappable temperament to keep it all together.

Not only did John overcome all those problems, he did it in a way where his naturally likeable personality was still able to flourish. He made fishing look what it is – huge fun – and in the process he managed to do what no other show before him had done – add non-fishermen to his audience base. Angling doesn’t have household names, but the bearded bloke who’s always laughing came as close as any to taking fishing into the living rooms of people who didn’t know one end of a rod from another. As a by-product he provided the sport with the kind of publicity money can’t buy.

But as anyone who achieves greatness will testify, critics always lurk.

“He has swims pre-baited for him,” they said. “He gets special access to exclusive waters,” claimed some. “I bet he wouldn’t catch anything on my local waters,” added others.

What these people never realised was the sheer amount of hard graft that John put in to ensure each shoot was a success. No stone was left unturned. Each venue was thoroughly researched, every camera angle thought out, all the guests carefully picked and each word meticulously chosen. Only the fish themselves – and that famous laugh – were unscripted.

And anyway, who cares if he used his profile and position to ensure the odds were stacked in his favour? Catching fish for the camera – with a time limit – is an extremely difficult task and the fact he almost never failed is testament to a fishing ability that’s often lost in the glare of fame. Any success he had was never purely selfish either. With every great episode aired, the sport as a whole won too.

In an era when angling ‘stars’ seem to appear and then disappear almost overnight, their brush with fame fuelled on the ability to bore a big fish out or win a few matches, Wilson has come to define what it is to be a genuine fishing celebrity.

Alongside his TV career he is a no-nonsense author and journalist too, having written 30 books, contributed to a further 40 and penned more words for the angling press than he can ever remember. Next to abundant ability sits a professionalism that has ensured such longevity in a sport where few last the distance. His fame has spanned decades, not days, his legacy sure to outlast almost all his contemporaries. It doesn’t take an expert to say that it will be a long time before someone else earns the title ‘Britain’s best-loved angler’.  

All that considered, the fact that it has taken more than 20 years since he first broke into television for his achievements to be nationally recognised is nothing short of bewildering.

It speaks volumes about the nation’s ambivalent, even condescending, attitude towards angling that one of our most influential servants should have to wait so long for his award. Contrast this with the similar – and greater – honours handed out so cheaply to TV celebrities and sportsmen whose main weapon is mass exposure rather than genuine talent and it seems an even greater injustice. Quietly, John Wilson went about inspiring a generation.

I, and countless other anglers, owe him a debt we can never repay. An MBE is the very least he deserves.