Obituary: Tom Vernon, broadcaster

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Born: 23 April, 1939, in London. Died: 11 September, 2013, in France, aged 74

Tom Vernon was a gloriously original and idiosyncratic broadcaster who captured the imagination of Radio 4 listeners for three decades. He was principally known for Fat Man on a Bicycle, which was a very personal travelogue as he cycled throughout the UK and later from Scandinavia to Argentina. He enlivened every episode with some chance and odd encounters or events that made the series come alive. Vernon’s commentary could vary from the glories of the countryside through which he was cycling to the meaning of life or an interview with a passing character. His spirits were always high and he never complained even about the most forbidding hills. The strange thing was that despite the hundreds of miles he covered Vernon never shed a pound.

Tom Bowater Vernon was the son of a Bengal Lancer and was educated at Gillingham Grammar School where he was head boy. He then read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he appeared with the Footlights.

Some casual jobs followed; indeed Vernon met his future wife, Sally, when they were both earning some extra money at the Elizabethan Rooms in Kensington, both dressed in full Tudor gear.

In the 1960s Vernon’s career was becoming well established and he landed a prestigious slot on Radio 4’s Today programme. He sang his own songs – often topical with a strong dose of political satire – while also working in public relations.

Vernon was a natural broadcaster. He had an easy manner and his microphone technique was devoid of gimmicks and snide questioning.

He remained courteous to even the most difficult interviewee and always seemed interested in what they were saying.

Vernon was the first presenter on BBC Radio London in 1970 and his ability to take on various roles proved invaluable.

He read books (capturing the various characters with unfailing accuracy), told the history of London and read the news.

He co-fronted, with the composer Michael Oliver, a classical music programme which introduced many listeners to contemporary music. When he moved to Radio 4 in the early 1970s his role included working as a producer of documentaries and talks.

Vernon did not forsake the arts and was a renowned presenter of Kaleidoscope, the channel’s award-winning nightly arts programme.

He had the knack of asking pertinent questions of the writers and directors whose work was later to be reviewed.

The novelist A S Byatt commented after a Vernon interview: “One of Tom’s great qualities was real curiosity. He really wanted to know what a book was about, how it was constructed.”

He became an established radio character and won many awards – including Radio Personality of the Year, Radio Presenter of the Year, Best Radio Documentary.

But it was the Fat Man series that captured the public’s imagination. It began in 1979 when Vernon cycled from Muswell Hill in north London to Provence in the South of France. He had to go through strenuous BBC health tests first as, indeed, he had to do 15 years later when he repeated the journey for a television series.

Then he weighed more than 20 stone but he never considered he would not complete the journey.

Vernon with characteristic honesty said in an interview: “You are the shape you are. There’s no point ruining your life trying to be something else.”

Both journeys presented considerable physical challenges but Vernon’s good nature never flagged and his ribald humour and self-deprecating off-hand remarks became popular with the listeners.

The radio programmes gained exceptional listening figures and his books became best-sellers. Vernon’s personality and cheerful demeanour were much praised.

Indeed, such was the success that Channel 4 offered him a contract to do a series Fat Man Goes Norse (1987) and that was followed by Fat Man in Argentina (1990) and Fat Man Goes Cajun (1991). In 1994 the BBC made Fat Man in France.

To his considerable delight Vernon was presented with a medal by the Argentine government for improving relations between to the two countries which had recently been much soured after the Falklands conflict.

Vernon had always been fascinated by regional customs and especially local eating habits.

His series, Fat Man in the Kitchen was one of the first TV cooking programmes that was filmed outdoors or in his own kitchen.

Many generations of children will fondly remember Vernon’s voice when he responded on the phone as Father Christmas. His avuncular and generous tone could not have been more convincing.

Vernon is survived by his wife and two children. He married his wife, first in 1967, then after a separation, in their house in France 1991.

The village greeted the happy couple with a grand fusillade from the local hunters.