WRIGHT THINKING: He made his Mark

Mark Turnbull
Mark Turnbull

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the education and support of people with disabilities and one message the real experts give is simple.

 It is to focus on what people can do, and not on what they can’t.

 There couldn’t be a better example of that approach than old friend and colleague Mark Turnbull who died last week at the age of only fifty.

 As you may know, Mark was blind from birth and went on to make a tremendous career in journalism and broadcasting.

 I got to know him well when he was my producer for many years when I was the mid-morning presenter at BBC Radio Cleveland, and was frequently in awe of his amazing memory and sheer skill.

 Without a good producer, a presenter hasn’t got much chance and a live radio programme is frequently like the old image of the duck gliding across the pond – calm on the surface, but paddling away unseen beneath the water.

 My first contact with Mark came well before he started at the BBC.

 I was hosting a phone-in with a BBC bigwig and Mark came on to ask why, at the time, they made it so difficult for disabled people to work in broadcasting.

 The big cheese huffed and puffed and, in a style which I got to know well later, Mr Turnbull got stuck in.

 He challenged my guest to give him a trial at the local station.

 “If I can do it, I’ve proved my point” said Mark, “and if not you can get rid of me.”

 Once Mark was working with us, he loved it – all of it.

 The deadlines, the pressures, the screaming rows off air – and the matiness and daft humour – he was in his element.

 I can feel Mark putting his thumbs up now as I describe a wonderfully politically incorrect moment which he treasured.

 We had worked out a few visual (I know) gags which he rehearsed and played out for newcomers to our company.

 One involved a huge map of our broadcasting area which almost covered the longest wall of the newsroom. It was made up of several maps stuck together and had slightly raised seams at the junction.

 We spent ages with Mark tracing his finger along the creases and he learned perfectly where everywhere was.

 One day, with a newsroom visitor watching, I asked Mark the quickest way from Middlesbrough to Saltburn.

 He strolled across and amazed the man who witnessed blind Mark giving me directions and tracing the route. As he turned round to head back to his desk, Mark fell over a litter bin.

 He was the size of a small mountain, and there was a horrendous crash as he hit the deck – but then bounced back into his chair to a round of applause. I’d need a full edition of the Hartlepool Mail to detail all the stories, and the words of praise have been rich and far flung this last week.

There were so many happy times to remember, like the incredible year when he was President of the National Union of Journalists with a small flat over the then HQ in Acorn House near King’s Cross in London.

 I stayed with him there once and we had a riotous night in the American Bar at the Savoy with Mark playing piano amid gales of laughter. It’s five years since Mark was at the BBC, but the flow of affection has shown the impression he made. You can’t really say Rest In Peace for Mark.

 He rarely rested and was seldom peaceful – but genuinely unforgettable.