Scotsman Obituaries: Bill Turnbull, genial host of BBC Breakfast and beekeeper

William Robert Jolyon Turnbull, journalist and broadcaster. Born: 25 January 1956 in Guildford. Died: 31 August 2022, Suffolk, aged 66

A familiar face on BBC news and light entertainment shows for decades, Bill Turnbull’s wit and warmth was remembered after his death last week at 66.

His family said the BBC Breakfast presenter died “peacefully” at home in Suffolk on Wednesday after a “challenging and committed fight against prostate cancer” which had been diagnosed in November 2017.

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Turnbull, who appeared on the BBC1 show from 2001 until 2016, revealed the diagnosis in March 2018 and detailed his treatment in a Channel 4 documentary called Staying Alive. Last October he announced he was taking a leave of absence from his show on Classic FM for health reasons.

Bill Turnbull after his final episode of BBC Breakfast in 2016
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His family praised the treatment he had received. They added: “He was resolutely positive and was hugely buoyed by the support he received from friends, colleagues, and messages from people wishing him luck. It was a great comfort to Bill that so many more men are now testing earlier for this disease.

“Bill will be remembered by many as a remarkable broadcaster who brought warmth and humour into people’s homes on BBC Breakfast and Classic FM. He was also a devoted Wycombe Wanderers fan and an ever-aspiring beekeeper.

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“Bill was a wonderful husband and father to his three children; his family and friends will miss how he always made them laugh, and the generosity and love he shared with those around him.”

He started his broadcast career at Radio Clyde in 1978, joining the BBC as a reporter for the Today programme in 1986 before becoming a reporter for BBC’s Breakfast Time two years later. In 1990, Turnbull became a correspondent for BBC News and reported from more than 30 countries, with notable stories he covered including the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the OJ Simpson trial.

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Bill Turnbull sharing BBC Breakfast's famous red sofa with Susanna Reid in 2012 (Pictures: PA)

After moving back to the UK, he became one of the main presenters on BBC News 24, as it was called back then. Turnbull also worked for BBC Radio 5 Live, including presenting Weekend Breakfast.

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He joined BBC Breakfast in 2001 as a presenter alongside Sian Williams and they worked together until 2012 when she departed after the programme moved from London to Salford. The presenter then anchored alongside Susanna Reid, with the pair presenting together until 2014, when Reid left the show to join ITV, and Turnbull’s other co-hosts included Louise Minchin and Naga Munchetty.

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Recalling his most memorable moments from his breakfast career as he signed off from the red sofa in February 2016, he recalled “nearly getting into a fight with a ventriloquist’s dummy called Bob” and wearing a jumper made of dog hair. “It was all right, it was just very warm and I couldn’t get the stuff off me for weeks,” he said.

He made numerous television appearances outside of BBC Breakfast, including as the presenter on BBC One’s Songs Of Praise. In 2005, he competed as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing partnered with Karen Hardy, and was the seventh celebrity voted off the show.

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Other TV appearances include Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Through The Keyhole, Celebrity Mastermind, Would I Lie To You?, Pointless Celebrities, Room 101 and Countdown. And in 2011 he played himself in the Doctor Who episode The Wedding Of River Song.

His passion for beekeeping led to the 2011 publication of his book The Bad Beekeepers Club, a humorous account of the ups and downs of an apiarist.

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BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty paid an emotional tribute to Turnbull after his death was announced live on air on Thursday morning.

Addressing viewers, Stayt said: “He was a wise head, he didn’t take himself too seriously when he sat here, which is a great combination.”

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Munchetty added: “When I was presenting with him, his energy was amazing, he came into this programme and threw everything at it. Every single day, he was funny when we sat here on the sofa, he was a brilliant journalist, and he loved this programme and he loved serving you, the audience. So I’m sure you will miss him, and we certainly will too.”

Susanna Reid wrote on Twitter: “Bill was the kindest, funniest, most generous man in the business. I feel lucky to have worked with him and he taught me everything. But above all, he was devoted to his family and I am heartbroken for them. RIP Bill. We will miss you so much.”

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BBC Radio 4 Today presenters Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain also remembered Turnbull, with Robinson saying on Thursday’s programme: “We’ve lost a very dear friend and an extraordinary broadcaster. There was a warmth to his broadcasting. People who watched breakfast television every day just knew how warm Bill was and perhaps what they forgot was what a bloody good journalist he was.

“This was a man who’d been a correspondent in Washington, who travelled to 30 countries. He’d been in Moscow, he’d covered wars, he’d reported on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. That combination of a razor-sharp intellect, wit, humour and humanity came out every day when he was on Breakfast. It came out when as a reporter, and listeners of Classic FM will have heard him present beautifully as well, his love of music.”

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Bill Turnbull is survived by his wife, Sesi (Sarah) McCombie and their three children, Henry, Will and Flora

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