‘I’m frightened of money, so I’m careful with spending’

Veteran broadcaster John Sergeant, 76, joined the BBC as a radio reporter in 1970 and covered a huge number of historic events in Britain and abroad. In 2000, he moved to ITN as political editor. During his career he has been a journalist, a presenter, an after-dinner speaker, an author and a Strictly Come Dancing contestant. He and his wife, Mary, live in London and have two grown-up children.

How did your childhood shape your attitude to money?

Well, we had very little money. My father was a vicar, so we lived in a large, beautiful, Georgian vicarage in Great Tew in Oxfordshire. In those days, we still had rationing. I certainly remember when sweet rationing ended in the early 1950s people did get excited.

We didn’t flash money around, and I wore jumpers knitted by my grandmother.

My sister looked after three bantam chickens that were her little pets. But one Christmas, we didn’t have turkey, so the bantams were killed. We didn’t feel guilty in the slightest, though it was a bit alarming seeing small headless chickens.

After my parents split, my father taught at Millfield, then the most expensive school in the country, and I boarded there for just £100 a year.

What was your first paid job?

When I saved up to go to America in my gap year, aged 18, I worked in the most tedious accounts department of the nuclear research lab at Harwell. A few hundred yards away, scientists worked at designing atom bombs; I was a filing clerk earning £11 a week.

In America, I earned $50 a week as an accountant in a small concrete plant, which went bust. My last task was pulling the lever of a cheque-making machine to get the cheques out, which all bounced. I had a wonderful time, and travelled all over America. I heard Martin Luther King Jr making his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington and then came back to go to Oxford. It was one of the best times of my life. Hearing Dr King was a great moment. It’s a weird irony that at 19, I heard the best speech I would ever hear, long before I became a political correspondent.

Did you find instant riches with BBC comedy series On the Margin with Alan Bennett in 1966?

My name was in the papers, and we won lots of awards. The big thing for me financially, was being paid £50 for each programme, which was repeated twice. In six weeks, I earned enough to keep me going most of the year.

I drove to Television Centre in my lovely old car with its noisy exhaust. A uniformed commissionaire always stopped me at the gate and asked if I was “an artiste,” so I learnt to say yes to park in the horseshoe. But I don’t think I ever felt like a rich man. I definitely wasn’t wandering around lighting cigars with five quid notes.

Have you ever worried how to pay the bills?

Yes, I worried when I bought my present house 40 years ago for £56,000. Some people worried we were going to be impoverished by it all, but it turned out to be a gold mine.

Are you a spender or saver?

I’ve always been a bit frightened of money, so I’m careful about spending. I’ve spent a lot of money in a lot of different ways, but I’ve never found it easy. I’m just frightened by the whole business and more interested in just doing my job. When I left ITN, they owed me £1,000 in expenses. I travelled across the world and claiming expenses was extremely tedious. So I didn’t submit a claim.

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