Nick Knowles: “I had an affair, and hate it that I hurt people emotionally”

DIY man turned film-maker Nick Knowles talks bedsit life, family relationships - and the 'unusual' way he got into TV

I didn’t get on well with authority when I was 16. I went to a very academic school, it was all about getting to Oxford or Cambridge. But I had a very strong sense of honour and justice and I spent considerable time planning revenge on teachers I thought were picking on someone. I had an attitude; I thought I knew everything and refused to be told otherwise. I knew a lot about things like dinosaurs, and if the teachers said something inaccurate I’d point it out. And they’d give me a detention, and I’d say, well, I’ll take the detention, I’ll take a week of detentions but you’re still wrong.

I left school when I was 16. I was far too fond of girls to want to spend more time in an all-boys’ school. I was very independent, bouncing about, doing various jobs, living in a bedsit on my own. I was involved in amateur dramatics, playing extras in films, I played bass guitar in a band, played rugby. I wanted to travel and live a bit.

I had a marvellous family. Very loving. My mum was a stay-at-home mum. Money was quite tight but we always had food on the table – mince and tatties and greens. My dad was quite strict. He was quite old when he had me, he’d been a pilot in the Second World War. Then he retired and got a job as a cartographer in the civil service. It wasn’t particularly well paid. He had a few jobs – in the evenings he did engineering drawing for people. He also did shifts as a barman, and in the run up to Christmas he did shifts as a postman. He had a massive work ethic which ended up nearly bloody killing him – he had several heart attacks. My brother and I are exactly the same, we just work till we fall over. I know I’m only a TV presenter but I do about 50 flights a year, I also have a movie coming out [Golden Years, out this week], and I’m writing a book.

He had a massive work ethic which ended up nearly bloody killing him – he had several heart attacks

It’s strange – I remember having to read a letter out at my brother’s wedding when I was 14 and my legs were shaking so badly I had to hold on to the lectern. Fast forward and I’m stood in front of a TV camera speaking to nine million people. How does that work? Part of it is that determination not to be told what to do. That sense of standing up to authority, and reacting to being frightened of something by doing it – that’s carried me through my life and my career, and it’s given me confidence. I think that attitude comes from my father.

Even if I could go back in time, I don’t think I could have told my dad when I was young how grateful I was to him. At the age of 14 I thought he could do no wrong but as you get older you are genetically built to come into conflict with your father. At that stage I was too busy verbally jousting with him to tell him how much I admired him. Later, when he was older and became ill, I tried to tell him. But he was never very tactile. I remember when he was in hospital after a stroke and I went to see him, took his hand and held it. And he woke up, saw me and pulled his hand away. Because men don’t hold hands. So now I hug my son all the time, I put my arm around my older sons. I think it’s very important.

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I got into TV in an unusual way. After I presented a little film showing a crew around my local area, the director told me I was a natural. And I loved it. So I spent the next two years trying to get a job with a TV company but I didn’t have the qualifications. So I lied to get an interview with the BBC as a temp accounts clerk. When I was about to lose that job I took some BBC-headed paper, wrote up a CV saying I was a qualified news reporter, then went to Australia and got a job at a news station.

I’m not sure I’d like me very much if I met me before the age of 25. I could have been calmer, less bombastic – I was very full of myself. A lot of young men are like that, usually because they’re terrified someone will work out they’re not as capable or confident or terrifically successful as they’re making out. Then as you grow into yourself you work out, actually that way of being isn’t very impressive. Funnily enough, girls don’t want to go to dinner to hear you talk about how magnificent you are for two hours. It’s good to ask them a question or two as well.

People see me on TV, big hairy blokey bloke, a nice man, but they don’t have to live with me

In terms of relationships, I’d absolutely do things differently. I mean, I have been guilty of having an affair. I’d tell my young self, if you’re unhappy in your relationship, end it and then go and look for another relationship. I hate the fact that I’ve hurt people emotionally in the past. I wish I hadn’t. I’m a difficult person to live with, I know that. People see me on TV, big hairy blokey bloke, a nice man, but they don’t have to live with me. Anyone can be made to look nice if you edit them down to half an hour a week. I’m not great in the mornings. I have a face that joins in around 11am, and a voice that joins in around midday. And I’m always off doing something, I’m working or off on a plane or off to play football. It gets a bit wearing.

I had to find a better way to manage my health after a scare [a stress-related ruptured sinus artery in 2014]. I knew I couldn’t change my pace; it’s who I am. But it was plainly an issue. I was on the way to doing to myself what my father had done to himself. So I went to a retreat in Thailand. I took up yoga, became vegan, and they’ve worked well for me.

If I could go back to any time in my life, well there’s nothing like the birth of your children. But also… running around on a beach with my family in Cornwall when I was a seven-year-old kid. My dad would be there, my brother, my sisters. My mum under a sun brolly, wearing a hat and factor 50. Eating gritty sandwiches with sand in them. Drinking orange squash. Building dams in the little stream that runs down into the sea. Running into the sea then running straight back out with little blue legs. I have a very clear memory of those days. They were pretty great.