Chris Cope meets Jonathan Sutherland who, as a presenter on BBC Scotland’s Sportscene, is combining his passions for football and journalism, and enjoying
A dream job
It is often uttered to bright eyed youngsters that if you put your mind to it, you can become anything. A career as an astronaut, popstar or doctor is within our grasp if we really want it. Many fall off the rails, becoming dissenting critics of this oft-used, optimistic saying. But some do make it and live out their dreams.
For Jonathan Sutherland, football and broadcasting are two overtly passionate loves, so landing a job as a presenter on BBC Scotland’s flagship football show Sportscene was a big deal for the man from Brae. You can usually catch him presenting his own section on Saturday afternoon’s results show, or voicing numerous highlights packages.
Sutherland is fully inducted into the BBC family now, based at their talk-of-the-town headquarters in Glasgow. I was a Pacific Quay virgin until he ushered me in, telling me that some people think it looks like a “Swedish prison” – although he finds it a relaxing place to spend his time. Its preoccupation with glass is vitally impressive, engineering a lovely spatial feel, but as it’s in the heat of lunch time, the canteen is far from luxuriously spacious.
Meatballs is the order of the day, but with only two hiding on the plate, it seems the Beeb’s catering department may be suffering credit-crunching cut backs, but who knows? We take seats next to the window, but then all the walls in the canteen’s seating area are glass. It overlooks Glasgow, with the river Clyde snaking its way through the urban landscape. It’s almost romantic – where are the candles when you need them? Better not tell his wife Julia, a BBC producer, who might similarly be out and about on a lunch time trip.
He sits dressed “smart but casual”, and looks like that guy on TV. And sounds like it too, with the recognisable accent that doesn’t quite sit as a Shetland nor Scottish accent. He’s 32, but it feels like I’m sitting next to a mid-twenty something, with a sprightly demeanour and a genuine enthusiasm for his profession that seems to roll back the years.
But what about the man himself? What better way to start than from the beginning. “I don’t think there’s anywhere better in the world to grow up than in Shetland to be honest,” he tells me. “It’s got such a great community spirit and you could do whatever you want – run up hills, go cycling. I was brought up in Brae, and the school was absolutely fantastic. Great classmates and great teachers. But my parents were really good too – they gave me the idea that you could do anything that you want. I think a lot of Shetland parents are like that and have a really positive attitude that says if you put the hard work in you can achieve whatever you want, and I’m really lucky in that respect. I don’t think people in Scotland appreciate what a great place Shetland is,” he adds. “You’ve got all this money, all this beautiful landscape. And I think in Scotland there’s not as positive an attitude generally in society than in Shetland. I also hate it when people slag off Shetland, it makes me so mad.”
But despite loving the lifestyle, the time came to set sail for university (“I was a little bit teary” he said, when talking about the night before leaving for Aberdeen University). And by 1999 he was the proud owner of a shiny politics degree, but post-graduation was a time of career contemplation. “I studied subjects that interested me – I wasn’t really using it as a way of getting a certain job. So when I graduated I was back at square one, thinking ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ It was actually my Mum who encouraged me to write a letter to The Shetland Times and Radio Shetland. There was nothing going at The Shetland Times, but Mary Blance phoned from Radio Shetland and asked if I wanted to come in for a week. I went in and never looked back. I suppose I’ve really got my mum to thank for getting me into the BBC!”
And it was this time at Radio Shetland where Sutherland feels that he flourished. “Radio Shetland was unbelievable,” he says, positively gushing about his few years there. “It was so good for me and it served me well for the future. You got to learn so much and the people there were brilliant – they gave me fantastic advice and were always looking out for me. You did so many different things there, like the sheep prices and fishing news – stuff that you didn’t think would be interesting, but once you got involved in it and spoke to the personalities involved, you could get interested in any story. We did all these weird outside broadcasts too – I remember this time we did one with Madge from Neighbours, who had come up to do some show at the Garrison Theatre, and Brian Cant, who was a children’s TV presenter when I was young. We did it from my garden with a barbeque, with Madge from Neighbours – bizarre! We did all these different things; it was such a learning curve. I loved it.”
The time at Radio Shetland allowed Sutherland to dip his toes in journalism properly for the first time, a profession which had always enticed him. His interest in politics and public affairs, he told me, meant that his career ponderings in school leant towards journalism. He left Radio Shetland in 2003 to move up his own career ladder, landing a job at BBC Scotland’s sport department as a broadcast journalist. But the allure of trying out print journalism back home proved to be too much – he became the deputy editor of the ill-fated Shetland Weekly newspaper, something which still haunts Sutherland, every so slightly. “It was against my better judgement I suppose,” he says. “I’ve always had this philosophy that I wanted to do loads of different things with my life – a bit ironic seeing I’ve spent the best part of 10 years with the BBC, but saying that, you do lots of different things here. I did want to see what print journalism was like, it sounded interesting. I figure that over-confidence in my own abilities was the downfall. I thought I could pull it off despite any problems that came our way. Obviously it didn’t transpire like that. It was hellish.”
So is he more comfortable in front of a microphone and the cameras than holding a pen and notebook? “Oh definitely, definitely,” he said, stressing the second intently. “I guess in a way the Shetland Weekly has poisoned my mind regarding print journalism for the rest of my life, but overall I’m definitely more comfortable in front of a mike. I love it – it’s so immediate and its just good fun. And you don’t have to check for spelling mistakes too!”
It was after these short three months at the Shetland Weekly that Sutherland returned back to the Scottish mainland and into the arms of the BBC once again. Freelance radio and TV work flew by, before picking up his current job as assistant producer on Sportscene, and it’s all a bit of a dream come true. “It feels like a privilege and I can’t really believe that I’ve managed to do this. It’s really difficult sometimes to even just know what you want to do, and not everyone gets the chance to do something they enjoy for a living. It’s a great job, with great people and it’s a great subject. And I love broadcasting and I love football, so it’s pretty much perfect. Sportscene is a program that you watched when you grew up, and you think like ‘yeah, that’s Sportscene’. It’s Sportscene! You think that’s something other people do and put on the television. Then to actually be on it? Sometimes when I think about it, it’s crazy that I’m working on it.”
But he admits the future is perhaps, ever so slightly, unclear. London, the hub of the media world, might just be too tempting if the right offer came up, but he now has to balance family life with his career. “I kinda fancy moving to London maybe at some point, if work dictates. Julia is a producer and presenter, and she does acting and a bit of stand up comedy too, so she’s looking for opportunities as well. Up until now it’s been a case of me going wherever my career takes me, but now I’m married, and Julia’s on board too – she’s got her own career thing going as well. Say if something arose for her down in London, then would I go down with her? It’s one of those things you have to think about. It’s a bit different, you’re normally just used to just thinking about yourself.”
And family life is something which has been galvanised in recent times, with the arrival of Luca, who is now 14 months old. It is tough going, with continuous tiredness, but it’s worth it. “Luca takes up a lot of our free time basically,” he tells me. “I know it’s a cliché to say having a child changes your life, but you lose all your free time when you have a baby. Obviously it’s worth it – that goes without saying – but it means you’re permanently exhausted!”
Conversation drifts like a boat steaming down the Clyde onto the voiceover Sutherland recorded for those NorthLink adverts which periodically rear their head on television. He’s famous back home more for that than his work on Sportscene, he jokingly laments. Perhaps this is true, with the Shetlander diligently working his way up through the BBC without much fuss or bravado. Some people will be able to tell through the hint of Shetland in his accent, but it’s an accent which seems to belie his heritage. “I’m quite confused about my accent myself,” he smiled. “Both my parents are Shetlanders, and both their parents are Shetlanders as well. I’m about as Shetland as it gets! Sometimes I feel I wish had a stronger accent. I’ve got the Shetland accent woes.”
There’s little time left, but I just have to ask him about being parodied on the seminal Scottish football send-up show, Only An Excuse? There’s a clip hiding over there in the back corner of Youtube, with Sutherland’s ever so slightly larger than average eyes getting the treatment. “It’s quite embarrassing, but at the same time I think I get more publicity from that than anything else. Look at Chick Young, he’s based his entire career on Only an Excuse? Or, well, it’s certainly helped him. Things just seem to happen to him, so he’s a good candidate for the show – he was interviewing Walter Smith a couple of months ago and a seagull dropped a baguette on his head,” he laughs, before returning to speak about his role on Only an Excuse? “It’s definitely a good thing. But a bit weird. A bit weird,” he says, trailing off.
The meatballs are done, so we take ourselves back downstairs – via the lift, the mountainous stairs take too long, I am told. We part ways, and whilst I immerse myself back into a damp Glasgow day, he walks back into the inner sanctum of BBC Scotland to return to a job that he truly loves. Lucky git.