Nicholas Owen: 'why we should get over our hang up about death'

Nicholas Owen
A decade or so ago, the newsreader Nicholas Owen received a letter at the offices of ITN. It had been sent by a solicitors’ firm in Ripon and concerned the affairs of a woman called Betty Hodgson.
“I had never met her before, but it turned out she had left me a bit of money in her will,” Owen recalls. “She didn’t have any family and it was the days when I was on the telly a lot. I had been a familiar face and, for whatever reason, a comfort to her. I was amazed, that had never happened to anyone else I know.”
The money – “a few thousand” – was gratefully stowed away in the Owen family coffers. “I don’t think we splurged it or anything,” he says. “It just helped us along.”Nicholas Owen has just turned 70 and is a fine figure of health. Slim, tanned, with a thick crop of silver hair, he bounds into the lobby of the central London hotel we are meeting. It transpires he has been working since 6am presenting the breakfast show on Classic FM.
Nicholas Owen in 2005
Nicholas Owen in 2005 CREDIT: NICK CUNARD/REX
Still, in spite of this sprightly demeanour, Owen is all too willing to face up to one of the last great taboos which most of us do our level best to avoid: namely death, and who we leave our worldly possessions to.  
“I will talk to anybody about wills,” he says. “We do have this hang up about death, but we shouldn’t.”
Owen can afford to be relaxed about his own mortality because, 15 years ago, he was forced to stare it in the face. A routine health check had revealed the shadow of a tumour on his right kidney which, it was discovered, was malignant.
“Your mind begins to block things out,” Owen recalls. “It was only when a specialist stood in front of my wife that I first heard the word ‘cancer’ and they couldn’t promise a cure. I remember asking what were my chances of getting through this.”
Nicholas Owen with his wife Brenda
Nicholas Owen with his wife Brenda CREDIT: DAVID FISHER/REX
Owen has been married to his wife Brenda (also a journalist) since 1983. They each have two children from previous marriages, who are all now aged in their 40s, and nine grandchildren. When he received the diagnosis, he admits they decided not to tell one child for fear they would become too upset.
“The others we were very open with,” Owen says. “We told them everything we knew and that I had every intention of blazing on.”
His will, he says, was already in place, dividing everything between “absolute family”. “I’ve always been a believer in getting a will out early in life. Get it done. Get over it. Forget it. A terrible line I use to people is you’re not going to need your money where you’re going.”
But following the operation and nine long weeks of convalescence which culminated in him sipping a margarita on the shores of Lake Como, Owen decided to rewrite the will to include – alongside his children – Cancer Research UK, the charity of which he is now an ambassador.  
Nicholas Owen
“As the generations go by, we are getting better about talking about these things and being open with what we have got,” he says.
The cancer has never returned, and as well as his presenting shifts on Classic FM, Owen continues to work shifts reading the news on the BBC.
He and his wife live in the same sprawling Surrey home they have shared for the past 33 years, and in between work he keeps himself busy with rounds of golf, bridge and volunteering on local railways – he is obsessed with electric trains and admits he is probably the only person to actually enjoy the London commute on Southern Rail, staring out of the window at the signal boxes as the train rattles along.  
Born to a working class family in London, Owen left school with five O-levels to pursue a career in newspaper journalism before joining the BBC. He admits with a grin that he has done well in life, but death stays close. 
“I don’t think anybody who has a serious operation and survives it spends the rest of their life punching the air and thinking: ‘I’m alive’. You still worry about the mundane things. That never wears off.”
Nowadays, the first place the old newsman admits he turns when he opens the morning paper is the obituaries page. “I see a lot of people I’ve known down the years,” he says. “There was a day when I looked at four of the obituaries and I knew three of the people.”
Perhaps Owen’s most famous era was during the Nineties when he was Royal Correspondent for ITN during a period of what he calls “great turbulence with great sadness and enormous shock in the middle of it with the death of Princess Diana”.
His favourite moment came on the decks of the Royal Yacht Britania moored in Cape Town harbour at the end of the Queen’s two-week tour of the country, post-apartheid. Owen found himself alone on the upper deck with the Queen.
“It was an amazingly emotional experience and we were both so excited by what had happened and were just chatting away. I remember thinking: ‘My goodness, this isn’t bad…’”

Having grown up in a household where money was tight – Owen’s father worked at Rothschild’s merchant bank, but he can still recall him counting out the housekeeping to his mother on Friday nights – means he admits his wealth is important to him.
“I try to make myself enjoy money, and the cancer sharpened that for me,” he says. “In a way, I have had to struggle against a puritan family backdrop. That care with money is a thread that runs through my life.”
As he grows older, he admits becoming increasingly preoccupied with the cost of adult social care. He mentions a 94-year-old relative who currently in a “very nice retirement home in Brighton” that costs £1,000 a week.
“That is more than it costs to send a child to Eton,” he says, aghast. “As I look ahead to my very old age. One has to be realistic. We will probably need money. Probably not for myself, but my wife – that’s the way statistics work.”
His is a refreshing candour, possible only when you have been forced to confront the prospect of death. For what is eventually left, though, Nicholas Owen will channel the altruistic spirit of his one-time benefactor – and give it all away.   
• Nicholas Owen is supporting Cancer Research UK’s legacy giving campaign. cruk.org/onethird
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