Josh Widdicombe and Nish Kumar are about to leap into the unique world of local news with Hold the Front Page, a six-part series following the comical duo’s journey into the heart of grass roots Britain. Sky’s new series will follow the highs and lows of Nish and Josh as they travel across the UK working for a different local newspaper and its website each week including National World’s The Scotsman, Yorkshire Post, West Sussex Gazette, Blackpool Gazette, Northamptonshire Telegraph, and Farming Life, on a mission to find real local stories strong enough to make the front page.
Their investigative journey around Britain will see them delve into local mysteries, take part in unusual events, cover the burning issues of the day and even involve themselves in the news or enlist a celebrity or two to help them out along the way. But with almost no journalistic experience the pair will have to rely on their quick wits and natural curiosity as they attempt to get to the heart of what makes each town or village tick - digging up some extraordinary scoops. This will be an eye-opening look at some of Britain’s amazing local communities through the lens of their local newspaper. What could possibly go wrong?
In this special interview, they chat to Gary Shipton a journalist and editor of more than 40 years standing - who followed them on their journey in their pursuit of that all-beguiling front page story. Hold The Front Page launches on January 4 on Sky Max and NOW.
Gary - So guys, you’ve toured the UK working for local newspapers and their websites across the land. What’s it all been about?
Josh - Oh, that’s a deep question!
Nish - I think it’s ultimately been about celebrating local journalism in the United Kingdom. That’s the main take home from it. The other is that two quite confident people finding out that their confidence was misplaced!
Josh - Yes, also finding Bill Beaumont ... we met him!
Gary - Where did you meet him?
Josh - In Blackpool. So we thought that would be exciting but it turned out that he’s in the Blackpool Gazette every bloody week.
Gary - Now Josh, many years ago you did a bit of journalism, didn’t you? How’s the world of journalism moved on since then? Has it moved on?
Josh - I think what the interesting thing is, is how many different things a journalist is now. You’re a writer, you’re a photographer, you’re a blogger, you’re a video director. You are literally creating everything. So I think that’s what’s changed massively. It’s not just writing now. It makes it much more difficult because you have to be doing all these different things at the same time.
Nish - So what you’re saying Josh is it’s a more difficult job than the one that you were already bad at all those years ago.
Josh - Yes. I can now fail in four ways.
Gary - The series wasn’t just about journalism. It was about celebrating local communities post lockdown?
Josh - Yes. Obviously the papers are central to these communities and you go to places like Blackpool which is a really good example. We met Bill Beaumont and we didn’t realise, because we are not Blackpool locals, that this is what happens there. This is just a run of the mill day in Blackpool. But you got to know these different communities by working for these different papers.
Nish - Particularly in terms of the farming communities. Farming Life [in Northern Ireland] was a real introduction into a lot of the cultures and histories of these places. We went and saw the Mummers.
Josh - And you find out things you never knew before, like who knew that West Sussex was the home of sparkling wine?
Gary - You did all these stories for real. What was the toughest assignment that you had?
Nish - Just as a technical thing, the football match report was very difficult [at Crawley Town in West Sussex].
Josh - We were dealt a very tough hand. There was a penalty shoot out and we didn’t recognise any of the players by that point. That shouldn’t be your first match report on an endless penalty shoot out. But that was impossible. More generally, a real challenge was the number of times we’d finish an interview and we didn’t have the requisite information. You couldn’t just go back in and say ‘sorry I haven’t got your surname’. It’s just too late by that point.
Nish - The number of names that got reduced to ‘person’ is unbelievable.
Gary - And you talk about the challenge of you can’t go back. But the other challenge is a lot of local journalism is live and you were live blogging on some of these stories.
Josh - Yes, we joined the 21st century and we were across the superhighway information revolution.
Nish - We were all over the information superhighway.
Josh - What was quite exciting about the live blogging is you get instant feedback. So we could put our story up - and instantly see that no-one wanted to read it.
Gary - You’re being too modest there. You did this great assignment where someone had thousands and thousands of bees up their chimney. I take my hat off to you.
Nish - That was a really nice success story for us, Gary. Thank you for drawing attention to it. Because that was a good example of where Josh really got his hands dirty in immersive journalism. I mean he was literally immersed in bees.
Gary - As was your phone at one point Josh, when it fell down the chimney into the hive.
Josh - Yes, it was a disaster. But I got through it. It felt a bit like why don’t I cut out the middle man and go straight on to I’m A Celebrity.
Gary - I think you both wanted to get to the Edinburgh Fringe and at some point on your travels you actually achieved that. What was it like being at the Fringe not just as comedians but as journalists?
Josh - It was up and down. We got to see things we would never have seen which was really exciting.
Nish - We went to a Korean music show which was incredible.
Josh - Yes, so that was brilliant. I loved that. I would never have gone to that normally. That was exciting.
Nish - On the downside, we did run into a friend who did keep making fun of our stupid little suits.
Josh - So there were ups and downs - yes! It is an embarrassing thing being at the Edinburgh Fringe in a suit.
Gary - Was this a first for you?
Josh - Yes. I’ve not been back to the Fringe for a few years, so to go back in a suit with a TV camera ... anyone who thought I had sold out was given ample evidence.
Gary - People have a picture in their minds of local newsrooms being these vast office palaces with hundreds and hundreds of desks, but I think you found in some cases it was actually just somebody’s front room where they lived. Did that surprise you?
Nish - Yes, we were really sat in Ruth’s house for Farming Life.
Josh - You imagine these huge things and you were surprised at how small they were. And how much people were taking on themselves. How few people were creating a whole newspaper I think was spectacular. And you would think that would mean they were more pleased that we showed up to help. But no.
Gary - Were they not?
Nish - Well they were pleased when we showed up. And they were pleased when we left.
Gary - You wore some crazy outfits when you were on assignments. I understand Nish you were a merman at one point?
Nish - I got my hands and face dirty whenever possible. I was right in there. I did participate in a mermaid’s swimming class [at Arundel in West Sussex] which was, I’ll say it, good fun. People just pop a mermaid’s tail on when they go swimming. Very relaxing. They were trying to encourage more men to turn up. I don’t know whether my contribution is going to inspire more West Sussex men to take part but I gave it a good go.
Gary - Nish, you’re not shy with your political opinions. Did you do any political journalism while you were out and about. Did you get to meet the Prime Minister - although there’s been quite a lot this year so it’s hard to say which one.
Nish - I got to meet one of the Prime Ministers we’ve had this year. And ‘meet’ is an interesting term. Yelling the word ‘twat’ across the car park of a sixth form college is probably more accurate, unfortunately. I will admit, I lost my composure. At the sight of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson [at Blackpool] I misplaced my composure.
Gary - And was he pleased to chat to you? Did he give you the big scoop?
Nish - No, we didn’t get near the scoop unfortunately. We were told in no uncertain terms that Number Ten would not be providing us with Press accreditation.
Gary - Shocking! I can’t imagine why ... And you mixed with lots of wildlife too, didn’t you. Didn’t I see you covered in 124 ferrets at one point [in Kettering], Josh?
Josh - I was really up for that. I enjoyed that - but then I found out that Nish was chasing another story that he hadn’t told me about so the whole thing left a very bitter taste in my mouth. I’m not going to reveal how he double-crossed me but ...
Nish - I didn’t double cross you, I used my sources! OK? That’s all I’ll say - I USED MY SOURCES.
Gary - And we appreciate that Nish, we really do. That’s what it’s all about.
Josh - You’re taking sides.
Gary - I’m not taking sides, but it leads me on to the question, was this a competition between the two of you to see who could get the front page?
Josh - I don’t think it was. We ended up being a team.
Nish - Yes we ended up being a team. There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’ but there was one in ‘failure’.
Gary - I do sense that, you came along with the idea that one of you was going to win and get the most front pages and by the end you realised it’s journalists v the rest.
NIsh - Yes, it’s collaboration and what we also realised was that it would have taken both of our efforts combined to get close to being one functional journalist.
Josh - Yes, exactly. Or maybe four of our efforts.
Gary - When we first met, which was some time ago, I read the riot act about all the legal pitfalls and you could finish up in jail if you weren’t very careful. Was there ever a moment when you thought ‘oh my goodness I am going to be behind bars before the series is out?’
Nish - When I screaming at the Prime Minister I thought this could end in jail ...
Josh - Yep. But he didn’t stop.
Gary - So does a career change beckon? Or do you think you are going to stick with comedy?
Nish - No, I think the main lesson we’ve learned is that journalism is very difficult.
Josh - Yes, comedy ... it’s for you to judge whether we find it easy or difficult. Not for us to say!
But viewers will be able to make up their own mind when they tune into Hold The Front Page.
Gary Shipton is the Deputy Editor in Chief of National World and runs their media operation in the South of England.