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The JVS Show: the making of a chat show host

PUBLISHED: 09:47 05 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:47 05 February 2019

Jonathan Vernon-Smith at St Michael's Manor, St Albans (photo: Warren Cooper)

Jonathan Vernon-Smith at St Michael's Manor, St Albans (photo: Warren Cooper)

Warren Cooper Photography

Emotional phone-ins, consumer rights and owing his career to a pair of rabbits, the voice of The JVS Show on BBC Three Counties Radio talks about his life and what it takes to put on the award-winning programme

Jonathan Vernon-Smith is in full JVS operational mode. I’m waiting to meet him at the BBC studios in Dunstable and can already hear his familiar tones drifting through from the open plan news office.

‘So you’ll come on my show tomorrow and discuss the problem with my listener...’ he says by way of confirmation. ‘Right. We’ll call you after 11.’

Moments later, Jonathan arrives to meet me, all smiles and, temporarily at least, off duty. When you present a news phone-in and consumer show, you rarely switch off for long.

Broadcast every weekday morning from 9 until 12, The JVS Show combines two hours of current affairs with an hour of consumer problems. It’s an addictive mix of invited guests, phone-in opinions, and Jonathan’s brand of fair play, feistiness and fun. And absolutely anything can come up.

Today’s topics have included the expansion of Luton airport and a decision by John Lewis to welcome dogs in stores. And although the show can be shaped by issues of both national and international importance, there’s a lot of light relief too. I can’t be the only listener who laughed out loud at the Noel Edmonds’ fan with the presenter’s face tattooed on her thigh.

JVS loves his home patch, but could be tempted to a national radio slot (photo: Warren Cooper)JVS loves his home patch, but could be tempted to a national radio slot (photo: Warren Cooper)

‘That was quite extraordinary!’ admits Jonathan, laughing at the memory. ‘But the news agenda is all-consuming at the moment. So whether it’s Brexit or Trump, John Lewis or Noel Edmonds, I have to read up on every twist and turn.’

He arrives at the studio every weekday by 7am and rarely leaves before 3pm, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Harpenden born and bred, Jonathan’s first career ambition, aged six, was to work in a hotel, inspired by paternal grandparents Marjorie and Ken who ran The White Hart in St Albans. ‘Her stories seemed terribly exciting but I rather suspect nana just wafted downstairs of an evening to work front of house. Two weeks’ work experience in a local hotel was enough to convince me that the industry wasn’t nearly as glamorous as she implied!’

Jonathan’s second choice proved far more fruitful. His late mother had worked at BBC Radio 4 but was a big Radio 2 fan, so Jonathan grew up to the soundtrack of the Beeb. Channel-hopping one day, not long after starting secondary school at Sir John Lawes in Harpenden, he came across a talk station from Cambridgeshire.

‘I was captivated by the intimacy of the phone-ins and local news, so mum directed me towards BBC Radio Beds, a forerunner of Three Counties Radio, which covered Herts as well, and I soon discovered a Sunday evening show aimed at older listeners. I bred rabbits at the time and I called two of them Mervyn and Brenda after the presenters, so mum suggested I phone the station. I think they were fascinated by this young kid calling in amongst all the older listeners, because they asked me to call every week with stories about my own Mervyn and Brenda. For them, it was all a bit of a hoot. For me, I knew instantly it was what I wanted to do.’

Fellow Harpenden resident and 3CR presenter Ernie Almond heard the young Jonathan on air and invited him into the studio he shared with John Pilgrim. Soon the radio-obsessed teenager had volunteered his services and was helping to answer listeners’ calls.

Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery, one of Jonathan's favourite Herts places (photo: St Albans Museums)Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery, one of Jonathan's favourite Herts places (photo: St Albans Museums)

‘Gradually I learnt to work the equipment and eventually they started to pay me, so when I went to London University to study English Language and Linguistics, I missed my little income,’ says Jonathan, who has always lived in Herts apart from his uni years.

‘My dad got me some work in his property company, but then had to sack me for being rude to the finance director! I’ve always been fairly outspoken and I saw this guy bullying a girl in the office so I stood up for her. But I did get a job at Oddbins and I also wrote to BBC London and Talk Sport, who both offered me work.’

Studies completed, Jonathan got his big break with a full-time job at 3CR assisting the late Stephen Rhodes on his award-winning consumer show. Eventually he was offered his own consumer show on Radio Northampton, while also presenting Ern and Vern with Ernie Almond on 3CR. And when Stephen moved to the breakfast programme in 2008, Jonathan took over the consumer slot with The JVS Show.

‘I learnt so much from Stephen who always insisted that whatever we were dealing with on air, listeners wanted to be entertained as well as informed. It may not seem very interesting that an elderly pensioner has rung because she can’t get her boiler repaired, but if that elderly pensioner recently lost her husband and is struggling to cope alone, they immediately identify her with someone they know. It’s the story that grips them and they tune in next day to find out what happened.

‘But whilst I do champion the rights of the consumer, it’s hard to have sympathy with some callers. One single mother who had been rehomed from a council flat to a three-bedroom house with her children was angry because they wouldn’t level the garden for her. So I told her she was being unreasonable and that I couldn’t help.’

Ask what he’s learned about himself and the familiar JVS chortle erupts. ‘I’ve realised I become grumpier with every passing year! People say I am so patient but I think I’m a bit short with callers sometimes, usually because they have done something incredibly naïve. So I have to remember that they come to me because they have nowhere else to go. And we all learn by our mistakes!’

Since 2011, JVS has also fronted the Saturday morning Treasure Quest show (‘It’s so hard to keep quiet when the clues are somewhere I know!’). Broadcasting six days a week doesn’t leave a lot of time to relax at the village home he shares with black Labrador Poppy and feline friend Pip, a lilac point Burman. ‘I used to have a flat in St Albans, a city I absolutely adore, but here I have a nice garden and glorious country views, and we all love it.’

Ask Jonathan what he plans next and the answer is instant. ‘I’m very fortunate to have a job that I love on my favourite radio station, broadcasting on my home patch to people I care about. I live in a nice place with a good quality of life and I don’t have a stressful commute into London. Why would I give that up? Unless, of course, Jeremy Vine was to hang up his headphones on Radio 2. Now that would be a temptation!’

Jonathan’s Herts favourites

Best walks

I love Nomansland Common and Heartwood Forest between Sandridge and Wheathampstead. It’s such beautiful countryside and I always seem to meet people with nice dogs there! Verulamium Park in St Albans is another favourite, though I don’t take Poppy. I can trust my dog in all sorts of environments, but the one thing she loves more than me is water and one awful day when she was quite young I let her off the lead and she bounded into the lake and all the ducks flew up. I was horrified! She did come out all covered in goose poo though, so I suppose I got my comeuppance. But I daren’t take her there again.

Top places

St Albans is a must-do when I have visitors from outside the area. There’s so much history and always something going on, especially since the new Museum + Gallery opened last summer. I also love Ayot St Lawrence, which to me is one of the most special places in the world – there’s nothing nicer than a walk to the Palladian church and a pint at The Brocket Arms. Old Welwyn too, especially if it involves a meal at Vita. In fact most of my favourite destinations involve a walk and a proper pub! I’m also very fond of the John Bunyan at Coleman Green and the Rising Sun by the canal in Berkhamsted. Great on my day off!

To hear Jonathan on 3CR, tune in on 95.5FM or 103.8FM digital. To air your views call The JVS Show on 08081 008800, text 81333, or email jvsshow@bbc.co.uk

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