Despite an innate stubbornness not atypical of Old Bedalians, Laura Greene’s determination to carve a path away from the family career of television was never going to be an easy vow to keep. Her parents Harry Greene and Marjie Lawrence had, after all, enjoyed a status quite close to TV royalty for viewers of a certain age; Harry had become renowned as one of the new medium’s first DIY experts, while Marjie had cut her acting teeth with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where she had first met her future husband, before moving to television and uttering the first words ever to be spoken on ITV.
“My parents met in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Fresh from drama school in Birmingham, Mum was auditioning among hundreds of young actresses for one available position in the company where Dad was already a director and actor,” Laura explains. “He’d run away from the predictable life of an art teacher in the small village in south Wales where he’d grown up when Theatre Workshop toured there some years before. It was love at first sight! Mum got the job and their first home was a dressing room backstage, so my roots really are in the stage!”
Married in 1955, Harry and Marjie had one child in each of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. “We were all born at University College Hospital on Gower Street, so we’re technically Cockneys, although I suppose we don’t sound like it,” Laura admits. The youngest, Laura attended an academic pre-school in Hampstead, commuting down to rural Hampshire with the family every Friday night and returning to London on Sunday evenings. “Dad had been given a tiny workman’s cottage in Rake in part-payment for a project he’d worked on in the Sixties,” Laura recalls. “He and Mum worked on it over the years, bought some more land, extended the house, built a pool and planted an orchard. Eventually, it was decided that we would move down there full-time as a family. I was ecstatic, as there was much more space for roaming and fort building!”
For the four year-old Laura, the move meant that her high-powered London nursery school would now be exchanged for Dunannie. “I fell in love with the Hampshire countryside and had an idyllic childhood,” she reflects. “I adored Dunannie too. It was such a change from learning times tables and handwriting practice in London. I threw myself into the creative lifestyle: crafts, learning music and writing poetry. Even so young, it was obvious what an enriching environment I’d landed in and it was a welcome change.”
The idyll would continue at Dunhurst. “Everyone was so in touch with nature and their surroundings. I loved working in the barn and the pottery, weaving, doing needlework and woodwork. We were just so lucky to have all those amazing resources and enthusiastic teachers. I got very serious about contemporary dance at Dunhurst too, becoming part of the renowned “Bedales Dance Theatre” even before moving up to Bedales itself.”
Through Middle School and Block 3, Laura’s Bedales odyssey took place as a day pupil, an experience she relished as the best of both worlds. “I loved the cultural melting pot of school life and the broad perspective it offered,” Laura says, “but it was wonderful to come home every night to my own bed!” However, an unavoidable choice soon lay before her. “Mum had always been a city girl at heart and Petersfield was starting to feel too remote for her,” Laura observes. “Her acting was vital to her wellbeing, and the work, the friends, and the life was in London.” Laura was faced with a decision: either to become a boarder or leave Bedales altogether.
It was an agonising choice for a young teenager to make. “I’d won places at several great London day schools but they were very different from Bedales and all I’d come to know. I was so close to my family that it’s a massive testament to the school that I chose Bedales over the comfort of home and a new school in London”. Boarding got off to a rough start. “I really didn’t enjoy it at first,” she admits. “Block 4 was a weird time to start boarding and I missed home a lot.” But things were to improve socially, as well as academically with time. “Oddly, it was the focus of GCSE’s in Block 5 that pulled things together for me. I really enjoyed the challenge! And by the time I got to the sixth form, boarding was a blast.”
The expectation that Laura would join the “family business” now loomed larger in her mind. “Everyone always sort of assumed I’d follow the family footsteps into TV, but I so wanted to find my own path,” she remembers. “By the time I got to sixth form, my sister Sarah had been on the nation’s screens for more than ten years and was a household name. My brother Robin had excelled at RADA, had a career in theatre stage management and television production and was now getting into the music industry. Mum was in her fourth decade as an actress of film, stage, and screen, and my Dad had become the nation’s favourite TV home improvements expert!” Little wonder then that the family were shocked when Laura revealed her new favourite subject.
“I’d always been fascinated in how things worked and why, and with the help of an excellent teacher, I discovered that Geography was a great fit for me. It answered a lot of questions and opened my mind to the world around me.” Laura credits Colin Prowse as the inspiration. “A pivotal memory for me comes to mind. I am 14 years old, sitting with Colin at lunch in the Bedales dining room trying to decide whether to give up History or Geography (they had clashed on Laura’s GCSE timetable). He told me that not only should I take Geography GCSE but also A Level and then go on to do a degree in it. I was surprised because I’d scored low on my end of year exam in Block 3. I think he knew I just needed focusing, and that the subject was right for me. His certainty gave me the confidence I needed to believe I could be good at something other than performing and art.” She found herself enjoying the subject, both in the classroom and on the many varied field trips the class took, “Bradford and North Wales were hardly the glamour destinations of other subject’s trips, but we had such a laugh,” Laura says, “ and I have brilliant memories!” Laura went on to excel in GCSE and then A Level, scoring the highest girls’ A Level mark across all three papers, not only in the school, but also in the county, as Colin Prowse confided later.
“I adored Geography and I still do,” Laura says. “It’s not an obvious vocational study choice, but it’s all-encompassing. No other subject covers so much ground, literally and figuratively.”
Another great mentor for Laura at school was the late David Butcher. “He was this charmingly reassuring father figure, so kind and patient. Again, here was a teacher dedicated to instilling a passion for his subject in his students, and who took the time to invest in the individual. I was lucky to see him again when I came to Bedales Parents’ Day. He remembered my A Level design project from 23 years ago! I’d made a huge oak desk for the then new ADT building. It’s still in the school somewhere. Perhaps fittingly, Colin had it moved to the Geography department after the ADT block closed down!”
As Colin Prowse had hoped, Laura did go on to take a degree in geography and despite being offered places at several other prestigious universities, she chose Colin’s alma mater, UCL. “It was fun to be back in London,” Laura says, “it was like coming home really. But after Bedales, university life was a bit tame, to be honest! For most college students, this was their first brush with independent life, living away from home, and having to organise their own time. Not so OBs, as we’d learned so many of those life skills already.” After graduating with a 2:1, Laura was granted a place on an MSc course to read Environmental Science at Birkbeck College, London. But things were to take a different turn.
“The grand plan was to travel to southern Africa between studies and work on an irrigation project, but I needed travel money. My Dad fixed up a meeting with the people who made the weather for ITV through his Welsh pal, ITV National weather presenter Sian Lloyd. I had some notion I might combine my design skills and hydrometeorology know-how and help out with the graphics, or something.” The ITV bosses saw a different picture. Laura was asked to do a screen-test for presenting the weather, an offer she first refused. “But they kept asking,” Laura remembers, “and so I thought, why not?” It turned out to be an end to the MSc, but the start of a career in factual television. After a stint at the Met Office training school in Shinfield (which involved “endless one-on-one classes on cloud formations with various kindly bearded instructors,”) Laura was offered a position as one of only three network presenters for the ITV national weather.
For the next three years, Laura would be one of television’s most familiar faces. “That was the thing about being a weather girl at that time,” she points out, “if you did the ITV weather, you were in the nation’s living rooms four or five times a day. It was still appointment viewing back then. Everyone watched the same forecast. They knew you. There was fan mail, autographs on the street, public appearances, and national newspapers wanting to know who was your first kiss and what moisturiser you used. After a while, though, I was desperate to move into news reporting. I wanted to show that I had a brain and knew how to use it, contrary to the widespread belief that if you did the weather, you were automatically a bimbo, which is of course quite untrue!”
Refusing to be daunted by prejudice, Laura managed to secure some regional reporting and news-reading slots before meeting an executive of the newly launched Channel 5 in Covent Garden. “I pitched a more serious idea to him and the upshot was that I became the network’s science correspondent,” Laura recalls. “This was a proper break-through for me – really interesting stories on technology and conservation, and I felt that I was getting closer to what I loved. It didn’t matter that I was being paid relative peanuts for news reporting over entertainment telly, an attitude that horrified my agent at the time, who kept trying to push me back into the weather and game shows and the sorts of highly-paid glamorous stuff other ex-weather girls were doing. He couldn’t understand why I preferred to be down a mile-deep salt mine in North Yorkshire doing a story on dark matter instead of presenting the GMTV weather and travelling first class!”
Perseverance (and a new agent) paid off, and Laura’s career blossomed, as she went on to present and report on programmes for Discovery Channel Europe, BBC’s “Watchdog” stable, NBC travel channel, and Sky, among many others. It was while she was hosting a daily live science show for Network of the World that she got the call that would change her life.
“It was National Geographic Channel in Washington DC wanting me to come and audition for a job hosting their flagship show,” Laura reveals. “I was flattered, but not terribly interested in moving to America.” Nonetheless, she took the trip to DC between shows in London to meet the executive team at National Geographic, and to her surprise, not only did she end up sitting in for the regular host of the broadcast that night (before boarding her flight back to the UK), but she was offered a two-year full-time contract on the spot! “I was standing in the dressing room after the show, hurriedly taking off my makeup, with a taxi waiting outside to take me to the airport, and the VP of the channel and the Executive Producer of the show were standing there begging me to spend the plane ride home thinking it over. I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving my family and friends and my home in England,” she recalls, “but when the ideal job is offered by a legendary institution in your industry, you don’t turn it down.”
It was the start of a new life, but on familiar territory. “From my perspective, it was the dream job,” she enthuses. “The perfect synthesis. It combined live television, geography, and science, long form story-telling with travel, a huge budget and a superb team. It was such a buzz to be chosen for something as prestigious as this, with no one caring about the fact that I’d been a weather girl or having the slightest idea about my family. They were thrilled that I was a proper geographer”, (along with her degree, Laura is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society), “and I think they enjoyed my “Britishness” and my cheeky sense of humour, which is markedly different to that of most Americans who’re often too tactful and optimistic to tell it like it is. I’ve probably got Bedales to thank for that healthy lack of respect for unnecessary authority!”
As well as travelling the world from her new Washington D.C. base, Laura’s work for National Geographic gave her the opportunity to meet her partner Peter and to eventually start a family. “I hosted a 5-part series of live shows from the Egyptian desert for Discovery Channel while pregnant with our daughter, recorded a radio campaign the day before she was born and a ten-part series for Equator HD when she was a baby”, Laura recalls. “I was offered a 60-part series a few months after our son was born and I didn’t want to miss out on it. Luckily this one was studio based, so I just brought him with me while his big sister was at school. He sat in his baby seat next to the camera and if he cried, we just did another take,” Laura laughs. “It isn’t always that straightforward, but I suppose I’ve found myself trying to emulate the way in which my parents brought me up, with work and family happily co-existing. I suppose I couldn’t escape my fate – I did end up in television! But I like the fact that I found a way to marry the family business with my own love for science and the natural world. I suppose that’s how things should be: a combination of nature, nurture, passion and hard work.”
Twelve years into her American “sojourn”, Laura has started to think about bringing things full-circle, and moving from the nation’s capital. “We’re here because this is the HQ of Discovery Communications (where Peter now works) and National Geographic, but it’s not where we ever intended to stay,” she says. “We would love to come back to England. Even after all these years away, I still feel most at home down in Hampshire and I would love to give my own children something close to the childhood and school days that I enjoyed so much. Luckily, although my partner is American by birth, I always joke he’s English at heart!”
“Bedales remains such a big part of my life,” Laura continues. “I remember all the unusual things we did, such as yoga in the orchard before exams. That must have had an effect on me, because I’ve since become a qualified yoga instructor! I’ve also agreed to help organise our block’s 25-year reunion this coming June, so I’m currently in the throes of locating old classmates from way back and liaising with the school. I’m bringing the family and we’re taking the chance to have a big old UK/ Europe month-long trip, to include a full week down in Hampshire. I can’t wait – re-connecting with the place and my old friends is going to be such a huge pleasure. And who knows, maybe it’ll help forge the path for our permanent return!”
Laura Greene was interviewed by James Fairweather in March 2015.