Wide-eyed in Medialand: a broadcaster's journey By Denis Tuohy

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How do you become a celebrity television presenter, get to meet the Shah of Iran, Salvador Allende, Muhammad Ali, Seamus Heaney and Margaret Thatcher (to name just a few), and travel to the most exciting places in the world, all expenses paid? By accident, in the case of Denis Tuohy, one of the most familiar faces on BBC2 and ITV through the 1970s and 1980s.

How do you become a celebrity television presenter, get to meet the Shah of Iran, Salvador Allende, Muhammad Ali, Seamus Heaney and Margaret Thatcher (to name just a few), and travel to the most exciting places in the world, all expenses paid? By accident, in the case of Denis Tuohy, one of the most familiar faces on BBC2 and ITV through the 1970s and 1980s.

Tuohy was born in Belfast before the war and might well have followed his chosen career as an actor (he once appeared on stage in Chimes at Midnight which starred Orson Welles as Falstaff) had it not been for his mother who insisted, after all the money she had spent on his Jesuit education, he get a real job, with a regular salary and prospects. By chance there was an advertisement in that day's Belfast Telegraph for an announcer in its radio and television services.

Tuohy was blessed with a wonderful speaking voice, youthful good looks (which he retained well into his sixties) and plenty of self-confidence. There was one big obstacle: the BBC in Ulster did not employ Catholics. At least it didn't employ them in any meaningful role - there were Catholics working in the canteen and sweeping the floor, but otherwise there was a strict policy of no taigs.

This was 1960, the year Jack Kennedy was elected President of the United States and civil rights and racial equality were sweeping through the world. Northern Ireland however remained steeped in its own prejudices, the ruling Protestant elite hanging on to its privileges with a fierceness which would lead directly to the blood on the streets just a few years later. There was even a little joke about it at the time, much enjoyed by Catholics and Protestants: An agitated young man staggers into a pub near the BBC building. "I've j-j-just b-b-been for an i-i-interview as an announcer at the B-B-BBC." Did he get it, asks the barman. "N-no chance. I'm a f-f-frigging C-Catholic."

As Tuohy remarks, the ruling Unionist Party "had no intention of ever relinquishing power and nationalists had no faith in the political system" where large numbers of electors, including many deceased, turned out more than once to cast their votes in the same election. The political parties in the Irish Republic half-jokingly used to urge their supporters to "vote early and often" but the system of gerrymandering was invented in Northern Ireland. Ironic then that the official Unionist Party was effectively wiped out in the latest election, left with a single seat. Times, particularly in Northern Ireland, have certainly moved on.

But against all the odds, Tuohy did get the job (a story in itself), and was soon interviewing stars such as Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison and any other celebrity who passed through Belfast (and an amazing variety did). He even had the chance to interview an unknown pop group called The Beatles but, to his everlasting regret, chose instead to report on the Sunday opening of a public park.

Ulster, however, was never going to hold such a bright and ambitious spark and the brighter lights of London called. Tuohy was scheduled to be the first face to appear on the new BBC2 when it was launched in 1964, but in the event was only the second - a huge power failure closed the whole of London on the first night and when he eventually stepped on stage it was to the light of a single candle. From there it was stardom all the way as he went on to present some of the great programmes of the next few decades: 24 Hours, Panorama, Midweek, Tonight and TV Eye.

Now living in West Cork, Tuohy has written an amusing and enthralling memoir, telling his story as a stream of anecdotes, some of them more entertaining than others. His famous interview with Mrs Thatcher during the 1979 election campaign was a landmark one, and she later called it, in her own memoirs, "the most hostile interview of the campaign".

On the whole Tuohy was no Robin Day or Jeremy Paxman, and didn't try to be. But he was no pushover either, extracting a great deal more from his interviewees with his mixture of Irish charm and relaxed manner. If, as Andrew Neil recently remarked, television interviewers range from Paxman at the hostile end of the spectrum to David Frost at the friendly end (Frost has reacted rather sniffily to the categorisation), Tuohy was somewhere in the middle.

For years he was the face of Late Night Line Up, a remarkably good discussion and review programme which got up the noses of the BBC hierarchy by criticising some of its own programmes. But he also did his fair share of foreign reporting from Africa, America and everywhere else. His interviews with Allende, his unavailing attempts to interview Fidel Castro (the closest he got was Castro's brother), and his coverage of Nixon's downfall, were significant pieces of television and are told amusingly and often self-deprecatingly. Sometimes, however, we get a bit of what an editor of mine used to term TMD - "too much detail" - before putting her blue pencil through it. Tuohy could have done with the blue pencil here and there, particularly of his time, early in his career, as an Eisenhower scholar in the US, where he obviously kept a detailed diary and insists on giving us every note of it, down to the last dinner and hangover.

He also possesses the Irish characteristic of letting himself be sidetracked by his own eloquence. Some of his anecdotes wander backwards and forwards, always entertainingly, to cover years of scene-setting, resulting in the reader desperately trying to remember where he started from.

But these are quibbles. For those with any interest in the development of broadcasting and current affairs over the past four decades, this is an entertaining and must-read book.

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