Anne Marie McAleese on the secret formula behind 25 years of Radio Ulster's Your Place and Mine
The ubiquitous Anne Marie McAleese doesn’t need any sat nav devices or maps to guide her around the highways and byways of Northern Ireland. You could blindfold the popular BBC Radio Ulster presenter and leave her off in the remotest corner of the province and she’d probably recognise it in an instant.
Because there’s hardly anywhere — be it your place or mine — that Anne Marie hasn’t visited on her quest for stories for her Saturday morning programme, which just happens to be called Your Place And Mine.
And the longevity of the show, which they call YPAM for short, is quite a tale in its own right.
For it’s 25 years since the first airing of a programme that has managed to make everything from sheep farming to shipwrecks, architecture to archery, sound fascinating in reports the more mainstream broadcasters wouldn’t touch.
Anne Marie was in the hot seat on that momentous debut day, and though the effervescent 51-year-old self-confessed chatterbox from Portstewart has gone on to present a wide range of other programmes, she’s back at the helm of the highly-rated Your Place And Mine, which she likens to a first romance. “For me it’s a love affair, and you never forget your first love” she said.
Yet it was by pure chance Anne Marie became a broadcaster at all. Her first ‘proper’ job was in the Press office of the old Lyric Theatre in Belfast in the Eighties, and her introduction to the business was a tough sell.
“It was a production called After The Fall and it was five hours long. But I must have done all right because I was at the Lyric for quite a few years and loved every minute of it,” explained Anne Marie, who’d fallen in love with drama in Coleraine, where she gained a degree in communication studies and where one of the first shows she saw at the Riverside Theatre was Oliver starring a youthful Jimmy Nesbitt. After the Lyric Anne Marie moved to the BBC in 1989, but not as a presenter initially. She worked at Broadcasting House in the Press office, but it wasn’t long before she donned another hat as a reporter for a new programme called Round The Triangle, about life on the north coast.
A number of similar shows about other parts of the province eventually merged to become Your Place And Mine and Anne Marie was asked to present the live programme, which had input from people in a number of new BBC studios around Northern Ireland.
Anne Marie said: “The idea was to push the boundaries of broadcasting right across Northern Ireland, but none of us had been live on air before. And it didn’t occur to any of us to be nervous.”
But panic soon set in after one contributor, Colm Sands, couldn’t get into the Newry studio where he was supposed to talk enthusiastically about a series of topics, including the excitement in the area over Down getting to the All-Ireland final in Croke Park that weekend.
“Colm couldn’t get the door open and there were no mobiles in those days, of course. So Colm went to a phone box and rang in to the studio to talk to us,” laughed Anne Marie.
Many of the original contributors to Your Place And Mine are still involved today and many of the presenters have become well-known names down the years — people like Paul Moore, Ronan Lundy, Marie McStay, Helen Mark, Deirdre Donnelly, Caroline Nolan and Conor McKay.
Your Place And Mine suits Anne Marie, a fanatical golfer, down to a tee because local news is in her genes. Her father Maurice is a legend of the weekly newspaper scene on the north coast, and has also earned an impressive reputation as an artist.
Anne Marie said she used to love going with her dad after church on a Sunday to visit relations who own the famous Morelli’s ice cream business in Portstewart.
“I would sit quietly listening to my dad and my mum talking with all my aunts and uncles, reminiscing about characters from around the area, particularly from the farming community. I was soaking it all in like a sponge, fascinated by all the chat about goats and cows and pigs.
“So yes, Your Place And Mine was perfect for me,” said Anne Marie. “And I was thrilled by the prospect of going to places like Fermanagh, where I’d never been before.”
Nowadays they can hardly beat her away from the county, which is second only to Portstewart as a favourite haunt.
“I was really taken with the county and got to know lots of lovely areas around Northern Ireland as well. I used to take my wee Yorkshire terrier Charlie with me on stories and I walked the legs off him.
“Even after all these years it’s still the joy of my life to criss-cross the country to find material for the show,” added Anne Marie, who became so busy as a broadcaster that she had to leave her Press office role behind. For a time she also presented sport on television.
Your Place And Mine won a silver Sony award in 1994, and a new daily programme called Frankly Anne Marie was launched by Radio Ulster, linking Frank Galligan in the Foyle studio with Anne Marie in Belfast.
She said: “John Toal took over Your Place And Mine and Michael McNamee was another host for a time. But after he left they invited me back.”
And they didn’t have to ask twice. “It’s always been close to my heart. It’s like a favourite coat that you just can’t wait to put on, because it’s a good fit and you feel good in it,” she explained.
“Nowadays it probably has a few more wrinkles in it, but I am still passionate about the show. It has developed and it has evolved, but sometimes I think the smaller and more obscure stories are still the best.”
Anne Marie says the legions of listeners feel part of the programme and are crucial to the success of it, not just because they tune in every Saturday morning, but also because they are the source of so many of the items.
“They’ll ring in or write in with suggestions... and in the street or in the shops or in a restaurant, people will come up to me to say: ‘Did you hear about this or that?’
“Sometimes, however, a number of people we approach are reluctant to talk about themselves because they don’t believe there is anything remotely interesting about them.
“But that’s very rarely the case. I think there are stories in everybody, even if they don’t always recognise that fact.
“I think there’s something in our DNA here in Northern Ireland that makes us natural storytellers. And that’s the beauty of Your Place And Mine, that people connect with the stories they hear on the radio.”
And that connection isn’t confined to these shores. Anne Marie says that she is still amazed to find that people listen to her programme right across the world thanks to the internet.
“I got an email the other week from a guy in New Zealand who said he was listening to a podcast of the show on a boat while filming an orca. That’s what impresses me about modern technology, that people anywhere on the planet can access the programme any time they want.
“And it has struck me that listening to the programme abroad is the modern-day equivalent of people from Northern Ireland sending out weekly newspapers like the Coleraine Chronicle to their relatives overseas to keep them up-to-date with home.”
Expats living thousands of miles away from Northern Ireland sometimes come up with ideas for stories just around the corner from Anne Marie and her producers, keen that they should follow them up.
Anne Marie said “We’ve always had a great team behind Your Place And Mine, people who really get what the programme is all about.”
The show’s offices are in the Beeb’s Foyle headquarters in Londonderry and Undertones bass player Michael Bradley is the producer, who along with Anne Marie and an assistant put each week’s broadcast together.
Anne Marie said: “The three of us respond to calls and together we look ahead and compile the show. I spend at least one, and often two, days on the road.
“After the programme goes out on a Saturday I will usually head off somewhere to record some more stories for the next week’s show.”
Anne Marie, who has moved back to live in Portstewart from Belfast, where she lectured in journalism for over 20 years at the city’s Metropolitan College, has interviewed thousands of people for Your Place And Mine and she is blessed with a great memory for faces and places.
“It might take a moment, but I invariably recall the yarns I’ve had with them,” said Anne Marie, who is loath to pick a favourite interview. But, coming from Portstewart, it’s probably inevitable that she has a special affinity with motorbike racing as well as golf.
“I’ll never forget an interview I did with Joey Dunlop (below) at his house in Armoy,” she explained.
“I was talking to him about his racing techniques and my question was longer than the M1 motorway, but Joey looked me in the eye and said: ‘I just get on the bike and away she goes’”
As for the future, Anne Marie says that she hopes the show will run and run with her in the presenter’s chair. “There are still plenty of nooks and crannies in Northern Ireland for us to explore. The strength of the programme is that old thing of good stories, hopefully well told by people who are passionate about where they come from and what they do,” she said.
“Every single place here has its own unique characteristics and its own unique footprint in the landscape of the place we call Northern Ireland.
“And while Your Place And Mine doesn’t fit easily into any category of broadcasting, there seems to be something about it that people appear to like and respond to.
“But I think it’s very much of Northern Ireland, and I’m not sure you could recreate it anywhere else.”
- Your Place And Mine, Radio Ulster, Saturday, 8am