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Julian Simmons on panic attacks and why he’s perfectly happy not to have children of his own

By Una Brankin

The UTV legend on the panic attacks he suffered after his father died in his early 50s, why he’s perfectly happy not to have children of his own... and how one of his famous Santa Flash TV updates almost resulted in civil war.

He would have made a fun dad or a favourite uncle, or even - now that he's almost 65 - a big warm grandfather. He has a good way with children and is very kind to them, as a UTV colleague confirms. And, of course, there's no-one who can spin a Santa yarn like Julian Lynus Simmons.

Being an only child, single and gay, the much-loved presenter hasn't taken on any of these roles in his life so far, but you can bet the children, with whom he spends time at Christmas, love his company.

In the past, those kids have included Eamonn Holmes's two sons and daughter by his former wife, Gabrielle. Julian still spends most Christmas Days with Gabrielle and the family, and they are usually joined by Eamonn, although he has other plans this year. Then, Julian's off to Lisburn on Boxing Day to see his best friend Christine, who works for British Airways, and her family.

Suffice to say, the Kent-born six-footer won't be sitting lonely this Christmas in his apartment and its well manicured grounds, off Belfast's Holywood Road.

"I live alone and it's nice to come in after a hectic day and close the door on it all," he says. "It's fine when you know you'll be up and at it the next day, and not alone 24/7. I'm quite happy with own company - I would love a husky dog and a couple of stripey cats but there's no point; I'm not here enough.

"It would be okay if you could switch them off and put them in a cupboard when you're going out. I do adore animals, but I can go off travelling at the drop of a hat and I couldn't do that if I had pets or children."

We're chatting in the green room at Havelock House in Belfast. Julian is courteous, twinkle-eyed and immaculate, in a well-cut navy-blue Austin Reed suit, his wavy hair now salt-and pepper, and his skin well preserved, courtesy of a Clinique rotating cleansing brush and Strivectin creams.

It's plain to see the broadcaster would have been devastated if the mother ship had axed him completely in the recent round of cost cuts, which saw the end of make-up artists' services and on-screen continuity presenting.

He has been with Ulster Television/UTV for three decades and sees himself as "part of the furniture". We no longer get to see him doing his foreboding, James Young-inspired "And now, on the UTV…" introductions to Coronation Street, as the continuity is all done by audio now, but his hours have not been shortened and he pops up now and again to do the weather and occasional shows, such as Christmas Rewind.

Happily, he's back on our screens temporarily on Christmas Eve with his famous Santa Flash updates, charting the course of the sleigh journey from the North Pole to his first port of call - Northern Ireland, naturally.

"I decided to add a bit of drama in one year and near caused civil war," he chuckles. "I did three updates - in the first one I said the sleigh was so heavy, it had tried twice to take off and failed, and that we'd have to wait 'til the next update to see if it was airborne.

"Well, I'm tell you, the phones were hopping and people saying, 'It's ridicilus, tellin' the childer that'. So, I went on the second update and said that Santa had got up in the air at last and had taken the roofs off two houses in the effort.

"I do it big time when it comes to drama. I tell them I've checked with air traffic control to see what way the wind is going to blow Santa in over Portrush or wherever and then chart his trajectory from there. The kids love to know all that."

So (as women are asked all the time), wouldn't he have liked a few of his own?

"I don't think so … because I've always been very busy in my life and always had the freedom to travel whenever I want," he says, in his sensible voice.

"I'm told I am good at looking after kids and keeping a rein on them - when Eamonn's were younger, I went on holidays with them to the Channel Islands and Portugal. I wasn't as free to travel towards the end of mum's life, as I was looking after her, but I'm getting away a lot now. I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago and I'm off to Bejing shortly with Christine. She's working and I go along with her."

His London-born mother Pearl died from heart failure on Christmas Eve, eight years ago. Julian was on air, as usual, and didn't tell his colleagues of his loss until Boxing Day.

"There I was doing the Santa updates with the undertaker beside me in between times, asking me what sort of flowers I wanted," he recalls. "I had to keep going and I didn't want to say, and ruin friends' Christmases. Mum was 93 and she had been ill, so it was like a release for her. But she was good craic in her day and she kept me right."

He recalls doing a live voice-over, early in his career, for an advert on behalf of Austins of Londonderry, and its "fabulous bargains with slashed prices in lingerie", pronouncing the latter with a hard 'g', Norn Iron-style.

"Well, I'd hardly finished and my mum was on the phone: 'You were sent to the Methodist College and you had tuition and you sit on that TV and talk like that! It's laaawn-jer-eee'," he mimics. "I used to act her and all her coffee-morning friends with their 'husbands in the benk'. She didn't send me to elocution but she'd always correct me if I made bloopers in my grammar - there was no 'I seen' nor 'I done' in our house.

"I'm more like my mother, but both my parents were unfortunately stunningly good-looking," he goes on. "I remember Mum getting stopped on the street and asked if she was a film star. It's not fair they never passed looks onto me. If I'd had those looks on TV, by God I'd have been making a fortune. I'd buy a house in Guernsey if I had the money, but I never will. I'd have to win the lottery."

Pearl and her husband Alan, who was also a Londoner, moved from Kent to Belfast when Julian was still a child, putting on puppet shows for his friends.

Alan worked on the edges of the fashion industry for Morley's fabrics, and chose Northern Ireland over Rhodesia when he was up for a transfer. Tragically, he dropped dead from a heart attack in his early fifties, when Julian was only 12.

"Oh God, I'll never forget it," Julian says of that day. "I was in the choir and I was due to go to St Mark's Church, but when I woke up, I thought 'I'm not going, too tired, going to stay in bed'. Normally I would have run in to mum and dad on the way out and said: 'I'm away'.

"If I had that morning, I would have seen my dad lying dead in his study, but mum found him first. She'd gone in with a cup of tea for him and all I could hear was 'Alan, Alan'. That was traumatic, but like everything else, you get on with it."

Pressed, he admits to having suffered panic attacks in the aftermath of his father's death.

"You know that awful feeling when you feel you're going to faint - I started getting that, right up to when I was working in Heathrow. I was at check-in and suddenly felt myself withdrawing and thought I was going to pass out, right here in public.

"I learned to do exercises to combat it and how to breathe and not panic. Mum was great at dealing with it. We were on the Champs Elysee in Paris once and I told her I was going to faint. Says she, 'If you think you're going to, go on. Faint. I'm here. Go on - faint. I didn't - and never did again, after that."

Although Alan Simmons left his wife and son "comfortable", Pearl took an administration job at a local school to get herself out of the house.

She and Julian went on holiday regularly, and after Methody, he went on to appear in amateur dramatics and to work for the McCalla Travel agency and Air Canada, having "got the travel bug" from his father, who flew all over the world in his job.

What he didn't realise, until his late fifties, was that he'd also inherited congenital heart disease from Alan.

"It was about seven years ago - I didn't feel great and I went to Framar health shop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast and discovered I'd a wheat allergy. I thought I'll ignore this and it will pass," he remembers. "Then, around the end of June, I noticed my ankles swelling, which I'd experience of with both mum and dad.

"I was doing a whole clatter of fashion shows and was too busy to deal with it, but as soon as I'd the last one over, at Victoria Square, I landed up to the Ulster Hospital and told them I was desperate groggy.

"They weren't busy, so I was whisked in and treated like a prince, with my own room that I called the executive suite. I'd visits twice a day and it was like a cocktail reception - I'd a trolley with all these different cordials and I used to get ice from the kitchen and load it up. I had a great time with the nurses, too."

The consultant ordered bed rest for two months before quadruple by-pass surgery. I was so well rested and looked after so well, it didn't take a fidge out of me. I was told I'd feel like I'd been hit by a truck, but there I was, not long after surgery, out for lunch with Christine every day at Marks & Spencer's in Sprucefield.

"My saving grace was that I didn't smoke. Dad smoked a pipe and mum used to smoke 20 a day before she quit, about 20 years before she died. So, I'm sitting here, all new inside and done and dusted. I do feel so well now, although I've no time for the gym any more. I used to be a real gym bunny, down at the Culloden spa."

Although he started out in UTV as a newsreader, Julian claims he hadn't a clue about current affairs and felt more comfortable with light-hearted presenting. He enjoys his current Friday afternoon stint with his friend Carolyn Stuart on U105, and helping her occasionally at her DJ deck in the Four Winds disco. He likes dining out and clubbing, but prefers an effervescent vitamin C drink to alcohol, to give keep him the energy "to stay on the dancefloor to all hours".

And, ever the showman, he has even done panto, playing Demon Vanity in Mother Goose at the Grand Opera House in 1996.

"I was always a fastidious eater, but I lost two stone doing the panto, which didn't do me any harm," he says. "I loved it - it was like a bereavement when it was over and everybody went back to England.

"I would hope to do another one in the future, and people are on at me to write a memoir about my time working in Donegall Street and all the bombs going off, and meeting royalty at Heathrow and the likes of Barbara Cartland - oh dear, she put all this w hite stuff round her eyes to make them look bigger, and promised me a copy of one of her books for my mother, who wasn't a fan. I could go on, if I'd the time ..."

Indeed he could, and it would be very entertaining. In the meantime, you can catch Julian's Santa Flash updates on UTV from 6pm, Christmas Eve.

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