'It's a slightly daft world'
Marie Foy chats to Denis Tuohy about his varied, globe-trotting life, his take on Belfast in the 60s, and the role of BBC NI during the Troubles, which are detailed in his first book, Wide-Eyed in Medialand.
Belfast-born broadcaster Denis Tuohy (68) was a household name for four decades with prestigious ITV and BBC programmes including 24 Hours, Panorama, Midweek, Tonight and TV eye.
He has enjoyed an extensive and impressive career in journalism covering some of the biggest international news stories of our time.
More recently, he has been involved in documentaries - and his first love, acting, appearing in the RTE soap Fair City.
Marie Foy chats to Denis about his varied, globe-trotting life, his take on Belfast in the 60s, and the role of BBC NI during the Troubles, which are detailed in his first book, Wide-Eyed in Medialand.
You started off your working life as an actor before you joined BBC NI in 1960. What brought you back full circle to acting?
I don't have the same hunger for current affairs. There comes a time when you want to sit back and think of doing something else. I hadn't thought of acting at all until I met a friend from my acting days at a party. Out of the blue he said would I think of doing it again?
I looked at him and thought 'this is a joke'. I was just astounded. He said, why not? I hadn't done it for nearly 40 years. He argued: 'If you can act, you can act. You don't lose it. You look all right on camera and relate to them. That's the essence of screen acting.'
I contacted Jimmy Ellis, who is an old friend and was directing the play I was doing at the time I took up with the BBC. He was very laid back about it as well and I began to believe in this.
I got an agent and insisted she should audition me, just because I again wanted to be reassured that it wasn't fantasy land. She said she was happy to take me on and I started in 2003 and had two good spots in Fair City specials.
After that, I thought I must get this book finished. I had been taking it up now and again in different forms over the years. I thought this is the opportunity - I have a nice, quiet cottage looking down over Bantry Bay. If I can't write here...
Apart from a few things on radio and in journalism, I haven't really been looking for roles for the last year or so.
Who among the people you've encountered made the greatest impression?
People whom I remember most vividly - President Carter's hard-drinking but quick-witted brother Billy, even though he caused me to be thrown into a swimming pool by US Secret Service agents.
Richard Burton for his comments on being Welsh. He felt so passionate about his country he could no longer bear to watch Wales play rugby. The tension during the game was so unbearable and the emotional aftermath, agony or ecstasy, depending on the outcome, was too great.
Muhammad Ali wrote a wonderful inscription in my copy of his autobiography: 'Death is so near, and time for friendly action is so limited. Peace.'
And I remember Margaret Thatcher for paying me the supreme compliment - in her memoirs - of describing our 1979 television encounter as "the most hostile interview of the campaign."
Did you have a diary kept over the years to help with the book?
I was astonished at what I found when I looked through my haphazard collection of stuff. I kept a journal during a fellowship in America when I toured around. I also kept notebooks that I used when on stories which contain bits of scripts. Some of the Manson stuff in the book is based on a notebook I had at the time.
I also have a lot of transcripts of broadcasts. By the late 70s/early 80s, you could get VHS tapes of your programmes. I have an awful lot of those. I have a pretty good memory and also checked out my memories as far as I can with other people, in some cases modifying what I wrote in the light of that.
BBC NI launched a ground-breaking television series at the beginning of 1964 called The Sixty-Four Group, which I presented. I have some of that with parts of a sketch written by Phil Coulter and John Hume. John was already involved in city politics in Derry but this was before the Civil Rights movement, though the things that led to its creation were being talked about. He was a young man to watch, as they say.
There are lots of things that triggered memories.
You have some interesting recollections about BBC NI at the time when you first joined.
I was the first Catholic broadcaster at BBC NI, but even then I was very laid back about it. I did get the job, after all. I don't have a beast to lay. Still, it is an important piece of social history to say so. I have written it with a certain amount of humour.
I certainly experienced no discrimination whatsoever in my years there. I made some great friends who are still around, which is terrific.
When you moved to BBC in London you were blocked from going back to Derry to cover confrontations between police and civil rights marchers by the Belfast hierarchy.
They said it wouldn't be appropriate. Instead, they sent outsiders Linda Blandford and a black South African producer, Arthur Maimane. You can imagine the Derry unionists at the time. Being confronted by a woman reporter at all was rare and to have a black man standing beside her! She asked appropriately awkward questions. It certainly caused more problems than if I had been sent. Because I knew the underlying issues, I would have been less shocked than they were.
At that time, the Belfast administration had the right to veto programmes or people from London if they so wished. But Northern Ireland became a story of such huge significance, it was not just a network story but a world story, so they were eventually overtaken by events. London would make the decisions.
Head of Programmes at the time, Harry McMullan, was concerned about running stories that would lead to 'blood on the streets'. In retrospect, do you think he was right?
I don't see how that follows. BBC NI very carefully avoided, as far as it could, the real political problems that gave rise to the Troubles. But the Troubles happened, so there was blood on the streets. Not reporting issues at a time of relative peace didn't stop that. I think it was a wrong philosophy, a wrong approach (I'm not saying the Troubles wouldn't have happened.) For Harry's generation it was hard to see that; for the generation I belonged to, it wasn't.
The Sixty Four Group, which did sketches, songs and discussions, was made up almost entirely of people in their 20s, at the start of their careers in politics, journalism, and showbusiness, in the case of Phil Coulter. They really believed things were going to get better. It was the 60s. These were things in the past: 'Where have all the hatreds gone' was one of our songs, a play on 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone'.
I think - naively as it turned out - that, because young people wanted to change things, they thought they would change. Looking back, it was probably the university-educated segment who felt this way. It was different in the Falls and Shankill. To some extent, we weren't taking a broad enough view of the society we belonged to.
One topic was, should the unionist part split itself from the Orange Order; should there be a clear distinction between membership? This was something some of the young unionists wanted. That was revolut- ionary. Some of those people went on to take ministerial jobs, for instance under Brian Faulkner.
A lot of this optimism was linked with the prospect of membership of the Common Market. The feeling was, when the British and Irish governments were both part of Europe, surely north/south relationships would have to change? It sounded good at the time. If you're not optimistic about society in your early 20s, God help you. We thought the times were a-changing and the older generation would have to step out of the way sooner or later, 'cos here we come, we are the new generation.
What do you think of the current political situation in the north?
I'd rather back off. I spent so many years of the Troubles not reporting it. I didn't choose that route, my bosses preferred sending me to far-flung places. I honestly feel less and less competent to discuss where it's at now. I don't think I can add anything, indeed can only add less than others. I'd rather stick to what I do know. Mainly, Northern Ireland was a very different place when I lived and worked there, and perhaps people need to be reminded of that.
I still love the place, meeting friends and family. I'm astounded at the way Belfast looks. The Waterfront Hall could be on the west coast of America. It's wonderful. I just hope it is a better indicator of the future than anything else.
The resilience of the Northern Ireland people is admirable. They get on with it. They say, "Ah well, it could have been worse".
Mary McAleese recalled: "When they came with bricks, my father would say we were lucky it wasn't bullets. Then when they came with bullets, ah well, we're very lucky, we're all right, they didn't come with bombs. And when they came with bombs to the pub and someone was killed, well it could have been worse, more could have been killed."
My mother lived in north Belfast during the worst part of the 70s. I would ring up and say I was going to Cuba, let's say. She said: "Look after yourself," and I'm thinking, 'You're living in Belfast, mother. You might be in trouble going to see my father in hospital on the bus and you're worrying about me?' That was typical of the Belfast attitude that saw people through.
What are the highlights of your career?
I am grateful I got to meet so many people of quality and had a chance to experience other countries.
Probably the most worthwhile, without being pious about it, was the big documentary called 'To Us A Child' which was made in 1986 by Thames Television along with Unicef. We travelled to many countries - Africa, India, Latin America, South East Asia. In each, we tried to pick one child that helped us demonstrate one aspect of the rights of the child. We did a study on a child in Chad to illustrate vaccination and primary health care. In India, we focused on a little girl who worked in a tea factory to highlight child labour. In Columbia, it was a street urchin.
I found that one of the most rewarding projects ever to have been involved in. If you are able to show life through the perspective of someone in an impoverished society, it gives a much better idea of how they live than many of the other stories I have done with political leaders and activists.
We won an award in Algiers for it and the best part was sitting with a group of young people who were part of the jury who were quite direct in their criticism. Facing up to them was a humbling experience. They had their own views of western countries making documentaries about the developing world.
How important is television?
It is important, but it's part of the world - it isn't as important as it thinks it is. Much as I have enjoyed working in TV, I could never actually take it too seriously.
I have had some fun in television, even in difficult situations. When I was in Lebanon, I was having no luck getting an interview with the Israelis about why the local young men were locked up. The Israeli view was they were a security risk, and they had a point. But they added that, no matter what they said, they would look bad.
Then the man we were speaking to realised we were from Thames Television, not BBC. He said: "Oh, the company that makes Benny Hill!" and he changed his mind. He decided someone should give us an interview purely because of the power of television across the world.
There was no logic to this at all, but that is the sudden, bizarre connection I find wonderful. It is a slightly daft world.
It was the Today programme, I think, where the attitude was: 'We set the agenda for the nation.' Good God - what is that supposed to mean? People have their own agendas: the old person who has to get to hospital for therapy; the mum who has to get children to school. Individuals have individual lives to lead and probably have nothing whatsoever to do with the latest Cabinet reshuffle.
No programme sets the agenda for the nation. We should never forget that. We should enjoy the fact that that is the case. It keeps you sane. It keeps you sane to go to the pub and be told by someone, 'that was a pile of crap'. It's good for you.
Wide-Eyed in Medialand: A Broadcaster's Journey by Denis Tuohy, Blackstaff Press, £9.99
Read the book review - Wide-Eyed in Medialand
Purchase the book at Independent Books Direct