Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 6 May 2015

'Gerry Anderson was a genius who left us in awe': Ivan Little on the colourful life of one of Northern Ireland’s favourite radio presenters

Gerry Anderson with fellow broadcaster Sean Coyle
Gerry Anderson with fellow broadcaster Sean Coyle
Memory lane: Gerry Anderson on a childhood family holiday
Gerry Anderson on stage in Donegal

It was a supreme irony that Gerry Anderson's last recorded public words should have been delivered at a funeral service. He didn't say them himself but four months ago a message from him was read out during tributes in an east Belfast church to actor Jimmy Ellis.

Unusually for Gerry, who could have won an Olympic gold if there'd been one for talking – and talking sense at that – his touching farewell to the Z Cars star was short but as usual it hit the spot.

"He was the man I want to be," said Gerry. And that was all he said. But it said it all.

And yesterday as our little world of Northern Ireland seemed somehow duller and darker without him in our midst, they were words which could have been the perfect epitaph for a radio presenter who wasn't just one of the finest ever broadcasters to emerge from this neck of the woods but from anywhere on the planet.

Quite simply, Gerry Anderson was the man that every one of us here who ever sat behind a microphone wanted to be. But none of us ever came, or will ever come, close.

No one had a sharper brain or a more impish sense of humour than Gerard Michael Anderson.

He could demolish an ego with the flick of his wicked tongue. But few people who were the butt of his put-downs ever took offence.

I was thrilled to hear from friends that he and his colleague Sean Coyle were merciless in their mimicry of me on their programme.

And when I rang them up, they sheepishly said they hoped they hadn't annoyed me. I said I was calling for a tape of their impersonations.

In one bar in Londonderry a group of drinkers once asked me to 'do' my TV sign off. They told me Coyle and Anderson sounded more like me than I did.

Gerry could come across like a cantankerous old grouch at times. But he was our cantankerous old grouch and everyone knew there was a compassionate heart beating beneath the gruff exterior.

When the suits in Radio Four turfed him out after an uncomfortable spell on the national airwaves, we took it as a personal insult.

They just didn't get him across the water. But Northern Ireland got him and couldn't wait to welcome him back home again.

He could hold court on anything. He and I shared a passion for a little cafe called Ditty's, in Castledawson, where we would bump into each other as we broke journeys to and from Derry.

The wrongs of the world were regularly put to right but just as often the discussions would centre on the merits of the cafe's apple pancakes, scones or speciality oatcakes.

I once joked that I thought he could discuss yak racing in the plateaus of Tibet and he launched into a diatribe instead on greyhound racing at Lifford.

I have no idea if he had the foggiest idea about the doggies but he had me convinced that he was an expert.

Initially, I had worshipped Gerry Anderson from afar. I was in awe of his genius. But I wasn't just a fan of his work on the radio. I was also a music anorak who knew of his skills as a bass guitar player.

His back story as a showband musician with the likes of the Chessmen was no secret. But not so many people realised he once played with a Canadian rock singer, Ronnie Hawkins, whose first backing group, The Hawks, morphed into The Band, who later worked with Bob Dylan.

The first time I met Gerry was at Windsor Park in Belfast when we posed side by side for a picture after taking penalties at half time during a Northern Ireland international match.

I asked him if he knew my musical hero Levon Helm, who was the drummer with The Hawks and The Band. He said he did and I asked him what he was like.

The reply was an X-rated observation about Helm's physicality, which was why Gerry and I were laughing so heartily in the photograph.

The last place on earth I expected to meet him was at a Kylie Minogue concert at the King's Hall. But the next day he told his Radio Ulster listeners how brilliant she'd been.

His musical tastes were eclectic, to say the least. But his audience who might have had more Daniel O'Donnell fans in their ranks than admirers of singers like John Prine and Guy Clark rarely reached for the off button

His friend and sparring partner Sean Coyle admitted that he hated some of Gerry's music and often hid his CDs so he couldn't play them on air.

He and Gerry sounded for all the world like a married couple. They bickered and they rowed over the silliest of things. But heaven help the outsider who tried to come between them.

Sean Coyle took over the Gerry Anderson show while his friend was off ill but they didn't change the name of the programme.

Such was the respect in which Gerry was held, journalists never intruded on his privacy, sticking to the BBC's party line that he was ill and that he hoped to be back.

A few weeks ago an insider confided in me that he didn't think Gerry would ever return to the airwaves.

I never dreamt of telling anyone else. Not even my wife.

Yesterday friends from the entertainment world who knew Gerry Anderson cried down the phone as they grieved for the most entertaining man of them all.

But Gerry wasn't just a good raconteur. He was a writer with the most sublime of touches. His sorties into the world of books were at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. For a while he penned a Sunday newspaper column which was a masterpiece of style and wry observations.

He didn't suffer fools gladly. Yet on the nights I saw him plagued by a procession of prattlers and pontificators in bars in Belfast he handled them with the deftest of diplomacy.

He looked particularly at home in Donegal, especially in a music haunt in Culdaff, where he enjoyed the rich succession of visiting musicians from all over the world. And it wasn't just the old-timers that Gerry wanted to hear.

He came to Belfast to present his radio programme on a Friday so that he could regularly give an open mic to aspiring young musicians.

He knew a good singer or a good writer when he heard them and he was an insightful interviewer whose musical knowledge helped relax the most nervous of first-time interviewees.

They knew he spoke with experience and authority.

His radio show was also a wonderful shop window to promote everything from dog shows to plays.

When theatrical producers asked me which radio show they should target to get their message across I told them there was only one outlet to aim for.

Yes, the arts shows would carry longer more cerebral interviews but Gerry would get down to the basics and such was the reach of his programme you could be assured there would be more bums on seats as a result.

I regularly picked up the phone to him to promote an upcoming production. And I knew that he would begin with banter.

He often said a TV blunder of mine involving the word phenomenon was one of his favourite clips. And he never let me forget it.

His rapport with his listeners was infectious. He made extraordinary stars of ordinary people.

Geordie Tuft, a slow-talking fast-thinking farmer from somewhere down around Loughbrickland, was for thousands of listeners an oracle of all things rural including the ancient art of dunging out a bed.

He went on bus trips with Gerry and Sean and the craic on their excursions sounded mighty. Not all the passengers on the bus always made it home on the bus.

The comment was made on the radio yesterday that Gerry was ebay before ebay. Listeners would ring up to see if anyone in radio land had a spare part for a washing machine or a fridge that had long gone out of production.

Inevitably the mission impossible proved all too possible for Gerry who made a big play of giving Sean Coyle grief for passing him messages about lost dogs or cats.

But he read them all out without fail.

He also gave dog's abuse to people he mistrusted or who had mistreated him in the past. His regard for the Christian Brothers who had educated him was not high.

His memory was quite astonishing. He could talk at length about growing up in Derry and his days as a clerk with a shipping firm provided him with stories about visiting sailors that had people like me stopping their cars at the side of roads to let the laughter subside.

The rock and roll anecdotes were just as funny. The only one he kept to himself was "something to do with Elvis Presley".

He shared the tale with Sean Coyle but only on the strict undertaking that he would never repeat it.

After coming back from America Gerry became a student and worked as a teacher and a social worker before taking a job at Radio Foyle. The mind can only boggle about what Gerry could have done if he'd become a broadcaster sooner.

But he has left Northern Ireland with a rich vein of memories.

However yesterday as tears of sorrow merged with tears of laughter at the thought of his wit, his wisdom was also reflected in the reminisces.

Who else but Gerry Anderson could have found a way out of the maze of controversy in his native city of Derry/Londonderry by taking the two names out of the equation and just leaving it with Stroke City.

Just a few months ago American singer Chip Taylor who wrote huge money-spinning hits like Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning, performed a song in Belfast called Stroke City.

It was inspired by Gerry and Chip dedicated it to the radio star at the Empire Music Club before wishing him a speedy return to full health.

His hopes were never realised alas and he's been in mourning with thousands of people across Northern Ireland for the irreplaceable wonder that was Gerry.

Tributes from famous admirers

"Gerry's long and varied career is a tribute to the loyalty he inspired. The world of broadcasting will be all the quieter without Gerry in it."

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

"Gerry was a unique character, and Derry and the BBC are a poorer place for his passing. (He) put a smile on the faces of so many people."

Former SDLP leader John Hume

"There's a great sadness in Gerry's passing. Isn't it strange that there's a smile on everybody's tribute to him. There's a laugh with the sadness."

Country singer Daniel O'Donnell

"You just never knew what to expect with Gerry, and I think that's what we loved about him in our part of the world. He did break the mould."

Songwriter Phil Coulter

"You were always glad to see Gerry, he always made you smile or laugh, he always had a different take on everything. So he was a joy as a man and a marvel as a broadcaster."

Broadcaster Gloria Hunniford

"Bye bye Gerry Anderson Stroke City's favourite son - @bbcradioulster will seem a little bit quieter without your mischievous ways. #RIP"

This Morning host Eamonn Holmes via Twitter

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