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Martyn Lewis: 'Rejection note left me shattered but I didn’t want to admit defeat ... I wrote to every broadcaster in UK seeking work'

 

By Ivan Little

Sir Martyn Lewis, the veteran broadcaster from Co Antrim, covered some of the biggest national and international stories in a glittering 30-year career. He recalls his idyllic Ballymoney schooldays, the heartbreak at being rejected by BBC NI ... and how he has become a 'silverpreneur' in his seventies.

And finally. It could have been the end of the news for Martyn Lewis. For the rookie reporter from Portrush was stunned as his boss at BBC Northern Ireland delivered a withering assessment of his talent and his prospects in broadcasting.

In a hand-delivered note, 50 years ago, the local Beeb controller, Waldo Maguire, told Martyn in no uncertain terms that he should forget about journalism, adding: "You don't look right; you don't think right and you don't sound right."

But the happier footnote for Martyn Lewis was that he went on to prove Waldo Maguire spectacularly wrong as he established himself as hot news in British newscasting, grabbing the headlines as well as reading them, first with ITN and then with the BBC in London.

And now Sir Martyn - he was knighted last year - looks back on the devastating demolition from the Beeb in Belfast with a rueful smile, especially as he had the satisfaction of the corporation headhunting him from ITN 19 years after telling him he had no future in the business.

The man who anchored every national news bulletin for ITN and the BBC during his 30-year TV career was born in Wales, but it was Northern Ireland that shaped him from the age of four after his family moved to the north coast. He's 72 now, but you'd never guess it and, while he may have been off the TV screens for nearly 20 years, he's making a comeback on the box with a new news venture.

The idea revolves around a gift idea to rival the traditional birthday and greeting cards.

It's called Your Big Day (YBD) and it uses the latest Cloud-based technology to deliver personalised 'time capsule' videos for any date stretching back 100 years.

Using the extensive archives of ITN and Reuters, the package tailors the footage to a date and a year, usually a birthday and includes the defining moments from history and from the entertainment world of the era.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of the YBDs goes to charity and they include a special embedded message for the recipient, with the finished product sent via email.

"The response has been very encouraging," says Sir Martyn, who married Patsy Baker, a partner at the public relations company Bell Pottinger, after his first wife of 43 years, Liz, died in 2012.

Martyn and Liz have two daughters - Kate Lewis, who works in the film industry, and singer-songwriter Sylvie Lewis. Patsy is the mother of three children.

Martyn, naturally enough, provides the voice-overs for Your Big Day and he says he's chuffed to have become a so-called 'silverpreneur' in his 70s.

"If you'd told me two decades ago that I would be setting up a new company at the age of 72, I would have laughed in your face," he says. "But I never retired - and I never will.

"I have kept myself busy through the years with my charity work and hosting conferences. You have to stay active."

Going back in time, Sir Martyn says he has happy memories of his own days in Northern Ireland, where his father moved to work for an old Army friend in Portrush before setting up his own quantity surveyor's business in Coleraine.

"I had a wonderful childhood in Northern Ireland," says Sir Martyn. "I did a lot of swimming in Portrush and I was in the Cubs and Scouts. I was a lifeguard on the West Strand for a time before getting summer work in the old Chemstrand chemical factory just outside Coleraine.

"And it was there that I got my first taste of business, spending a couple of weeks in each of the departments."

Sir Martyn, who lived in a number of homes in Portrush before his father eventually built a house on the Mountsandel Road in Coleraine overlooking the River Bann, was educated at Dalriada in Ballymoney which he describes as "a fantastic school".

"It gave me all kinds of opportunities," he says. "I can remember a lot of teachers who influenced me. One called Mrs Moore may have unwittingly encouraged me along the journalistic path. She offered half-a-crown to the pupil who could write the best 'what we did in our summer holidays' essay.

"I wrote mine in white ink on red pages and stuck photographs of what I'd done beside the words. It was like a mini-newspaper and that was probably my first interest in journalism. Plus I won the prize!"

Martyn was the secretary of the debating society at the school and, fighting to overcome a stammer, he also took part in a number of productions of Shakespeare plays, for which Dalriada were renowned.

"There was a very dynamic head teacher called Mr Gordon and his productions were brilliant," he says. "I remember Sir Tyrone Guthrie came to see some of the plays. I played Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1 and Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice, though I really wanted the part of Shylock, because I thought it was a better role."

He says that the debating and the acting helped give him the confidence he needed in his later years.

"Going on stage was the best possible training," says Sir Martyn, who also recalls geography teacher Margaret Chartres as a "human dynamo of enthusiasm and passion", who widened the horizons of her pupils to a world far beyond Ballymoney.

The former broadcaster also joined the Army Cadet Force at Dalriada and went on, in 1963, to be crowned the Bisley .22 combined Cadet Force champion of the UK, which he still says was one of his proudest moments.

He's been back to Dalriada in more recent times and he met up with some of his old teachers, reminiscing about his youthful years on the idyllic north coast.

But the 72-year-old says there was little warning that Northern Ireland was about to be plunged into decades of conflict, adding: "My father had a strict rule that politics didn't have any place in our lives. I wasn't brought up with any huge political awareness."

After Dalriada, Sir Martyn tried, but failed, to get into a university in Cambridge and went to Trinity College in Dublin instead, with debating and acting continuing to be mainstays in his life.

After his graduation, he was offered two jobs in advertising and PR in England and went home to discuss his options with his family in Coleraine.

Which was when fate changed everything for him.

"An old friend of my father's was having dinner with us," he says. "He was David Hannon, a producer at the BBC in Belfast, and after hearing about my debating and my acting he asked if I would be interested in auditioning for a presenter's role to replace someone who was retiring from a TV programme in Belfast.

"My mother immediately said 'Don't be ridiculous'. She didn't want me going into television under any circumstances. But my father urged me to give it a go. And I got the job in 1967."

Shortly afterwards, the new boy was asked to cover a news story for the radio and he was later offered the chance to work on the evening TV magazine programme, too.

"I was totally hooked," he says. "I really got the bug."

But the bug was well and truly swatted by the aforementioned controller of BBC Northern Ireland.

Waldo Maguire's note telling the wannabe journalist that he had no future with the Beeb shattered him.

"There wasn't much left," he says. "But I didn't want to admit defeat and I wrote off to every broadcaster in the UK seeking employment. And HTV in Cardiff gave me two years of amazing on-the-job training, which led me to joining ITN in London in 1970."

Down the years, Sir Martyn may have been associated in viewers' minds with the man breaking the news from the studio.

But he says he enjoyed the life of a reporter on the road just as much and maybe even more.

"I spent six weeks in Asia, covering the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, which was a very powerful story, and I reported on the departure of the Shah of Iran during the revolution in the Seventies.

"But, nearer home, I'm also proud to say that I was the first reporter to bring the story of the hospice movement to national television.

"We covered the visit of the Duchess of Kent to the world's first-ever children's hospice in Oxford and we discovered that she had been going there in private once a month. Our story was moving and groundbreaking and I went to the editor of ITN and told him that my report lasted nearly nine minutes, which was nearly three times the usual length of a story.

"I urged him to watch the piece and he then filled the second half of News at Ten with it."

Sir Martyn's days on the road with ITN were, he says, exciting and stimulating. "We were knocking the hell out of the BBC, who were solid and dependable, while we were d'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all."

He was to spend even longer with the BBC, of course, and he has no regrets.

But he has concerns about the current affairs of news right across the board nowadays.

"I worry about the internet," he says. "If people only get their news from the internet, they tend to home in on only the stories that they are interested in. So, they may stop watching the kind of stories that they would see in a properly constructed news bulletin on the BBC, or ITN, every night - stories that might help them to understand the state of the world in which we live."

Sir Martyn says that, in the 1980s, upwards of 20 million people were watching the evening news bulletins on the two main channels, but now the viewing figures are down by half.

Nowadays, of course, another Martin Lewis - albeit with a slightly differently spelt Christian name - is a constant face on the television, with his money-saving suggestions.

And it is a source of amusement to Sir Martyn that people now mix the two of them up.

"He started up around the time I was finishing in television. And when we met for the first time, at a charity event recently, he told me that people thought he was me at the outset," he says.

"And now that he has been incredibly successful, a lot of people think that I'm him."

More details about Your Big Day can be found on www.yourbigday.tv

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