Rose Neil: How she was “baffled and hurt” at being axed by BBC NI and the agony watching her mum fall victim to Alzheimer’s
In her frankest ever interview, Rose Neill finally breaks her silence on that controversial axing by the Beeb. By Stephanie Bell
Published 07/04/2014 | 09:23
We are used to seeing the serious Rose Neill as she delivers our TV news, but beneath the calm and professional presenter's façade is a livewire who just loves to have fun. Taking time to enjoy life is as important to Rose as her equally strong work ethic – both of which were gifts instilled in her from a very young age by her hard-working and fun-loving parents.
Today she takes as much pride in the fact that her own grown-up sons, Roger and Henry, have a superb social life as she does in their successful careers.
Her own childhood – growing up in Bangor as the daughter of a prosperous local shipping and coal importing company owner – was one of privilege and much gaiety.
Rose recalls an idyllic time when parties, boating, travelling and countless outings ensured that fun was a constant of family life.
It is a side of her which the public don't often get to see, and away from the screen, a relaxed and easy-going Rose (55) happily admits that she likes nothing better than a good party.
What you see is what you get with Rose – she is grateful for so much in her life and the values she learned as a young girl have carried her through the good and not so good times.
Refreshingly, no topic is off-limits as we catch up with the popular presenter who, after 35 years on TV, is one of Northern Ireland's best-known and best-loved personalities.
For the six years since her controversial and surprise departure from the BBC, where she worked for 25 years fronting flagship news programmes, Rose has kept her feelings and thoughts about it private.
She gives an insight into the terrible hurt she felt when her contract was not renewed.
Speculation of ageism because she had turned 50 was rife at the time in the Press and among colleagues, and a tearful Rose fought to keep her composure as the story made headlines and she found herself in the unusual position of making the news as opposed to reading the news.
And during our frank chat, Rose also takes us on a journey to her fascinating childhood and personal life, revealing for the first time her heartache at watching her once incredibly fit and fun-loving mum succumb to the worst effects of Alzheimer's.
There is real passion in her voice as she talks about her two boys, with whom she shares a very special and close bond, and she lights up too when talking about her husband Ivan, whom she describes as "the wise one" who reins her in when she is tempted to get carried away at parties.
Her career has come full circle and having started in broadcasting with UTV at just 19 (she was the youngest broadcaster in the UK for three years) she is now back anchoring the evening news on Friday nights and says she has never been happier.
Rose was only five when she decided she wanted to be on TV and although so very young, the desire never left her and just grew as she got older.
She paints a picture of a full and happy childhood growing up in Bangor. Her late dad, Roger, was the fourth generation
Rose says: "Dad was a very hard worker but also exceptionally sociable.
"One thing that sticks in my mind was a Harland & Wolff-built vessel, specifically made for the family, called The River Lagan. It was built in 1877 and a picture of it hung in my father's office and was a constant reminder to us of all the responsibilities of our family business.
"At one stage we had a fleet of 39 vessels which circumnavigated the globe and dad took his work very seriously, but as much as he liked to work hard he also liked to play hard.
"My parents threw the most fantastic parties and they made sure that as children we really enjoyed our lives to the full.
"We were taken to the races, hunting, shooting, boating, fishing, travelling and it was absolutely idyllic.
"I was really very fortunate to have such a happy upbringing and such an imaginative and fulfilling childhood.
"In our house the door was always open. My mother never worked and was a wonderful wife. She was very glamorous and slim and always beautifully dressed and threw the most lovely dinner parties.
"She was master of the fox hounds and right up until her 70s she loved to snow and water ski, sub aqua dive, swim and ride horses. She was exceptionally fit and she instilled in all of us that love for a physical, sporting life."
Rose was the youngest of three children. She has a sister, Maxine, who studied business and became the fifth generation of the Neills to take on the running of the family business. Her brother, Peter, works as a barrister in New York.
All three children attended boarding school as did Rose's father, grandfather, uncle and nearly all of her cousins.
It was simply a given that she would be going off to board in The Mount School in York when she turned 11.
She says: "It wasn't even discussed, it was the natural course of events and I knew I would be going – my sister and my two cousins had been before me.
"My trunk was packed and I was going and that was that.
"It was just like Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers books – all midnight feasts and more larking about than studying, and I was never lonely.
"It wasn't posh, far from it. We woke up with ice on the inside of the windows regularly.
"It was very spartan and cold and austere – there were no luxuries at all.
"I did suffer from homesickness but it also taught me to stand on my own two feet. It taught me to live with people I didn't like at all and so I learned tolerance and independence.
"There were no sissies by the end of it. If you were a namby pamby going in you certainly weren't like that going out. The headmistress was very strict but fair and we loved her as well."
In her last year at school she started to try and fulfill her dream of getting into broadcasting by writing to TV stations across the country.
She recalls when she first decided she wanted to work in TV: "I was five years old and we had this old TV set in the corner of the living room that took about five minutes to warm up when you switched it on.
"I was sitting on the floor and my father was behind me on the chair and he was watching the news and I said 'When I grow up I want to work on TV'.
"I remember he patted me on the head and just said 'Yes, of course dear'.
"I just had this fascination for it which never left me. I am a very single-minded person and I never stopped wanting to be on TV as I grew up."
As a result of writing to TV stations asking for work, Rose was just 19 when she was invited by UTV to do a screen test and offered a job presenting a schools' programme called Hop, Skip and Jump.
She laughs as she recalls how her mum was horrified and insisted she "forget this TV nonsense" and go to college and study for a "proper job".
She adds, however: "I got my toe in the door and it was fantastic and now at 55 I've never not worked in TV and I feel really blessed by that."
The UTV contract was just temporary and when the show ended Rose took her mum's advice and went to London to study optics, as her favourite subjects were chemistry, physics and biology.
Two years later, the local station invited her back as a newscaster and continuity announcer and she stayed for eight years before joining the BBC.
It's my chance to broach the subject of her shock departure after 25 years as news anchor at Broadcasting House.
Evidently it was a painful time and she has faithfully refused to talk about it over the years so I'm pleasantly surprised when she admits: "I was baffled, bewildered and hurt.
"We all have to take a few hard hits in our lives. I'm very happy now. I am a positive person by nature and every cloud has a silver lining and now I am working in UTV and really enjoying it.
"I am surrounded by friendly, professional people who all work together for the good of the company and for the mutual benefits of everyone and that is rare these days and I just feel so lucky to be part of it." Rose had never courted the Press during her years as a well-known local TV personality and her first real experience of making the headlines when her BBC contract was not renewed gave her a feel for what it was like to be on the other side.
"The support I got from the media made me feel really humbled. Everyone was so supportive," she says.
Her husband Ivan Wilson whisked her off immediately to America for a holiday to escape the attention and help her to come to terms with the shock.
It was while on holiday that she got a call from UTV asking her to join their freelance register.
She says: "It was brilliant. My self-esteem had taken a real knock and I was really delighted to get that call."
Rose married Ivan, her second husband, a former BBC manager, 14 years ago and the couple enjoy a tranquil home life close to the shores of Strangford Lough.
She laughs when I remind her she once described Ivan as her "perfect" husband.
"Yes we laugh a lot and we enjoy the same things," she says. "He is not overly romantic and is actually quite shy but he can be very tender in private.
"He has a lot of experience in management in the BBC and has helped me make a lot of decisions about my own career.
"I do like to paddle my own canoe and I'm independent, but at times when I'm at loggerheads over an issue Ivan is very wise and gives me good advice.
"He keeps an eye on me and makes sure I don't lose the run of myself when I'm in party mode. He is a steadying influence. We love to boat on Lough Erne and Strangford Lough and we both enjoy a sense of fun and adventure and love to travel."
The couple's world was rocked 12 years ago, however, when Ivan suffered a heart attack.
It was a worrying time for both of them and Ivan spent quite some time in hospital when he had to have surgery to have stents inserted, and then faced a long recovery at home.
Rose says: "It was a very scary time and also a bit of a wake-up call. He has changed his lifestyle now, in fact we both have. Both of us are more careful about what we eat and drink and Ivan is just the picture of health now.
"His heart surgeon at the Royal, Mr Roberts, and his whole team were absolutely fantastic. It's not just physically you are affected, it can knock your confidence and they were brilliant about everything, not just the medical side of things."
Rose takes pride and pleasure in her two sons, Roger (27) who is a senior business consultant for a New York firm based in London, and Henry (25) a doctor, who lives a stone's throw from his brother. Bringing them up, she wanted to instill in them the great sense of fun that her parents gifted to her along with the all-important work ethic. And she has clearly succeeded. Both boys are committed to their careers but have a number of hobbies and many friends.
It was also important to Rose that they grew up with a keen sense of right and wrong.
She says: "I think as a parent you have to give them a steer but you can't really tell anyone what to do with their lives. It is your responsibility as a parent to guide them.
"I wanted them to always understand it was necessary to work hard at their academic studies to do well now and in the years ahead.
"I also wanted them to know that you could work hard and play hard and still be a success.
"They both have a great sense of humour and fun and a wonderful circle of friends."
Alongside their busy, demanding and very rewarding careers they have an astonishingly full and dynamic social life and boundless energy.
Rose continues: "I'm just very proud of them and that's not all to do with academic achievement. They recognise you need to be tender and kind and both boys have a natural instinct for fair play and have lovely personalities and are interested in other people.
"People say to me you can't be friends with your children but I disagree. They're my allies. If I need them they are there and they have been a constant source of fun, laughter and support to me."
Rose's life, however, has been tinged with great sadness since her very vibrant mother's diagnosis with Alzheimer's in 2006.
Now 83, her mum Doreen is in a nursing home and hasn't been able to recognise any of her own family for the past two years.
Rose says: "I think the reason she is still alive is because she was so fit and so mentally alert.
"She could have run to Dublin and back and not been out of puff when she was 70 – that's how fit she was.
"It is just the worst disease in the world. My sister and I visit her a lot and often I just go back out into the car and sit and cry.
"She would have hated to be where she is because she was so vibrant in life. It's just heartbreaking."
Rose is also very close to her "two lovely stepchildren", Mark and Sharon, and she dotes on her two step-grandchildren, Abbi (7) and Ryan (4).
She adds: "They're the most inspiring little treasures and we love them both and have looked after them a lot.
"Ivan and I don't feel like grandparents, we don't feel old enough. It's hilarious that the children call me Granny Rose and they call Ivan Granda Rose."
The rise of Rose
- Rose Neill is Northern Ireland's longest standing female news anchor and one of Britain's longest-serving news presenters.
- Her broadcast career began in 1977. She presented children's educational programmes and newscasting for Ulster Television and co-presented UTV's Sportscast with Jackie Fullerton.
- She moved to BBC Northern Ireland in 1984 to present the main early evening news programme, Inside Ulster, with Sean Rafferty. She went on to present its replacement BBC Newsline and various other news bulletins.
- She also presented a daily show on BBC Radio Ulster from 2002 to 2008, and has been involved in writing and presenting medical documentaries.
- In 2009, Rose presented a documentary on the RMS Titanic for UTV, and has returned to the station as a newscaster/presenter and in vision announcer.
- Rose is a travel writer, who has travelled extensively all her life, most recently to Asia, India, The Caribbean, North and South America.