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Sarah Brett: 'I love my job on Radio 5 Live but the best part of the week is coming home to my family'

By Ivan Little

Published 27/06/2015

Sarah Brett
Sarah Brett
Sarah Brett and her family
Sarah Brett with co-presenter Dan Walker
Sarah Brett broadcasting live on air
Gerry Anderson

Northern Ireland's rising star of the airwaves Sarah Brett discusses her challenging job, juggling family life with her career and why Gerry Anderson was such an inspiration.

The latest Northern Irish presenter to make waves on national radio airwaves in Britain still cherishes a recorded message on her mobile phone from her hero and former colleague back home in Londonderry the late, great Gerry Anderson.

And Sarah Brett, the rising star of the popular news and sports station Radio 5 Live, has vowed never to delete the voicemail that Gerry left her not long before his untimely passing last year.

"I'd just got the job with 5 Live and Gerry sent a message wishing me well," says 41-year-old Sarah. "It meant so much to me.

"He was such a generous mentor at Radio Foyle and when I was told that he'd died, I immediately listened to his message again and again just to hear his voice. He was an exceptional broadcaster and we will never see his like again," adds Sarah, who is thankful that she has a fund of Gerry Anderson stories to remember him by.

"My favourite was the one he told me about a Van Morrison interview on The Show which went out live on BBC TV. Van barely said a word for 10 minutes but approached Gerry afterwards and told him 'that went alright, didn't it?'

"I shared that story on 5 Live with the former presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test, 'Whispering' Bob Harris, and he told me the same thing had happened to him with Van on his show."

So far Sarah hasn't experienced any similar nightmares in front of her massive new audiences across the water where she's living the dream professionally - and in her private life.

"My feet haven't really touched the ground in the last three years. I got married, I had a baby and then I got the job with 5 Live - three things I didn't really imagine would ever happen to me," says Sarah, who was headhunted from Radio Foyle last year for the new 5 Live Afternoon Edition programme but hers was a baptism of fire.

On her first day, her co-presenter Dan Walker, who also presents football programmes on the television, was caught in traffic and missed a pre-record of an interview they were scheduled to conduct together with the wit and bon viveur that is Stephen Fry.

Sarah says: "I was terrified but it ended up being a good interview, especially about Stephen's problems with drugs. I thought if I could handle that, I could cope with anything. And Stephen sent me a very complimentary message afterwards."

Sarah quickly established a relaxed on-air relationship with Dan, who famously refuses to work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. She says: "He's unflappable with a terrific sense of fun and fizz about him. We don't agree about everything and that helps in a strange way."

One of Sarah's most memorable and powerful interviews to date was with the mother of model Reeva Steenkamp who was shot dead by her boyfriend, the athlete Oscar Pistorius.

"June Steenkamp had just written a book at the end of the Pistorius trial and she wanted to tell the world about Reeva as a daughter who was an extraordinary person in her own right," she recalls.

"I remember asking June if she thought Oscar Pistorius ever loved Reeva and she said no."

But the major interviews are only a part of the 5 Live story.

For anything can - and often does - happen on a station which prides itself on its slick coverage of breaking news.

Acase in point was the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris. "That all unfolded in our time," says Sarah. "And for us that involved keeping across developments on the news agency wires and watching the live pictures to describe them to a radio audience plus talking to eye-witnesses on the scene."

But as well as news, 5 Live is also a big player on the world sports stage.

"We often have to juxtapose major news stories with something like a wicket falling in a Test match," says Sarah, who admits it took her a few weeks to shake off her nerves to get used to the demands of the new job.

"It's an extraordinary place to be. The workload is intense but it's absolutely worth it. I prepare as much as I can by reading armfuls of books and carrying out research before interviewing writers or film people.

"The other day I got the chance to talk to John Boorman, one of my favourite directors, and out of the blue he told a story about driving a drunken Lee Marvin on the roof of his car and then being stopped by the police."

She goes on: "I do feel more comfortable in my own skin now but I do miss home. I'm an only child and I am really close to my Mum and Dad.

Would she ever return?

"I would never say never," says Sarah, whose route into journalism was unconventional to say the least.

She was born in Northampton but at the age of four her parents moved back to the idyllic Donegal coastal village of Portnoo, where nothing was further from Sarah's mind than the hurly burly of reporting.

She worked part-time in local bars and went to London to move into hospitality management.

But after a family illness, a brief return to Donegal made Sarah realise that she didn't want to go back to England.

And though she worked in a local hotel she set her sights on a new career, enrolling on a journalism course in Derry in her mid-20s. A late starter she may have been, but any doubts that she'd made the right choice evaporated after the writer, broadcaster and political activist Eamonn McCann lined up a work placement for her in Dublin on the Sunday Tribune.

"I loved my few weeks there and I knew that I really wanted to be a journalist," says Sarah, who worked for the Belfast Telegraph for eight years in Derry before joining Radio Foyle.

Sarah initially read the news before she was given her own show and she says former Undertone Mickey Bradley, who worked with her, is "still to this day the best producer I have ever had".

Radio Ulster bosses in Belfast recognised Sarah's talents and recruited her to fill in for Stephen Nolan on his show and for holidaying presenters on Good Morning Ulster, Evening Extra and Talkback.

But the year of culture presented Sarah with another golden opportunity. She and Bradley presented a daily half-hour show called Pure Culture and they won a prestigious Irish radio award.

She was also voted Irish news broadcaster of the year in 2013 and that made Radio 5 Live bosses sit up and take notice.

They brought her in as a stand-in, again for Stephen Nolan, but also for other mainstream presenters and a re-vamp of the station's schedules last year brought the offer of that permanent job on Afternoon Edition.

However, by that stage Sarah was five months pregnant and gave birth to her son Theo in June last year.

"I took four months off but I was able to start the new role in September 2014," says Sarah, who had to say goodbye to her husband Terry and their baby Theo on a Monday morning to fly to Manchester, before returning to Derry on a Thursday evening.

"It was a very difficult time for us all and I did feel like a bad mum."

But Sarah, Terry and Theo now live in England and she says that the best part of her day is getting off a train after a one-hour commute to see her son and her hubby waiting for her at the station.

Terry, who's an artist, is taking time out during the day to look after Theo - short for Theodore - who was named after Vincent Van Gogh's brother and it's only at night that Sarah's husband gets a chance to pick up his paint brush.

"I'm so lucky. Terry is my rock," says Sarah, who met her future husband in Sandino's bar in Derry. "I was with journalist friends when Terry walked in through the front door and I thought 'he's gorgeous.' He sat at our table but didn't speak, so I introduced myself to him. And that was it."

Sarah's own family background in Ireland is fascinating. Her maternal grandmother was training as a nun until she met her Kildare-born husband, who's thought to have fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

As for the future, Sarah has ambitions to make the move into television.

"I think there's a lot I could bring to television but things have happened so fast in radio that I haven't had the chance to really look at that progression," she says.

"But I would love to do anything involving music, travel or cinema."

  • Sarah Brett presents Afternoon Edition on BBC Radio 5 Live, weekdays, 1pm - 4pm

Northern Ireland's other radio stars who made it big with the BBC

MAUREEN MADILL

The 57-year-old pro golfer from Coleraine-born is also a coach and broadcaster. Her golfing honours include winning the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship in 1979, and the British Ladies Amateur Stroke Play Championship in 1980. She represented Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup in 1980, and later coached the team between 1998 and 2004. Madill turned professional in 1986 and played on the Ladies European Tour until 1996, before turning to a career in golf commentary for the BBC, covering events such as the Scottish Open and The Open Championship.

COLIN MURRAY

Another award-winning radio broadcaster, Colin Murray, 37, from Dundonald, has made quite an impression as a national broadcaster in both sport and music. Having trained as a news journalist, Murray became host of BBC's Match of the Day 2 on BBC Two, while still anchoring shows on BBC Radio 5 Live, 5 Live Sport and Fighting Talk and a presenting gig on BBC Radio Ulster. In 2007, he was named Music Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Radio Academy Awards.

STEPHEN NOLAN

The multiple Sony Radio Academy Award-winning DJ and television presenter Stephen Nolan, 41, is famous for his no-nonsense, no-holds-barred interviewing technique.

Nolan, from Belfast, is not just a household name in Northern Ireland due to his career on Belfast Citybeat and BBC Radio Ulster, but has presented his own show for BBC Radio Five Live. He holds the record for most Sony Gold awards ever presented to one person, and won the Royal Television Society's Regional Presenter of the Year Award in 2005 and 2006.

ROISIN McAULEY

Co Tyrone journalist/broadcaster/author Roisin McAuley joined BBC NI as a newsreader before becoming a reporter for programmes such as Spotlight, Newsnight and Panorama. She also wrote and presented programmes on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 and more recently, has been back in her native Northern Ireland presenting Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence every other week.

SEAN RAFFERTY

Belfast-born Sean Rafferty, 68, is now best known for his work on BBC Radio 3, but was a regular presenter of local news programme, Scene Around Six in the 1980s and hosted the province's first chat show, Rafferty.

He moved to Radio 3 in 1997 where he presented In Tune, and has announced concert broadcasts on the classical music network.

PHILY TAGGART

The 28-year-old radio and TV star began his successful career early winning a BBC/Skillset Young Broadcaster of the Year award while a student at Ulster University. Since then he helped set up an Omagh community radio station, Strule FM which won a Sony Radio Academy Award in 2009. Taggart also began appearing on some of Radio 1's national programmes, covering for broadcasters Sara Cox, Huw Stephens, Dev and Gemma Cairney.

Belfast Telegraph

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