Gerry Kelly is now a grandfather who turns 65 in September -- and he's ready for more work. Not only does he begin a new run on Radio Ulster this afternoon, the genial broadcaster would jump at the chance of another TV chat show -- and he believes the time is right for one.
"There's a great opportunity for another show with so many stars here all the time," he says in those familiar mellow tones. "Of course the critics give off and say chat shows now are all full of second rate soap stars and somebody flogging a book but there is a void -- it's a glaring omission in the schedules."
So why doesn't he pitch for a new Kelly show?
"It's up the powers that be to see the void -- I don't know if I'd be asked but I'd absolutely love to do it."
In the meantime he's kicking off his new Friday slot in style with an exclusive interview with country superstar Garth Brooks.
In terms of a light entertainment scoop, it's comparable to Pat Kenny coming back on air after his summer break a couple of years ago and opening the show with Bill Clinton on the line. Gerry has known Brooks since 1997, when he first came over to play in Dublin.
"He's a very positive and truthful man, with quite a self-deprecating sense of humour," he says. "I've always been a great admirer of his.
“I asked him would he play Belfast next time and he promised he would. It's been 17 years but here he is, good as his word. I was in Lanzarote last week and got hold of him at the Press conference when he announced the gigs, so that takes up the first half hour of the show.”
The hottest celebs are also another item in the works when I spoke to golf-mad Gerry earlier this week. Friday is a good day for his new show, with a growing number of celebrities and VIPs flying in for RTE's Late Late on Fridays and the Brendan |O'Connor Show on Saturday. Gerry's not afraid of behind-the-door nabbing for an interview before they head south, where we have to turn for TV chat at the weekends if Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross have no-one good on.
“I'll poach from anywhere,” he chortles. “There are more big names coming to Northern Ireland now but we have the local element too and a mix of human interest. We're not re-inventing the wheel here — the show will be an extension of the existing Saturday one, which is going well. It's brilliant to be back working on Fridays — I've been free as a bird on Fridays for the last few years and I'm really looking forward to it.”
The new broadcasting commitments will mean a little bit of rearranging in Gerry's and his wife Helena's weekly trips to Dublin to see their daughters Sarah, a former actress, and Claire, an events manager. Sarah got married to a barrister two years ago and gave birth to baby Bronwyn a year ago. Naturally big softie Gerry is an adoring first-time granddad.
“We absolutely dote on her and go down at any excuse to see her,” he admits. “Her first birthday's coming up and we'll be down for the party. Bronwyn's an usual name — I don't know where they got it from. We've no Welsh connections.
He adds: “Anyway we're in Dublin a lot and we stay with Sarah. Claire's still single. She's the singer in the family; she has an excellent voice and sings with the Dublin Gospel Choir — she probably gets her talent from Helena. She used to sing with The Islanders; then I was a bit of a rock star in my day, too, you know!”
Fans of the local music scene from the Sixties may remember the young Gerry playing keyboards for The Outer Limits, but it's his 27 years with UTV that are indelibly stamped on the public's consciousness, in particular his popular Kelly Show.
The Friday night programme was also well regarded in the Republic and I remember the Dublin critics being impressed at the host's forthright approach when he came straight out at the top of an interview with Fr Pat Buckley and asked him if he was gay. Even though he knew that the cleric was, Gerry managed to sound genuinely curious.
Today his recall of the impact of the interview is hazy; a more egotistical broadcaster would not forget a second of it.
“Pat knew I was going to ask it — I'd known for quite a while that he was gay. I'd met him in Dublin with someone one night at a social occasion. He had his answers prepared for the interview. I don't really remember that interview as well as you! But yes, I never really shied away from asking direct questions. I'd look a fool if someone was to go on with a no comment attitude to something that was going to be splashed over the papers the next day.
“I remember Clement Freud was over for the Tourist Board or something or other and being known as a raconteur I thought he'd be great, but beforehand he insisted on being referred to as ‘Sir', and having two glasses — one for his whiskey and one for his ice — and not talking about his famous grandfather (Sigmund) or his dog ads.
“On air he was giving me very short answers — it was the week after George Best had turned up drunk on Wogan and when I asked Freud what he thought of it he claimed to know nothing about it, even though it was a sensation at the time.
“I was getting a little fed up, so I chanced it and asked about his grandfather. ‘I have two, do you not?' says he. But you can't panic in that sort of situation, you just cut it short, as long as you've time to add onto another item.”
The 1999 Kelly interview with a nine-year-old Rory McIlroy after he had won the world under-10s championship has since been seen all over the world.
The series reached its 500th episode in 2003 and the highest-rated edition of Kelly was broadcast on Friday, November 10, 2000, when a special edition dedicated to George Best was watched by 367,000 viewers.
“What I remember most about that night was the biker Robert Dunlop being on — Joey had just died and he was thinking about giving up racing. He asked George if anything else in his life had ever replaced football, and George said no, not the women or the drink or the drugs. Nothing replaced that buzz for him. That was a magic night, very moving. Sadly, Robert later died on the track, too.
“Then there was country singer Garth Brooks — he was the biggest name in the world at the time and he stood outside the studio for three hours signing autographs.
“I had Westlife and Co on down through the years but George and Garth were the most memorable, along with the ones where ordinary people told their stories, such as about the Enniskillen bomb. I want to do more of those human stories on the radio.”
Gerry survived the cull at Radio Ulster that began in 2011 when budgets were slashed by a fifth to make a 20% saving on revenue. He joined the station in 2009, four years after UTV axed Kelly. The end of the Kelly series was announced by UTV in 2005. Despite widespread calls to save the show, the final episode of Kelly was transmitted on December 16, 2005.
Gerry has spoken of his sadness at the further cuts that followed at Havelock House but he’s interested to see how the station will get on when it begins broadcasting in the Republic next year.
He says: “It's a very exciting from a business point of view for UTV and will enlarge their market. It's been a long time on the cards — they were talking about it 15 years ago.
It will create a huge presence for them; no doubt it will be a news based scenario so I don't think it will effect RTE and TV3’s other output so much, but it's a blow for TV3 to lose Coronation Street and Emmerdale.”
Gerry was in Lanzarote while the rest of us were glued to Hayley Cropper's suicide in Coronation Street this week but he's going to catch it on Sky Plus. He got hooked on the Manchester soap when he had to start watching them all for the his chat show, where he interviewed a legion of the stars with a much lighter hand than Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy on the rival slot on RTE One.
He may have seemed cool as a breeze on screen but he always felt self-conscious in front of the camera and is much more relaxed on radio.
“On radio you can be yourself so much more. TV's so visual — obviously — and stricter. Your time is limited and you're always aware of the cameras and the lighting and how you're sitting, and the producer talking in your ear. Radio's much more real and freer, and I really enjoy that.
“I can sit and talk and don't have to worry about camera. You can take a break and play a bit of music and you don't have to worry about make-up and all that fuss. A TV studio is the most artificial environment you could be in.”
I tell him a former Sunday News editor Tony Bradley's terse advice to me as a rookie reporter: “Listen to the radio — TV rots your brain — and never bore anyone.”
Gerry says: “He has a point — there are more time constraints with television interviews so it's more limiting and you can't talk over the top of someone. I loved the live situation and the adrenaline rush of it but I HATED recording stuff. I prefer to have one chance and go. On radio it's a real conversation.”
Gay Byrne remains Gerry's broadcasting hero and he admits to “pinching some of his ideas and trying to copy him.”
His relaxed interviewing skills are much closer to Byrne's than Ryan Turbidy's or Pat Kenny's, who, on TV at least, can both seem in a terrible hurry for the last bus home.
“I suppose the secret is to be as natural as you can and to make people feel as relaxed as possible. I've never had a Meg Ryan or a David Blaine scenario.
“My guests would be flying into Belfast with no flight back out on the same day so it was a two-day event for them, and they weren't going to clam up on the show.
“Ordinary members of the public are much more prone to nerves. The trick is to sit with them beforehand and be as personable as possible, and tell them ‘just talk to me and look at me, and have a chat, just you and I.'
A while back Gerry considered a move to London and made a few pilot programmes for independent companies there but says his heart wasn't in it: “Eamonn Holmes always told me I had the best job in the business, being able to go to work and do a show I love and then getting back to Ardglass to sleep in my own bed afterwards. Going to London would have ruined that.”
The broadcasting mandarins should be glad he didn't flit and put him back on our screens pronto.
Until then he'll be continuing to make good radio every Friday 3-5pm and Saturday lunchtimes — and has no notion of retiring.
He quips: “Sixty-five is just a number. And I don't look it , do I?”
HIS BUMPY ROAD TO FAME
Gerry Kelly's broadcasting career almost ended as soon as it began.
In the mid-1970s UTV needed a GAA reporter and Gerry was hired, possibly in mistake for his brother who was a noted player.
But after six months the station had to fire him after he was blacklisted by the NUJ for not being a member.
He then began working on the Down Recorder newspaper -- initially for £10 a week petrol expenses. Gerry's big break came when he was recruited -- again by UTV -- as a reporter on Gloria Hunniford's flagship Good Evening Ulster show.
The rest, as they say, is history.