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‘I still think about the baby that I lost,' says Muir

Popular Radio Ulster presenter Marie-Louise Muir opens up to Stephanie Bell about the loss of her child, and why the arts should be open to everyonek

Published 29/10/2016

RIGHT TRACK: Marie-Louise Muir is a presenter on BBC Radio Ulster programmes Arts Extra and Sounds Classical
RIGHT TRACK: Marie-Louise Muir is a presenter on BBC Radio Ulster programmes Arts Extra and Sounds Classical
CLOSE BOND: Marie-Louise Muir with her husband Johnny
FAMILY MATTERS: Marie-Louise with her two children Catherine (left) and Rebecca

It doesn't matter if you opt for the opera over a trip to the cinema, enjoy pop music rather than classical or a good novel rather than a live play, Marie-Louise Muir has the knack of drawing you into every area of the arts. A natural ability to cut through the drama of her interview subjects and draw out the human behind the genius has made her BBC arts shows appeal to the masses.

As the face and voice of the arts for the BBC in Northern Ireland the mum of two is a household name here and has managed to bring every area of the arts into all of our lives through her popular radio and TV shows.

She is passionate in her belief that the arts are not just for a privileged few but for everyone.

No matter who she is interviewing - be it a famous author, poet, playwright or musician (and she has interviewed her fair share of the greats over the years) - she has an uncanny ability to get them talking not just about the work they hope to promote but the human struggle and emotion behind it.

She says: "I don't want the arts to be off putting to anyone. What is the arts? We all have it, whether it's reading a Mills and Boon novel or watching Walking the Dead on TV or sitting down with a box set or going to hear a band play, we all need to be entertained.

"There is so much negative news and on social media we are bombarded with the latest atrocities around the world and we all need something to take us away from it.

"My mother has this incredible ability to lose herself in a book and I've sat and watched her while she is reading and she is completely gone.

"It's an escape and everybody will have something they can lose themselves in, even watching Simon Cowell on the X Factor!

"For our team in the BBC, arts and culture is about what people are interested in and leaving my radio programme after 7pm at night I can't help looking through peoples' curtains to see what they are watching on TV.

"We have to keep it relevant and I can see that people have this perception that some can feel excluded from the arts but there is no exclusion zone in the arts at all.

"My kids tell me all about these people on YouTube that I've never heard of in my life and that has introduced me to a whole other world through my children."

Marie Louise (48) says she got her love of the arts from her parents and while she wouldn't have it any other way she says she is determined as a mother herself not to "push" the arts on her two girls, Catherine (12) and Rebecca (8).

Her late dad John Kerr, a former Mayor of Londonderry and school teacher passed away in 2007. He met her mother, Carita when they were both appearing together in a play in the city. Carita (78) a former actress and singer is still active in the arts there.

Marie-Louise grew up singing and playing the cello which she still enjoys. She loves musical theatre and classical music but says she likes nothing better than enjoying a movie and pizza night at home every Friday.

Outside of her job she cherishes a quiet family life at home in Belfast with husband Johnny (48) who also works for the BBC, their two girls and their beloved pet cat Marmalade, who they adopted two years ago and who has become a big part of their lives.

She says: "The irony is that despite my upbringing which was filled with music and performance I just want my girls to find their own place.

"I've never pushed it at them. For me the arts was an all consuming part of my childhood for which I am really grateful. I did everything except Irish Dancing and I just want my girls to do their own thing.

"They seem to be into sport. My youngest loves football and my oldest plays netball and she has just recently joined the school choir.

"My husband plays drums and my youngest will go in from time to time and have a go on the drums but other than that they are not showing any interest in music.

"With my job it's hard not to get drawn into the seductive world of concerts and theatre shows but the very best thing for me is a very strong family life and I do find more and more I just want to get home to my two girls.

"They've never known me to be home before 7.30pm and I just love to get home and into home life and home work and getting the Halloween costumes ready. It is a great joy and I absolutely love the chitter chatter of their day which is so, so important to them.

"We are home birds and the weekends have become so important to me. Friday night is pizza and a film night and I so look forward to it. We discuss what film we are going to watch and lately we've been trying to watch some old movies from the 80s. I just love it."

Catherine has just started Priory College in Holywood and is now taller than her mum who is 5ft 4ins.

Marie Louise says both girls have very different personalities with Catherine quiet while younger sister Rebecca is described by her mum as "a complete character."

There was heartbreak for Marie Louise, Johnny and the girls four years ago when just a month after celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, the couple lost a little baby boy who was delivered stillborn.

Marie-Louise was five months pregnant and was naturally devastated. Although she says it has got a little easier with time the pain never goes away.

She says: "You still think about what age he would have been and he was a much wanted baby.

"When it happened we had a frank conversation with the girls and they will still ask about him. Johnny and I do talk about it. It is something we have all had to learn to live with, not just me and Johnny; it was a loss for the girls as well.

"It is not that it gets easier you just learn with time to absorb the shock of it a bit more. "

She says her mum has taught her a lot about coping with loss. She still misses her dad and coping with life without him is something which she and her mum Carita have helped each other through.

She says: "Mum is an incredible woman. She and dad were inseparable and I had to watch her cope with life with her partner not being there and at the same time I was coping with life without my father and it was a real lesson. You grow up thinking everything will be the same in life and of course it is a constantly evolving journey and we still make mistakes and things happen we can't control.

"I have had this discussion with mum about the adjustment of her life to living alone again. She has my brother James near her who is a huge support and she is still so busy in the community. She takes part in 'reading rooms' in the local library and newspapers for the blind and reads in local churches and is a very active woman.

“Its something I’ve taken great heart from that you don’t get to a certain age and think ‘that’s me done’ but rather you need to keep getting up and interacting with people and getting out there like she does. “

 She often points out that the success of BBC Radio Ulster’s The Arts Show and the new monthly BBC 2 TV show of the same name is not just down to her but rather it is a team effort.

She says: “It is a privilege and working for the BBC opens so many doors and it is a real team dynamic. There is a huge amount of slagging and banter in the office and there is never a day when I don’t laugh and that’s something we hope comes across on air. “

Marie-Louise never ceases to appreciate how fortunate she is to do a job she loves and regards it as a privilege to have the chance to work alongside cultural greats such as the late Seamus Heaney (right) who she greatly admired.

She counts herself very fortunate to have met and interviewed the world famous poet.

Her dad was Lord Mayor of Londonderry when Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he hosted a reception for him in the city.

 Marie-Louise said she almost had to pinch herself when a few years later she found herself sitting in his home interviewing him for radio.

And then there was the time she was buying nappies in Tesco when her phone rang and it was Heaney.

She fondly recalls: “I am a fan and I was lucky I get to know him through my radio job.

“He was very, very kind to me. He gave me confidence. I remember thinking how surreal it was to be sitting in his home with my battered copy of the Death of a Naturalist and discussing his poetry with him.

“He never made me feel as if I couldn’t ask anything and that gave me great confidence to talk to other people.

“He had a unique gift and that generosity was to me the mark of the man.

“I will never forget being in Tesco buying nappies and my phone rang and it was Seamus Heaney and I remember panicking.

“He said he could hear background noise and asked me if I was in an airport and I just told him no I was in Tesco buying nappies and I can remember the laughs of him down the phone. I remember looking at people and thinking they have no idea who I am talking to.”

It has been a busy and interesting year for Marie Louise as it always is in her job.

She has come a long way since she began her broadcasting career in her native Londonderry, with BBC Radio Foyle 25 years ago. She began making short features for other radio shows before getting her own programmes including At Home on BBC Radio Foyle, for which she sang her own theme song.

She presented This New Day on BBC Radio Ulster for several years, commuting from Londonderry to Belfast for an early start every Sunday morning.

In 1998 she applied for and was accepted onto the BBC NI production training course, after which she worked for six years as an assistant producer in television working on many different shows, from The John Daly Show, to Country Times and Brian Kennedy on Song.

In 2004, Marie-Louise returned to radio and presenting, and in May 2004, became the main presenter of the then BBC Radio Ulster arts show Arts Extra.

As well as her Radio Ulster and BBC 2 TV arts shows she is a regular author and presenter of arts documentaries from Ireland for BBC Radio 4 and also regularly presenting their popular series Something Understood.

Last year she wrote and presented a three-part TV series Then Sings My Soul for BBC Northern Ireland which charted the evolution of hymns.

Earlier this year she made a Sunday feature for BBC Radio 3, The Women Who Staged the Rising, about the Abbey Theatre actresses who took part in the Easter Rising.

She also flew to New York City in June to make an arts documentary for BBC Radio 4 about the Signature Theatre off Broadway and the man who founded it, Jimmy Houghton.

For the next edition of her TV series to be shown in November she recently flew to Maastricht to interview internationally acclaimed Dutch violinist and conductor Andre Rieu in his castle ahead of his Belfast concert in December.

She says: “It was surreal. He is such an incredible figure and part of me was a wee bit nervous because he has that whole persona going on. He is a charismatic long haired maestro and I just did my thing and went there to find out what it is that makes him tick.

“I was really taken by him and his generosity. “

For Marie Louise it is very much about discovering what makes the great artists of the world tick.

Her approach is a winning one that opens up the arts to everyone, just as she hopes it will.

She adds: “I find more and more in this job that for me it is about trying to reach the humanity of people. I get real people into the studio and yes while we have done our research and have our knowledge we wear that very lightly and for me it is about finding out what is going on in their lives and bringing out the person who is at the end of the day like all of us.”

Marie-Louise Muir presents BBC Radio Ulster’s The Arts Show, Tues – Thu, 6.30 – 7pm.  The second programme in the new series of The Arts Show on BBC Two Northern Ireland will be broadcast in November

Belfast Telegraph

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