The former presenter tells Audrey Watson of her plans for the future after leaving a television career that spanned three decades
If there were ever a book to be written about television presenting in Northern Ireland, there would be no one better qualified to write it than Rose Neill. With over 30 years experience, including almost eight years at UTV and more than two decades at the BBC, there isn't anything about live news broadcasting that the Bangor woman doesn't know.
During some of the darkest times in our history, it was a calm and professional Rose who came into living rooms each evening to deliver the day's good and bad tidings.
“Often we were flying by the seat of our pants,” she recalls. “There were some terrible times and horrific events, but we had to be professional, knuckle down and just do what had to be done.
“I remember presenting Inside Ulster with Sean Rafferty and the running order at the beginning of the programme would be totally unrecognisable by the time we came off air. People were being brought in to be interviewed as situations developed and unscheduled reporters were popping up all the time.
“We were a real team and were determined to get every bit of accurate information possible into the live, half-hour show.
“Of course, there were lots of funny situations as well. I remember one in particular, which was also mentioned in former UTV manager, the late Brum Henderson's book, A Life in Television, when an anonymous call came through informing us that there was a riot and to ask were we sending a camera crew.
“The editor thanked the caller for letting him know and put the phone down. Half an hour later, they rang back and enquired where the cameras were. He was told that they had been held up but were definitely on their way.
“To which the caller replied, ‘Ok, we'll hold-off until you get here'.
“Another was only my second news bulletin at UTV. In the early days, they used to put the newscaster in front of a large blue screen and if there was a story about Harland & Wolff, for example, a machine would replace the blue with a picture of the shipyard — but it meant that if you had blue eyes, they would be removed as well.
“I was wearing a blue jacket that my mother had bought me which was promptly eliminated by the machine and all you could see was my neck and head floating in mid-air. There was no time to spare, so I ended up wearing a lime green shirt that belonged to sports presenter Leslie Dawes.”
Last year, after almost 25 years fronting flagship news programmes including Inside Ulster and Newsline, Rose controversially left BBC Northern Ireland and despite admitting to shedding a few tears at the time, she's now happier and busier than ever.
“I'm still working in television and after making the recent documentary for UTV about Titanic memorabilia, I'm currently in discussion with them and other programme makers about a number of future projects.
“I made four medical documentaries, plus lots of other factual programmes and inserts when at the BBC so, although I love news and am perfectly happy and at home in studio, it's nice to be doing that sort of work again.”
She won't be drawn on the current hot topic of ageism against women in the media and will only comment that, “in any business or walk of life, individuals should be judged on their merit”.
Rose (50), who now lives near Strangford Lough with her husband Ivan, admits that she had a dream upbringing and a lucky break into the world of television. And she also reveals the little-known fact that she is a former beauty queen.
“Yes, I was,” she laughs. “I won the first Little Miss Northern Ireland competition, but my parents were absolutely furious.
“In 1965, my aunt Joan arrived from Belfast and asked if she could take me out for a while. She took me upstairs, scrubbed my face, jammed me into one of my big sister's frocks and took me down to Pickie Pool in Bangor where they were holding a heat. I won and went through to the final, which I also won.
“My mum and especially my dad were absolutely furious about me being entered into a beauty competition without their permission.
“I had an exceptionally happy and secure childhood growing up in Bangor. My mother didn't work so she had plenty of time to devote to me and my big brother and sister and both she and dad encouraged us all to be very sporty and sociable. Our home was always full of laughter and friends, as was our summer house near Strangford Lough.
“As a family, we had great fun together. My parents, especially my father had a great sense of humour and meals around the table were a wonderful source of enjoyment and banter.”
After attending Glenola Collegiate in Bangor, Rose became a boarder at The Mount School in York and, apart from the odd bit of homesickness, enjoyed every minute.
“It was just like Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers books — all midnight feasts and more larking about than studying,” she recalls. “Despite that, I managed to get the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels required to go to the City of East London College to study dispensing optics.
“But I had spent my last year at school writing to television stations asking for work and during the summer holidays between leaving the Mount and going to London, UTV asked me to present a schools' programme called Hop, Skip and Jump. It was only a short contract so when that finished, I headed to London to get what mum described as ‘some proper qualifications'.
“Two years later, UTV invited me to come back as a newscaster and continuity announcer. I appreciate that it can be a very hard industry to get into and I was very fortunate to get such an opportunity.
“Nobody in the family was ever involved in the media. My father was a businessman — the fifth generation of the family coal importing business. When I was about five, I remember sitting on the floor watching TV and turning round and saying, ‘Dad, when I'm a big girl, I want to work in television' and he just patted me on the head and said, ‘Yes Rose',” she laughs.
“I don't know what it was that attracted me. It was a medium that was very new in the 1960s and I was just fascinated.”
Unfortunately, Rose's father never got to witness her success, but it is the fact that he never met her two sons that hurts the most.
“My father died when I was 20. He and I were exceptionally close and his death was very hard to come to terms with.
“I remember when both my children were born it was very emotional and very hard for me. I called them both after him — Roger and Henry.
“My mother is still alive, but sadly she now has Alzheimer's disease. It's a dreadful illness and it's shocking how many people misunderstand the condition.
“It is a very cruel disease and sometimes people who you'd imagine would be better informed have a staggering lack of understanding for sufferers and their family.
“Mum was my best critic. And she was no more proud of my TV career than if I had become a dispensing optician or anything else.”
Despite their own mum's success, neither of Rose's two sons has followed her into the media.
“Absolutely not,” she laughs. My elder boy Roger (23) is in London working as a biomedical engineer and Henry (21) is a second-year medical student.
“It's really funny, but when they were very little and I was on TV, they used to turn it off! I do miss them terribly, but I understand that they have got to carve out careers and lives for themselves. You have to let them go.”
Now that her two boys have grown up and ‘flown the nest', Rose is enjoying spending time with her “perfect” husband Ivan who has now fully recovered from a heart attack suffered in 2002, when he was only 50 years old.
“It was a very, very worrying time,” she recalls. “But I'm glad to say that he is fully-recovered and back to his old self again.
“I really want to thank the wonderful staff at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. The people who work there are just amazing and I'll never be able to thank them enough, especially Dr Roberts and Dr Subcovas and their splendid cardiac team.
“They were fantastic. It was a very stressful and worrying thing to happen. And I admit it did make us both have a bit of reality check.”
Even though she recently celebrated her 50th birthday, Rose certainly doesn't look her age, but insists that looking good isn't an obsession.
“Because we live beside the sea, Ivan and I enjoy a good, long walk every day and I try to watch what I eat, but I slip up like everybody else.
“And like a lot of people, I'd love to be a size or two smaller, but I don't go to the gym. I don't like that leotards and everybody sweating in one big room sort of thing.
“We live by the rule, enjoy everything in moderation.”
As well as her television career, Rose is honorary vice patron of the Ulster Cancer Foundation and works with the Riding for the Disabled charity.
She is also a well-respected travel writer and has covered many exotic destinations including Mauritius, Kenya, Cayman Islands, Barbados, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Oman
“I just love travelling and exploring new places,” she says. “As a child, I travelled extensively with my parents who were determined to show us as much of the world as possible.”
Asked if she would fancy doing a Judith Chalmers-style holiday programme, she replies: “I would absolutely love that. I love learning about other countries and cultures.
“But at the moment, I'm very, very happy and I've never been happier. I have the most fantastic husband that anyone could want.
“Life is great and I'm very optimistic — I've an awful lot to be thankful for.”