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Radio Face: Stephen Nolan's most controversial show yet... and the mums whose views on benefits will shock Northern Ireland TV audience

Published 04/01/2016

Fiery exchanges: Marie Aldridge, Anne Marie Lee and Stephen Nolan
Fiery exchanges: Marie Aldridge, Anne Marie Lee and Stephen Nolan
Double trouble: Anne Marie Lee and Marie Aldridge
Strong opinions: Anne Marie Lee and Marie Aldridge

BBC executives and Stephen Nolan are bracing themselves for controversy as the busiest showman in the country prepares to air his newest TV programme, which features a number of feisty contributors who are sure to divide opinion among viewers.

Radio Face is not for the faint-hearted as it puts regular callers to Nolan's Radio Ulster morning show in front of the cameras to share their often contentious opinions with the larger-than-life presenter.

And Nolan, who also works on Radio 5 Live, is regularly cut down to size by a number of the "stars" of the new show during fiery debates in which TV audiences can put a face to the callers from the radio programme.

The exchanges have been filmed after Nolan's morning show ends and even the BBC admit that the conversations recorded in callers' front rooms, taxis and cars have sometimes been "close to the bone with colourful language".

Which is something of an understatement in the case of the two most prominent contributors to Radio Face, Marie Aldridge (47) and Anne Marie Lee (59), from Andersonstown, as they tear into Nolan to defend the DLA, to blast the BBC, the licence fee and the presenter's earnings.

The two friends are a redoubtable double act who are nearly but not quite as fearsome in the flesh.

They were brought in to a tiny room in Broadcasting House to meet me by BBC Press officers after I'd watched a preview tape of the first show which included the women's bruising put-downs for Nolan, who tried but didn't always succeed in giving as good, or as bad, as he got.

And when Nolan, who was fresh from his well-publicised battle with rodents in his home, sat down with me across a table from the women, I expected the war of words to continue.

But while it wasn't a love-in, it wasn't exactly pistols at dawn either.

"I think these two women are fantastic" said Nolan "They are the real deal. Behind all the bluster they are two very genuine people who went out of their way, for example, to organise a big charity night for Children in Need recently."

Nolan denied that Radio Face was inspired by the unexpected TV hit Gogglebox where ordinary people are filmed watching programmes on their televisions.

"No, it all started in one of my less arrogant moments when I suddenly thought 'What am I?' without the incredibly charismatic and decent people who listen to my programme and who put up with me.

"I've been telling the BBC for years that the characters who phone into my radio programme in the morning are special and that we should be doing something with them.

"I was convinced that my listeners who have particularly strong views would make memorable TV personalities."

The process of 'casting' the right people for the TV programme began with the recruitment of regular callers to the Nolan show like Robert the taxi driver, Norman from Bangor, who listens to the programme plonked in front of a fish tank every morning, Mervyn from Holywood and Bertie, a blind man who has been a fan since the presenter's time with Citybeat Radio.

However, Nolan said he knew he and his producers still didn't have the perfect mix.

"We realised we were still missing someone who would take me on in a debate," he said.

Eventually a contact in west Belfast suggested Marie Aldridge and Anne Marie Lee who have been friends and neighbours for more than 24 years and who aren't known for mincing their words.

Nolan said: "As soon as I met them, it took me two milliseconds to be sure that they were the ones. They are true to themselves which is what I wanted and I knew that they would be the real stars of the show."

Marie thought the first approach from the BBC was a wind-up. She said: "We were told that the producers were looking for big mouths to go on a TV show with Stephen. We were listeners but we'd never called in, though we would have shouted at the radio when Nolan was on."

The two women won't be everyone's cup of tea and they know it. But they really don't care and they aren't worried that they could have the same reaction from the public as the earthy residents of Coleraine's Ballysally estate who featured in a headline-hogging BBC series of a few years ago named The Estate.

"If people don't like what I say, then that's tough. I mightn't like what they say," said Marie. "It's each to their own, really, and if they think we look and sound like two Millies, that's fine. People will either love us or hate us, but I think that most folk will have a laugh and that we will brighten up their day"

The subjects up for discussion throughout all five episodes of Radio Face have reflected the topics tackled on The Nolan Show, with abortion and welfare issues routinely topping the agenda.

But political debates haven't been encouraged, though in one programme, east Belfast loyalist/community worker Jim Wilson, and Anne Marie and Marie lock horns.

"We didn't know who he was, but the flag dispute was mentioned and that was like a red flag to a bull as far as I was concerned" said Marie. "I told him loyalists didn't have to shove it in our faces 24/7 and we asked him why they had to have the Union flag above the City Hall instead of flying all the flags of all the different cultures in Belfast.

"But we did find we had a lot in common when it comes to cross-community work."

The two women, who have eight children between them, are both on benefits and are fiercely defensive of the welfare system as is clear on Radio Face as an angry debate rages with a number of other guests, who tell Nolan that claimants have no interest in working and brand them wasters who don't want to get out of their beds in the morning.

"The money's too handy. They don't want to work," says one of them, while others talk of people on benefits having plasma TVs, mobile phones, laptops, and expensive cars.

Marie and Anne Marie bite back on Radio Face and the F-word is used liberally during some of their more heated outbursts.

At one point Marie, who says she is too ill to work, adds: "There's no f****** jobs out there unless you go on minimum wage. And minimum wage - sure what's f****** minimum wage - sure, it wouldn't even get you a carry-out."

Nolan responds by suggesting that the whole point of the minimum wage is not to buy a carry-out. Off-screen, Marie, a former stitcher, told me: "I am entitled to my benefits because I worked for years when I was younger.

"I paid my stamps and then I stopped to become a carer for my mother and I am now a carer for my middle son, who has ADHD and a sleeping disorder. "

There are lighter moments in Radio Face, however, especially when Nolan brings up the subject of the self-styled Naked Rambler Stephen Gough, who has been jailed repeatedly for baring all on his travels. "Where is that jail? And I'll go there myself and join him," says Carmel, who later adds: "That would do me the world of good. I would be smiling from morning 'til night."

Ex-hairdresser Anne Marie says: "There's a time and a place for willies. And that isn't the time or the place."

But then she suggests that she, Marie and Nolan should go to Newcastle and strip naked and lie on the sand like beached whales "and Greenpeace will come for the three of us".

On a serious note, Nolan is uncertain how Radio Face will go down with viewers. But he said he had high hopes for the show.

He added that he'd never had as good a feeling about a project as Radio Face, though he admitted he was expecting what he called "the usual commentary about the BBC dumbing down".

However, he said he was proud to have been working with people like Anne Marie and Marie.

"I would far rather have a meal with them than have to sit with people who go to dinner parties and put on airs and graces," he insisted.

Or at least that's what I think he said because his comments were almost drowned out by guffaws and yahoos from the women he was praising.

On a personal level, Marie said she'd changed her opinion of Nolan after getting to know him.

"I used to think he was a cheeky so-and-so for the way he got on and shouted at people, but now I know him a bit better, I think he's actually quite nice.

"But that won't stop me letting loose at him on air."

  • Radio Face is a five part series beginning on BBC One Northern Ireland on Wednesday, 10.35pm

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