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Why our Jackie Fullerton has always been a little bit special

By Gail Walker

Published 10/11/2015

Jackie Fullerton
Jackie Fullerton

As we get older we do not get any younger - to quote H V Morton's gentle, but telling parody on T S Eliot. But they were words I recalled when hearing the news that commentating legend Jackie Fullerton was hanging up his microphone as an international football commentator after 37 years.

The air seemed a little colder. During nearly four decades on air, Fullerton has woven his way into the fabric of our lives. He was there during this place's highs and lows, whether World Cup glory in Spain or near on world record-breaking goalless streaks, being professional, but leaving us no doubt of where his loyalties lay. He was close to the fans.

Jackie gives off the air of being a smoothie; the type of man who you suspect wears rather fetching cufflinks even in the commentary box, but you know that not only does he know what he's talking about, he loves what he is talking about ...

What was his biggest regret? Not hanging around to soak in the atmosphere and the excitement of the fans after Northern Ireland saw off England with David Healy's wondergoal.

But Jackie, for all of us, means more than football. He was a face, a personality, more he was a "character" for all his air of professional unflappability.

He wasn't bigger than football, but always brought a certain star quality to our screens. Indeed, his silver fox smoothiness became - a la Des Lynam - both ironic and authentic, part of the cultural furniture of this place.

A fixture in our lives is going. Many remember W D Flackes, Brian Baird; more still recall David Dunseith and Barry Cowan; we still hold Helen Madden and "Miss Adrienne" Catherwood dear to our child-like hearts.

We should recall, too, the eccentric and much-loved Leslie Dawes, who passed away earlier this year. Leaving the airwaves, they left our world just a little bit stranger, a little bit less sympathetic.

In a way, as in a sense (with Walter and John Bennett) the last of the broadcasting musketeers, Jackie's departure brings closer the demise of any meaningful engagement local broadcasting can hope to have with how we see the world.

The idea that anyone at all can fulfil that vital and unique interpretative function is like saying that anyone at all on air could be Gerry Anderson, anyone at all could be Wendy Austin - just stick a microphone in front of them. Well, it doesn't work like that, as plummeting ratings soon demonstrate.

What the fate of UTV will be when a new owner, the national ITV, exercises its market forces is anyone's guess. Nor will the remit of a local BBC be immune from those forces, especially as the whole concept of state-funded broadcasting, amid multi-million pound contracts to "star" names and the galloping under-the-counter commercialisation of the company's output, is starting to crumble round its corporate ears.

We have many ways of recalling and for a brief instant reliving moments of our lives: films, music, photographs and, in a small but profound way, familiar faces and voices from the box and radio. Not stars, but something more - friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers; often annoying, sometimes infuriating but - just like family - seemingly always there.

They are, I suppose, a kind of chorus to our lives. Putting our existences into a kind of context.

It is always easy to mock and deride local celebrities, to draw unfair caricatures. It is also true that some dire mediocrities have spent many decades and whole careers on our screens and airwaves. That's the downside of a state broadcaster sheltered from market forces - it lets a thousand tawdry flowers bloom.

But, as local programming slowly dies, and TV generally becomes increasingly cheap as chips property porn, comedic quiz shows, cartoon talent quests and reality-based lies, the distinctive voices of our own professionals do serve a purpose, putting a familiar shape on an often frightening and confusing global technology.

But we shall miss you from internationals, Jackie Fullerton MBE.

This was a broadcaster blessed with that rarest of commodities - a genuinely sonorous and beautiful natural speaking voice, which lent quality to agricultural show, sleet-driven kickabout, or the doleful roster of junior hockey results.

There was an unerring touch of class about his delivery: able to rise to the heroic sporting triumph with just the right mixture of awe and poignancy; prepared, too, for the sometimes equally heroic collapse and disappointment with sympathy, gratitude and without rancour that all our hopes had been plundered as well, because he understood the effort that went in even to modest achievement.

Thanks to his natural grace and empathy, he came to understand the risks and chances of human frailty among sportsmen in a way only top journalists do. A trusted friend of many of our true sporting greats, he was a loyal and robust defender of that one quality in sporting genius which he recognised others possessed to an impossible degree - being "a little bit special" - because he was the proud owner of just a touch of that himself. Thanks Jackie and enjoy your own extra time.

Belfast Telegraph

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