Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Anderson on Van Morrison: On air he barely spoke to me, but later in the bar he was all smiles

We look back at some of the late Gerry Anderson's wit and wisdom during his time as a Belfast Telegraph columnist

A Dublin-based Sunday newspaper recently ran an interview with ex-X-Files star Gillian Anderson in which she was merrily plugging her new filmed-in-Belfast movie The Mighty Celt.

During the course of the chat the bold Gillian was asked what she thought of Belfast. She replied that she had never seen so many genuinely happy people in one place.

The interviewer, of course, obviously having little or no interest in anything north of Dundalk, did not inquire further and moved smartly on to the next question, which I believe was about life in Tinseltown.

What a perceptive girl Gillian is. She is, of course, inexplicably (considering our recent history) and absolutely right. Full marks to her for spotting the general cheerfulness that prevails in Belfast, but which is woefully absent in other major cities, including modern Dublin.

Happy though most of us are, let’s be thankful that Gillian didn’t run into Van Morrison, who celebrated his 60th birthday last Wednesday.

Rightly or wrongly, poor Van has acquired the reputation of being somewhat of a grouch. This flies in the face of my theory that it’s easier to be pleasant than not. But does this cap fit the real Van?

He’s obviously a man who would rather lead a private life and takes pains to ensure that he gets his way. Couple this with a habit of often paying scant attention to audiences who pay to see him perform and a general tendency towards sullenness during rare television and radio interviews, and you’ve got a man who I believe is misunderstood.

It’s time Van lets us know who he is before it’s too late. We desperately want to like him because he’s such a talented songwriter. Forget Gloria, Brown-eyed Girl and Moondance. Those songs are for dancers, not listeners. There is a difference.

Van’s at his absolute best when he’s writing about his adolescence. If you’re interested in what Gillian Anderson sensed about Belfast, listen to Cleaning Windows, Hyndford Street, Coney Island and the darker Madame George and Cyprus Avenue.

Van defined forever what being from Belfast was all about. And he sang in his own accent, regarded as an unheard-of affectation at the time.

Some find it tempting to place Van among the Great Ulster Dysfunctionals such as Alex Higgins and George Best, men who couldn’t handle the pressure. But Van is different.

He’s never pushed the self-destruct button, although many feel he might be capable of it, and he’s kept his nose relatively clean and more or less out of the headlines. The man is perceived as being just, well, a shade unco-operative.

I once caught a glimpse of his two sides during the run of a roundly derided but otherwise excellent BBC TV programme called The Show. It fell to me to interview Van during a special live Saint Patrick’s Day edition. He was in the studio all day rehearsing with his band and seemed surprisingly affable.

During a pre-interview chat I asked him if there were any areas he wished me to steer clear of. He mentioned a couple of things and a game plan was mutually thrashed out.

Come transmission, he and I stood in the interview area surrounded by starstruck punters.

Thirty seconds before we were due on air he turned to me. “You look nervous,” he said. I wasn’t and said so. “Well,” he said, “you should be.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I’m not going to talk to you.”

And he didn’t, other than offer an occasional yes or no.

I sweated blood for about five minutes during the course of which, rather than have both of us stand silent, I must have told him my entire life story.

Mercifully, the interview eventually ended and he toddled off to sing a couple of songs.

Soaked in sweat as a result of this ordeal, I sank into the nearest chair, wounded and shattered.

After the show was over everyone repaired to the bar upstairs. Just after I had sunk about five therapeutic glasses of whiskey in quick succession, I spotted him making his way over to me.

He beamed broadly. “How did you think that went?”

“Great,” said I, reaching for the bottle. That’s when I realised that there were two Vans; the private one and the one we see on TV.

While I was interviewing him, he was just being Van Number 2. No harm meant. It’s only show business. I should have known.

And, for the first time, I noticed something else. A certain shyness. So, Van, as a birthday present to us all, find a TV documentary maker you can trust and tell us about the real you. We really are genuinely interested.

And you wouldn’t want to let a wee cracker like Gillian Anderson down …

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