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Stephen Nolan: Why we should treasure the likes of Julian and our local telly traditions

Writing exclusively in the Belfast Telegraph Stephen Nolan laments the troubles engulfing UTV, the disappearance from our screens of the popular continuity announcer Julian Simmons - and hits out at high-flyers determined to 'break what isn't broken'.

Published 15/10/2016

UTV presenter Julian Simmons
UTV presenter Julian Simmons
Much loved veteran continuity presenter Julian Simmons
UTV's Julian Simmons
Julian Simmons
Julian Simmons

I'm a BBC man, it's in my blood and it's part of who I am. I am so proud of the BBC but I care about UTV too.  Just like BBC NI television and BBC Radio Ulster, UTV has a special place in Northern Ireland and we all know that.

Julian Simmons has been part of the lives of our grandparents, our parents, you and your children. And yet he will present his last shift in vision as a continuity presenter this weekend.

We are not losing him altogether, we will hear his voice but we won't see him. And with that one decision, I as a viewer, lose so much.

Julian is part of our family in Northern Ireland, he is one of us and just like a relative, it is reassuring to see him.

Imagine saying to a friend who you've seen every week for decades that you'll still speak to him on the phone, but there's nothing to be gained by seeing him anymore. It's not quite the same, is it?

There is a huge irony that it is a television company removing the visibility around one of Northern Ireland's most well-known people and leaving us with just the voice.

For the record, I do not know Julian Simmons personally, nor have I ever even had lunch with him.

But I've grown up with him.

And now that I hear Julian will be removed from our sight, I wonder to myself what I won't see anymore. They aren't big in the grand scale of things, but they've just always been there.

I know he wears a black dinner jacket at Christmas time on the TV. I shouldn't know that, but I do.

I know how his face twists when he introduces Coronation Street. I shouldn't know that, but I do. I also know how my mother Big Audrey will say "there's that buck eejit" when she sees his face "on the UTV".

That shouldn't matter, but it does.

As a little boy, I have memories of being flat out on my belly in our living room in Westway Gardens, Belfast. Our TV was so old that the picture would frequently go fuzzy and if I hit the floor in a special place, the vibrations would fix it. I have deep, deep memories of banging the floor and it never dawned on me as a child that my family couldn't afford to buy a new TV set.

It didn't matter that we didn't have much money because mum and dad would be there and as a family we would watch BBC NI and UTV together.

Local television is powerful. For those of us who care about Northern Ireland it brings us together to laugh, cry, shout and roar about our special wee country. For those of us who are alone, local television is a familiar friend .

I'll come back to that word 'familiar' later.

There were, of course, many great BBC shows when I was growing up, but it's the UTV shows I want to talk about for the purpose of this article - The Professionals with Bodie and Doyle, or Game for a Laugh with that woman who laughed uncontrollably, 321 with Dusty Bin... or The Gerry Kelly Show.

Setting aside Gerry's show, of course all the others I've mentioned weren't made in NI. But they nearly felt like they were because of how people like Julian and his continuity team introduced them.

It was a genius tactic by UTV.

Those were great days because childhood was a beautiful time for me. It was all so simple. I felt safe and I was surrounded with love. I was also developing a deep pride in my country which I hold to this day.

There is nothing quite like Northern Ireland, the local TV shows and local radio shows and local newspapers and local shops and local people and local parks and local sports stars and local politicians and local mannerisms that make us who we are.

Julian Simmons, with his quite posh voice, is local. You see, it is because we've all grown up with Julian on the box - as have our mums and dads - that we think of him as a little part of the DNA of Northern Irish television.

I have no doubt that when tourists make their fleeting visits to NI that they have gawked at Julian and his mannerisms. Maybe a few English TV execs have too.

Our local television is for our local community. It's about us in Northern Ireland having such a special bond with each other that we have our own language which outsiders don't understand.

We do understand and that's what matters.

We know what a soda farl is. Martin in Kent doesn't.

We know what Nolan Live is. Barbara in Blackpool doesn't, but local people watch it in big numbers.

We know what the 'Tele' is, or as yer man used to shout in the town with a stack of Bel Tel's under this arm - "teley o".

It's about a tone, a language and a way of doing things that only the local community get.

Which brings me back to Julian Simmons. Only Julian can say "and naaah on theeeee UTV".

I know there's a very powerful argument - and one I agree with - that presenters have a shelf life. It's part of the job. Things should move on. Younger people should get opportunity.

But sometimes we should also treasure what has been working for a long time. Treasure and protect it.

If it isn't working, we say it's reached its shelf life. If it is working, there is a tendency for high flyers to "break what isn't broken".

May McFettridge comes to mind.

Some people wonder why I have such an 'old star' on our Nolan Live team. Simple. It's an honour. John is a genius.

The public absolutely adore May. She is a class act and if I had the power, I would instantly give May her own show.

Why? May McFettridge (right), is part of us. We love "our May".

They don't say "Our Stephen" about me, because frankly I haven't earned that yet and I've a lot more to learn before that will happen.

But they do say "our Eamonn", "Our May", "Our Julian".

I've worked in broadcasting for over 20 years now. The key to success in television - and radio for that matter - is familiarity .

It's why soaps - and soap stars - are so popular. They are familiar.

If you ever wonder why very smart, well-dressed, articulate presenters don't quite become part of our everyday conversation, it's because they forget to be 'familiar'.

They try to appear so intelligent - and their conversation is so perfectly formed - that we can't relate to them.

Meanwhile, the real masters in broadcasting create a magnetic local familiarity around them. Take Ant and Dec as an example. Their Geordie roots is at the core of their brand. That's 'local familiarity' generating millions of viewers.

Eamonn Holmes is another great example. There's no formality around him. We are familiar with who is he as a human being and what makes him tick.

We know Eamonn supports Man Utd, we see his banter with his wife on TV, we see his dog on Twitter and we know he is proud of his son's new business. That familiarity - and his talent - is why Eamonn is so successful.

In any competitive marketplace - be it industry or the media - familiarity is incredibly powerful.

It breaks downs barriers and when your barriers are down, you will buy, or you will watch or you will listen .

I have big audiences not because I have any more ability than the next average man in the street. You call me, or watch me, or listen to me because you know my waistline, my mother Big Audrey, my parking tickets, my endless diets .

And because of that familiarity, a lot of you talk to me openly and powerfully.

One of the most familiar local faces, one of the most familiar local voices and one of the most familiar local catchphrases - in our community in Northern Ireland - belongs to Julian Simmons.

I do not exaggerate when I tell you that major advertising agencies would be paid tens of thousands of pounds to create a 'familiar' brand statement like Julian's

"... and nahhh on theeee U ---T ----V."

Those well groomed, perfect looking, perfect sounding, suited and booted marketing executives with an American sounding business name would need a lot of time to build public awareness around a brand statement like that.

So, actually, Julian Simmons is a genius marketing guru. Julian has created - across different generations of Northern Irish viewers - an immense presence, a very personal relationship, a massive brand - and intense familiarity - in 20-second snippets in between shows.

That in itself is incredible. It takes ability. And it takes guts to look into the camera and be different.

Who would have thought an introduction to Coronation Street could become talked about television in its own right?

I don't particularly know Julian well. But I recognise what he has achieved.

I doubt the decision to take Julian's continuity shifts away from us in vision will be reversed.

But I'll say it again.

I care about UTV and I care about cherishing everything that is "local" in our community.

Local is BBC NI.

Local is UTV.

Local is 'the Bel Tel'.

Local is the Albert Clock.

Local is "the Biggest Show in the Country". And local is "our Julian".

I hope every word of what I've written today sounds familiar.

Belfast Telegraph

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