Belfast Telegraph

BBC's Nolan says Top Table is the most exciting thing he's ever hosted

More renowned for his grilling of local politicians, tough-talking presenter Stephen Nolan is fronting a new show he devised to give the youth of NI their own platform to discuss what matters to them

Una Brankin

In his teens, Stephen Nolan was more interested in making money from Orangemen than he was in their politics - or in any current affairs topic, for that matter.

And, as he returns to television tonight to host a debating panel of politically-aware under-21s, the prolific broadcaster admits his own knowledge of election issues was extremely limited as a youth.

"I was obsessed with business and entrepreneurship at that age - I only got interested in politics in my mid-twenties at Citybeat," he says. "Every Twelfth of July I would make a whole stack of sandwiches and go up the Lisburn Road and sell them to the Orangemen on their way in. Then, I'd double the price when they were coming back after a few drinks and prepared to pay the price.

"I had this idea once for an advertising banner on top of traffic barriers. I remember pitching it with two lollipop sticks and an elastic band.

"And I'd sell 10p mix-ups for 60p, and I went door to door selling water filters. I'd be going about with £50 to £200 in my pocket a week, which was very good money then. I'd spend it on clothes. Clothes fitted me back then."

The Top Table, Nolan's new studio-based TV show, aims to give under-21s a platform for debate - and it follows hot on the heels of an incident associated, typically, with young people on a celebratory night out.

In his usual candid style, the portly 43-year-old admitted throwing up on the street in Belfast after a Chinese meal and asked his listeners for their views on what he should have done in the messy aftermath. In a poll of 3,000 for this newspaper, the majority said: "Walk away and say nothing."

The multi-award-winning host went on to raise eyebrows on his Radio 5 programme last week when he announced mid-show that he had to visit the toilet.

"I needed to go to the loo, so I said it," he shrugs. "I could have sneaked out and run a few promos, but I'm real. When people listen to me, or watch me on the TV, I don't want to be a cardboard cut-out type of presenter. My objective is to try to be as natural as I can be.

"I was sick on the street - that's another example. That happens in real life. That became one of the most reacted to phone-ins that day. I'd had a big Chinese - my favourite chicken and chips and peas and gravy - and I was sick.

"What do you do? Go and get a brush and clean it up? I drove away and felt guilty about it."

Famously thick-skinned, he doesn't take offence when the subject of his weight is raised. He has managed to lose six stone in the past, only to pile it back on again, and was once offered a free gastric band op by a Dublin-based cosmetic surgery provider to address the problem.

"I'm fat and I don't want to be, but I wouldn't consider surgery," he says. "People have asked me. Like most things in life, I'd rather crack it myself, if I set my mind to it. I'd rather beat it myself. It's a long and difficult journey."

More interested in holding public figures to account, Nolan is relishing the idea of his carefully selected under-21 panel challenging local politicians on electoral issues in front of an audience of two halves - young and older - on tonight's opening programme.

And he's full of admiration for those who agree to be interviewed on any of the shows he hosts, knowing the grilling they're about to face.

He cites his recent interviews with former First Minister Arlene Foster (left) and Jonathan Bell on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal as "among the biggest" of his career.

He says: "It was an intense period of my journalistic life. The public interest was massive. We had the names of the recipients of the RHI before they were released, but we wanted to get the story right, so we waited, and there were some inaccuracies on the list.

"We had many leads sent to us. I was criticised for not publishing the names, but I wanted to be 100% sure. It reminded me that, in journalism, it's more important to get it right than to get it first and not 100% accurate.

"I was aware that Arlene's interview was going to be one of the most significant for me, alongside Jonathan Bell's. I was aware there were a lot of people watching. I sat down with the team at the BBC and fully agreed the way to go. They both put themselves up for interview, and I admire that.

"I know a lot of politicians and they're some of the most smart, articulate and hardworking people around."

The Top Table concept is his own and the series has been a year in the making, involving extended liaison with schools and youth groups.

"It's the most exciting programme I've ever hosted," he asserts. "So many young people want to be involved in it - I was extraordinarily naive in thinking it would be difficult to find enough interested in politics. You see in the first show how articulate and passionate they are.

"I've talked to young people for over a year; I've met 12 and 13-year-olds passionate about an Irish Language Act, and young Ulster-Scots in Kilkeel worried about a united Ireland and how their identity would be affected."

Among the young people taking part in The Top Table are some from the Protestant working-class areas singled out as under-achievers in recent education surveys.

"I met some young people from those areas - they might not have the academic qualifications, but they are as passionate about their communities as anyone else and don't feel they have a platform to express it," says Nolan.

"One boy said they weren't respected enough within schools and put down as under-performers. Another had an electronic tag on him a couple of times, but he turned his life around and became a youth worker.

"My ambition for this show is to get young people really jostling for a place at 'the top table'. I want to prioritise young people for political debate.

"It's my concept; it's very important. It's absolutely not a youth show, where young people are patronised; there will be no Blue Peter badges. The message is that young people are as authoritative and have as much to say as any other group."

He credits his schooling at Royal Belfast Academical Institution for equipping him "brilliantly" for life, but claims he would opt out of university if he could go back in time.

"I adored Inst so much - I went in among all these posh boys from the Malone Road, with (my) tipped hair, a gold ring and white socks, but, in hindsight I'd have been better travelling than going to uni," he reflects.

"Travelling broadens your whole outlook on life, and yourself as a human being. I adore Santa Monica. I find it hard to calm down and not think about work; my brain's always on to the next idea. I've been to all these glossy rich places, but they don't do it for me.

"My whole soul calms down in Santa Monica and finds rest and peace there and I bring that back with me. It's beautiful.

"My ambition is to slow down in the next four to five years and spend three or four months (a year) in Santa Monica. I love the beach - you see all these people out running and cycling.

"If I could get my body into shape, I'd be out with them."

The Top Table, BBC One Northern Ireland, tonight, 10.40pm

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