It’s fair to say we’ve learned a lot more about Frank Mitchell in 2021 than expected.
A Weekend columnist since April, the U105 broadcaster has often shared personal stories of growing up, former friends and acquaintances — including the famous and infamous — and his take on current events.
“People talk to you about it all the time and they see another perspective on where I’m coming from on things,” he says.
“You get an opportunity when you’re writing the article actually to express some sort of opinion on things.
“You get the chance to do that on the radio phone-in too, briefly dancing about from one topic to the other.”
Feedback has been positive he says, and this role, while not a new string to his career bow, is one that is very much enjoyed.
“I used to go through life, sort of always getting a bounce from people saying, ‘I saw you doing the weather’.
“And then I got a sort of a kick from people saying, ‘I heard you on the radio’. But now when they say, ‘I read your article in the paper’, I really like that.
“The moment I left school I started in pirate radio, but I went to teacher training college to become a teacher simply because I presumed that there was no avenue into broadcasting. How would you ever get a job; there were no courses in broadcasting, no courses in media when I was young,” explains Frank.
“I trained to be a teacher as a fallback, and I did teach for about a year, as a sub teacher, but I was an English teacher. That’s why I enjoy reading and writing, I do either for them for leisure.”
Adding personal experience into his work is important and something we’ve come to expect.
Weekend fans will remember his article on four school friends whose lives went in different directions, one of whom was Raymond McCreesh, who died on hunger strike in May 1981.
“I got a lot of reaction from that particular article,” says Frank.
“I think it’s a commentary on where we’ve all grown up and depending on which village or town you grew up in, the influences were different.
“In many ways that’s a sad story because those guys were all there that day, and they all went in such different directions.”
Does he worry about subject matter?
“I have no problem writing about it if I can stand over it,” he says.
“I’m not going to hide something or in some way soften the blow of something simply because it’s coming from me.”
We talk about his column on paedophile priest Fr Malachy Finegan, Frank’s former headmaster at St Colman’s College.
“It’s very easy to do it about [write about] Finegan because he bluffed me the whole way through school,” continues Frank.
“I’ve heard so many stories recently about how he took pupils to the classroom to his office and he would lead the conversation around to something to do with sex. I was never aware of this.
“I’d my photograph taken with him about seven times on the college walls. He’s been airbrushed out of all the photographs now, understandably, and I know there’s a big debate about how long it took to airbrush him out of it.
“Once I became fully aware of what he done, I had no problem at all in condemning him and accepting that I was in the school.”
He talks about an after-dinner speech he makes about how the Pope intervened in a young Mitchell’s potential expulsion — surely the content of another column?
“There was a guy sent off, for the first time ever, for St Colman’s, and the headmaster of the school who was then Francis Brooks said the next time anyone was sent off they were going to be dismissed. He was never having this school lowered to this level again.
“The following week, I was sent off. I was quaking in my boots on the Monday morning to be called up from assembly. And on the Monday morning on the Radio Ulster news [it was announced] Francis Brooks has been made bishop and was on his way to Rome to meet the Pope.
“But unfortunately, Finegan got his job. I used to say in the story and then Finegan came in and he was a great man for the football, and I was much happier than with Brooks. But I didn’t realise Finegan was a monster. And I never knew that; I went to him at the end of seventh year and thanked him for my education.”
Another topic Frank’s happy to talk about on radio and in print is the Catholic Church’s attitude to women.
“I just think it’s appalling, I did an article about that as well, about the shortage of priests yet they never considered [women].
“The chapels are closing, and they wouldn’t consider women.
“I know a lot of people think that women aren’t interested. Some of them, maybe, but give them the opportunity.
“It just frustrates me, because I’m actually somebody who goes to Mass.”
Is faith important to the broadcaster?
“Yes, I go to Mass, absolutely. There will be parts of it where I tune out… I do find that a lot of said in the homily has no relevance to 2021. It may have had relevance to 1821 or the year 21 but it has no relevance to today or minimal relevance.
“I often find myself glazing over, but I never glaze over during the Eucharist of the Mass, the consecration of the Mass. The ‘Do this in memory of me’ is ingrained in my soul, I like that.
“You hear every joker in the country including some very funny comedians who belittle religion and belittle faith.
“They would never say it about the Islamic faith or maybe the Jewish faith, but they would say it about the Christian faith, and maybe that’s because they originally come from a Christian background themselves and they’re angry at their own faith or they’re happy to demean their own faith.
“But regardless of what joke is cracked, whether it’s funny or not, and some of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard come from a background from the Catholic faith, Father Ted, Dave Allen and people like that…
“I’ve heard [comedian] Kevin Bridges; I think he’s very severe on faith and belief, overly severe, but he’s entitled to express an opinion, but none of it would dent my core belief in the importance of the central part of the Mass.
“I can laugh and sometimes think it’s very clever, but I always go back to feeling better during that part of the Mass than ever watching the comedy.”
A balance with lightness, however, is important and particularly on radio — “you have to give people a smile,” says Frank.
“I like that, that’s just in my personality to never take yourself too seriously, never get so pent up that life becomes a frustration. You need to be able to laugh and you need to be able to laugh with people as well.
“But you also need to be able to stick to your own beliefs and challenge. I absolutely feel confident in challenging.
“I will challenge from inside the GAA which I’ve been a member of since I was practically a five-year-old. I will challenge from inside the Catholic Church.
“Politically I will challenge everybody. If you put me to the pin of my collar and asked me which party I support in Northern Ireland, I couldn’t answer the question. I’ve never been able to find a party, a group, an organisation that I couldn’t anyway support and say, yes, that’s for me.
“I have friends who can only see one side of a political argument.
“I’m lucky enough because of my work, to have friends who are polarised, who aren’t friends of each other but who are friends of mine.
“What I noticed in them is they are so similar, but politically so different.
“They’re [from] exactly the same backgrounds of people, they’re in the same sort of wages, they do the same sort of jobs, they have the same numbers in their family, they have the same warmth and friendliness and humour. But one of them can only see a tricolour and the other can only see a Union Jack.”
Lockdown, he says, dovetailed nicely with his stepping back from the “incredible busyness of TV”, completing his final weather forecast at the end of March.
“I just noticed the pace of life has gotten a little bit easier,” he says.
Does it suit him better?
“It does suit me better. I enjoy doing things, I’ve always been go, go, go, doing three different jobs and all of that. But there comes a time when you have to realise that it’s the old cliché, you are getting a bit older, but you’re also getting a bit more appreciative of, for example, Black Mountain or Divis Mountain. I love it up there.
“Donegal, I absolutely love it. When you’re just there in the air and you’re not with anyone at all and you’re stopping to think about the view and the deep breath you can take. You think, there are some people who never stop, who go, go, go until they drop, and they’re missing out on this real plus in life.
“That stretches to seeing family grow up. I was very lucky that I was at home every night, 99 nights out of 100, as my daughter was growing up, and some people haven’t that luxury because of the work they do or because of where they’re located.”
Is a return to TV something he wants? Will we see him on GB News for example?
“You’ll certainly not see me on GB News, that’s for sure!” laughs Frank.
“I feel I was born to be on the radio. I wanted to be on the radio from when I was 13-years-old. I played being a radio presenter in my bedroom for years.
“I had a tape recorder and I had a turntable and a microphone. I set this up in my bedroom and I used to make cassette tapes and I play them back to my aunty.
“I was broadcasting at age 13, there was no online, there was none of that facility.
“I joined a pirate radio station at 17 and that is all I wanted ever wanted to do.”
Television came along by “sheer chance”, at a party, when fellow presenter Pamela Ballantine suggested he apply for a continuity announcer role on UTV — “I had to almost get her to explain what exactly it was,” he smiles.
Frank sent a cassette tape to UTV and the following day, he was auditioning.
“Three days after that, I was sitting beside Keith Burnside in the studio observing him. I remember watching him read the news thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this, I want to be on the radio!’ But another week later, I was on the screen,” he says.
“There used to be set programmes called Schools Programming and you’d make announcements before them about what was coming that night on television. I remember coming up in vision for the first time and I’m convinced that the audience could see my heart coming through my shirt.”
From continuity announcing, he presented a variety of homegrown and much-loved shows — School Around the Corner (more on that later), End to End, UTV Life and Ultimate Ulster — and of course, became UTV’s weather watcher.
“Looking back on it, I don’t think I’ve left any stone unturned. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I have no desire to go back onto TV, even though I have a massive, massive fondness of it,” he says.
“I have a burning desire to continue to do the radio. I couldn’t come away from the radio, whereas I could in the end, happily come away from the TV.”
While it’s clear how much he loves the “fantastic medium” of radio, he has fond memories of working in UTV’s features department under the editorship of Jamie Delargy.
“I remember one day him sending me into the town because his daughter was reading a book by an author. He thought this book was very good and the author should get some coverage.
“We had a works mobile phone at the time. Not everyone had a mobile phone and on the way in the taxi, I forgot the name of the author. I said Jamie, what do we call this woman? He said J.K. Rowling.
“I remember going into Eason’s and she was there with some schoolchildren. I interviewed her and she said her dream would be to see it made into a film.
“I’ve often thought her dreams really did come true.
“I got a lovely photograph taken with her. She signed the first and second books to my daughter. They’re pride of place at home and hopefully gaining value as every year goes by,” he laughs.
Few could forget the column on Sylvester Stallone mistaking Frank for his guide and the pair dandering through Dublin after the opening of Planet Hollywood.
“To be sent places where you can go through a door and speak to Nelson Mandela, where you’re on the set and they bring in the Queen and it’s your job to show her around,” says Frank with feeling on what he’s done and who he’s met.
“To go to Bellaghy when I was not long a features reporter and spend the whole afternoon with Seamus Heaney in class where he was teaching children poetry.
“I had been an English teacher and he read some of my favourite poems that I had been teaching to children myself, and I remember thinking that was an experience to spend so much time one to one with Seamus Heaney.”
It’s been a magical career we suggest.
“I’ve thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it,” agrees Frank.
“You don’t have a lot of access to these people so you have to have the confidence to ask, ‘Would you join me one to one?’
“I’ve always found the vast majority of them are incredibly approachable.
“Sometimes the entourage around them can be difficult but the actual person is approachable.”
Speaking of congeniality, he has only kind words to say about one of Northern Ireland’s most talented exports.
“One of the highlights of School Around the Corner was when Liam Neeson wrote to me,” says Frank.
“I was opening letters from schoolchildren and there was a letter on Liam Neeson’s headed notepaper. He had written from his New York office saying his father attended a school called St John’s Eglish in Portadown and he believed the headmaster would like this school to be featured on School Around the Corner and he’d really appreciate it if we’d consider the school.”
It took two years to showcase the school on TV and as Frank drove up the M1 one day, an American lady rang, asking if he would take a call from ‘Mr Liam Neeson’.
“I thought somebody’s taking the p*** here. I said I will of course and pulled off on the slip road to get a proper conversation with him,” he explains.
“He was working on a film at the time about a sex therapist, [Alfred] Kinsey, and he was telling me all about that.
“I’d say he spent about 20 minutes talking. I just thought was such a nice thing to do, to ring up and thank me.
“You wouldn’t get that if you weren’t working in TV, that’s the point I’m making. It gives you a privileged position.”
For now, he’s awaiting the arrival of daughter Laura and her fiancé from Newcastle upon Tyne.
“The young man that she’s getting married to in 18 months’ time is called Andy. He’ll be over with us, he’s from Newcastle upon Tyne.
“The big plus is they are both very skilled cooks and chefs. They work as architects, but if they weren’t architects they would be outstanding in a kitchen,” he says.
“Myself and my wife just sit back and let them do it. They’ve never let us down in the last couple of years and I’ve no doubt that this year will be exactly the same.
“So fingers crossed are no restrictions, no blockages on the boats, no delays because having them here… that makes Christmas perfect.”
Plus, it gives him time to prepare for another role: father of the bride.
“Father of the bride is something to consider gradually,” he laughs. “Let me get Christmas out of the way of the way first. That’s a whole other newspaper!”
Frank presents U105 Phone In Monday-Friday from 9am-noon