Frank Mitchell: When I was four I fell into a tub of lime... thankfully the farmer saw and pulled me out by the heels
In our most revealing series of interviews yet Rachel Dean talks to Frank Mitchell (55), UTV weather presenter and host of The Frank Mitchell Phone-In on U105. He lives in Belfast with his wife Helena and they have one daughter, Laura, who lives in England.
Q. Tell us about your childhood
A. I had an absolutely fabulous childhood. I grew up in Burren, Co Down. I have two sisters - Eleanor is slightly older and Theresa-Anne is slightly younger. I grew up in the countryside, so it was all about farm animals and football where I'm from. I went to a little country school called Carrick Primary School. I'm a country boy at heart.
My mum and dad owned a hardware shop in Warrenpoint. We all worked in it from time to time, myself and my two sisters. I became a bit of a dab hand at putting down carpet, because that was one of the things my father sold.
Amazingly, my father actually sold televisions, but we didn't have one until I was nine years old because, up until then, we didn't have electricity. We had a radio in the house, however, and I would have listened to every newsreader and sports commentator, spending hours as a child pretending to be them - that's my memory of growing up. Listening to excellent broadcasters from years ago like Charles Mitchel, Michael O'Hehir, Tony Blackburn, William Hardcastle and, of course, Terry Wogan (above), inspired me to become a broadcaster myself.
Q. What are you most proud of?
A. Being able to turn a childhood hobby into a career. When I was young, I told people I wanted to work in the media and then you had to explain to people what the media was. People didn't grasp the concept - now every family has a relative that works in the media. So, to set out a journey to work in the media when I was 16 or 17 and to now be working for U105 and for UTV gives me a great sense of achievement. I feel proud to be able to get up in the morning and feel so good about going to work.
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Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?
A. When I played football for Burren, I never trained as hard as the others on the team because I was pursuing my dream of being a broadcaster. They went on to be All-Ireland Club champions twice. I look back and think 'If only I had worked harder as a footballer' because those fellas all have more medals than I have. I could have worked harder when I had the talents to be a footballer - that's the one slight regret I have because you don't get a lot of time to play football. You eventually get to 30 and realise you're not very good at it anymore!
Q. Do you have any phobias?
A. Absolutely. Do not send me into an enclosed space. When I was four years old I fell into a tub of lime on a neighbour's farm when they used to spread lime over the countryside. Thankfully, the farmer noticed me falling and pulled me out by the heels. It was almost like a drowning sensation. Even today, I couldn't sleep with a duvet up around my neck, I need free space. I have a recurring dream that I'm suffocating and that goes right back to my childhood.
Q. The temptation you cannot resist?
A. Oh yes, I have one massive temptation: Mauds' Pooh Bear ice cream. I cannot resist it - I feel a sense of pride if I can walk past it without eating a full bowl of it. I have pretty strong willpower but that would be one of my real temptations.
Q. Your number one prized possession?
A. I have my father's 21st birthday ring. My father gave it to me long before he passed away in 1993 because it no longer fitted him and to have that ring is very special. I have worn it on many occasions, but I usually keep it safe in a cabinet. I love to look at it, to spin it up in the air and catch it and just think about him whenever I'm close to it. It's a special piece of jewellery that I truly treasure.
Q. The book that's most impacted your life?
A. I'm a big person for biographies, not for fiction. I'm not sure that any book has ever really influenced me to the extent that I've thought 'Yeah, I took a lot from that'. But, when it comes to recommending a book, if you want to laugh out loud, read Who on Earth is Tom Baker? He was one of the many people who played Doctor Who. I'm not even a fan of the series but I read this book because Tom Baker would have been the Doctor that I remember the most as a child. I read his book by chance and it is incredibly funny.
Q. If you had the power or authority, what would you do?
A. I would be no good at all. If I started making changes, as you would if you were in power, then I would start to fall out with people, which I absolutely detest doing. I would be wasting my time if I went on any sort of management course. That is not what I'm cut out for!
Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?
A. I am a champion of trying to keep this part of the world litter free. People who drop litter, flick cigarette butts out of windows or leave their picnic waste on the beach, really annoy me. I think if everyone just made a little effort to take their litter home with them, this place wouldn't be the exceptionally untidy country that it very often is.
Q. Who has most influenced you in life?
A. I probably refer to my father quite a bit during these conversations, but I do think he was the greatest influence on me. He was a very relaxed person, very forward-thinking and he always encouraged me with a smile. He was a great character himself - he was the sort of person who could literally mix with everyone. His very kind advice was a stabilising influence for me throughout the years.
Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?
A. I would talk tactics with Man City manager Pep Guardiola - I'm a Man City fanatic and have been since I was 10 years old. I would love to talk music with John Fogerty. I got to see him last year in Dublin for the first time ever. I would talk weather to Noah. I would like to have Noah at the dinner table and say, 'Well, tell us about the flood'.
Q. The best piece of advice you ever received?
A. I remember a guy once saying, 'Life is like a game of rugby. You only occasionally get the ball but when you do get it, you've got to make progress with it'. Life, in many ways, is like that. Take the opportunity and make the most of it. I think that's not bad advice.
Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?
A. No one understands this - I like to stop at old, abandoned, country petrol stations where the pumps are still standing but they are rusted and crumbling. I like to photograph them and visualise people who may have stopped there to fill their cars and the attendants who used to operate those pumps. I mentioned it before on U105 and listeners were suggesting places where I could go take these photographs, and there are so many of them around Northern Ireland. Standing looking at old petrol pumps - am I the only person in Northern Ireland who does that?
Q. The poem that touches your heart?
A. Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, is a very special poem for me. First, I studied it at school, then, when I became a teacher (before I got into broadcasting), I taught it to children and many of them were moved to tears by the poem. When I started working as a features reporter for UTV, I was sent to interview Seamus Heaney and he read the poem for me, into the camera. I remember thinking, 'I am now standing here with Seamus Heaney and he is saying my favourite poem to me'. It's such a personal poem, the story of it is very simple - a teenage Seamus Heaney is called home from boarding school to go to a wake in his own house. His four-year-old brother had been killed in a traffic accident and he describes the wake and then describes the child in the coffin - 'A four foot box, a foot for every year' is the closing line. It's such a sad poem, but it's so beautifully written.
Q. The happiest moment of your life?
A. The birth of our daughter Laura was, by far, the happiest moment of my life - I remember it as clearly as if it was happening now. She was born a few weeks after Down won the All-Ireland and my friend Paddy O'Rourke lifted the Sam Maguire Cup in Croke Park in September 1991 and Laura was born on October 7. For me, lifting her for the first time was like lifting every trophy that any sportsperson could ever lift. I was the 'man of the match', it was that sort of feeling.
Q. And the saddest moment of your life?
A. The saddest moment of my life was when my father passed away. He told me an amazing story, one he told us often, that when his grandfather and his father passed away a bird appeared at the window each time. I remember thinking of this story when he died and there was no bird at any window. Then, we were carrying his coffin from the house and I looked back at the house and there was a bird, sitting on the guttering above his window. That was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. I could still cry thinking about that. I believe it was a sign and at the time I just laughed - he told me there would be a bird and there it was. It was so utterly bizarre.
Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?
A. The day that I lifted the phone when I was 18 and I rang Hugh Hardy, who was the boss of Radio Carousel in Dundalk. I asked him for a job - I told him I was a night-time DJ and what I meant by that was that I practiced in my bedroom at night. I think he thought that meant I was a nightclub DJ. He had all these radio presenters working for him under false names and he invited me to come work and that's when he gave me the name 'Mitchell' (Frank was born John Anthony Francis McClorey). My career started from that - it was such a pivotal moment for me.
Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?
A. As you get older part of ambition has to be having balance in your life. I've worked at both UTV and U105 for so many years and I'm seriously blessed. I have had amazing opportunities - I've shown the Queen the entire workings of the weather studio, I've spoken to Nelson Mandela one-to-one, I've interviewed Bono, (inset top) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, JK Rowling, (inset bottom) and numerous other people. These opportunities come with being busy in broadcasting, but it's also important to have time to relax, to walk through the Belfast hills or along the country roads in Donegal - those are things I like to do. You have to guarantee yourself balance in life.
Q. What's the philosophy you live by?
A. My philosophy for life is to see the good in everyone, but never turn a blind eye to the bad in some. I don't like people who say, 'the answer is no, now what is the question?' Positivity is a wonderful gift.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I'd like to be remembered as someone who gave everyone a fair say on the radio show. A presenter who was always prepared to challenge on behalf of those not there, but polite enough to listen to those on air. As for the TV, I'd like to think I brought more sunshine than gloom into homes across the country. It's such an honour to have been made welcome in living rooms for over 30 years.