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Nessa Gee Haynes: 'After a career in TV including Basil Brush and and Blind Date, I'm now giving radio a spin before I lose my hearing completely'

Nessa Gee Haynes, now living in Co Down, on why she wanted to be disc jockey despite fact she is going deaf, writes Stephanie Bell.

When Nessa Gee Haynes was given the devastating news that she was losing her hearing she made the unusual decision to fulfil a dream of working in the audio medium of radio.

Now a popular presenter on the new Belfast 89FM station, she is an inspiration not just to people living with hearing loss but anyone facing a personal challenge or health issue.

Nessa is naturally outgoing, positive and fun and she brings all of these qualities to her Friday afternoon show of chat and classic tunes.

The 46-year-old has enjoyed a fascinating career in TV working as a programme developer and script writer with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Basil Brush and Cilla Black.

Originally from London, she moved to Northern Ireland seven years ago, initially on a two-year contract with a local TV Production Company, but fell in love with the province and decided to make it her home.

She lives close to Strangford Lough with her partner Rob Moore, whom she met on Twitter and who moved from his home in the south of England to be with her two years ago.

Belfast 89FM, the city's newest community radio station, launched in 2015 with the slogan 'Lovin' the 60s and 70s' and is targeted at the 55-plus age group. Its aim was to be "feisty and fun" and a station "that Baby Boomers can really call their own".

For Nessa the launch was perfect timing as she was coming to terms with the shattering news that she was losing her hearing: "I had just found out that I was going deaf and, ironically, wanted to give radio a go before it was too late. We all have a bucket list and things we want to try and for me it was radio, though admittedly, it probably does seem unusual to be going into an audio medium when I'm losing my hearing.

"I was lucky that the jobs were advertised and I applied and got one. I just love it, it is really good fun, and my show is a bit of talk, music and lots of silliness.

"The station is going really well and we are building our audience and it is lovely now to go into shops in the city and hear it playing in the background.

"It has this lovely family atmosphere and a real sense of 'can-do-ness'.

"What is really inspiring is that most people there are volunteering, so they are there because they want to be. They want to learn new skills as well as sharing the skills they have. They are passionate about it, and it is lovely to be part of that."

Nessa had no idea that she was losing her hearing until Rob, whose sister is deaf, recognised the signs.

He urged her to go to the doctor and after a number of tests, including an MRI scan. She was told that she had a rare genetic condition that meant losing her hearing had always been inevitable.

She was given hearing aids and it wasn't until she wore them for the first time that she realised the extent to which she could no longer hear.

Nessa says: "Basically, it is a type of hearing loss which few people get and usually only in old age; I've just got it younger. I have the hearing of a 70-year-old person.

"Wearing hearing aids is a bit like wearing a bra - when you take it off at the end of the day it feels so nice.

"The whole thing happened so slowly that I didn't even realise there were sounds I could no longer hear. I was told to wear the hearing aids for a couple of hours indoors at first, as it could be alarming, but when I put them on I could suddenly hear the bees and the birds and I hadn't realised that I had lost hearing these things. It was such a revelation and I couldn't take the aids out again that day.

"It is alarming to go into hospital and come out with a disability, but on one level it was a relief because I had been having trouble comprehending what people were saying. I thought I was just being a bit slow on the uptake but I realise now that it was because I couldn't hear what they were saying."

Nessa copes in work by keeping the volume up loud, and in her day-to-day life has found that most people are very understanding.

She also watches TV with subtitles, which she finds amusing: "That can be hilarious as sometimes they are so inaccurate.

"I can hear some of it and when the subtitles come up I think 'no they did not say that at all!'. You could make a really good comedy blog out of it."

In a varied and interesting career, Nessa was head of comedy development at Celador where she worked alongside renowned comedy producer Humphrey Barclay, whom she describes as her friend and mentor.

During a stellar career Humphrey had produced the Donald Sinden and Elaine Stritch sitcom Two's Company and at London Weekend Television had overseen series such as A Fine Romance, which starred Judi Dench and late husband Michael Williams, and it was he who inspired her to get involved in TV development.

She was working in public relations for London Weekend TV as assistant to the head of the Press office and writing for the in-house magazine when she was asked to interview Barclay.

She says: "I was so excited about getting the chance to meet him that I forgot to press record when I was doing the interview.

"And after meeting him I wanted to go into the world of comedy and developing programmes, and I ended up working with him.

"He was the man responsible for lots of wonderful programmes and the man who brought Monty Python to Broadway."

Nessa went on to develop a successful career in TV, working for several years on the hit police drama The Bill as an editor and writing the storylines before making the leap to children's TV script writing for the Basil Brush Show.

She says: "That was a surreal experience. The puppeteers are really interesting people. They really inherit the puppets and the man who did Basil Brush was by nature a quiet and shy person except for when he was doing Basil. He was so enigmatic as Basil that people used to talk to his hand.

"Basil called me Miss Ness and offered me Jelly Babies... I don't think he was flirting but you never know!"

Occasionally she was asked by the researchers on Blind Date to help the contestants to script their answers.

She had met Cilla Black while working for LWT and also got the chance to see the great woman in action on the set of Blind Date.

She says: "She loved her Champagne, which she called fizzy wine, and I know it is a cliche to say this but she really was the consummate professional.

"I once got the chance to sit in and watch her rehearse for Blind Date and she very politely told the floor manager what she wanted and she really orchestrated everything and knew exactly how she wanted things, and I was really impressed by her."

Nessa made the move to Northern Ireland seven years ago when offered a job in programme development with Kudos, who she worked with for two years.

When her contract was up she didn't want to leave Northern Ireland.

"I really loved it here and I felt very at home - I loved the people and the lifestyle and I just decided to stay and go freelance," she says.

"I do some script editing and I have done some Irish language stuff. I don't speak Irish but it gets me to work in beautiful Galway, which is a fabulous place as well.

"I had a look at what else I wanted to do in my life and I started to do some silver smithing and I bought a sewing machine even though I had never used one before.

"And, as I said, I always wanted to give radio a go, so when I was diagnosed I thought I had better do that before it is too late."

She shares her home with her partner of two years, who works in IT and who moved from England to live in Northern Ireland with her.

They met through Twitter and communicated via the social media site for a few years before finally meeting in person.

She says: "It was the early days of Twitter when everyone played hashtag games, before they became really annoying, and we started tweeting and chatted very occasionally for about four years before we decided to meet.

"We had a long distance relationship and then about two years ago Rob moved over to Northern Ireland." Nessa is enjoying her ideal life now - home is in picturesque Co Down and every Friday she does her dream job presenting on the radio.

She is also currently helping out with the marketing side of the Open House Festival in Bangor and genuinely loves Northern Ireland so much that she says it is a dream to be helping to promote it.

"Taxi drivers hear my accent and ask me why are you here?" she says. "I just say 'look around you, it's beautiful!'

"We have the most amazing beaches and views and we have Narnia here - the Mourne Mountains are outstanding. Plus there are so many lovely eateries and restaurants, it really is the most beautiful place.

"I especially love working with the Open House Festival as the ethos is regeneration and promoting tourism and particularly cultural tourism.

"Coming from London, I can appreciate how Northern Ireland has been understandably behind in tourism and is now catching up, and it is great to be part of that."

  • Nessa Gee Haynes, Belfast 89FM, Fridays, 1-4pm

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