Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

BBC Northern Ireland's Noel Thompson talks cheating death and the horror stories that most affected him

The veteran BBC NI anchorman tells Leona O'Neill why they will have to drag him away from the microphone screaming and kicking, the horror stories which most affected him and why he is lucky to be alive

Noel Thompson
Noel Thompson
Noel Thomspon as a schoolboy
Noel Thompson as a baby with his father
Noel with his mum
Noel Thompson with his wife Sharon and sons Matthew and Patrick

We wake up to his dulcet tones every morning on Good Morning Ulster, and after 40 years on radio and television, his face is as familiar as the Albert Clock.

Despite that lengthy stint bringing us the news from Northern Ireland, east Belfast-born Noel Thompson says the buzz of the job is still there and he has no intention of hanging up his notebook.

The 62-year-old veteran newsman joined the BBC in 1979 as a researcher on the Nationwide programme, moving through Newsround, the World Service, Newsnight, HARDtalk, Spotlight, BBC Breakfast News, Hearts and Minds and Newsline. For the past six years, he has been the voice of Good Morning Ulster.

Noel has been married to his yoga teacher wife, Sharon, for 37 years. Together they have two sons, Matthew (31) and Patrick (26), who is a senior reporter with LBC London News.

Noel had a happy childhood, despite being knocked down with alarming frequency.

"I grew up in Belmont, about three miles from the city centre and three miles from Stormont," he says. "I was born in a house on Wandsworth Road, and lived there with my three brothers, my mum, my dad and my aunt, who was really my mother's aunt. She had lived with them for a long time, throughout the war, and died in the early Sixties when I was seven. She was a widow. Her husband had fought in the First World War, but he died of Spanish flu weeks after returning home from the front line.

"My dad was a travelling salesman for ICI, the chemical division. I went to Belmont Primary School, Strandtown Primary School, then Campbell College. I had a very normal, happy childhood.

"I have three brothers. Stephen, the oldest brother, is a businessman in the West Indies, Geoffrey is a headmaster in London, and my youngest brother, Trevor, is a professor at Bristol University.

"I remember being knocked down several times as a child. It was almost my hobby!

"On one occasion, a car was parked in the garage and the engine was running. My brother, Trevor, somehow managed to get in and drive the car forward, and I was crushed against the garage wall.

"The other two times I was knocked down were road accidents. One time I was on a bicycle and a car hit me outside Strathearn School, and the next time I ran across the road without looking and got hit by a car. I am a walking miracle to be still here."

Noel survived to continue his education in England. "I went to Cambridge University, St Catharine's College, to study languages and social and political sciences," he says. "I still love Cambridge. It's a wonderful place to spend three years of your life. Just the sheer beauty of it, I always greatly appreciate that. I wasn't terribly happy academically. I found it a very dry, academic course. I still have good friends in Cambridge, and I'm always very happy to go back and visit the alma mater."

Noel grew up wanting to be an "international, jet-setting businessman" but fell almost accidentally into journalism.

"I remember very clearly The World This Weekend being on in our house every Sunday," he says. "I had many encounters with reporters when I worked as a barman in the Europa Hotel. I worked there in my school and university holidays, when it was getting blown up seemingly every other weekend.

"I was working on Bloody Friday. My brother was working in the same area that day and had a half day, so he was actually in the city centre when all the bombs were going off. Thank goodness he wasn't hurt. Those days were interesting times. I didn't know anything else. Every couple of days we'd get a call to check out our department, check out the bar or the lounge areas, to ensure there were no foreign objects. There were many more bomb scares than bombs thankfully.

"That was where all the journalists would stay in those days. People like Robert Fisk, Keith Graves and the like. I have to genuinely say it wasn't looking at them that inspired me to go into journalism. I wouldn't say I was ever inspired to go into this profession.

"I left university without the slightest clue what I was going to do. I went to the West Indies for two years to work with my brother, who had a restaurant. During that time, my ideas crystallised and I thought about a lot of different careers, like teaching and business.

"As a schoolboy, I always had this idea of being an international, jet-setting businessman with my foreign languages, but at the end of the day I didn't really fancy it.

"I thought journalism would be an interesting and useful career, so when I came back to Belfast, I applied for a clerical job in the BBC. I was called for an interview and passed on to the news editor, Robin Walsh.

"We were talking when Clive Ferguson stuck his head around the door and said, 'Seamus Heaney's just been arrested at Aldergrove'. That was definitely one of those 'tingle' moments. I thought, 'Oh yes, this is for me - I'm going to love this'.

"And that feeling has never really gone away. I still get that buzz when a big story happens, especially when it happens while you are on air. To have a front seat in the drama of history in the making is a huge thrill.

Live radio is not for the faint-hearted - things can and do go wrong, but "as long as no one dies", Noel's happy to put the mishaps down to experience.

"Everyone makes mistakes," he says. "Hopefully few. Short of damaging someone by actually libelling or slandering them, there is a feeling that if you do make a mistake, no one is going to die or be seriously injured as a result of it. You have to see it in perspective and just move on. That is what we do.

"I don't get nervous, not after this length of time. You have to be prepared and do your research. If you know you've done that, you know you are equipped for whatever may be thrown at you. You are only as good as your research. On live radio you need to know your background, to go through in your head the ground that you have to cover and make sure you have got the facts and figures at your fingertips in case someone tries to pull a fast one or tries to mislead you. You need to be able to stick to your guns.

"Some people are easier to interview than others. I did an interview with Benjamin Netanyahu for the HARDtalk programme. It was a fairly mutual trading of blows, if you like. We had a completely cordial discussion and there were no tempers lost. As a broadcaster, you must never lose your temper because you have to remember that nothing ever said to you is ever personal. At the end of the interview, we shook hands and I said, 'Thank you very much'. And he said, 'You did your job, I did my job', which I thought was quite an illuminating comment. Interviewees have a job to do. We have to hold people to account or make sure they are not telling untruths, or spinning something."

Any journalist will tell you that there are some stories that are seared into their memories, often for very tragic reasons. Noel says the tragedy of the Quinn brothers - Jason (9), Mark (10) and 11-year-old Richard - killed in a UVF firebomb attack on their Ballymoney home in 1998 during the Drumcree stand-off, and the Omagh atrocity, has stayed with him after all these years.

"I started working for the BBC in 1974 and have covered a lot of really, really bad things in Northern Ireland," he adds. "Two very much stand out for me. One was the death of the Quinn children in the fire in Ballymoney. And then the other one was the Omagh bomb. I was presenting a lunchtime radio programme called Newsbreak when we covered the Omagh funerals. We did 10 funerals in a morning, and it was just devastating. It was hard to get through. If it was hard for me, you always have to think what it was like for the people who were greatly affected. We are only ever observers. We are observers of the joy and observers of the grief. You're not dealing with it first-hand."

Noel says that the biggest difference between working on television and radio is essentially the need for a tie. "I don't have to wear a suit and tie every day, which is actually a bit of a liberation," he explains.

"I have a wardrobe full of ties, and I wore one to work every day for 30 years. I've always enjoyed both medias and will continue to do so."

Despite being one of Northern Ireland's best known faces, apart from the odd "worse for wear" person, he does not meet much hostility from the public over stories he has covered.

"I would never describe being a well-known face as a curse," he says. "People who don't like you don't talk to you, and people who do like you are invariably polite. It's never been a hassle. I don't go to pubs at midnight. There has been the odd occasion where someone was the worse for wear and might have wanted to have had a bit of a go at you, but they are very few and far between. Most of the time, people are very polite, and if someone wants a photo or a chat, I am always more than happy to oblige."

When away from the newsroom, Noel keeps healthy by walking in the mountains, often with opera music blasting in his ears, combining both his passions - keeping fit and singing.

"I mountain-walk regularly," he says. "I had a wonderful day on the Mournes on Sunday. There was glorious Autumn sunshine and Autumn colours. It was absolutely life-enhancing. I'm not cycling as much as I used to, but I'm getting on. I was always a bit of a fair-weather cyclist. I don't like cycling in the wind or the rain, and there is quite a bit of it around here.

"I had a rather nasty accident on the bike on the Comber Greenway. I still don't know why it happened, but I went over the handlebars and broke my collarbone. I think I probably would have died if I hadn't been wearing my helmet, so I'm a very strong advocate for cyclists wearing headgear at all times, even if you are just nipping up to the shop. You just never know when you are going to have that accident.

"I have been very blessed with substantially good health, and I want to do everything in my power to keep it that way. I don't smoke, apart from the occasional cigar. I drink wine and whiskey, but in moderation. I always think that people who take regular exercise, even if it is just walking, seem to be healthier. All the people I knew who lived to a really ripe age were all active people. I'm a pretty active person, so fingers crossed I'm going to continue to have good health.

"I've always been fortunate enough to have a high level of energy. The early-morning regime is taxing - it's not an easy one. When I'm getting out of bed at 4.15am and the milkman has already been... (but) there is always somebody worse off.

"I'm not sure your body ever entirely accepts early-morning working. I did Good Morning Ulster many years ago and I'm doing it now for the last six years. I don't think it was as hard then as it is now. It is a different lifestyle. I go to bed as soon after nine as I can manage and I'm up again at 4am. There are hundreds of people with harder shifts than I do. I'm not complaining, but it is a different way of living your life.

"My wife is a yoga teacher. I do yoga sometimes, but not as much as I should. It would be very beneficial to me to do more than I do. I never really seem to fit yoga in. With a good teacher at home, I should be doing much more.

"I am aware of getting older. My mother died three years ago, at 89 years old, with cancer. My father died over 25 years ago. It gets you thinking, 'I'm now on the front line'.

Noel, a keen singer, had aspirations to appear on stage in the Ulster Hall playing the piano, but he gave that up when he didn't achieve his dream within a decade.

Now he is just as happy on stage singing as he is in the newsroom.

"I gave up learning the piano," he says. "I gave myself 10 years. I told myself that if I wasn't playing at the Ulster Hall in 10 years' time, I'd give it up. I put a lot of effort into it and passed a grade five exam, which is possibly the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. I passed it and said I was never doing that again.

"I practised religiously, but it became clear to me that it wasn't going to be my thing, so I stuck to singing.

"I've just been on stage with Northern Ireland Opera. I have been singing since I was seven years old and cannot imagine my life without it. I sing with the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and sang for many years with Castleward Opera.

"I'm now very lucky to be involved with Northern Ireland Opera. I've done four productions with them and I absolutely love it. It is a fantastic experience, working with true professionals at the height of their careers. It's absolutely magical.

"I am an enthusiastic amateur. I'll sing as long as someone thinks my voice is holding up.

"They will drag me kicking and screaming out of whatever choir I'm in at that stage. Even then, I'll still sing in the bath. I don't think I'll ever stop singing."

One thing he won't do is give up on the news, which he says is "like a drug".

"I have no intention as I'm speaking to you now of hanging up my notebook," Noel adds. "But you never know what will happen. I am still very much enjoying it and there is always new stuff happening.

"As long as the BBC wants me on a microphone, I'll be there. The news is something that is in your blood. Even if I was forced to retire tomorrow, I'd still be reading newspapers and magazines and keeping up to date with everything.

"It's good to have an awareness of what's happening around you. I have been so lucky to have that front seat to the news. It is a bit of a drug and it hasn't gone away yet."

Noel Thompson presents Good Morning Ulster on BBC Radio Ulster every weekday morning from 6.30am to 9am

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