BBC Radio 4 presenter Kathy Clugston tells Leona O'Neill about growing up in Belfast, her sorrow at the death of satirist Sean Crummey and coping with having no sense of smell
She is the radio star who can mimic the Queen, Anne Robinson and Posh Spice but gets abuse for her own accent... and once left listeners thinking that the world had ended
There aren't many people Kathy Clugston hasn't lulled to sleep at one stage or another. As the honey-voiced reader of the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio Four, she is the last person people hear as they slip off to the land of nod.
She's the voice who jolts people awake on Translink trains, telling them the next stop is theirs. She's also the woman who gets us where we want to go, as the voice 'Kathy' on TomTom sat navs.
The BBC Radio Four presenter is truly omnipresent, and she is to become a more familiar face around Northern Ireland after moving home to Belfast from London to spend more time with her family.
She loves the city of her childhood, growing up as an only child in the south of Belfast. Her young life was tinged with sadness, however, with her father passing away before she was 10 years old.
"We moved around quite a lot," Kathy says. "We started off in Rosetta, then moved to the Ravenhill Road area. My dad died when I was nine, so it was just me and my mum, Pat, for a while. That was a period which was difficult. It was an age when we didn't talk about things much, and certainly children weren't really encouraged to talk. I just sort of just got on with it. As a child, you really don't understand what is going on. It's only when I look back that I think it was pretty tough on me. But I just got on with things, as did mum.
"My mother remarried very happily, so I had my step-dad, Mac, and a normal family life, which was great. He was actually called Archie and was Scottish. When he first started to work in Northern Ireland, which was many years before he met my mum, he used to get called Jock. He really hated that, and he would say to people, 'If you are going to call me something, please make it not Jock', so he got Mac. We all called him that - it was only his family back home who called him Archie.
"He brought me up from when I was around 10 years old. He was, to all intents and purposes, my dad. He died five years ago of cancer, aged 78. It was horrible, and my mum is still getting used to life without him. She is very brave and very strong, but it has been difficult."
Kathy was the eternal performer in school, taking to the stage in plays and joining the drama society at Queen's University, where she met people who would help her carve out her successful career.
"I was in all the school plays, right from primary school the whole way through," she says. "I wasn't the star of the show or anything. In primary school I would have been the lead part, because I was always tall and sensible. I was given all the lines to learn.
"I went to Queen's then, to study, unbelievably, French and Russian, with no thought other than I was quite good at languages at school, so I just kept going. I got involved in the drama society there at a really great time. A lot of people who were in the society then are still performing - there was Colin Murphy, Alan McKee, Tim Loane, Stephen Wright, who produced The Fall, Mark Carruthers and Peter Ballance.
"We were all in the drama society together in the days before Queen's had a drama department. I spent all my time doing that and very little else, but that was fine. It was a very formative time, and I made connections then. I used to do a bit of voice work, and I was interviewed by the BBC several times, so I just started to get that feeling about how broadcasting might be something I might be interested in."
Kathy describes the chain of events that led to her securing a job as a TV announcer. "A friend of mine, Jude, sent me an advert that she cut out of the paper for a television announcer,. I went in and saw how it was done, and I watched for a morning. It is quite a technical job, because you are pushing a lot of buttons, as well as speaking.
"It so happened, to my very good fortune, that the man who was on duty was the man in charge of the department. I asked him lots of questions. He sort of knew that I had the right personality for it and understood what was going on, so he pushed for me to get invited in for a voice test. I got an interview and went through and got the job."
While working as an announcer, Kathy took the opportunity to gain experience in other areas of broadcasting, including comedy. She had audiences in stitches with her expert characterisations of well-known women on Folks on the Hill.
"While starting off as a TV announcer, I worked for Radio Ulster and I also did Folks on the Hill while I was there," she recalls. "I was all the female voices on the show, and that was because Owen McFadden, who produced the programme, remembered me from my Queen's days, when he and political satirist and comedian Sean Crummey were looking for a female to do all these voices.
"Owen contacted me and asked me if I could do an Anne Robinson impression. I went away and worked and worked on it and came back. We did The Weakest Link with David Trimble and Ian Paisley and all the politicians. It went on from there. I did that for a decade, then I moved on. I went to work in the Netherlands for a while, but I still did the programme, so I either came back to do it or did it down the line.
"Sometimes I would go into the studio with a Dutch engineer and record my pieces for the show, which was hilarious because the Dutch guy didn't know what was going on or what I was talking about. I remember doing Bairbre de Brun in was a very loud and shrill voice - not necessarily her voice, but that is how I characterised her. This poor engineer was sitting as I was bellowing in his ear."
Kathy also voiced the Queen, members of the Royal Family and Posh Spice, among others. But there were some celebrities she did not play.
"There were certain people I couldn't do, like Cheryl Cole," Kathy explains. "I could say two or three words at a time, but I couldn't do a whole sentence, because I'm not really an impressionist.
"I was winging it, really, but it was such good fun. I stayed there for 10 years, until Sean's death in 2011, which was such a sad time. Sean was an absolute legend. He was such a nice man to work with and so funny, even when he wasn't on air. He was very, very kind. It was a real shock to us. He was the show, he did all the voices and wrote it, so that was the end of the programme. It was a real pity."
Kathy has worked on BBC Radio Four, the World Service and even did a eight-year stint on BBC Radio One as the 'Posh Lady off Radio Four', where Scott Mills read out texts, emails and song lyrics in her 'posh' Radio Four voice, much to the amusement of listeners. She says it was ironic, since she was "the least posh person on Radio Four", but the nickname stuck.
Not every Radio Four listener is appreciative of her accent, however.
"I do have a couple of people who send me handwritten letters," she says. "This is Radio Four, after all. I also get emails, and it's all very nice. I get people from Northern Ireland who live in England who say they appreciate hearing a familiar voice. I get others just writing because they feel they know us, because we are in their lives throughout the day.
"Occasionally I get the odd 'go back to the provinces' correspondence. When I first came to Radio Four, they did warn me that my accent might cause a bit of consternation in some quarters, but they told me not to worry about it - they were totally behind me."
While the reception has been mainly positive, Kathy has received a few "really grim" comments, but she focuses on the humorous side of things.
"Once in a while I'll get someone saying I'm butchering the Queen's English or telling me I can't speak properly and to go back to whatever bog I came out of," she says.
"It's quite funny. Quite often they arrive in postcard form with badly scrawled writing, so we stick them up on the office wall, on the gallery of shame. You have to laugh."
It was while working at Radio Four that Kathy met her long-term partner, Jim Lee.
"We worked together for quite a long time before we got together," she says. "But I eventually wore him down. He works for Radio Four also - he's an announcer. It was a slow, gradual process.
“I was looking after a friend’s house for a while and it had a spare bedroom. Jim lives in the Midlands and was staying in various random accommodation. So I said, ‘Look, I have a spare room, stay with me when you are in London’. That really was the start of it. He was powerless after that.”
Kathy suffers from anosmia, meaning she has no sense of smell. The 49-year-old relies on Jim to tell her if she had body odour, if her breath smells or if food has gone off. An entire dimension of her life — the ability to smell a beautiful garden, or experience memories associated with smell — is missing.
“I’ve had this for my entire life,” she says. “I didn’t really know that it was a condition or even a thing until I made a documentary on it a few years ago for Radio Four. I didn’t know what a broad subject it was, or that people have all sorts of smell and taste disorders, so it was very interesting, and I went on a quest to find out about it. I was born without a sense of smell. It turns out I have no olfactory bulb, so, basically, I have a piece of equipment missing at the back of my nose.”
Although it’s not something that has affected Kathy’s life too much, she knows it can cause deeper problems affecting the sufferer in profound ways. Further, people who cannot smell often have the additional problem of being unable to taste.
“It’s a shame, but it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “For some people who lose their sense of smell, it is really difficult, because so many things are associated with smell — memories, feelings, emotions, family and bonding. People find it extremely upsetting when they can’t smell — they become disconnected from the world. It can lead to all sorts of quite serious depression and feelings of isolation and disconnectedness.
“It’s an area that is very poorly understood, unfortunately, because it is not considered life-threatening, so it’s not really top of anyone’s priority list.
“For people who lose their sense of taste as well, it can be devastating. As far as I’m aware, I can taste food. The medical experts I’ve spoken to don’t really understand how my sense of taste works, but as far as I’m concerned, I can taste stuff, I love food and I can taste different flavours. Obviously, I am not smelling it, so I am missing a whole aspect of the experience of eating, but I love food and don’t feel that food is boring or that it all tastes the same. I am extremely lucky, because most people lose both.
“I haven’t let it affect me. It could make you feel a bit sorry for yourself if you wanted to — imagine going about your life and nothing smells of anything — so the sense of places, the familiarity that you get with smells, the sense of the exotic and the new that you get, I don’t have that.
“I feel that I am not as attached to places and things as I might be, because I don’t
have that extra sense. That extra layer of experience is missing from a garden, from a house. I don’t feel sad about it but, obviously, there are certain times I wish I had it. But there are many worse things (to have).”
Kathy has been reading the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio Four for 12 years, lulling people to sleep before 1am with a programme that has been described as “a bedtime story for grown-ups”.
“People love the Shipping Forecast,” she says. “Especially the late-night one, the close-down before 1am. I read that on my first shift at the BBC, and it was probably the most terrified I have ever been. It is long and it is so important to people, so you don’t want to make a mistake. It is almost poetic. You have to get into the rhythm and into the mindset of it.
“People often write in to us and say how much they love it. People who have problems with anxiety and who have trouble sleeping love it because it’s one voice, 10 minutes and it calms them. You are aware that people are really relying on it, not just people at sea. It’s like we are putting the world to sleep.”
But there was one time when it all went horribly wrong and people thought the world had ended.
“Things go wrong all the time,” Kathy explains. “That’s the thing with live radio — sometimes it’s small things, like when you don’t put the pips out or you select the wrong studio, and there’s a bit of silence. But sometimes it’s massive things.
“There was one time I was on the early morning shift, when the Shipping Forecast goes out, and the technician on duty didn’t switch the network from the World Service. We have to switch over to air at around 5.20am. This day, we were happily broadcasting away for about seven minutes before eventually someone realised that we weren’t going out. The Shipping Forecast hadn’t gone out for the first time ever, in something like 90 years.
“Because it is a legal obligation for us to announce the Shipping Forecast, it must be done, so there was a whole panic. I looked at Twitter, and there was a stream of notifications saying, ‘There’s no Radio Four?’, and, ‘Has the world ended?’ People were saying that if you can’t hear Radio Four for long enough, you are entitled to launch a nuclear attack. It was a disaster, but also quite funny.
“So, then we had to reread the Shipping Forecast on longwave, and the Today programme had to announce that it hadn’t gone out. All the papers picked it up. It was dreadful. And because it was me that had to read it, everyone thought it was my fault. That was a hairy morning.”
Kathy moved home to Belfast in October. She loves how easily she slipped back into “Northern Ireland ways”.
“I’m still working in London at Radio Four, Radio Four Extra and the World Service,” she explains. “I go there once a month, but I’m basing myself here. My plan is to look around and see what Northern Ireland has to offer. At the moment, I am just enjoying being home and spending time with my mum.
“I think I appreciate Northern Ireland more, having been away. So, while I’m not unaware of the difficulties that still exist here, I am much more appreciative of the beautiful coastlines and countryside. I love how everything is so close to hand after living in London, where it takes an hour and a half to get anywhere.
“I love how beautiful it is here and how friendly people are, in the main. And there is something about slotting back into the sense of humour and way of being that you don’t realise you missed until you’re back.
“It’s just that sense that you totally get what is going on, what everyone is saying. There is almost a shorthand in the way that people speak to each other. And there will be no one complaining about my accent.”