| 15.2°C Belfast

BBC's Connor Phillips on taking over Stephen Clements’ radio show and getting the seal of approval from the late broadcaster's brother

From Monday, Connor Phillips takes over the late broadcaster's mid-morning Radio Ulster slot. The south Armagh man tells David O'Dornan why replacing his friend is so bittersweet and how he and wife Holly Hamilton, who is currently in England, are keeping in touch via FaceTime

Close

Connor Phillips

Connor Phillips

Stephen Clements

Stephen Clements

FAMILY MATTERS: Connor with extended family, from left brother Damien, his wife Aoife, sister Ciara holding Connor’s nephew Conall, his soon to be brother-in-law Chris Slane who is holding Connor’s brother’s daughter Meabh Phillips, his mum Maureen Holly and (at front) his dad Terry

FAMILY MATTERS: Connor with extended family, from left brother Damien, his wife Aoife, sister Ciara holding Connor’s nephew Conall, his soon to be brother-in-law Chris Slane who is holding Connor’s brother’s daughter Meabh Phillips, his mum Maureen Holly and (at front) his dad Terry

Connor and Holly

Connor and Holly

HAPPY DAY: Connor and Holly’s wedding day with their family

HAPPY DAY: Connor and Holly’s wedding day with their family

With mum, dad and Holly at Crufts earlier this year

With mum, dad and Holly at Crufts earlier this year

L-R: Connor, his sister Ciara and his brother Damien

L-R: Connor, his sister Ciara and his brother Damien

Connor Phillips

We're living in strange times so perhaps it's not that surreal that Connor Phillips has found himself back in his Newry apartment broadcasting across the UK. Having cut his teeth all those years ago at Cool FM he took a step into the unknown to try and make it across the water and now he is making a triumphant return to these shores - from Monday he will be the new presenter of Radio Ulster's prestigious mid-morning show.

Love played its part as he followed his heart to Manchester where his now wife Holly Hamilton had impressed BBC editors who gave her TV and radio work. It was up to him to follow suit and that he did.

"It's weird, I did an entire show across BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Manchester from the Belfast Road in Newry last Saturday," he says.

"I was literally 90 seconds from going on air last week and the door started going in the middle of the 10 o'clock news - it was a woman looking for house with a takeaway. By the time I'd dealt with that I was going live in 40 seconds!

"And do you know what's even more bonkers? Owen Larkin, from Downtown, lives about 150 yards from me and does his show from there."

Connor's worked hard to build his career to this point and readily admits that he is realising a dream by having his own Radio Ulster show. However, the fact that he is replacing his dear friend Stephen Clements, who passed away in January, means that it is very much a bittersweet homecoming for him.

"Yeah, it is," he says quietly, acknowledging the poignancy of the circumstances. "I just want to pay tribute to Stephen, but I also want to pay tribute to all Stephen's colleagues and friends and family who have reached out to me in the last two weeks, as well as the people who worked with him.

"My wife will tell you... we've all been a little bit emotional over the last month with the way things are playing out. I think our emotions change.

"But Holly knew from my face over the last fortnight whenever I would get a message about Stephen.

Close

Stephen Clements

Stephen Clements

Stephen Clements

"She knew when I'd sit down on the edge of the couch and go through my messages... and I would get everything from Twitter messages and Facebook messages to text messages from colleagues saying 'You're the perfect fit for this'.

"And as much as you would think to yourself, 'Alright, you'd say that anyway', it was good to get those messages. But the nicest message of them all was from Gavin Clements, Stephen's brother.

"And it was so, so important to me that before we went on air, before we did anything, before we started properly planning the show, before we came back over, that I needed Stephen's family to know that it was happening.

"And Gavin just sent me the most amazing message. That meant so much.

"This show has been described to me as the Number Seven shirt and to me Stephen Clements properly wore the shirt on the show.

"He showed the world exactly how a show like this needs to be presented and I think it's important not only that I carry on from where he left off but that people remember Stephen's individual show for how brilliant it was.

"It's the Number Seven shirt in that I think Stephen Clements did a George Best on this and I hope that I can do a Kenny Dalglish and not an Alexis Sanchez."

It's a little over three months since I last interviewed Connor for the Belfast Telegraph in much more difficult circumstances, in the days after Stephen's tragic death.

With the shock of his sudden passing still raw, he fought back tears as he paid tribute to his friend who he had known since they were both at Cool FM, blissfully unaware that he would eventually step into his shoes at Radio Ulster.

He said then: "He should be here now. He should be here much longer. He should be growing the niche he's created for himself even further.

"The two of us are very similar in that we both moved to the BBC and it was something both of us had always aspired to do.

"We both wanted to work in the BBC, we both wanted to do grown-up radio but with a smile, and he was doing that really well. And that's the thing that's really hit me now.

"There's only a handful of people in the industry that had the kind of effect that he had. It's tough, it's hard to gauge it. Holly was very upset. She was working with him a couple of weeks ago and then she had her show with him during the summer. It's just horrendous."

Connor, now 38, ran his own market stall from the age of nine and has also appeared in the West End - so perhaps that combination of graft and a desire to perform meant he was always destined to be a TV and radio presenter.

Close

Holly Hamilton has moved to Manchester with her husband Connor Phillips

Holly Hamilton has moved to Manchester with her husband Connor Phillips

Holly Hamilton has moved to Manchester with her husband Connor Phillips

"That's how I've done things," he says. "I've done that since I was a kid. I was a market trader when I was nine years of age - I had my first market stall at Jonesborough at nine, my dad was a market trader for years, as were my grandfather and my uncles. I worked in the market right up until I went to university. I did a drama degree, became an actor and ended up doing three years in the West End.

"People didn't think that was a possibility, but I did that. And then I thought, 'Do you know what? I'm going to give this presenting lark a crack'.

"People said, 'Get a proper job'. That was always the thing, but it's that old cliche, if you enjoy a job you do you'll never work a hard day in your life. It's so unbelievably true."

It's been quite a career trajectory and Connor is the first to admit he couldn't have achieved as much without Holly, who is from Greyabbey. The pair, who met when both working on the breakfast programme on Cool FM, married in the Algarve in southern Portugal in 2018.

Close

HAPPY DAY: Connor and Holly’s wedding day with their family

HAPPY DAY: Connor and Holly’s wedding day with their family

HAPPY DAY: Connor and Holly’s wedding day with their family

"I could do none of this without Holly Hamilton," he says. "I have an incredibly supportive wife, who backs me every step of the way."

Some couples might find working in the same profession tricky, but Connor says they find the opposite is true.

"It helps that we both work in the same industry because she's gone through the same sort of experiences, such as holding back whether to do something, and I'm like, 'Hold on a second, I believe in you - believe in yourself.'

"I live my life by two mantras - 'If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got'. So you've got to go out and change something yourself.

"And the second is 'Why not me?' Why shouldn't I be doing that? I think that people sometimes have a preconceived idea in their head about what a presenter is.

"Don't get me wrong, I've had doubters who've said, 'That guy from south Armagh, that accent, there's not too many broadcasters or presenters from that part of the world...'

"But I've been absolutely determined to prove any doubters wrong ... I know who the doubters are and I love it when I bump into them now and again and I go, 'How's it going! Are you well?'

"And they say, 'I see you're doing really well' and I say, 'Yep, I hope you're well, I hope the family's well...' And it's just that wee smile you have. I have the best job in the world."

With self-confidence in his own abilities, not to mention the gift of the gab and a chirpy personality, it is perhaps no surprise that Connor managed to charm his way through the doors of the BBC in England before proving his worth through his natural abilities and work ethic.

He admits: "It was a bit of a risk, it was a slow start. I was giving up my show at Cool FM at the time it was the most listened to commercial radio show in Northern Ireland to head across the water with no guarantee of any work.

"But taking that risk was the best thing I've ever done. It's been brilliant going over to England, we put the work in and I suppose it's about making a life and making contacts and recognising how the industry works - radio is very different in England.

"But I always had an eye on that one job that would bring me home and there was probably two (the other being breakfast radio), and they were both in Radio Ulster.

Close

FAMILY MATTERS: Connor with extended family, from left brother Damien, his wife Aoife, sister Ciara holding Connor’s nephew Conall, his soon to be brother-in-law Chris Slane who is holding Connor’s brother’s daughter Meabh Phillips, his mum Maureen Holly and (at front) his dad Terry

FAMILY MATTERS: Connor with extended family, from left brother Damien, his wife Aoife, sister Ciara holding Connor’s nephew Conall, his soon to be brother-in-law Chris Slane who is holding Connor’s brother’s daughter Meabh Phillips, his mum Maureen Holly and (at front) his dad Terry

FAMILY MATTERS: Connor with extended family, from left brother Damien, his wife Aoife, sister Ciara holding Connor’s nephew Conall, his soon to be brother-in-law Chris Slane who is holding Connor’s brother’s daughter Meabh Phillips, his mum Maureen Holly and (at front) his dad Terry

"The chance to work at the BBC was always something that I wanted to do from when I started working in radio, you've always got those ambitions in your head.

"To me this is the equivalent to that - and specifically this show. Every time I stop and think about how this slot was the one held by Gerry Anderson, Sean Coyle and Stephen Clements, I just get a wee 'Oh...'

"Just that wee moment where your heart skips a beat now and again, and then I have to remind myself, 'No, hold on a second, you're doing this nearly 15 years, you've done this at the highest level, back yourself'.

"Then I'll say to myself, 'Okay, I will, I will - I'll be fine.' And then I think about it again and go, 'Oh...'"

Connor also reckons that doing everything and anything while he was on the other side of the Irish Sea will stand him in good stead for his new Radio Ulster role.

He jokes: "One of my bosses said to me one day, 'Do you know what you are? You're the radio Swiss army knife now. You're the man we call when we need someone.

"I can hold a politician to account, I can do the big celebrity interviews and then music radio as well; I know my music, having been doing those sort of shows for 15 years.

"If you had said to me 15 years ago or 10 years ago that moving away to England, just working across loads of platforms and doing what I did would work the way it did I wouldn't have believed it, I'd have thought I needed to be settled doing the one show.

"Hopefully I'm a better broadcaster for it. I don't get flustered when things go wrong or when things break. It's been the best, if also challenging, five or six years - there was a year there when I was putting an average of 700 miles a week on my car.

"It's been tough at times and getting editors to believe in you - this random strange Irish boy looking for work at the BBC. I was always like, 'Just give me a shot - give me one show and I'll ease your mind.'"

When I point out to him that his new slot has a prestigious history and ask how he feels about taking on that legacy, Connor admits he can't stop thinking about it.

"What are you doing to me?" he replies. "I have the hairs standing up on the back of my arms here. What happens is that every now and again someone will say, 'Good luck, that's the old Gerry Anderson slot' and I will be stopped in my tracks.

"I grew up listening to Gerry and one of my favourite TV programmes was when they animated his radio show, that was amazing. At least every one or two weeks I'll get lost down a Gerry Anderson rabbit hole on YouTube and then you recognise the prestige of what Gerry used to do. So I owe it to Stephen, I owe it to Sean Coyle and I owe it Gerry to make sure that I put the work into it."

Indeed, his new programme hopes to capture some of the magic of Gerry's show.

Close

L-R: Connor, his sister Ciara and his brother Damien

L-R: Connor, his sister Ciara and his brother Damien

L-R: Connor, his sister Ciara and his brother Damien

"Some of the iconic callers Gerry had on were people you didn't expect to hear on the radio so we are asking the general public to not only take the lead on what we are saying in the show but also we just want people to call in with their thoughts of the day.

"Listeners will have the powerful, hard-hitting incredible stories from the Stephen Nolan Show before my show and then William Crawley on Talkback on the other side. I'm kind of the meat in that sandwich. No, I'll tell you what, I feel more like a custard cream and I'm kind of like the creamy bit in the middle, the bit where you don't have to be as hard-hitting.

"I'm saying to listeners 'Just call me and tell me what's going on in your head, what's going on in your life, what's affecting you?' And then we also will have our own stuff, we're putting together some nice features and bits and pieces.

"The type of show I'm going to do on Radio Ulster will be fun, upbeat and happy with a bit of devilment thrown in there, it's not going to be a politically heavy show."

Connor knows only too well what a vital lifeline radio can play in people's lives, not least right now when all of us are limited to life in lockdown while the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I couldn't believe how much people are relying on the radio at the minute," he says. "It almost comes in anecdotally, we get messages on social media on Facebook and Twitter after a show saying, 'Thank-you so much for being there for us, thank-you so much for listening'.

"Of course, in my eyes I'm not doing an important job - the NHS is an important job, people who are delivering the food are doing an important job, bus drivers who are getting the NHS workers to hospitals are doing an important job, while I'm sitting in a room talking to myself.

"But I have to say during the last month particularly, we have seen messages to colleagues, I've seen group messages to the BBC stations that I work in saying, 'You don't recognise how important this is'.

"I know people will sometimes knock media organisations, but I think media and specifically reliable media at the moment, provide an absolute lifeline for people, specifically those who cannot move out of their houses. People forget that there are others who are completely isolated, who can't get out, who have no mobility, no friends, no family. Those people rely on the kindness of strangers and the radio. Previously we'd have seen this scenario round Christmas when some people like to make themselves feel better and say, 'Do you know what, if you have a neighbour who you think might be on their own around Christmas, head over with a box of sweets and a box of biscuits'.

"And that kind of frustrates me a bit, why do it at Christmas, why not do it every Saturday? Why not do it once a week? Hopefully people have started to recognise that some people are socially isolated. We see it a lot with radio, people reaching out to us, because we are their lifeline. But it would nice when this is done and dusted if people realised there are people who are always on their own and we got a lot better at helping them. Sometimes a listening ear is all that people want."

In his spare time Connor likes to keep fit and eat a healthy diet, and now that he is back home he is also checking on his parents Terry and Maureen, who are both in their 60s.

Close

With mum, dad and Holly at Crufts earlier this year

With mum, dad and Holly at Crufts earlier this year

With mum, dad and Holly at Crufts earlier this year

"Making sure that mum and dad are alright is very important," he says. "Mum and dad are great. They're like me - my mum would be out walking and dad's a character as well. It's just making sure that they are well and healthy. I went up to check on them yesterday, just drove into the yard and Mum said, 'There's just a wee package over there for ya'. And there was two days' worth of chicken carbonara and some garlic bread to take back home with me."

As you might expect, given how hard he has worked in his career so far, Connor is ambitious. Could he and Holly become the next television husband and wife power couple and give Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford a run for their money?

"If I had a pound for every time I heard that I'd be building my mansion in Jonesborough, south Armagh, on top of a mountain somewhere," he says. "Yeah, we get that a lot.

"Holly is in Manchester - things haven't really changed that much for Holly, she's still on BBC Sport, BBC Breakfast, the news channel etc.

"We have all the ideas in the world to commute between here and Manchester, as we were doing, but we will have to see how life settles down in the foreseeable due to pandemic. Previously, I would have been coming back once a week or once a fortnight anyway. And both of us have made TV shows here recently, we'd both do corporate work here.

Close

Connor and Holly

Connor and Holly

Connor and Holly

"Holly has just finished doing Getaways for BBC Northern Ireland, and she did Children in Need as well, and I'm so proud of her in what she's done in the last four or five years.

"But first of all FlyBe went, so that really hit us hard, because we were planning in getting a place close to the City Airport, so that knocked us back.

"Coronavirus means we're now in a weird sort of limbo - Holly's over there, I'm over here, it's FaceTime six or seven times a day making sure she's alright and vice versa.

"The goal will be to get a place in Belfast and start living that Belfast life that I used to live 10 years ago and then for us both to work together.

"That's the ultimate ambition, we've had a couple of projects we've been trying to develop over the last 18 months but everything is on pause now obviously. The ultimate ambition is to do more with Holly, specifically on telly. We've done three or four things together over the last couple of years and it's brilliant, I love working with her.

"We've got two very different styles of working and they complement each other. I'm quite a stickler for detail but she's quite ruthless at times, so I can put an idea up and she'll know straight away whether that's a good idea or not because she's got a TV brain and she's been working in TV as long as I've been working in radio.

"That's the ultimate ambition but first my priority is to get this show up and running and if I can get it anywhere near as iconic as the last three presenters did I'll do well."

The Connor Phillips Show is on BBC Radio Ulster, Monday to Friday at 10.30am and also on BBC Sounds

Belfast Telegraph