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'I think it's fair to say that when the BBC revealed its top salaries, it caused shock, anger and resentment, but also opened discussion'

His is one of the most enduring voices on BBC Radio Ulster. Seamus McKee, the presenter of Evening Extra, talks to Lindy McDowell about his near 40 years in broadcasting and spending time with his grandchildren

My interview with Seamus McKee begins with him enquiring about my shoulder, which I broke a couple of months ago. How is it now? How exactly did it happen? Where exactly did it happen? Did I go to hospital right away? Which hospital was I treated in? What exactly did they do? How well did I feel I was treated in the hospital? Is it still very...?

"Hold on, Seamus," I finally have to interject, "I'm supposed to be interviewing YOU here."

The man can't help himself. It's not just his decades long broadcasting career with BBC NI which has honed his interrogation skills.

Seamus McKee is by nature an inquisitive sort, a man curious about the world around him, genuinely interested in other people, what they think, what drives them.

Put it like this - if you were trapped in a lift with Seamus, you wouldn't be stuck for conversation.

Much liked and highly respected within local journalism, he seems to have been around for ever and yet it is something of a shock to learn that he will celebrate his 70th birthday in October this year.

Like the man himself, that distinctive voice seems ageless. Seamus is not a product of the Aggressive Hectoring School of Interview Technique. His is a more thoughtful, probing approach.

Like the schoolteacher he was before he joined the media, he does his homework meticulously, "mugging up" on issues to be discussed, ensuring he's done his research on interviewees.

"The way I put it is, you don't interview the writer if you haven't read the book. When you do an interview it's not about you. It's about the person you're interviewing."

He adds that "there are some presenters who think they're the big shot. That it's all about them."

His presenting skills have been acknowledged by two prestigious PPI (Phonographic Performance Ireland) Radio Awards in 2014 and 2016. He is quick though to pay tribute to the entire team who put Evening Extra together - the show also won a PPI.

His BBC career started if not quite by accident, certainly with no thought that it might become long-term or even full-time.

Seamus grew up in Riverdale, back then a very middle-class area at the top of the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast.

A doctor lived next door. Nearby lived the owners of other small businesses like McKee and Birnie Ltd, the paint supply firm run by his late father Jim.

The business which had originally been founded by Seamus's grandfather, William McKee, and a gentleman called Bob Birnie, is still going strong today.

Seamus points out with pride that his late father worked in the place into his 70s. Today his brother, Noel, is at the helm.

His mother, May, came originally from Dublin. So did he spend much time down there as a child?

"All summer holidays," he recalls with considerable enthusiasm.

Seamus, Noel and their sisters, Madeleine and Mary, would spend the summer months with their granny, Bermingham, and a large family circle of aunts, uncles and cousins.

"Belfast is my home city", he says, "but Dublin is very much a hinterland. A place of influences. It was formative for me. My uncles in particular had enormous influence on me."

After graduating from Queen's, he taught English and French for 12 years in what was then St Patrick's but later became Our Lady and St Patrick's School.

"I left in 1981. And looking back I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Helping young people, I'm very glad that was part of my working life."

He was married by then to Brenda, his wife of 43 years. The couple have two daughters, Emma (40) and Ruth (35).

His broadcasting career started while he was still at Queen's University with contemporaries the late Barry Cowan and Derek Hobson.

Derek, who was studying law, had done an audition for the Beeb and had landed work as a television newsreader.

"Well, we looked at this and thought, 'That's okay!'," says Seamus.

He phoned up to arrange an audition. On the day of this try-out, he recalls sitting in the studio afterwards somewhat unsettled on hearing laughter coming from next door.

"I thought, 'That's a bit discouraging.'"

It turned out not to be a critique of his efforts but a couple of staff watching a comedy programme.

Not only had he passed the audition, he now hit the ground running, appearing on the station's then flagship television news programme, Scene Around Six, three nights on the trot.

After that it wasn't always quite so regular - "They called on you if they wanted a bit done", is how he puts it - but gradually he built a wealth of experience covering sport, religious affairs, the arts.

Since then, he's worked in production, on television, on radio. "I was lucky to get into broadcasting the way I did back then," Seamus says. "There were people who were very helpful to me and who had a great influence on me, teaching me so much.

"When I reflect on the situation for others now that jobs are at a premium, I'd say I was very lucky. I had a full-time job in teaching, so I couldn't say I was depending on it for a living. In terms of the media in general today, I do wonder how much nurturing they do now. That said, where young people coming into the industry are concerned, I do think talent will always out. But you have to take the knocks too."

When he decided to leave the teaching job, his ever supportive wife Brenda backed him all the way.

The couple had known each other since their respective sixth forms and through university.

Touchingly, he is as enthusiastic, if not more so, talking about Brenda's career as he is about his own.

A teacher of Drama and English, Brenda taught in Lurgan for a time, later at St Louise's in Belfast. These days she still teaches contemporary dance and Pilates at the Crescent Arts Centre. A member of the contemporary dance group founded by Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis, Brenda was instrumental in having the blue plaque erected at the Crescent Centre to commemorate that remarkable woman.

"We knew Helen and her husband Harry very well and still keep in touch with their sons Robin and Michael," says Seamus.

The McKees' two daughters, Emma, a lawyer who lives in Farnham, and journalist Ruth, who lives in London, have inherited their mother's red hair.

Emma has two children, Ava (6) and two-year-old Flinn (the name means "son of the red-haired one.")

What are his views on the salary controversy and gender pay gap which have rocked the BBC in recent months?

"I think the BBC made mistakes and it has acknowledged that. Talking to colleagues, women among them, I think it's fair to say that when the top salaries were revealed it caused shock and it caused anger. Apart from anything else, it contrasted the very large amounts at the very top with the amounts paid to the people putting the programmes together who were getting just a fraction. That caused resentment.

“I think there’s now among women colleagues more of an openness. They’re talking, sharing information.

“I don’t think there’s any question there’s a will for change.

“It has caused shock. It has caused heart-searching. And there is still scepticism.

“Society is demanding change. The BBC, because of what it is, finds itself at the forefront.  Because of the licence fee, people feel an ownership [of the BBC]. Everybody has an opinion on it.”

Presenting Evening Extra, it’s inevitable that he ends up quizzing the same politicians on the same issues on what must seem an interminable basis. Doesn’t he ever get weary of it?

“I don’t think you can ever get into that. You must always be probing for something new — that element of truth, that possibility that hasn’t emerged so far, something the politician will let slip but didn’t intend to reveal.

“If I ever let that (the sense that it was just pointless repetition) influence me, I’d stop. It wouldn’t be fair to the listeners and it wouldn’t be fair to the politicians.

“As a journalist, you’re always on the lookout for the unexpected. If you’re not on the lookout for the new, you shouldn’t be doing the job.

“You’re doing your job, but your job isn’t to belittle people — it’s getting them to explain, to reveal.”

As an interviewer, he knows that there will always be that key question to ask that will indeed reveal much about the interviewee.

So Seamus, I say, if you were interviewing yourself, what would that question be?

He’s momentarily silenced.

And then says he always believes that the most revealing word of all is ‘why?’

“It’s no accident that the word children ask most. I think the hardest questions for the politicians are the ‘why?’ It may sound simple to answer, but it’s not.”

He pauses. “This doesn’t really answer your question and reveal something about me though, does it?

So he obliges.

“I would say I’m not a dogmatic person. I admire people who have very fixed views. But I don’t have that certainty.”

“I’m a sceptical person.”

The sort of man who asks ‘why?’

I ask him about downtime and how he relaxes and he laughs and says delightedly: “Oh, the grandkids!”

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Belfast, Farnham and London, where there’s the added bonus of indulging his and Brenda’s interests in cinema, theatre and dance. (“Not a huge amount of dance comes here”) He also enjoys swimming. I note that the profile picture on his Twitter account was taken during a visit to the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, where he’s pictured kneeling by the Clint Eastwood plaque. Is he a big Clint fan?

He laughs heartily.

“I needed a photograph for the Twitter feed and that one seemed to fit. It was taken when we were on holiday there.

“That just happens to be the plaque we stopped beside.

“Yes, I like Clint Eastwood movies. But no, I don’t have fantasies about telling politicians to go on, make my day.”

Evening Extra, Radio Ulster, Mon-Fri, 5pm

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