Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Mark: I’m a real morning person

By Audrey Watson

BBCNI presenter Mark Carruthers on why his breakfast news slot will suit him perfectly.

Getting up in the middle of the night to go to work isn't something many people would look forward to, but for broadcaster Mark Carruthers rising with the lark has its advantages. From next week, the BBCNI journalist will team up with Karen Patterson and Conor Bradford to present Radio Ulster's flagship breakfast news programme, Good Morning Ulster, and for the father-of-three it's a happy return to where his career began almost 20 years ago.

“My first job was as a freelance journalist reporting for Good Morning Ulster and also PM Ulster as it was then,” explains Mark.

“In those days, the programme was anchored by Mike Nesbitt and I often found myself as the stand-in. When Mike left, I was handed the ball and presented it myself, five mornings a week for almost two years.

“My children were very young at the time and I wasn't always getting an unbroken night's sleep, so it could be quite tiring at times.

“Now they're much older, I don't think getting up so early will be quite as hard,” he laughs.

“And the upside is that I'll finish much earlier in the day. For the last few years, because I've been presenting Evening Extra as well as Newsline, Let's Talk and working on the Spotlight programmes, I've rarely been at home to have tea with the kids.

“I've missed sports days and prize days, so I'm looking forward to being able to do more of that.”

Since he joined the BBC in 1989, Londonderry-born Mark has presented countless news and current affairs programmes on both television and radio. He was nominated for a prestigious Royal Television Society award in 2003 and, in 2005, he and Newsline co-presenter Donna Traynor lifted a prestigious IFTA for Best News Programme.

But his return to Good Morning Ulster doesn't mean he'll be disappearing from TV screens and although Mark confirms rumours that popular political discussion programme Let's Talk has been axed, he reveals that he and the BBC are working on a replacement.

“I've been doing Let's Talk for eight years and I've really enjoyed it, but it's not coming back in its current format. It's being replaced by something else which I will present. I'll also continue to work on Spotlight.

“Let's Talk was a great programme and clearly fulfilled a need — everybody recognises that we have to continue to fill that role and therefore we are working on a successor at the moment.”

Mark, who gained a degree in political science and a Masters in Irish politics from Queen's University, is clearly passionate about the subject and over the years on Let's Talk has often had his work cut out keeping the peace between the diverse range of guests who appeared on the show.

“Live political programmes are a challenge and can get heated, but sometimes you just allow that to happen,” he says.

“There's no point in having a very sanitised debate where everybody is asked a question in turn and gives an answer.

“People in power have to be asked difficult questions and held to account for their actions and words but, at the same time, as a journalist, you need to be courteous and respectful.

“Politicians have a point of view and a constituency to represent, so it's a fine balance and it was a difficult enough tightrope to walk at times.

“It's important to allow guests to speak and to listen carefully to what they have to say. Sometimes you can enjoy making individuals sweat and sometimes they can surprise you with an answer.

“I generally have a good relationship with politicians, but there have been a few times where people have felt they didn't get the last word that they were entitled to,” he laughs.

“But live TV is like that. It's a call you have to make so that you don't crash into whatever programme is coming next.”

Another passion is theatre and the arts (he is co-editor, with Stephen Douds, of Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001). Although born in Londonderry, Mark grew up in Limavady and attended Coleraine Academical Institution where he became an active member of the drama society, acting alongside James Nesbitt in many productions. He once described himself as a frustrated actor, though he denies any envy of his former schoolmate's success.

“I think we both made the right choices,” he says, smiling. “I did quite fancy acting, but I think I've probably ended up doing what I should have done.

“I'm still very passionate about theatre and am a former board member of Tinderbox Theatre Company and the Old Museum Arts Centre, but these days I wouldn't inflict myself on the paying public,” he laughs.

“The interest came from my father, who taught English and drama at Coleraine Girls Secondary school. Dad was always very involved in theatre since he was a child. Over the years, he was in lots of things and directed loads of shows.

“I was in the drama society at school and also at Queen's. It's always been part of my life.”

Currently board chairman of the Lyric Theatre (“That's like my other job,” he laughs), Mark is heavily involved with fundraising and building of the new £18m theatre.

“It's coming on very well and will open in early 2011,” he says. “We've raised £17m so far and have just one more to go, so there's a big push on.”

Like many in the creative sector, he would like to see more money invested in the arts in Northern Ireland, but realises it's an argument with many sides.

“I would like to see the arts in NI and the Arts Council getting a bigger budget, but it's a difficult one — how do you spend more money on theatre or art galleries for example, when there are people requiring hip replacements and new schools need to be built?

“But I think it's very important that that investment is made because the arts generate jobs and revenue. For every pound invested in the arts, five pounds is generated for the economy. There are an awful lot of actors and directors who will find employment with the new Lyric and it's going to make a huge contribution to the wider life of Northern Ireland.

“It will be the only fully-professional producing theatre in NI. There will be a main big space, a second studio and an education suite. There will be lots of activity in the building and a huge buzz about it.”

Away from theatre and broadcasting, Mark spends what little spare time he has on the north coast with wife Alison and three children, Andrew (16), James (14) and Kirsty (12).

“The kids are all really into their sports and activities, so I'm a full-time taxi driver at weekends — there's no time left for anything else after that,” he laughs.

Mark Carruthers joins Good Morning Ulster on Monday. The programme broadcasts on BBC Radio Ulster, Monday-Friday, 6.30am-9am. For more information visit bbc.co.uk/radioulster

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