Sean Coyle: Gerry Anderson and I were real opposites but we were like brothers... brothers who fought the bit out! I miss him so much and still talk to him in my head
In a deeply moving interview, popular Radio Ulster presenter Sean Coyle opens his heart about the death of fellow broadcaster Gerry Anderson, the childhood family tragedy that saddens him even yet and how he knew he'd met the woman he'd marry before they'd even shared a date.
Before he met radio legend Gerry Anderson, Sean Coyle was notoriously shy. So nervous was he about speaking in front of crowds, he lost his voice seconds into his groom's speech at his own wedding and had to sit down.
But it was the encouragement of Gerry Anderson, the man he calls his "brother", that led him to where he is today, completely devoid of nervousness and speaking to the masses while hosting his own show on Radio Ulster every morning from 10.30am.
Sean says that even now, four years after Gerry's death, he still speaks to him every day and that certain songs bring Gerry to his mind and a tear to his eye.
Sean was born in the Rosemount area of Londonderry. One of eight children and the son of famed Derry City Football Club player James 'Monty' Coyle, he could have very easily followed in the footballing footsteps of his father, if it wasn't for the lack of soccer prowess.
"I couldn't play at all," he says. "And I was always compared to my father. I remember one day out playing football in the street and a man said to me 'Your father would be ashamed of you if he saw you playing like that'. I was only little. I stopped playing football that day. I might have kicked a ball in the street but I would go in if anybody was watching."
He says he remembers a happy childhood growing up in Nassau Street, although his young life was touched with tragedy before his sixth birthday.
"My brother Joseph was killed on the road," he says. "He was only three and a half years old. I was around five. He at the shop and he was hit by a bus. I was with him. It was awful. He was in buying sweets and he ran out of the shop on the road. We were all in the street playing and my mother didn't realise that he would have went that far. It was just really tragic."
Years later, as a teenager, Sean left Northern Ireland and sought work in England. Although he says it could never be described as "work".
"I had been working in England on the building sites," he says. "I wasn't allowed near the bricks or building things. I made the tea and went to the shop for the site workers. I once worked on a site next to where the TV show Crossroads was filmed. They used to see me going to the shop for the builders and asked me to go to the shop for them. I got to know them all very well. They were good fun."
He returned to Derry in the early Seventies and shortly afterwards met Patricia, the woman who was to become his wife - "the love of my life," as he describes her. Before they'd even been out together on a proper date, Sean knew they would spend the rest of their lives together.
"I met her at the dances and I became friendly with her," he recalls. "I would have asked her to dance frequently. One day I saw her and we stopped to talk in the street. And that day, just while I was standing there talking to her, I knew that I was going to marry her. We hadn't even been out on so much as a date. But I just knew. She did a bit of running away from me. But I eventually caught her. She ran out of breath and out of road and we got married.
"Although marrying Patricia was the best day of my life, I hated my wedding day. I was so nervous. I couldn't enjoy it. I couldn't handle all these people looking at me and having to talk in front of people. We only had a small wedding with family and friends but I had to make a speech. I remember standing up to speak and my voice just failed me. I couldn't speak, I was so very nervous. I couldn't wait to get away on honeymoon."
The couple went on to have three daughters - Una, Claire and Fiona - and are proud grandparents to seven boys, who he describes as his "rays of sunshine".
It was when their own children were small, and while working in a market shop in Waterford, that Sean first heard the voice of Gerry Anderson, the man he would later come to think of as a brother.
"I used to listen to Gerry Anderson on the radio in the shop," he says. "I thought it was the greatest radio ever, that this guy was off his head. I would have been a big fan of Kenny Everett who was on the radio at the time. I loved his style. I listened to Gerry and I thought he was my Kenny Everett. But I hated his music, though. I would turn down the volume when the music was on and then turn it back up when he spoke again. I just wanted to hear him.
"A friend of mine, Brian Mullen, worked in Radio Foyle. Gerry had a thing about impersonations. I was always doing impersonations and Brian said to me to send in some to Gerry. Brian told me to come in and he recorded me doing the impersonations. I did Henry Cooper and the like.
"Then the very last one I did was Barry McGuigan, and he loved that one. Gerry got in contact and asked me to do them for him. So I'd go down at night and leave Gerry messages in the voice of Barry McGuigan and Gerry would play them the next day in his show.
"Then he told me that I needed to come in and do them live on air. I didn't want to. I told him I couldn't do it. He said I could.
"He believed I could do it. I was possibly in awe of him. I had listened to him for so long on the radio and before I listened to him I was a big fan of him in the showbands. He was in The Chessmen."
The pair went on to become great friends. Looking back in the close bond they shared, Sean says now: "We just gelled. We never ran out of something to talk about. We always argued, but in a very nice way. We were so close, but we were two real opposites in everything. He would say a film was great on TV and I would say it was rubbish.
"We entertained the office; they would come in to see what we were arguing about in the kitchen. On a particular day, when I was just working behind the scenes on his show, we were walking down the stairs fighting as usual. He went into one studio and I went into the other to man the phones and he just opened the microphone so I was live.
"There was no warning. He wanted to continue the argument on air. He told listeners what we had been fighting about. And that was the start of it. Whether or not he planned that, whether or not he knew I would clam up if I had of known what he was going to do, I don't know.
"He gave me all the encouragement to speak on air - he started my career. That's the type of guy he was. He always thought outside the box.
"I took to it like a duck to water, I really enjoyed it. It was always very funny. We would forget that we were on air. He would get so annoyed at me when we were live that we would be shouting at one another. He would be throwing things at the glass partition between the studio and the control room. And I'd be throwing stuff back."
Despite their brilliant on-air rapport, the pair didn't spend much time together outside the studio. "We were such good friends and yet we never really socialised. We kept it all for in here. And I got to know him so, so well. I never knew what it was like to love a man until he died. To this day I would get emotional thinking or talking about him. I miss him terribly.
"I often think of situations where he would say this and I would say that. I'd be planning conversations all in my head. I could be sitting here and he'd pop into my mind. I have one or two songs that I play from time to time when he's on my mind. And I find it hard to hold back the tears when I do."
Sean says that Gerry picked a quiet moment after one show to tell him of his cancer diagnosis, a conversation that rocked him to the core.
"It was a terrible, terrible blow when he told me he had cancer," he says. "After the programme one day he waited until the office was quiet and he told me he had to go to hospital and that he'd be off for two months. He told me he had bowel cancer and I didn't know what to say. He told me I was taking over when he went off sick.
"He told me that they had assured him that everything was going to be fine and he'd be away for two months. He became emotional. He told me not to talk about it or tell anyone. He wanted to keep it private. He told me to promise that I would never say 'that word'.
"The last day that he left here, he turned around and he said to me 'I'll see you, kid'. He always called me kid. He was never back in the studio.
"He had said that he would make contact and he would phone in from time to time and hear all the goings-on. We went out for a drink one night when he was doing okay and I could see that he was tired. A while later he asked me up to his house one day. It was really emotional. But when we got that out of the way his wife, Christine, made us bacon sandwiches. I reached for the last one and he slapped my hand away. I said it was mine. He said it was his bacon and then we were off again, arguing away like old times. We fought to the very end.
"The last time I saw him was at the premiere of his film, My Derry. We chatted away as always. I didn't realise that he was so sick or that it was coming near the end. I noticed his voice getting weaker when we were talking. He told me that he was going to try and come back to the radio. He said his brain was okay, but that his voice was a bit frail. He set a date and said that we would go for it.
"Then, on a Thursday morning, I was shaving in my bathroom and my wife came to the door with the phone. It was Maggie from the BBC in Belfast. She said that Gerry was gone. It was awful.
"Every Thursday when I'm shaving I think of Gerry. I never thought I could feel that way. We worked together for 33 years. We were like brothers; brothers that fought the bit out!"
Sean says it has been the most difficult of tasks to take to the air without Gerry since his death at 69 in August 2014. The two had planned on heading off into the sunset of retirement together.
"Before he took sick, he told me he was going to retire when he was 70," he says. "And he asked me what I was going to do. And I told him that if he was going, I was going to go too. And that's what we were planning, going together. Of course, that never happened.
"I miss him so much. I still talk to him in my head. I go a walk around the golf course, or out into the countryside and I chat away to him.
"I hear him in my head. I think to myself, 'What would Gerry say? How would Gerry handle this?' It was hard being on air without him. When he passed away, I knew that I was on my own and I knew that people would be comparing me to him, so we decided that we would do it my way. I didn't want people to compare the shows. I didn't want people to think I was doing Gerry's show. I think I'm doing things differently. I tell the people more about me so people get to know me. That's why I tell them about what I had for dinner, or what I was watching on the TV, just as if you were talking to them in a pub."
Sean says he remembers his friend every day in life. A song may trigger a memory, or when pondering a situation, Gerry's voice would come into his head.
"I don't do anything to remember Gerry on his anniversary, I remember him every day with great affection," he says. "He was the funniest man and he always encouraged me. Yet when we were out doing things together, he wouldn't rehearse. I'd be out in the car park rehearsing our lines and he'd be inside the building thinking to himself 'It'll be grand, it'll be alright'. We were just two opposites. He knew I did all the worrying and he didn't care. He just flew by the seat of his pants all the time. He used to drive me mad!
"But I loved the fact that I made him laugh. He had the greatest, hearty laugh and he'd be bent over, hanging off, almost falling off the chair. When he was like that I knew it was going well."
As for the future, Sean says he makes no plans and has no hopes or fears.
"Losing my parents, losing my brother and losing Gerry are definitely the worst things that ever happened to me," he says. "That aside, I have had a good, happy life. There is a lot of happiness. My seven grandsons, my wife and my three daughters and sons-in-law bring me so much joy.
"I have no fears. I have no hopes. I was never, ever ambitious. I think that if you lack ambition then you don't have any fears. I have always thought, 'If it happens, it happens', and that is how my life has been. It has worked out well for me so far."
The Sean Coyle Show, Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle, Mon-Fri, 10.30-noon