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Stephen Nolan: Larger than life

He’s big, he’s brash and he takes no prisoners on his radio and TV shows, but Gail Walker finds there’s a softer side to Stephen Nolan

Trying to arrange an interview with Stephen Nolan these days isn’t easy. It’s a mark of his manic schedule that it’s only a few minutes before it takes place that we’ve finally nailed down the details.

The preceding 24 hours have had all the high drama, about-turns and, well, bluster of his Radio Ulster show. Yes, it’ll be face-to-face. No, it may have to be over the phone. No, scrap that, maybe he could make it down towards the Belfast Telegraph offices. Erm, hold on, he may not have time, he has to catch a flight to Manchester for his Five Live show. Maybe down the line at 10.45 ?

Then, the scent goes cold overnight. Nothing. It’s all left hanging in the air. Next morning, I turn on the radio to find out if Nolan has been bundled into someone’s very large boot and driven away at speed or whether he is still alive. He is. I ring the BBC Press Office, and we’re on his trail again. Apparently we have to wait until he’s off the air. Hmmm. Really? I know Nolan quite well and get the odd text from him when he is on air, so what is going on? Is he walking around the studio in his sock soles, as he is wont to do, trying to mastermind one of his trademark wind-ups on me? Half 10 comes and goes and still no word. Now, Nolan is in a meeting. And then suddenly about half past 12, it’s confirmed. He’ll see me in the café across the road at 1pm.

Before we know where we are, I’m trying to order a cup of tea and Nolan bursts through the door, Blackberry stuck to his ear. He tries to take the bad look of this with a one-armed clumsy hug and kiss, made more awkward by the fact that I know he is also trying to get a gander over my shoulder at the food available. But of that, more later. Now, it’s turning into slapstick. He is pacing about the floor, gesticulating wildly at his own earlobe, still attached to his mobile. One arm starts flailing round in circles. “I’m trying to wind this up,” he mouths unnecessarily. And, finally, he manages to.

“I’m all yours,” he says, sitting down. And then he jumps up and heads over to the counter. Will it be stew? Or soup? Mmmm, he wonders, his eyes expertly flicking down the menu. But his eyes also catch a certain look from me, and so he hurriedly settles for a toasted sandwich and scuttles back to our table.

The thing is, if you know Nolan, it’s impossible to get mad at him. For starters, between his radio shows and with a series of Nolan Live starting on BBC NI on Monday, he is incredibly busy. Plus, he is — and he may not like me for saying this — rather endearing. Loyal, kind and supportive, he makes a good friend.

It’s not that he has a public persona that is different from the real him — all that ‘people’s champion’ routine is him down to the very marrow of his bones — but he is perhaps a more sensitive soul that many people realise. Today, I tell him, I want to talk about the real Stephen Nolan. Who is he?

“Well, I wouldn’t like that person to be different from my public image,” he counters. “One of my goals this year is to try my very best on air for people to know me as I am. I try my best to resist any veneer of ‘This is what a BBC presenter should be’. A BBC presenter shouldn’t be anything but himself within the BBC rules. And the real me is a guy that feels very lucky to be doing what I’m doing, and also someone who feels the pressure.

“I certainly feel the pressure when we are doing a big story; when I am on air attacking a senior politician I feel the pressure, as I should, because the Nolan show often sets the news agenda. And there is a huge responsibility to be fair, not just to the public, but to the politicians and the chief executives and everyone else.”

But there is a soft side to him? He wolfs the last of his toasted sandwich and squirms a little. Admit it, I say.

“Yes, ok, there is a soft side to me and I’m not afraid to say that I hurt easily,” he says. “There is a very emotional side to me. But am I going to show that to the politicians? Absolutely not. Of course not. When I’m taking them on the soft side doesn’t exist, nor will it ever.

“But, ok, a lady telephoned me last week who ” — he gulps, both bothered and angry — “and she had been saving up money for her own funeral and these thugs watched her go to church, then broke into her home and stole £4,000 of her money. And this lady turned to me. She rang me, she trusted me. Now, it may be a slushy side but that really got to me, I felt for her, and so I broke a rule and offered to pay for the lady’s heating oil myself. Some people would sneer at me for that but I don’t care. So, maybe that’s my weak, sloppy side where I get involved in the story more than a hardline guy should

“There are people who chose to perceive me in a certain way and it’s easy to perceive me as a guy who is always on the attack. That’s nonsense, and anyway if I am on the attack, who am I on the attack on behalf of?”

Since his boyhood as an only child growing up in north Belfast, Nolan wanted to be doing what he is doing now. Not just in broadcasting, he says, but working for the BBC. As a teenager he would stalk his idol Eamonn Holmes whenever the presenter made a trip home. He’d follow him around, turning up at public appearances, asking for career advice.

“Eamonn is a legend,” he says to me now when I mention Holmes, and there is not an iota of humour in his remark. “He is everything in broadcasting that I would want to be. Superb on television. A fantastic guy. The ultimate presenter.”

Nolan’s first break came at Citybeat, where he memorably talked to his dying father across the airwaves each night, hoping to stir him from a coma. Soon, he was attracting the sort of listening figures other local stations could only dream of. And when he won his fifth Sony Award, BBC NI threw in the towel and, in 2003, poached him. Now, he has 12 Sonys, and his show can be brash, confrontational and, well, sometimes not like anything that has ever been heard on Radio Ulster before — a factor which has attracted controversy. And none of that sits lightly on Nolan, who is honest enough to admit to a fair amount of introspection and insecurity.

He says: “For the new TV show I went to visit a home which looks after people with Alzheimer’s. We were doing a piece on the back of Lady Warnock’s comments about whether these people should have the right to choose to die. She also wants a debate about whether they are a drain on NHS resources.

“And I’m still thinking about the people in that home. It’s really scary to get old and sick. As I drove away from them I was thinking, ‘Your 30s and 40s are the years to live’. I’m 35 now and I know it’s all that clichéd stuff

but I used to snarl at people who would go ‘Oh no, I’m closer to 40 now’. Now, I think ‘My God, I’m closer to 40 now’ and yet I still feel like this kid just trying to prove myself.

“I mean, it’s funny when I’m on air nothing scares me. I’ll take on anyone I think needs to be taken on. But when I’m off air, I’m constantly questioning myself and whether I’m good enough.”

One of those whom he famously took on this year was First Lady Iris Robinson on the subject of homosexuality, a classic example of another Nolan Show exclusive that dominated the news agenda here. The fallout resulted in some excoriating publicity for Mrs Robinson, although, it has to be said, considerable support for her religious views as well. It also resulted in some flak being hurled at Nolan, with some arguing that he had been too tough on Robinson.

Now, Nolan sighs and reflects: “It’s a debate among many debates that need to be had. My role in the BBC is to enable that type of discussion to happen and to ensure that no one is silenced. I am — and was — passionate that people like Iris Robinson have the airtime to express their views, the same as anyone else; that is the bottom line. That was probably one of the biggest stories of this year, everybody was talking about it.

“We got a lot of gay people coming to the show, expressing their views, and obviously a lot of those people were outraged by what had been said. But equally we got an awful lot of people who supported Iris Robinson, an incredible amount of people who backed her. I think what sometimes happens, because I am perceived as this big personality “ he pauses, then continues: “What I mean is that I don’t want the story to become about how I handled the discussion; it needs to be about the discussion, and Northern Ireland needs to work out whether it is acceptable to call someone’s sexuality an ‘abomination’.”

But was he too hard on Robinson? “I get that [sort of comment] every day. Yesterday someone described me as a ‘mad loyalist’ and at the same time I was called a ‘Sinn Fein loyalist’.”

So, what of his current relationship with Robinson? “I don’t know Iris Robinson,” he says. “But she is very

welcome at any stage to come on the show. And I admire people who are forceful in their views.”

Nolan starts to jest that I turned down an opportunity to come onto his show recently. “You should come over to the dark side,” he chuckles. “The show has grown and grown.”

Like its presenter, I parry, and then regret it because although Nolan has made much merriment himself about his own weight battle, he has, latterly, started to find it less amusing. During last year’s 10-week run of Nolan Live, he shed four and half stone, coming down to 15 stone 11. This year he has once again recruited the help of The Turk to help with diet and exercise, but the air hangs heavy with self-recrimination.

“I try not to mention my weight these days unless someone else mentions it,” he shoots back at me. “Ok, I laugh through it but I’m devastated I put it back on. My problem with food? It’s a constant battle that I’m constantly losing and it’s going to fight me until the day I die. And it’s certainly not funny now because this time I thought I was going to do it. People were complimenting me and saying ‘My goodness, you look much better, you used to look so grey and pale’. And as you get older, being my sort of weight gets more dangerous, so ”

Like most successful people, Nolan works hard for it. A typical day starts at 7am in Belfast “though more often I’m in the office by 7.30am and, this is the maverick side of me the BBC won’t like, there are days when I sleep in and get there slightly after 8”.

He’s on air from 9-10.30am, then the next couple of hours are spent working on podcasts and other online material. “And that’s just the radio side of it, there is also the television side,” he explains. “In the office a guy called Kevin Kelly edits all the shows and we have two teams — one from radio, the other from TV — coming to us constantly about what is happening, plus an online team”.

Last night, an exclusive about former Taiseach Albert Reynolds visiting Gusty Spence saw him in the office until midnight. After our interview, it’s back to the BBC for a meeting, then, since it’s Friday, a taxi to the City Airport for a flight to Manchester, where he presents his Five Live show for the next three nights. His plane will land at 6.30pm, and he’ll be in the studio by 7.30pm doing pre-recorded interviews for the show, which runs from 10pm-1am.

Still, he says that because Five Live is all he does in Manchester, the weekend counts as his downtime, too: “I crash in the hotel, I sleep. During the day I go out and do the things I can’t do here because work is so busy. I go shopping. I go to the cinema an awful lot in Manchester. Sometimes I go to the casino ”

Sounds very banana daiquiri. So, a serious gambling problem? “Don’t you be naughty,” he laughs. “No, I’m not a serious gambler, but sometimes you come off air and there’s a real buzz and it’s hard to sleep and what do I want to do if I can’t sleep? I want to eat so sometimes I go this casino across the road from the studio instead.”

He’s renovating a house in Comber, but also has two houses in Belfast, and stays in the city during the week. Something of a property magnate, he once owned quite a few properties. How’s that going? “I have a few houses in Belfast and, same as for everyone else, it’s not a good time to be owning property, but I think in the long-term it’s a good investment — the population is growing, they ain’t building any more land ”

He’s been single for a long time and lives alone. Does he ever think about settling down? “I think it’s something that I have started to think about, but I have started to think about whether I should be starting to think about it, and I think that when I start to think about it and have thought about it, I will be telling you about it.”

I must be looking baffled, because he tries to elaborate, pointing to the fact he has given over so much time to his career: “I think you can have all of this oomph about you in your 20s, you can have a lot to prove, and for a character like me, it’s always been about doing a job that I really wanted to do ”

An only child, he has taken extra special care of his mum since his father’s death. He had a “very happy upbringing” and says: “That is why I’m passionate my public profile should never in any way harm my mother”.

Why? Does she worry about him? “Every day. She worries about the fact I’m quite scruffy. If she knew I was meeting you she’d be saying ‘What is she going to think of him with all those crumbs down his trousers?’ She is worried about all the weight I have put on. She is worried about [Gerry] Anderson’s slagging of me. She is a lovely, lovely lady. I’m very aware that as my profile rises, none of that should bother Audrey’s routine, which is her bowling and the like.”

Certainly, his star looks destined to soar even higher. He says he used to worry that it all might end, but that fear no longer haunts him. “I’ve been speaking to most of the major TV channels in the UK in the last couple of months, and there are a lot of opportunities in the next few years, there are things I would like to try.

“I honestly think I am one of the BBC’s most maverick characters but I can also honestly say that I love it as an organisation. I care passionately about it and feel privileged to work for it. I always wanted to work for them and in a few nights from now I’m going to have that buzz of an hour long TV show, with the production crew screaming at me to move on and me ignoring them. We gave out the ticket line number and within an hour a lot of the shows were sold out. The buzz of that show is amazing.”

He adds: “Sometimes I think about the Beijing Olympics and that huge theatre full of people. Then, I add to that Old Trafford full of people. That’s how many people listen to me every day, and that really brings it home to you. And then there is the TV show as well, people who have driven from all over Northern Ireland to be there. It’s just so flattering.”

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