Stephen Nolan on keeping his mum safe during the pandemic, how he's surviving lockdown and what he really thinks of his critics

BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan talks to Claire O'Boyle about his change of pace during the Covid-19 crisis, his love for California and being a voice for the underdog

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Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan with mum Audrey

Stephen Nolan with mum Audrey

Stephen Nolan at his favourite tree - Carmel by the sea in USA

Stephen Nolan at his favourite tree - Carmel by the sea in USA

Stephen Nolan training in Santa Monica

Stephen Nolan training in Santa Monica

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen and Audrey

Stephen and Audrey

Audrey

Audrey

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Working from home on the shores of Strangford Lough as the days and weeks of lockdown settle in, Stephen Nolan is taking some time to reflect. For years, the BBC powerhouse has worked at full throttle, seven days a week.

Fronting not only 'The Biggest Show in the Country', where he regularly locks horns with some of Northern Ireland's toughest nuts, but a talk show on Radio Five Live as well as a string of TV programmes for the Beeb, it's without question the 46-year-old puts the hours in for his famously hefty salary.

But now, out of the blue like the rest of us, Stephen has been forced to take a step back.

"Basically what this whole thing is doing is that it's forcing me to kind of reflect on how I've been living my life up to now," says the broadcaster.

"I'm up at 7am, and straight up to the BBC. I'd be there until last thing at night, and I work seven days a week. I never got to see my house, and now all of a sudden I've got time.

"I'm still busy. Actually I'm probably busier than ever because there's so much going on, but I've got some time around me and I suppose it's giving me time to think."

But as he talks about his makeshift studio at home, and the phenomenal views from his bedroom window out across Strangford Lough, the former Belfast boy is quick to remember the many people across Northern Ireland who aren't waking up in such lovely surroundings.

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Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

"I know I'm lucky I've got such a nice home," he says. "And I'm always really aware that there are so many people who don't have a nice place. Especially now, we're all talking about coronavirus and our experience of it.

"But there are a number of different coronavirus scenarios playing out, and they're definitely not all like mine. I'm hearing about it all through the show and I know people are having a really hard time. It's the domiciliary care workers without proper PPE, or the family in an apartment with no outside space and no park nearby to take the children to.

"I'm very aware of the differences in people's experience, and I know I have a big responsibility to battle for them where I can."

And this is where Stephen takes exception to some of the criticism he comes in for, particularly from the circles he calls the "well-connected, self-appointed voices of society".

"We've had a lot of people coming to us for help through all this," he says. "We've had factory workers, call centre staff, some of the lowest paid people in our essential workforce, all coming to us because they're deeply concerned about their own safety at work and questioning whether enough has been done to protect them. On the other side, we've had some powerful forces in Northern Ireland trying to say to the media that it's not appropriate for us to scrutinise in the same way at the minute, that we should cut a bit of slack.

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Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

"But I totally disagree. It's just as important right now, if not more important, because we're scrutinising on behalf of those lower paid people being told to get into work. Those people who don't feel they have the clout to take on a big company.

"That's what we're here for, and it's the most rewarding part of my job. The Nolan Show is very special to me because while it's not always popular with people in power, it's very, very popular with the people in need.

"That's always going to be more important to me than people who are well-connected, these self-appointed voices of society, getting irritated. I don't care what they think. They should have a really good look at themselves."

And the pressure he comes under, says Stephen, merely hammers home just how important it is that he carries on doing what he does.

"When people in powerful positions start to question my personal integrity, or they challenge and try to isolate me - and that's me as someone with the support of the BBC - it makes me wonder what would they do to an ordinary person trying to take them on alone?"

And in his recent documentary series, Inside Hydebank, which is streaming now on BBC iPlayer, Stephen spoke to people whose voices are rarely heard in Northern Ireland - young offenders.

"Before I went in I probably didn't have much of an open mind about these people because of the crimes they'd committed," says the presenter. "I never really got to the stage in my mind of thinking about their backgrounds or what they went through growing up.

"But when you go in somewhere like Hydebank and spend time with them, you realise it's a far more complex situation than just lock them up and throw away the key.

"Some of what they've been through, and continue to go through, is heartbreaking. It doesn't take away the awfulness or the responsibility for what they've done, but so many of them have faced really big challenges right through their lives.

"Then here in Northern Ireland we've got this perverse reality on top that even when they get out, even if they've turned their lives around ready to be released, there are paramilitary groups, some of the biggest gangsters around, who think they've got the moral authority to tell them they can't go home to their local areas. It's a really tough situation."

I moved a single seater sofa on my own and near broke my back

But as much as work and the problems of other people occupy a huge part of Stephen's thinking, with lockdown edging its way into week seven, he says he's started finding things increasingly tough himself.

"Up until the start of this week I was saying to people I was fine," says the broadcaster. "I've got things done around the house that I wanted to do.

"Just a bit of clearing things out, and moving stuff. I moved a single seater sofa on my own and near broke my back. I painted some hand rails outside, and made a total mess of it. But for most of the time I've been fine.

"It's just at the start of the week I was talking to a friend on the phone and I think it's just started to affect people this week. It's just getting really frustrating because it doesn't seem to be coming to an end in any way.

"I just want to get back to some type of normality - and I really, really miss not being able to give my mum a hug and a kiss."

Big Audrey, as Stephen's listeners will know the presenter's mum, has been front and centre of his mind since the pandemic began.

And while he normally sees her regularly at her Belfast home, for now, visits are restricted to dropping food off and chatting across the garden gate.

"Mum is 79 and she's in the vulnerable group, so it's really not been easy," he says. "I've been able to bring her food but it's the physicality of it, that normal human emotion I've had all my life, that I miss.

"I'm 46 but I'm still that wee boy who wants to give my mum a hug and tell her I love her. We're really, really close. She's really, really important to me and I love her dearly.

"We just need to get her through this, and I think for that age group we all really need to rally round and realise it can be a very lonely place.

"At that age, like the rest of, a lot of people have a routine which is very important to them. So my mum goes to the bowls on certain days, she has a group of friends who take over the cafe at Marks and Spencer on a Saturday. It was like ships coming and going, and they'd take over the whole place on a Saturday. But that's all gone now, and what do they do? It's hard. She's on her own in the house and when I go over, I'm standing at the gate or if I go to the back door she's away down in the living room and I'm talking through the window.

"In any other environment you'd never have believed we'd be doing this stuff. I look forward to the day I can give my mum a very tight hug, and this is all over."

However, says Stephen, his mum is coping remarkably in the circumstances.

"My mum is tough when she needs to be," he says. "She's a big softie like myself, and then when she needs to be, like if anyone's coming after me or giving me a hard time, she's tough as nails. During this she's got a bit of resilience and she's doing okay, but I worry about her. Of course I do."

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Stephen and Audrey

Stephen and Audrey

Stephen and Audrey

With such a lot to juggle - including presenting his current affairs TV show Nolan Live without a studio audience for the first time this week - Stephen says he's figured out ways to take the pressure off.

From watching TV box sets and getting some air to heading to Santa Monica in the States for 10 weeks every year, helping slow down his mind has become a priority.

"I was getting to a stage a number of years ago that I was working so intensely hard that I just wasn't sleeping," says Stephen. "I was aware that my brain was working too fast, constantly, and now I've learned to square off some time for myself which is really important.

"There's a different type of pressure in Northern Ireland with the job I do. I get a lot of Twitter abuse, and some of the different political machines in Northern Ireland can apply pressure at different times.

"You have to be sharp in your mind, and stay calm, and you can't do that in a tired state. I'm not particularly strict about my sleep, but until everything that's happened this year lockdown, I've been strict about my holidays."

Which was a breakthrough in itself.

There’s something with my brain where I just can’t calm down

More than a decade ago, Stephen says, BBC bosses called him in and “forced” him to take time off. “At the time, I was just refusing to take holidays,” he says. “I’d have a whole year without holiday, absolutely. I had come into the BBC to set up what was essentially a news show, outside the newsroom.

“All those big beasts, Good Morning Ulster, Talkback, Evening Extra and BBC Newsline were already there, and here was me coming in from Citybeat trying to hold my own with these big beasts of broadcasting. What I was determined to do was to go for it, and that meant working day and night.

“Then in one of the only rows I’ve had with the BBC, I was called to the sixth floor and they actually forced me to take some holiday.”

Then three years ago things went a step further when Stephen told bosses he didn’t just want to take his standard time off, but that he’d like to spend 10 weeks of every year in California.

“The coin completely flipped at that point,” he says. “I approached the BBC and said I’d be spending nine or 10 weeks a year in America where I’d create some free time for myself.

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Stephen Nolan with mum Audrey

Stephen Nolan with mum Audrey

Stephen Nolan with mum Audrey

“I felt it was important for my mental health to force myself to stop. The only place I can stop is Santa Monica in Los Angeles, because I feel work is not there when I’m there.

“They were astonished, and yet really, really supportive, so that was a big life-changing thing for me. Rather than working 52 weeks a year and getting into trouble with my employer for doing that, I was saying to them, 10 weeks a year I’ll be in America.”

And when lockdown ends, he says, that might be something he’d like to do even more in the future. “When we’re out of all this, it could be something I’ll think about doing a bit more, if that’s possible,” he says.

Speaking to another broadcasting heavyweight last week, legendary presenter Esther Rantzen, gave him food for thought — and Esther talks about this very subject.

“She said to me that when she was presenting That’s Life, she would basically rush from one place to the other,” says Stephen.

“And when it all ended she thought to herself ‘My goodness, a lot of my life has disappeared through work, work, work’.

“I think what this enforced lockdown has done has made me think, wait a wee minute, maybe I should carve out a bit more time for myself. I’m not young anymore, I’m 47 in August.”

It’s the story of my life. I’ve put most of that weight back on again and I’m really frustrated by that

And, says Stephen, Santa Monica is about the only place he feels he can really switch off.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel a lot over the years,” he says. “And even in these swanky places, I still couldn’t relax.

“There’s something with my brain where I just can’t calm down. Even if I’m away I’m thinking of ideas or trying to set up some business. I’m a Jack the lad entrepreneur, I’m always trying to think of something to do.

“Then I went to Santa Monica years ago and just clicked with it. I go to the same hotel there every year, it’s nice and familiar. It’s just cool, it’s relaxed. These people, they’re doing the opposite to me. They’re working out and doing all these activities and it’s just one of those lifestyles that just oozes healthiness and positivity.”

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Stephen Nolan training in Santa Monica

Stephen Nolan training in Santa Monica

Stephen Nolan training in Santa Monica

But with memories of wholesome living in California in stark contrast to life in lockdown back in Northern Ireland, Stephen admits it’s been tough to keep on top of his own health journey.

After a headline-grabbing transformation last year, which saw the presenter lose an impressive 8st through diet and exercise, he has now regained most of the weight.

“It’s the story of my life,” says Stephen. “I’ve put most of that weight back on again and I’m really frustrated by that. But I’ve built a little gym in the house and hopefully I’ll get back at it. It’s frustrating because I was feeling so good. I’ve no problem saying this, I’ve never considered myself to be a good-looking guy, that’s how I’ve always felt.

“But last year when I lost weight, even though I still knew I wasn’t good-looking, the enjoyment I got out of being able to go and buy what I considered to be nice clothes — even ridiculous things like white jeans — was great. It was an amazing feeling, and I’d like that feeling back again. I have all those clothes still sitting here now. I’d love to get back to that stage, where I feel slightly healthier in myself. And the amazing thing is, when you feel like that, physically healthier, you’re mentally sharper and you think quicker. Even my memory, I noticed, was better.

“With my job there’s so much I’ve got going on in my brain that I pack in within a day, that when I’m finished, it’s gone. I even noticed my memory was better. I’d love to get back to that stage. I’m going to go down now into my wee gym in the house, and I’m going to try again.

“People will probably see me back on TV on Nolan Live and notice, he’s put the weight back on. People having an opinion on that doesn’t really bother me, they’re not wounding my ego, but sure let’s see if I can get it off again before the end of the year.”

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Stephen Nolan at his favourite tree - Carmel by the sea in USA

Stephen Nolan at his favourite tree - Carmel by the sea in USA

Stephen Nolan at his favourite tree - Carmel by the sea in USA

Now back on our screens for another series of the show that gets everyone talking, Stephen has another platform to ask questions of Northern Ireland’s politicians and decision makers.

And while he’s determined to be as tough as he always is, the presenter insists he does feel for people in authority, now more than ever.

“Do I have sympathy with them? Totally,” he says. “First of all, this is one of the most difficult jobs that any government and our executive here in Northern Ireland will ever face. We can all see how dedicated they are in trying to getting it right, but of course here in Northern Ireland there’s political division as always. There are differences of opinion in how quickly restrictions should be eased, and which should and shouldn’t be lifted.

“So yes, I think they are trying to do their best, but there is a definite frustration from the public. I think the public as a whole want to be compliant.

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Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

Stephen Nolan

“They want to form a partnership with the government because they know how serious this is. But the frustration is there because they just want things to be clear, and the legislation was not as clear as it could have been. Police officers were interpreting it in certain ways, different politicians were saying different things, and that’s where the frustration begins.”

And while Stephen, like people right across Northern Ireland and around the world, is filling his extra hours with things he’d never done before — he’s keen to learn to cook, he’s cut his own hair for the first time ever and he’s even doing his own laundry — for now, he says keeping up the good fight for members of the public remains top of the list.

“Whether people believe this or not, it’s true,” says Stephen. “I feel a sense of responsibility at times like this because I know I’m very lucky that the public support me the way they do, and I kind of feel an enormous responsibility that if someone contacts me and they’re a domiciliary worker or a care worker, and they don’t have the right PPE, I need to fight for them, and if I don’t then I’ve let them down.

“That’s a lot of responsibility, and I do really feel that. There’s a great team around me, they’re my friends, they’ve been with me a long time, and we’re all doing our best to do what we think is really important work in what are really hard times for people.”

Nolan Live is on BBC NI on Wednesday at 10.45pm. To join the conversation, contact Stephen by email nolan@bbc.co.uk or follow the programme on Twitter @stephennolan

Belfast Telegraph