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Tara Mills and Declan Harvey on taking over BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra during the coronavirus pandemic

The new presenters of BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra tell Claire O’Boyle how former host Seamus McKee sent them a good luck message as they took over the programme during biggest news story of their lives

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Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

FAMILY FUN: Tara Mills with cameraman husband Danny and children Daniel and Aimee

FAMILY FUN: Tara Mills with cameraman husband Danny and children Daniel and Aimee

Declan

Declan

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Tara Mills

Tara Mills

Declan Harvey

Declan Harvey

Declan Harvey on an epsiode of The Bill

Declan Harvey on an epsiode of The Bill

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Big changes at Radio Ulster have been coming for a while and at last this week the station's flagship drive time show was placed firmly into the hands of its new presenters.

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey took the reins at Evening Extra on Monday afternoon, slap bang in the middle of the greatest global crisis and most extraordinary news cycle in living memory.

"There has never been a more important time to tell a story," says Tara. "Perhaps coming to this new job in an ideal world, launching a new programme with new presenters, could have been a slower process. But the reality is with everything that's going on right now we needed to get on and start telling proper stories about everything that's happening.

"There's been a bit of flux over recent months with different presenters and I think it will be a positive thing to get us, the regular presenters, in place."

Because, says the journalist, with vast numbers of people going through huge and unprecedented upheaval in their lives, familiarity on their airwaves can provide some crucial comfort.

"Especially at this time with all the uncertainty, I find the radio can provide a bit of companionship," says Tara.

"I have certainly felt it myself at home over the past few weeks, you just have this desire to get the information and to hear the very latest in what's happening.

"It's so important right now to tell all these stories and to cover all these angles. It's a strange time to start, but I really think it's an important one."

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Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

Tara Mills and Declan Harvey

And for Co Donegal native Declan, who worked for many years in London with BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat team before moving to Belfast in 2017, being thrown in at the deep end in the context of coronavirus has meant he's just had to get on with it.

"When I started out in London, I worked for LBC and covered a lot of big stories," recalls Declan, who worked on everything from the July 7 bombing inquests to the Stephen Lawrence murder trial.

"The big stories locally then happened to be national ones as well but like everyone else, I've never experienced anything like this.

"What it's meant coming into the Evening Extra job is that it's been very helpful to focus the mind.

"This is my first time in a presenter role, so there's lots for me to learn. I think one of the benefits of the way it's worked out is that making this big transition, it might have been very easy to get distracted by the change in my role and function, about how I might now need to do interviews like this one or about what the theme music for the show should be like.

"But because we're coming to air in the circumstances we are, the concern is on very much back-to-basics journalism, which is where our backgrounds are.

"What people want and need right now is really clear information, covering all angles. That's a solid place for us to start."

Taking over at Evening Extra almost three months after broadcasting legend Seamus McKee said an emotional goodbye to listeners after more than 10 years in the job, Tara and Declan are more than gracious about their predecessor.

"Those are big shoes to fill," says mum-of-two Tara. "In some ways it will take the two of us to fill them, I think, and like so many people right across Northern Ireland I'd been listening to Seamus on the air for as long as I can remember."

And in a touching gesture, reveals Tara, Seamus sent the pair a message of support.

"He sent us both a message and it meant the absolute world," says Tara. "It made my heart sing. Seamus and I had worked together on a programme to commemorate the centenary of the Somme in 2016, an hour and a half programme from France, and it was a fantastic experience.

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Seamus McKee

Seamus McKee

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Seamus McKee

"Seamus drove, I was the navigator and he was absolutely hilarious. He is known for being a very serious broadcaster but when he's out of the office and off the airwaves, he knows how to let his hair down!"

And with expectations high, the pair are starting off on a strong footing, with an instant chemistry and rapport clear from the start, laughing and chipping in on each other's answers through the course of their interview. There are jokes from Declan about his continuing youth compared to his co-host and good-humoured responses from Tara, who says she started working "as a child" on Scotland's Radio Clyde before joining the Beeb back in Northern Ireland 20 years ago.

And the laughter seems genuine and warm, despite the presenters having scarcely crossed paths professionally before their on-air pairing.

"I'd tried my best to stay away from Tara before this to be honest," jokes Declan. "But we had worked in the TV newsroom together a bit before, although really not cheek by jowl in any way. We don't actually know why they thought we would make a good pair - but so far so good. We make each other laugh, so that helps."

And starting out in such a high-profile show with a fascinating future ahead, the journalists are happy to look back at what have already been pretty remarkable careers by anyone's standards.

Tara Mills

The most unexpected revelation, perhaps, is that one-time actor Declan, who went to drama school at London's Rose Bruford College, appeared in an episode of The Bill.

"Yes I did," he laughs. "I was arrested on The Bill. Or maybe should I say, I was nicked. We filmed in south London, and I remember my character was innocent, but my girlfriend was nicking memory sticks or something like that," he adds.

"It was excellent, and at that point for a short while, I thought I was made."

But, says Declan, it took just a few years treading the boards before he turned his attention to a future in journalism.

"It all could have been different," he laughs. "I moved over and did my degree in drama when I was 19 and I followed it as a career for three or four years. But my heart wasn't in it - and your heart really has to be in it if you're going to be an actor.

"As well as the highlight of The Bill, I did quite bit of ads - although I won't mention the brands for obvious reasons - and I did some theatre. I did a Masters in Voice as well, and did some voice coach training. But I remember I was there teaching someone how to speak in a Liverpool accent and it dawned on me that this wasn't the life for me."

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Declan Harvey on an epsiode of The Bill

Declan Harvey on an epsiode of The Bill

Declan Harvey on an epsiode of The Bill

Soon, Declan was back on another post-graduate course, but this time in Broadcast Journalism at the London College of Communication.

"It used to be the London College of Print, and it was through that course and work experience I did at LBC that I landed my first job," he recalls. "By luck the day I joined there were no reporters in the newsroom when a lift collapsed over at Tower Bridge.

"They looked around and I was the only option, so off I went. And about an hour after it happened someone spotted the LBC microphone and came over and told me they'd seen it all happen. It's the reporter's dream really, because I was sent out without even an induction and came back to the office with an eye-witness case study.

"It was less about amazing skill than good luck, but it helped because they offered me a job straight out of my work experience."

And after two and a half years at the commercial station, Declan made the move to the BBC in 2012, with a breakthrough role as a journalist on Radio 1, where he stayed until 2017.

"Radio 1 was brilliant," says Declan. "But I'm really not a natural Radio 1 listener, I think even when I was a teenager I was probably more a Radio 2 kind of guy. I never really felt cool enough. But it was a great place to be.

"I think at the time I took it slightly for granted that I was sitting in an office that played pop music with everyone walking around in their jeans and trainers.But it was proper news. We were always kept slightly separate from the main thrust of Radio 1.

"It meant if there was ever a story about Radio 1, it was done properly, and while people might have thought the news was light and fluffy, it never was.

"It was the same, proper news as everywhere else but the focus was about how to get and keep engagement.

"That was really drummed into us, the importance of keeping the listeners engaged, and that's something that's in my DNA now."

Then, in 2017, Declan took the decision to up sticks and leave the station, going freelance and splitting his time between London and Northern Ireland. "I was 32 or 33 by then, still incredibly young of course, but I felt a bit too old to be still wearing my hi-tops into the office," he laughs.

Like Declan, Tara too made the decision to leave a job across the water and make her way to Belfast - something she says she has never regretted.

"I had a job in Glasgow for three years, which I loved," she recalls. "At the time I had wanted to go to London, but bizarrely a job came up at the BBC in Belfast back in 1997, so I came home.

"Back then there were political talks going on of course, but there was no way anyone would have predicted what was going to happen just a few months later at Easter.

"After that, there was no way I was going to leave. The peace process and the whole dynamic changed, and the opportunities work-wise were much better."

But as well as the professional opportunities, covering huge stories from the Good Friday Agreement to riots and murders, health issues and social affairs, came the joy of being close to her family.

Her mum Pat is a retired PA and her father Richard worked as a teacher. Her sister Pamela is a teacher too and her late brother Richard was a press photographer for The Times.

"I'm actually a home bird," says Tara, mum to Daniel and Aimee. "Back then I still wasn't married and my children were both born and bred here in Northern Ireland.

"Looking back now I'm glad I didn't go to London. My brother was there and I used to go and visit a lot. In fact, it's my favourite place to visit, but I don't think it would have been right for me as a place to live, especially after having kids.

"I have friends there who love it, but for me, I love being close to my parents. Now with this lockdown in place I haven't seen them in five weeks and I'm getting echoes back to what it was like when I was in Glasgow.

"I got a bit of a shock when I moved because I expected to miss my friends so much, but it was actually my family I missed."

But throughout lockdown, she says, she has been keeping in touch through technology.

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FAMILY FUN: Tara Mills with cameraman husband Danny and children Daniel and Aimee

FAMILY FUN: Tara Mills with cameraman husband Danny and children Daniel and Aimee

FAMILY FUN: Tara Mills with cameraman husband Danny and children Daniel and Aimee

"We're very close as a family," says Tara, who is married to BBC cameraman Danny. "We all get together, my sister and my nephew, the whole lot of us, every week and we really enjoy our Sunday dinners.

"But we've not completely given up on that even with the outbreak, we're still doing it, only now it's done by FaceTime. We join in about halfway through dinner and it's absolutely mad. Throw children into the mix and you can't hear a thing."

Declan's move to Northern Ireland was similarly successful and, after splitting his time for a while between Belfast and London as a freelancer, he's delighted to have set his cap here full time.

"I'd never lived in Belfast before, because I went straight to London at 19," he says. "But once I started coming back and forth life here in Northern Ireland became a much more attractive prospect.

"The quality of life and the work life balance is a lot better. Even back in London I have friends who are looking outside the city, whether that's back up to the north just for that bit of space and a normal pace.

"The fact I'd never lived in Belfast before I think works well for me. You hear people talking about what Belfast used to be like, what it was. But I don't recognise that, it's not the city I've experienced.

"For me, it reflects so much of what I loved about London, all the great places to eat and go and drink and meet friends. The Lagan, the tow paths. I really love it. And there's not a 40-minute commute to get absolutely everywhere.

"You're in a great city, but the Mournes are so close. These amazing beaches are just down the road. We're not getting to enjoy them all just now, but it's great to know it's there."

And with all that experience behind them, Tara and Declan were perfectly qualified for their new positions - the job description said candidates must be able to "cope brilliantly in a breaking news environment" and be "just as at home interviewing the First Minister and deputy First Minister as the cast of Love Island".

"I don't know if I ever interviewed anyone from Love Island," says Declan. "But Stacey Solomon really stands out in my memory as someone I interviewed back on LBC.

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Declan Harvey

Declan Harvey

Declan Harvey

"She had just come off X Factor or a show like that, and she was very young.

"She was one of these people who made me appreciate that when a member of the public goes on one of these shows, it can be a way to help these really special people just stand out.

"Even back then Stacey had this real charisma and glow, and she's gone on now to have a hugely successful career in TV. We can look down on these shows and the people who take part in them, but sometimes these shows just give someone special a vehicle to shine.

"Loads of them disappear, but others like Stacey are just there to be discovered. She was beaming."

With very different backgrounds, newsreader Tara, who is still involved with TV at BBC NI, and Declan, share the same love of storytelling.

"Especially now, there are so many stories to tell," says Tara. "There's the breaking news and the vital information everyone needs to hear. But there are so many personal stories out there too.

"Yes there are lots of people in their gardens who are bored at home, or they might be finding they have a better work-life balance now than they've ever had and they're learning how to bake. But there are lots of people struggling. On Monday we had stories of vulnerable kids struggling to access iPads to help them continue with their schoolwork, something that puts them at an even deeper disadvantage.

"We've had bosses on talking about the Government's furlough scheme, as well as new start-up businesses which have just fallen short of qualifying.

"It's such a difficult time and people are experiencing it in many different ways. We want to get the mix right and to get under the surface as much as we can. To tell those stories that might otherwise be missed."

Declan agrees. "There's a real art to it," he says. "It's often just as much about what you decide not to run as what you do. It's been a strange time to start, but the reality is the BBC is no different to any other organisation in this situation.

"Even on our first week, we're at opposite sides of the studio, and there are screens up. We'd normally have guests and contributors, but of course, there's none of that."

"Like everyone, I find it hard to put the situation into words," adds Tara. "But at this sort of time, facing something none of us have been through before, feels to me like the reason you want to be a journalist all along. It's about finding these very important stories and getting them out there to people in their homes."

Tara Mills.

And starting their new presenting jobs the same week Chris Buckler and Sarah Brett took the reins at Good Morning Ulster following the departure of Noel Thompson and Karen Patterson earlier this year, the pair hint there's some slight relief that the gig they landed was the afternoon shift.

"Well I'll be the first to admit I'm not a morning person," laughs Tara.

"And having filled in quite a bit on GMU over the last little while, I can confidently say there's no doubt it's gruelling," adds Declan.

"I have nothing but respect for those guys. Sarah and Chris sound so bright and brilliant first thing in the morning, which is amazing, because really there is nothing natural about waking up at 4am and having to be right on form at 6.30am.

"There are definite upsides to it though and it's nice to be there to say good morning to everyone first thing, to be there to help them start their day. They and the team are off to a great start and they'll be absolutely brilliant at it. Tara and I get people at a different point in the day. They're tired after work, they want to know what they've missed and they want to wind down in good company.

"That's an amazing challenge for us too. It's not the same one Sarah and Chris have, but it's a great one for us and we're very excited about it."

Evening Extra is on BBC Radio Ulster, Mondays-Fridays from 4pm-6pm

Belfast Telegraph