The laughter and the tears: UTV's Julian Simmons on finding his father dead, losing his mum, being gay and joking about the soaps
The continuity announcer, who became one of Northern Ireland best loved celebrities, tells Leona O'Neill how he went on television the night his mum died, his desire to do a travel show and why he has no intentions of retiring
Julian Simmons has certainly lived a life full of colour and laughter. From working at Heathrow Airport - where he mingled with Barbara Cartland and Joan Collins - to introducing his hilarious and sometimes biting Coronation Street intros to UTV viewers, he is one of Northern Ireland's most recognisable and best loved personalities.
Ever the professional, nobody exemplified the term "the show must go on" better than the Kent-born 67-year-old who made Belfast his home. Over his years on our screens he carried on presenting the news as a bomb exploded nearby and went live on air to track Santa's progress on Christmas Eve just hours after his beloved mother Pearl passed away.
Julian may have been born in England, but his heart belongs to Northern Ireland, where he moved as a child with his parents.
Julian's dad Alan died when he was just 11.
"My mum and dad moved to Northern Ireland for dad's job," he says.
"It was either here or Rhodesia in Africa. My mother kicked up such a furore that she wanted to come here and loved it.
"Dad worked for a company that was eventually taken over by ICI. It was all to do with man-made fibres. He did a lot of travelling for that job and that is where I got the bug for travelling.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"Dad died when I was 11. I found him dead in his study one morning. I was on my way to choir practice.
"I was in the choir and I did bell ringing also. I got up to go to the early service at 8.30am and I found him dead on his study floor. But I'm still here and I lived to tell the tale.
"It was an awful shock, but like everything else, you think your life is changed forever, but you get back on an even keel."
Julian lost his mum, Pearl, just over a decade ago. He says he learned to be stoic from her, so when she died on Christmas Eve before he was about to go live on air to track the progress of Santa for Northern Ireland's children, he decided he had to do it for her.
"My mum passed away 11 years ago on Christmas Eve," he says.
"She always went for the big ones. She was 93 when she passed away. She had a congenital heart problem and it gradually worsened. Until two years before she died, she was coming away with me to the Channel Islands and Portugal, still getting her high heels on and going to meet her friends in town. She had a good life, and had a darn good innings.
"The day she died I went on television that night, as I was tracking Santa. In between the updates I was speaking to the undertaker, who was sitting beside me making the funeral arrangements. So he'd be asking me about the kind of flowers I wanted and I'd say hold on one minute and go live, 'well Santa is just coming over the north coast now', and then carry on with arranging mum's funeral. You have to keep going.
"I didn't tell anyone she had died until the day after Boxing Day. It was good in a way because I was able to be away from my friends who were working, and I didn't have to talk to them about what happened. My friends would have been really upset about her dying, but mum wouldn't have wanted me to ruin their Christmas, so I didn't.
"Mum and I were very close; after dad died we were sort of flung together. But we had very separate lives because she had her own friends and I was too-ing and fro-ing from my work in London. We didn't live in each other's pockets, but we were always there for each other."
Julian says he never actually came out as gay, it was just who he was. It was something he and his mother never discussed.
"I didn't actually come out," he says. "I didn't need to come out as gay, it was just always the way I was. A journalist did an article on my wardrobe and presented it as a whole piece on Julian Simmons comes out.
"It was the most ridiculous thing you ever heard. But I didn't officially come out as gay, there was no big announcement.
"There was no sudden realisation that I was gay, either on my part or on the part of others. I was always the way I was from the word go.
"My mother and I never discussed it, but she was no dozer, she knew rightly.
"As far as my personal life goes these days, I have little flings but there is nobody permanent in my life. No one can tie me down. It's nice to go home the odd night and shut the door and nobody else is there, you can let everything hang!"
Julian began his career by arranging holidays, then entertaining and indeed appeasing airline passengers at Heathrow, where he met all shades of human life.
"I started in the travel industry," he says. "I worked in McCalla Travel, then Hamilton Travel and moved to Air Canada in Canada House, before heading to terminal three in Heathrow Airport to work in passenger services. I worked with, as they say, all aspects of the human condition. I only travelled on the aircraft when there was a real problem, or if there was an upset, people were mishandled or when there were trade mission groups.
"You do meet the whole myriad of human life. People from England might have lost the rag with people, but being from Northern Ireland I was more inclined to pour milk and honey onto troubled waters and smooth it over.
"I let them vomit out all their aggression and then I'd come in with what I'm going to do to sort it out.
"I met quite a few famous people in that job. One of the nicest people I dealt with was Joan Collins, and Vera Lynn was lovely as was David Hasselhoff and indeed Barbara Cartland. I told her that my mother had read her books, when she didn't."
For more than 25 years, Julian was Northern Ireland's most recognised voice, entertaining us with his often acidic intros for the soaps, reading the news and even voicing the advertisements.
"I was on the televisions for years, in the evening, when I was working in Air Canada," he says. "I would be in work all day and then go into the TV studios, home to bed and then up again to work with the airline in the morning. I just did it because I loved both jobs.
"I auditioned for continuity announcer, which basically did everything. I introduced all the programmes and vision, I did the news, sports results and the weather forecast.
"It's quite a pressured job. You're live every night. When I started I drank two bottles of Lucozade every night to keep me going.
"I was doing the adverts as well, making each one of those sound interesting and different from the one before.
"You have to be bright, breezy and enthusiastic and then putting on a poe face to read the news.
"I had many a horlicks on air. But you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start all over again."
It was his Belfast twang that really rose Julian to prominence. He says he was greatly inspired by commuters on the train to Belfast and their commentary on the previous night's soaps.
"When I was travelling on the train in the morning going into work people used to talk to me about the soaps in particular as if it was really happening in real life," he says. "People would be saying 'that Liz McDonald, the clothes she puts on are ridiculous, a woman of her age, walking around in them outfits, did she not get an awful chill in her bladder wearing those?'
"And that is where I got it all from. I would pick that up and adapt it to what was suitable for television. I remember saying something about Ivy Tilsley's roots, saying they were as black as your boot. People took this and ran with it, there were car bumper stickers with 'Ivy get your roots done'. I remember saying something about Gail Platt at one stage and she got offended. I was asked to hold back on that. I met Jim McDonald on a couple of occasions but he never really put his foot down about anything."
And in a career which spanned most of the Troubles, the world outside many times encroached on life inside the studio.
"A bomb once went off when I was reading the news," he says. "All the dust fell from the lights, it was like snowing dust live on air on top of me and I just had to carry on reading as if nothing had happened. I was caught up in the Troubles lots of times, especially with demonstrations and road blocks.
“One night we slept in UTV, it was the safest thing to do because of all sorts of things going on outside.
“My former boss, Charlie Johnston from Hamilton Travel, was shot dead one day outside Belfast Cathedral in 1981. I got a call that afternoon to say that the person who was doing the continuity that night had gone off sick, and asked if I would do it.
“And I knew that if I did that I would be reading the news about Charlie. And I had to do it. But in a way Charlie would have liked that, I think.”
After a major heart scare in 2011, Julian had a quadruple heart bypass. He says he is “a very lucky boy” to have lived to tell the tale.
“I got very lethargic and tired,” he says. “They kept asking me if I was breathless or had pains in my chest and I didn’t have any of that. I noticed one day that my ankles were swelling up and I knew from when my mother was ill that was a main sign of heart problems.
“So I was up to my eyes with a whole lot of work. I was doing a whole row of fashion shows one after the other, and on July 14 I left House of Fraser and went up to the Ulster Hospital and just presented myself.
“The lady said to me, ‘Julian I haven’t seen you since your mother passed away, who have you brought in today?’ And I said ‘me, love’. I was in hospital for two months while they worked out what was happening.
“My room then became the executive suite. I had a non-alcoholic cocktail bar in the corner, so that when my guests came up they got biscuits and squash. The UTV staff would come in during lunch hours and evenings.
“The staff on ward 16 in the Ulster Hospital were great. By the time I was having the surgery, it was two-a-penny as far as they were concerned.
“They were telling me that this operation was done all the time and not to be worrying about it. They told me it would be all over before I knew it and so it was. I was a very lucky boy. I’m sitting here and it’s like it never happened.
“It was, I have to say, a very happy time in my life. Once they got me stabilised and waiting for the surgery, it was a great time,” he adds.
“I was made to switch off, which was great. I just read the papers and read books and did jigsaws. I did have a lovely time. They treated me like royalty. Sister Tanya and her staff were amazing.”
He says he will never tire of people recognising him, although it can get a bit overwhelming at times.
“It’s been like that for years,” he says.
“I was part of the travel industry. And in that everyone knows everyone else’s granny and what she had for her dinner. So when I started in TV, it was just really an expansion on that.
“The thing about Northern Ireland is that people are so friendly, so there is never any hassle to talk away to people.
“The most amazing thing happened one time. Shortly after my mother passed away, I got into a taxi one night and the driver said ‘awk Julian hello, I embalmed your mummy’.
“I just laughed and I think my mother would have found it funny, too.
“It’s a wonder I didn’t start bawling my eyes out. It is a show stopper, that one. I have been out, sitting with a group of friends, and a girl plops herself on my lap and says that she pays her TV licence so I am going to sit here for a yarn with you. You can’t be nasty to people ever.”
He says despite his former health woes and his love of travelling he has absolutely no intention of retiring from our screens any time soon.
“I have no notion of retiring at all,” he says. “I’ll be carried out of here in a wheelbarrow one day.
“They will say that he was just recording his links for that night and he just went. They’ll cart me out in a wheelbarrow and dump me into the Lagan and that will be me,” Julian says.
“I love travelling and I want to do a lot more of that. I was in Tokyo three weeks ago for a four-day trip. I travel as much as I can. I have friends who are still in the airline industry, they get staff travel and I travel with them.
“I plan to still keep working and travelling. I get days off every week, and off I go. There is as much travel in my future as I can do.
“I did a travel show ‘Come Fly With Julian’ a few years ago and I would love to do another one.
“Who knows what might happen?”