Children in Need's Barra Best's big digital challenge for BBC fundraiser
BBC weatherman Barra Best is making a challenging sacrifice for tonight’s BBC telethon. The presenter tells Lee Henry why he is honoured to present the annual charity extravaganza and how special memories of his Belfast childhood will never leave him.
Barra Best recalls his first ever live weather forecast on BBC Newsline, broadcasting to the nation while providing maternity cover for a colleague, and cringes at the thought. "Looking back, I'm like a cardboard cutout. Just a moving mouth," he admits. "I was terrified. But it was a great way to cut my teeth. It's live. There's no autocue, no script, so you're really thrown in at the deep end."
Barra got through those first few agonising minutes and has since gone on to become one of Northern Ireland's most popular local weather forecasters, having learned in person from the likes of Angie Phillips and Cecilia Daly. But it hasn't all been plain sailing.
"I have stumbled a few times," he laughs. "Viewers have to realise that when I come to the end of a weather bulletin I have someone counting down in my ear and it can be confusing.
"Once, the voice was counting down while I was trying to get 'sunshine and showers' out and it took three or four attempts. Aside from that, though, I've had no Michael Fish moments."
Barra is, of course, referring to the legendary bespectacled, moustachioed BBC weather forecaster who, in 1987, infamously advised the Great British public not to expect a hurricane - the very same hurricane that duly arrived the next day, causing widespread devastation.
Viewers of BBC Northern Ireland will also be aware that Barra does not share his forecasting forerunner's questionable fashion sense, preferring sharp-cut suits, shirts and ties to novelty woollen jumpers with lightning bolts and grey clouds knitted in for comic effect.
"It was all very different when I was a kid," the 34-year-old agrees. "It was probably harder for forecasters back then. They had magnets that they used to stick on to boards.
"Not only were they memorising their story but also where they had to put the symbols. Now we have graphics. We've made lots of advances. And I think the clothing has improved too."
In recent years, Barra has moved into presenting, most notably with his charming Walk The Line series, venturing back into Northern Ireland's rich railway history, and since 2013 he has been the face of BBC Northern Ireland's Children in Need coverage along with fellow presenter Jo Scott.
Barra is fronting the live charity extravaganza again this weekend from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Cultra. It's a job that fills him with a warm, welcome sense of nostalgia as Children in Need as a whole does for viewers right across the UK.
"I always remember watching Children in Need when I was growing up," says Barra. "Making little donations where I could, doing a few sporting challenges in school to raise money. Terry Wogan was a fantastic presenter and you had all those strange challenges, like beans in the bath. They don't do that so much these days.
"When I moved to the BBC, I decided to do a quiz in north Belfast, where I live, and we did it again last week and raised around £2,000. Pamela Ballantine and I used to do a challenge where we ate as much as we could. Burgers, pork, steak. I wanted to lie down in a dark room afterwards, while Pamela met a friend in another restaurant and had a salad. I've no idea how she did it.
"Presenting Children in Need is always great craic. Four years ago I mentioned to one of the producers of the live show that I'd love to have a go at presenting and I've been doing it ever since. The nerves always kick in during live television, as they always do, but I'm really looking forward to it."
Before then, Barra will have completed a charity digital detox that will see the self-confessed social media addict give up all of his devices for 24 hours. "I was forced into it," he laughs. "It's going to be tough. No phone, no tablet from 3pm till 3pm the following day.
"I'm obsessed with my phone. It's the social media apps that take up my home screen and most of my battery life. Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat. They're my top three. I'm not allowed to use anything, though. No social media whatsoever. I can't believe I agreed to it."
Barra was born and raised in west Belfast, in the shadow of Clonard Monastery just off the Springfield Road. He attended St Gall's Monastery Primary School, which is no longer open, and subsequently De La Salle College in Andersonstown. His childhood was happy, mainly due to the fact that he was "spoiled rotten".
"My granny Kathleen lived alone just around the corner from us and I visited her almost every day. I got away with murder in her house. I loved my granny. Sadly, she passed away 16 years ago. We had the best craic in her house - me and my sister, Bronach (32). We were always competing and having the banter."
Barra's mother, Cathy, worked in catering, while his father, Aiden, still works as a social worker. And Barra was an extrovert from day one. "My mum tells me I was always in the middle of everything. I was involved with clubs at school and the Young Enterprise initiative. My sister is a bit quieter than me".
He also demonstrated a shrewd business sense from an early age.
"I used to look forward to the Clonard Novena every June," he explains. "When it was on, I would come out with a big bucket of hot soapy water, during every mass, and wash as many cars as I could. I made a quid for every car I washed. So I was loaded by the time the novena was over." Barra harboured ambitions to become a vet, having filled his family home with dogs, cats, fish, hamsters and gerbils. "God knows how many pets I had. I even had a pet rat. Not one of those ugly grey ones, a white one with a brown patch named Ben. But becoming a vet didn't work out." Instead, Barra studied IT at university in Liverpool and he says that his three years there were "some of the best of my life".
He would visit iconic Mathew Street, home to the Cavern Club where the Beatles and Cilla Black made their names, and visit as many pubs and clubs across the city as his student loan would allow. "I remember the first day I arrived in Liverpool, just loving life, and by that first night I was phoning my mum crying, panicking, terribly homesick.
"But she didn't hear from me again for about a week because everyone else showed up at the halls of residence and that was me away. I didn't want to go home.
"Liverpool for me is just like being anywhere in Ireland. They have the same sense of humour, just a different accent. I loved the whole city.
"Now, when I'm talking to school pupils in Belfast, I always tell them to go away to study, if they can. It's the best three years of your life."
After university, Barra worked in IT for a year-and-a-half, but was inspired to complete a Masters in journalism after a friend did the same. He "hasn't looked back since", finding positions at Cool FM and Downtown Radio before moving to the BBC.
Today, he loves the broadcasting life, even the 4.30am alarms and the unpredictability of the staff rota.
"I would never do a nine-to-five job again," he admits. "Most of my friends love it - they have their evenings, their weekends, they're able to plan ahead, but it's not for me.
"Ask me again in the middle of winter when I'm on my way into work at 4.45am, and I may contradict myself, but I'm done by midday and I have the rest of the day to myself. There are pros and cons but I love it."
It is, thankfully, a short drive into BBC Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue from his north Belfast home.
A Belfast boy through and through, it's unlikely that Barra will ever leave the city. "I know it's an old cliche to say that we're the friendliest people in the world, but we are," he says.
"When I'm out and about, people come up to me in the supermarket and say, 'Here, can I put the clothes on the line tomorrow or what? Can I cut the grass?'
"And I love that. I love that banter, the fact that people feel comfortable enough to wind you up. For me, Belfast is where it's at."
It's been a long and fruitful seven years since Barra first presented the weather but you get the feeling that he has loved every second, a smile permanently plastered across his face.
And it's a good thing he's single, too. "I have the freedom to go wherever I want and do whatever I want without having to ask anyone for permission, like a lot of my friends have to do," he laughs. "Right now, I'm loving life."
Children in Need, tonight, BBC One, 7.30pm