Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Anderson: How BBC broadcaster was devastated by the deluge of complaints about his national radio show

As a week-long TV and radio tribute to the genius of Gerry Anderson commences, Ivan Little hears of one of the most hurtful episodes in the broadcaster's career.

Broadcasting legend Gerry Anderson was left hurt and frightened by his failure to succeed on national radio, a new tribute show has revealed.

The BBC have launched an unprecedented series of tributes to the the inimitable radio star who's regarded as one of the greatest and most original presenters in the history of broadcasting in Northern Ireland.

A week-long line-up of dozens of shows, concerts and documentaries about the man who invented the title Stroke City name his home city of Derry/Londonderry started yesterday and will run on radio and television until Friday illustrating the multi-faceted talents of the ex-showband musician who died in August.

"No BBC presenter has ever had a send-off quite like this" says a BBC source.

But while the programmes include repeats of some of his best on-air moments and new takes on him and his humour, one production in the wake of his passing reveals just how much the presenter was devastated by the reaction to his broadcasting style during an ill-fated stint in England.

A Tribute to Gerry Anderson which airs tomorrow night includes interviews with friends, colleagues and national BBC bosses who talk about the "biggest blow in his broadcasting career" after he switched from Radio Ulster to Radio 4.

Anderson Country in England ended with him coming home to Northern Ireland after there were thousands of complaints about his national show.

Simon Elmes was a top producer for Radio 4. He says the reaction of the national audience really hurt the broadcaster. "The sort of craic that Gerry indulged in in Northern Ireland at that time didn't seem to go well on Radio 4. It was a great shame."

A former controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer tells tomorrow's programme Anderson was a great broadcaster, adding: "He was given a disproportionately difficult time. But even then you could see what a tremendous gift for language he had.

"He could tumble out verbs, adjectives, nouns, complete sentences, complete paragraphs with both effortlessness and also somehow or other imbued with an originality and a tightness of argument which was remarkable."

Stephen Nolan who's made a successful transition between local and national broadcasting says of Gerry's Radio 4 experience: "It did affect him and it did hurt him and it did get to him. He told me it frightened him."

Nolan says he's happy that Anderson came home and his banter with Anderson during their handovers on Radio Ulster in the mornings became part and parcel of the daily schedules. "I'm glad he was a huge success story here because it wasn't Gerry's failure on Radio 4. It was theirs that they didn't appreciate the talent that he was."

Gerry was to return to make popular documentaries for Radio 4 in later years but in the meantime he returned to his old daily show on Radio Ulster where he started again where he'd left off - not just re-writing the script of broadcasting in Northern Ireland, but rather tearing it up according to tomorrow's programme.

He famously never followed a running order for his most popular show, his morning Radio Ulster programme, which he usually presented from a studio in Radio Foyle ably assisted by the man who became his sidekick, Sean Coyle, who says of his friend: "I will miss him. But there'll never ever be another Gerry Anderson. Working with him was an absolute pleasure."

Sean also recalls how an ailing Anderson told him after what proved to be his last ever day on his show in 2012 that he might be away for a couple of months.

"He went out to walk out the door and he turned round and said I'll see ya kid," says Sean. "He didn't."

On a happier note Sean is among a number of erstwhile colleagues and celebrities who celebrate Gerry's anarchic style. Singer Daniel O'Donnell, who bore the brunt of his gentle humour, tells the tribute's producers: "It was always a fight in the eyes of people but yet we had tremendous fun even though we were arguing and pulling the backside out of one another, giving out.

"People never got offended. He had a wonderful way."

Hollywood actress Roma Downey, who was from Beechwood Avenue in Stroke City and who's now one of the wealthiest women in the entertainment world, remembers how Gerry interviewed her for his first TV shows and immediately talked to her about how her Derry accent slipped through her during acclaimed portrayal of Jackie Onassis.

She laughs: "He reminded us who we were, the things that were funny, the things that were important. He really gave a voice to our city."

Gerry Kelly, who was his namesake's Friday night chat show rival on UTV for a time, says Anderson was one of the most innovative broadcasters he ever heard. "He was an absolute genius. I would not have the nerve to do what Gerry Anderson did."

But Kelly says that when Anderson first started broadcasting three decades ago it took a while for him to win him over. "I didn't get Gerry Anderson for the first six months. It was only after repeated listening and listening that I thought there was something different about this guy."

The documentary charts Gerry's life from his family home in a flat in Derry's Sackville Street through the pop music scene to the pinnacle of broadcasting in Northern Ireland. Gerry remembers how hearing the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song Shakin' All Over on a jukebox in Portrush inspired him to take up the guitar, changing his life.

He was later to become a fixture in with showbands like the Chessmen before crossing the Atlantic to join the backing group of Canadian rock star Ronnie 'The Hawk' Hawkins.

The tribute shows footage of Gerry going to North America to interview Hawkins for a documentary and Ronnie's first words on seeing him on his doorstep are: "Hide all the women. Hide all the women."

Gerry's BBC colleague Jackie Fullerton, who took over his radio show for a time, says Anderson's experiences in the music business meant that he came to radio in his early 40s "having lived a life and having been round a few corners".

It was perhaps fitting that another Derry musician was to work with Anderson on his daily Radio Ulster show. But Michael Bradley who was a rock star with the Undertones - hence Gerry's nickname for him, the Undertone - baulks at his title of producer.

"I always have a problem saying that I produced Gerry Anderson," he tells the tribute documentary. "On a daily basis I was the producer but there was nothing to produce. It was all in Gerry's head. It was all in Sean's head. And I would just sit there and laugh, really."

The tribute examines the development of Gerry's career on TV - the successes as a documentary maker and his less popular sorties into entertainment programmes like Anderson on the Box.

Gerry Kelly says the format didn't suit his opposite number. "I didn't think he made that transition very easily. He wasn't used to the restrictions of television."

Tomorrow's programme ends with his final piece of work, a film combining his love of Derry with his love of words.

It's clear from his voice during his narration of A City Dreaming that Gerry is ill.

Just before the gala screening of Gerry's 'love letter' to Derry in the city in November last year he told a local newspaper that he hoped to be back on the radio in the New Year but it was one dream that he never saw realised.

  • Remembering Gerry, Tuesday, BBC NI, 10.40pm


A Tribute To Gerry Anderson on BBC1 tomorrow at 10.40pm - the day that would've been Gerry's 70th birthday - hears from listeners, friends and broadcasters including Daniel O'Donnell, Hollywood actress Roma Downey and broadcasters Stephen Nolan and Gerry Kelly. There will also be a live two-hour concert on the same day on Radio Ulster at 8pm celebrating the music played by Gerry on his radio show and reflecting the support he gave local musicians. Across the week five previously unseen episodes of On The Air will be broadcast on BBC1 at 10.35pm. The animated series captures the wit, the curious and the mischief Gerry had with his listeners on his radio show.

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