Belfast Telegraph

Why Julian Simmons is the announcer who gives us continuity with our own rapidly vanishing past

UTV presenter's wit and humour saw us through the good times and the bad ... and he made us smile, says Gail Walker

C'mere till I tell ye. I'm fair scunnered at the news. Shackin, so it is. See if I ever catch those buck eejits from Havlack Hise, I'd give themens the quare look quick enough ... As I'm sure more or less everyone now knows following Stephen Nolan's heartfelt tribute to him on these pages, last weekend marked the last time we shall see Julian Simmons on our screens as a continuity announcer at UTV.

I say "see", as Julian's presence with us is being reduced to just a disembodied voice.

Though he will do his best to be a geg and raise the odd titter, the Julian we know will be gone.

He won't thank me for this remark, but Julian's TV persona has been part of my life since I was but a wee girl. You'd have to be a dreadful oul sourbake not to have laughed at some point at his barbs and twists in the local vernacular, spliced with delicious self-conscious drollery at the absurdity of it all. He'd play with a phrase that wasn't just absurd in itself, but so revealing of the mindset of this rather peculiar wee place.

In little 10-second monologues, he pointed to our love of gossip, not for its own sake, but as a way of huddling together for communal warmth. See the state of thon? What sort of a rig-out has she on? No better than she should be. If you know what I mean.

And the thing is that we did, Julian. We did. Sometimes we may have tutted disapproval, but we knew - deep down - that this was, like native American smoke signals, or knowing which way to pass the port, like calling to like, to quote the old song, the language strangers do not know.

It wasn't what was said - mainly about fictional soap opera characters let us remind ourselves - but how it was said. The beckoning of the hand, the glint of mock devilment in the eyes, the attitude of drawing you in as a conspirator. He was throwing conversational logs onto the fire of local life. This was about empathy and understanding.

It was also a bit of subversive fun. Continuity announcers - and Julian was one of the last of the breed - are meant to be colourless, reading from an autocue. Julian's little routines tore up the scripts.

No wonder he delighted many of the older generation. Gentle humour in a local lilt - or more accurately our strangely duck-like quack.

And we shouldn't forget that Julian was there during our darkest hours as a community. It was often he who told shopkeepers to return to check their premises, or intimate to us the latest neighbourly murder.

For decades, this one face of UTV at least tried to keep us in good heart.

Of course, sophisticates and pseuds tutted knowingly and wearily - and still do. They sneer that it is cheap humour, ridicule it for the very reason that it has such a long history here, reaching back to James Young and Derek the Window Cleaner of Joe Tomelty's The McCooeys, right back to the slapstick Ulster fool talk of 19th century theatre and music hall.

But the sneerers miss the glory that it is they themselves - the Cherry Velley caviariosi - who are the real butts of what is, in fact, quintessential working-class humour.

Julian's routines reached knowingly back into that timeworn humour in a recognition of local - for better or for worse - distinctiveness. It's a version of J C Pedlow's Capital Funishment, or John Pepper's See me? See her? and Rowel Friers's caricatures, or our own Eddie McIlwaine's flights of fancy.

All of which captures that old phrase of the poet John Hewitt about "the local word not ignorantly lost", a kind of pride in the simplicity of amusement at the passing world.

Simmons - I'm sure more by instinct than rationalisation - was surely right to follow his wit.

Forsaking tea, we now cradle skinny cappuccinos in Starbucks in the centre of Belfast, but are psychologically in the middle of nowhere. We watch Strictly. Our news comes in the pallid tones of RP. We listen to music that has more to do with California than Cregagh. (Though in California, they are likely to be listening to the sounds of Cregagh ...)

Bar the broad brushstrokes of Titanic, the Ulster Fry, dulse, yellowman and kneecappings, the place we used to be is in danger of being forgotten.

As a people, we prefer to look to our future: an endless vista of Waterfronts and Victoria Squares, Laganside penthouses, 60-inch TVs and wee beards ... though, as long as there are girls at the bus-stop in their PJs and fellas with spider's-web tattoos on their necks and people with a taste for a tan the shade of baked beans, there will always be room for the wry observation of a Julian Simmons.

We are what we are, after all, a people whose humour can encompass the broad, the vulgar, the sentimental and delight in the spectacle of us making a spectacle of ourselves.

In other words, the Belfast of the back-to-backs, the shipyard and the mills - the people who created no mean city and one of the great centres of industry and manufacturing. Julian's turns of phrase and self-mockery reminds us of the qualities and mindsets that made us, that saw us through the good times and the bad.

His mini monologues were valued, and rightly so. And without that face, that intimacy and those gestures, we will lose much. What I always admired about Julian was the fact he did it live. Those are only a few seconds of screen time to fill with preening and gurning and eye-rolling and bosom-hugging, but, as anyone knows who has had to fill those few seconds, live and unprotected, they actually seem like they last for a few hours.

Well done, Julian, for making us think a bit and smile a bit; for helping a few minutes at least pass a little less tediously, a little less like a chore, with a little more brio and a lot more style.

Pouty and extraordinary, embarrassing and grotesque, funny and warm-hearted, and as camp as get out.

The perfect Ulsterman, in fact.

Belfast Telegraph


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