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It's a holly jolly Christmas at home for Julian Simmons

Kent-born star proud at being taken to the heart of his adopted Northern Ireland

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Julian Simmons getting into the festive spirit

Julian Simmons getting into the festive spirit

Julian Simmons with his parents Alan and Pearl

Julian Simmons with his parents Alan and Pearl

Julian

Julian

Julian

Julian

Julian

Julian

Julian with Gerry Kelly

Julian with Gerry Kelly

Julian Simmons in his early UTV days

Julian Simmons in his early UTV days

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Julian Simmons getting into the festive spirit

For the first time in 15 years, Julian Simmons will be putting his feet up over Christmas and watching what's on the box, rather than telling viewers across Northern Ireland what's coming up next.

"I'm actually really looking forward to relaxing with friends and catching up on the soaps without having to think too much about the story lines or characters," Julian reveals.

"In the past I've been stopped by viewers who wanted to talk to me about what was going on in Coronation Street or Emmerdale so I had to be up to speed on things.

"Now I can just enjoy them without having to concentrate too hard. And I'm really excited about having Christmas off for the first time in years. It's been such a challenging year for everyone, but I'm determined to make the most of this Christmas and enjoy every second."

For three decades, Julian has been an instantly recognisable face - and voice - and a UTV favourite. But last month both he and fellow continuity announcer Gillian Porter left the station following operational changes. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, UTV reduced staff numbers in the studio and encouraged remote working. Local continuity announcements between programmes were suspended to minimise the number of people in the Belfast office and ITV later decided that all future continuity announcements would be centrally based.

But Julian has nothing but praise for his former bosses at ITV, whom he says treated their Belfast continuity team like royalty when UTV joined the ITV family in 2016.

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Julian

Julian

Julian

"From the day and hour ITV took over, both Gillian and I were treated impeccably," says Julian, who gives our readers his top festive viewing picks in your free Christmas television magazine in today's Sunday Life.

"I stopped doing in-vision continuity in October two years ago; the same year we left Havelock House.

"We were still working in out-of-vision though but not since March and the outbreak of Covid.

"I'd been away in Brazil for five days and when I got home, the crisis had worsened and because UTV wanted as few people as possible in the building, we were furloughed on full pay for 10 months.

"I count myself very fortunate. I loved playing a part in UTV's in-vision continuity and being part of the team for nearly 30 years.

"But I must admit, it will be lovely to have time off over Christmas this year."

Julian will spend Christmas Day with Gabrielle Holmes, his close pal and former wife of Eamonn Holmes.

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Julian

Julian

Julian

Most Christmases, he usually spends some time with Christine Wright too, whom he met when they both worked as cabin crew in different airlines.

"Christine and I have been pals for almost 40 years now," says Julian. "She worked for British Airways and I worked for Air Canada. I used to travel on BA flights three or four times a week to get to Terminal 3, Heathrow, and she worked on the shuttle.

"I was also doing amateur dramatics at the time and she would come and see me on stage."

It was Christine who was the first person he turned to when his beloved mum Pearl died on Christmas Eve, 2006. However, believing his mum wouldn't want him to spoil his best friend's Christmas by breaking such sad news, he waited a few days before confiding in her.

And it wasn't just Christine he kept in the dark. Deciding the 'show must go on', Julian continued to work through that Christmas, only telling his colleagues on December 27.

"I didn't want to tell anyone because I didn't want to ruin Christmas for them. Mum wouldn't have wanted me to do that. I didn't want my colleagues to know either in case they felt they had to stand in for me," he recalls.

"I remember going into work and having to give updates on Santa's location. The undertaker came to see me there to organise the funeral and I told him to wait because I had another update to do.

"I held it together. I knew that I had to keep going so I didn't get emotional until a few days later when I was writing the oration.

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Julian Simmons with his parents Alan and Pearl

Julian Simmons with his parents Alan and Pearl

Julian Simmons with his parents Alan and Pearl

"But mum was very ill at the end, so it was a happy release for her. I always think about her, of course I do, but I don't get maudlin. Mum wouldn't want that. She would want me to enjoy Christmas and I will, because I'm spending it with true friends."

Kent-born Julian moved to Northern Ireland with his parents as a child, after his dad Alan was relocated here by the company he worked for. Alan died when Julian was just 11 years old and the only child enjoyed a close bond with his mum.

While still working for Air Canada, Julian joined UTV on a freelance basis, becoming a permanent member of staff in 1992.

As well as working in continuity, he also presented the news and sport and during the 1990s, hosted a number of shows, including Julian on the Road and the travel show, Come Fly With Me.

But it was his inimitable, witty take on the soaps, presented in a camped up, broad Belfast accent, that won him a place in the hearts of viewers. With exaggerated eye rolls and flamboyant hand gestures, Julian would dish out the dirt about Emmerdale's Dingles or ridicule Corrie's Liz McDonald's "mutton dressed as lamb" look.

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Julian with Gerry Kelly

Julian with Gerry Kelly

Julian with Gerry Kelly

"That all started one Christmas when I was doing a link to the film Ghostbusters," laughs Julian.

"I decided to put my own spin on it but afterwards I was thinking, 'I'm going to get bucked out on my ear for this'. But the bosses liked it.

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Julian Simmons in his early UTV days

Julian Simmons in his early UTV days

Julian Simmons in his early UTV days

"I used to get people coming up to me all the time, especially on the train from Sydenham to Belfast. They'd want to talk to me about something they'd seen on the telly the night before.

"I could never talk politics with them, but I could talk about soaps.

"I had to become riveted by the soaps. I had to be fully abreast of what was going on. When people talked to me about Corrie or Emmerdale, I had to know what they were on about.

"I couldn't tell you when I last sat down to watch a soap."

With more time on his side now, Julian is looking forward to travelling again; Covid conditions permitting. Work wise, he says there are certain events he is still committed to and that he'll take things as they come. But one thing's for sure; his face will always be familiar.

"I've been stopped in places all over the world by people from Northern Ireland," he says.

"I was coming up an escalator at Causeway Bay underground in Hong Kong when a clatter of teenagers spotted me and started shouting 'hello Julian'.

"I couldn't believe it. It turns out they were all from Hong Kong but had been attending Campbell College and were home for the holidays.

"Everywhere you go in the world, you meet someone from Northern Ireland. They get into the top jobs too, like medicine and journalism.

"I may not have been born here but I'm proud to be Northern Irish. It's the best wee country to live in and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

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