Derek Davis: ‘Everybody comes off a little bit scarred by RTÉ’

Patrick Freyne remembers a happy few hours spent with the broadcaster in 2008

In 2008, I went to Dalkey to interview Derek Davis for the Sunday Tribune about his retirement from RTÉ.

We meet in the Queens Bar and he spoke at length about his years working for the broadcaster. He was very generous with his time and he insisted on paying for my coffee. He was a lovely man and a very thoughtful and funny interviewee.

This is the interview that resulted from my short time in his company.

Gone Fishing


"In 1986 somebody tried to fire me," says Derek Davis, the just retired king of daytime television. "He used the words 'we think you're too fat for light entertainment'. Now, as a student I sometimes worked as a bouncer at nightclubs in Belfast. I think the fact I didn't snap any of his major bones was a great credit to my restraint. I asked him had he read my contract and told him that the day my cheque didn't arrive I'd see him in the High Court. I may have added the words 'you son of a bitch'."

Derek Davis laughs. The RTÉ veteran was not fired in 1986. Instead he stayed there through Live at 3, Davis, Out of the Blue and many, many other shows, until he finally retired last week. He cuts a very relaxed figure in the Queens Bar in Dalkey. He’s funny, warm and philosophical. He says he’s talked out the details of his career and that each article he reads feels like an obituary. So he’s feeling thoughtful today. He’s reflective by nature. He grew up in Bangor. His father was a Protestant from a middle-class unionist family and his mother was a Catholic from Bray.

“So I grew up sitting on the fence,” he says. “I like to say ‘It’s an uncomfortable position but the view is spectacular’. And I suppose because of that I neither burned with the fury of unrequited republicanism or the hatred of deep-seated protestant sectarianism. It was all a bit bewildering to me.”

Like many students Davis became involved in the civil rights movement in the sixties before the Troubles began. And it was in this enflamed political environment that he started his career as a news journalist. “I started by accident with BBC Northern Ireland,” he says. “I was a law student trying to make a few pounds. I always manage to lose bits of paper. To this day I work with a PA who’d immediately grab anything that’s handed to me and says ‘He’s not allowed to have paper.’

“Anyway, I had been invited to do some auditions. I lost the letter, phoned up, was given the wrong date and the wrong auditions, and somehow got the job. So I started in BBC Northern Ireland as the lowest life-form, which was a trainee freelance. You only got paid about three pounds ten shillings per interview, so it wasn’t riches beyond the dreams of avarice by any means.

“And in those days criticism wasn’t subdued. I remember bringing back an interview that the producer didn’t like and he threw the tape-recorder all the way across the room. You’re not allowed to do that now. There was an awful lot of screaming and shouting in those days, but you learned a lot.”

And the streets of Belfast certainly weren’t any more peaceful. “At one point Barry my cameraman had cracked ribs, a broken finger and a chipped elbow from three separate beating,” he says. “I was large and handy enough in my youth and part of my job was to stop Barry from getting killed at regular intervals. I remember I KOed somebody with a big steel microphone during a riot because this fella had attacked us with a hatchet. This was the kind of madness that happened all the time.”

At this point Davis must have been a bit of a danger junkie. Belfast was awash with international journalists and news agencies all drinking together in the Europa hotel and he even considered an offer from ABC to go to Vietnam. Instead he got an offer he couldn't refuse. "I was having a meal at Tom McGurk's flat when phone rang and Wesley Boyd, the then head of news at RTÉ, was on asking Tom could he come in because the night editor had had a heart attack," he explains. "Tom said he couldn't because he was doing another job that overlapped. But he said, and I'll always remember the phrase, he said that he had 'a distinguished northern journalist' dining with him, and I realised with surprise that he was talking about me."

So in 1974 Derek Davis first entered the hallowed halls of Montrose and a year later he got a full time staff job. It was a culture shock. “The south was very distant,” he says. “I was a foreigner. I published a collection of radio columns there a while back. There was one section called ‘Outside the Tribe’ and really the whole book should have been called ‘Outside the Tribe’ because I never saw myself quite fitting into any of the tribes in the south. The newsroom was as close to an extended family that I found. Yes, they fought and squabbled, there were cranky ones and jealous ones, and shallow ones and wonderfully avuncular protective ones, but they were all very, very ethical people. The news room was, and is, a bastion of probity. I never ever remember an instance of serious political interference.”

After 11 years, in which he and Anne Doyle had pioneered the two-handed presentation of news (and Davis won a Jacob's Award), Davis moved away from the newsroom. "The decision was almost entirely financial," he says. "The newsroom was a big family, but there was a curmudgeonly thing in it as well. There were 'no stars in news'. Now, I wasn't looking for a dressing room with a gold star on it, but a few more quid would have been nice. Anyway RTÉ programmes offered me another ten grand a year and I had two small kids and a colossal mortgage. There was no contest really. But I was a tug of love baby. News wanted to hold onto me, programmes wanted me to move in. The head of personnel had to referee the thing."

For his first outings outside the newsroom he did Davis at Large and a Christmas programme called The Season That's In It. "They weren't critically acclaimed but they did very well in the TAM ratings," he says. It was around the point that that rude overbearing RTÉ exec challenged his place in RTÉ (see first paragraph) that Noel Smyth teamed him up with Thelma Mansfield and developed Live at Three.

“Live at Three was a good concept,” he says. “Noel Smyth was a great organiser and a very methodical man and on a relatively small budget he created a great show. The set was like a nice extension to your sitting room - all pastel colours. It was gentle and relaxing.

“Every programme we made sure there was something for everyone on it. If we had a fashion item we’d have a motor maintenance and an enterprise item. If we had an opera singer we’d have a country singer as well. I’m very proud of it. The welfare department did a survey on where people got their info on social welfare, and first was the newspapers and next was Live at Three because we had a welfare slot on the programme. And it sounds like a small thing to boast about now, but Live at Three was the first time the menopause was discussed openly on television and that was a big deal at the time.”

He recalls one commentator saying “that we could get away with anything on Live at Three because we were seen as a safe pair of hands that there was nothing prurient or sleazy about the way we handled things” .

But Davis didn’t want to stay there forever. “I didn’t go into broadcasting to do the same thing all the time,” he says. “I tried to get out of Live at Three after three years and then five years and then every year after that, and it took eleven years before they finally axed it. But I was very proud of what we did. Afternoons used to lose 120 grand every year, but within a while they were making a million with Live at Three.”

There’s a pause. “Thelma and I didn’t have a share in that by the way,” he adds mischievously.

Since Live at Three Davis has had his ups and downs with the station. He's pursued his love of boating with the sailing programme Out of the Blue. More recently he did the radio show A Question of Food and the travel programme for middle aged people Time on Their Hands and he's regularly filled Pat Kenny's radio slot for the summer months and hosted Liveline when Joe Duffy was on holidays. But he's not great with workplace politics, he says. A former director friend texts him as we speak. "Congratulations on escaping that bunch of bastards at RTÉ," it reads.

“Everybody comes off a little bit scarred by RTÉ,” he says with a laugh. “Most of my memories are good. I remember having an argument with this RTÉ executive. I was trying desperately to hold onto this very small piece of equipment for Out of the Blue and we needed someone to operate it and they were stripping everything back. He looked at me and said ‘in terms of production values you and I come from different planets.’ And I was indiscreet. I said “Why? Is there a planet called ‘shite’?” So that didn’t improve relationships.

“There are 2,000 people in RTÉ and as with any large organisation there are snakes... treacherous, mendacious, and politically motivated people, but there are also remarkably creative and wonderful people.”

And now that that’s all in the past: the good people, the bad people, all the programmes he’s done with the national broadcaster over the years, how does he feel about retirement?

“There’s a wonderfully liberating thing that occurs in your fifties, or in my case on the eve of my 60th birthday,” he says. “It’s the death of ambition, that moment when you simply don’t give a hoot anymore. Not even one single solitary hoot. And you’re quite happy to go along to just do what satisfies you, to do what you have to do to make a living, but you’re not interested in walking in someone’s face to get a leg up.

“And with the lofty distance of age you look and you see these people struggling for advantage, for prominence, for celebrity, and you realise looking at that wriggling mass, that you were once part of it. And I’m so glad not to be anymore.”

He has had offers from other broadcasters, but he won’t take anything that doesn’t feel like retirement, and he’s also getting into the field of media training. He certainly has a lot to teach prospective TV hosts, in particular - a good sense of perspective. “I think the most important piece of advice to anyone in television is a piece of heresy - it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re not brain surgeons. We’re not bomb disposal experts. Does that wire look blue to you? No, we just make ephemera. We do our best to make it diverting. And it’s a living. But you really shouldn’t take it too seriously.”