RTÉ’s hugely popular ‘man of all the talents’

Derek Davis: April 26th, 1948 - May 13th, 2015

Derek Davis with Rose of Tralee contestants in 1996. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Derek Davis with Rose of Tralee contestants in 1996. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Derek Davis, who has died aged 67, had a long and distinguished career as a newsreader, reporter and presenter. The flood of tributes that swiftly followed news of his death after a short illness reflected the very high esteem in which he was held by colleagues.

Fellow RTÉ presenter Joe Duffy, for whom he often deputised on Liveline, said: “To me he had the warmth, brightness and openness of summer.” Another RTÉ colleague, Gay Byrne, said: “He always showed real common sense, understanding and decency on subjects and I found his opinions to be unmissable.”

The actor and presenter Aoghus McAnally described him as “one of the finest wordsmiths I ever worked with”, while to Tom McGurk, a close friend for nearly 50 years, he was “a unique man of all the talents and huge generosity”.

RTÉ director general Noel Curran said that Davis was “a hugely popular man both with audiences and with his colleagues” and “one of the most versatile presenters RTÉ has seen”.

Derek Davis was born in Holywood, Co Down and spent much of his childhood in the resort of Bangor, where he acquired his lifelong love of boats and the sea.

His father, Frederick, was an accountant who had an art and framing shop in Belfast. His mother, Vera Algar, from Bray, Co Wicklow, worked in Bletchley Park (famous for breaking the German “Enigma” code during the second World War) before marriage. She helped out in the family art shop and was herself a talented artist.

‘On the fence’

With a father from a middle class Protestant unionist background and a mother a Southern Catholic, he “grew up sitting on the fence”, he once said in an interview with The Irish Times.

“I like to say, it’s an uncomfortable position but the view is spectacular.” He confessed to finding the extremists on both sides in Northern Ireland “a bit bewildering”.

He “was always an extrovert”, he told an interviewer for the Irish Examiner in December 2014, “but it is only in retrospect that I see that you construct a persona to fit your person. Being a fat person, I constructed a persona to go along with my size.”

At boarding school, he “practised sarcastic wit” and later “polished the technique” at Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied law and won many prizes for debating.

An argument with a man who turned out to be a BBC reporter led to a suggestion that he contribute to a programme, which in turn led to an audition and to his being trained as a BBC reporter.

In the Irish Times interview mentioned above, he said he started work for BBC Northern Ireland as “the lowest life form, a trainee freelance”. He recalled bringing back an interview and the producer, who did not like it, throwing the tape recorder 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.”

Dangers

Davis got an opportunity in 1974 to do some work for RTÉ, on the recommendation of his friend Tom McGurk, who at the time worked there as a news reporter.

Two-hander

Anne Doyle

He won a Jacob’s Award in 1984 for the series The Season That’s In It, and hosted his own talk show, Davis At Large. From 1986 until 1997 he co-hosted Live at Three on RTÉ 1 with Thelma Mansfield.

In 1991, he won a second Jacob’s Award for his Live at Three special programme to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

In the late 1990s, he presented four series of the marine programme Out of the Blue, in which he was able to demonstrate his love of boating and sailing and his knowledge of the waters around Ireland.

Time on Their Hands (2005) was a travel series directed at a target audience of the middle-aged. After that Davis did mainly radio shows, presenting A Question of Food and deputising on Liveline.

Obesity was a lifelong challenge for him. In an interview for the Irish Independent he quoted from Romeo and Juliet, “He jests at scars, who has not felt the wound”, to describe how people with obesity problems are often stigmatised. Recent bariatric surgery led to his losing seven stone.

He is survived by his widow, Úna, sons Michael, Colm and Seán, and sister Elizabeth Wellman.