Northern vision – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the birth of Ulster Television

Anne Hailes: A night to remember


Halloween, a time of magic, fireworks and parties. So it was 60 years ago when the big double doors of a renovated shirt factory were flung open to allow Ulster Television fly out and into the homes of Northern Ireland. On a small street off Ormeau Road in Belfast, Havelock House glowed in its powder-blue paintwork as dusk fell on the afternoon of October 31st, 1959.

Crowds gathered, a string of cars came and went, bouquets filled the foyer with their perfume and workmen were completing last-minute jobs as the clock ticked towards 4pm, when the “On Air” sign lit up.

The great and the good streamed into the building for drinks in Studio One, the only studio there was in those days, the studio where soon Tom Jones would strut his stuff in black leather trousers and a ruffed white shirt, where Lulu first sang My Boy Lollipop, Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street arrived, and Frank Carson cut his teeth on a live commercial for Jacobs’ water biscuits.

He was never one to stick to a script; he showed the orange packet, said what he had to say and then stopped, thought, looked into the camera, held the biscuit aloft and said: “That’s a cracker!” And so a catchphrase was born.

Sir Laurence Olivier arrived to make the first welcoming announcement and the party started.

Famous faces, politicians, society belles, thespians, and us – the staff of about 30 at the time. It was heady stuff and the beginning of a dream that came true day after day.

Ulster Television spawned many talents but little known were the Thompson twins who achieved their big break appearing on Teatime With Tommy. Derek and Elaine were 15 when they sang Yellow Bird Up High In Banana Tree. Such was the unsophisticated nature of television at that time that props man Isaac climbed a ladder and held a branch of a tree over their heads – with a bunch of bananas tied on. The duo became famous locally but Derek Thompson’s fame today is as Charlie Fairhead in BBC’s Casualty.

Sex bomb

Tom Jones didn’t expect to be a sex bomb 60 years on. When I knocked on the door of his dressing room and asked him to sign his 15 guinea contract, I wished him well with It’s Not Unusual. “Love,” he replied, “I’ll enjoy it because it’ll be a one-off.” How wrong can you be?

Television technology was also in its infancy. On screen white shirts drained face tones, so male interviewees had to change into pale blue shirts, ministers of religion swapped their dog collars for UTV blue; no one escaped.

Denis Ireland, later a senator, a giant of a man whose luxuriant white hair had to be powdered down with Creme Puff “Tempting Touch”, and even a roast turkey taken out of an oven on a Christmas show had to be rushed to makeup to be basted in Revlon “Toasted Beige” foundation to help it look more succulent.

Small hole in the map

My memories are legion. Brig Ronald Broadhurst describing a first World War battle was made all the more realistic as someone crouched behind the map and, through a small hole at the site of the battle, puffed cigarette smoke through as the cannons raged.

On the Roundabout programme, Ivor Mills’s topic was the newfangled Dictaphone and he expressed the opinion to a secretary that she might well be out of work soon. She rose to her feet, moved to Ivor, sat on his knee, took his face in her hands and gave him a passionate kiss. Then turned to the camera, winked and said: “A Dictaphone can’t do that!”

Those early days of live television were indeed groundbreaking, but the most important time was covering the Troubles, and the newsroom was frenetic. Visiting reporters and film crews from round the world vied with our own crews, who had a different dynamic. The visitors waded in, got their stories and left, but our boys and girls had to go back time after time, and it took its toll.

I recall Ivan Little coming back with harrowing footage to edit and then sitting in the canteen face to the wall, back to us all trying to come to terms with witnessing the latest atrocity.

On one occasion a call came through that there was rioting on the Falls Road. “Send a film crew.” Ten minutes later the same caller phoned with the message, “Hurry up, we can’t start without you.”

The doors of Havelock House closed last year, and little was taken to the new home of UTV, now owned by Independent Television, on the top floor of a glass cube overlooking the River Lagan, a place much less of creativity, and much more of new technology.

And still Coronation Street carries on regardless.

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