Memories of a life in TV broadcasting

Lynda Bryans began her broadcasting career at BBC Northern Ireland as a secretary in the Religious Affairs department, then went on to become a newsreader and reporter on BBC's Inside Ulster.

In 1993, she came top of a poll of the most popular regional faces in the UK and was signed by national TV to front a prime time news and current affairs series, Here and Now, on BBC1.

The same year, she co-presented with Rolf Harris Animal Hospital on BBC1 and BBC2, which at its peak netted audiences of 14 million. However, when the programme’s success led to a regular weekly series, Lynda was back home in Northern Ireland giving birth to the first of her two sons and turning her back on London.

She and her husband, Michael Nesbitt, fronted the Sunday Morning religious programme for ITV. Other credits include TV specials for ITV on the Millennium, the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and the first Christmas in New York after the destruction of the twin towers, as well as two ITV factual shows documenting the birth and death of Christ – Bethlehem Year Zero and Jerusalem 2000.

It was her first visit to the Holy Land, and it made a deep impression on her.

“It was wonderful to see these places that you read about in the Bible. We’d be travelling along and suddenly someone would say ‘Oh, look, it’s Jericho’.”

Lynda presented regularly on the ITV News Channel until its closure in 2005, and was one of the regular line-up for BBC Holiday until it was axed in 2007.

She and Michael co-presented UTV Live, until he left in 2006, and the couple also fronted Northern Ireland’s popular property series Home Sweet Home.

Lynda now presents UTV Live with Paul Clark, and Michael is a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles.

From 2005, Lynda also presented a daily lifestyle show, Lunch with Lynda Bryans, on U105, which had the highest listening audience of any daytime show on the network until she was replaced by Carolyn Stewart in October last year.

Away from the TV screens, Lynda also represents a number of voluntary groups and charities, including Aware, which works to support people with depression and break the stigma of mental ill health – a subject close to her own heart. Lynda talks openly about her own depression and has been guest speaker at mental health conferences and seminars across Ireland.

She and Michael Nesbitt also run a media production company, Take 1Take 2.

The couple were married in 1992 after she whisked him off to New York for a Leap Year proposal. They walked up the aisle a few months later and now have two sons, PJ, 14 and Christopher, 11.

She said: “We both had been married before and second time round you have a better idea of what you want and we both knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. I had been teasing Mike that it was a Leap Year and about what happens on a Leap Year. He teased me back that he was planning a boys’ weekend away that weekend.”

She chose New York as a surprise, because he had never been there, and picked the Russian Tea Rooms for the big moment because it was featured in one of their favourite movies, Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman.

“After the meal I went to the ladies to prepare myself for the proposal. Mike had anticipated what was coming and ordered champagne while I was away. I told him I wanted him to be part of my future and thankfully, he said yes immediately.

“I could see myself getting old with Mike, it’s what I wanted and I knew I had no doubts.”

Lynda has recently completed a course in life coaching. She likes fly fishing and plays bad golf but cooks well and takes out stresses and strains on the bodhran.

Not to mention the vegetable garden, the 12 ex-battery rescue chickens, Billy the red rooster and the wormery.

But sadly not Henry the peacock, who was eaten by a fox last spring.

What’s your earliest memory of childhood, and what sort of childhood did you have?

I grew up in the country near Saintfield, in the house Mum and Dad still live in, and there were two carthorses in the back field called Mollie and Nora, and I was always out patting their noses.

Music as well. I grew up in the Sixties, and there were all these Beatles songs on the radio, like Michelle, Ma Belle, so when I was four and my sister was born, I told everyone she was going to be called Michelle. She ended up Alison, but she’ll always be Michelle to me.

Dad was a builder and joiner who built our own house, and Mum worked in a linen finishers called Liddell’s in Belfast. Dad came in to do some work, and their eyes met across a sewing machine.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

A brilliant memory was myself, Alison and Glen, our younger brother, getting up every Sunday morning, hauling on our wellies and being taken for romps by Dad. He’d point out birds and rabbit warrens and fox lairs as we went along, and we’d come back laden with berries or mushrooms, depending on the season. These days I come back with sloes for sloe gin.

When we’d get back, Mum would turn what we’d brought back into mushrooms on toast, or blackberry jam, and when we came home from school, she’d always have a pot of soup on the stove. And she still does, when my boys go to her and Dad one day a week after school.

And summer holidays, where we always went for a week in the Londonderry Arms in Portrush. If we ate our dinner in time, we’d get to go to Barry’s to have the wits scared out of us on the roller coaster or the ghost train.

And the tradition continues. Every Easter, my boys start the familiar cry: “When are we going to Barry’s?”

Worst memory in retrospect was failing the 11-Plus. My parents were going to pay for me to go to grammar school, but I said no because I felt I’d be the stupidest one there. All my confidence had gone because this piece of paper said I was a failure.

How was school?

Carryduff Primary School was idyllic. Great teachers, and great friends who I still keep in touch with. There were four of us at one table: Nicola Phillips, who’s now in South Africa, Louise Gault, Ann Hanna and me.

Nicola, my best friend, had an English mum and an English dad, and we started on the same day. She was crying, I gave her some sweets to cheer her up, and we’ve been friends ever since.

We’d go to her house sometimes after school, and her mum would be dressed in a fabulous sari cooking curry, which I’d never heard of.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a social worker like Winifred Gregg, a wonderful role model who was our Sunday School teacher, but when I suggested this to our careers teacher, she said I should lower my sights a bit.

There was a factory in Saintfield in those days, and the assumption was that you’d end up there or working on the farm.

I wasn’t too bad at shorthand, typing and English, because we had a great English teacher, Marilyn Boyd, so after school I went on to Ballynahinch Tech, and found another great teacher and brilliant role model in Mrs Farmer, whose real name was Victoria, so everyone called her Queenie.

How did you end up as a secretary in the Religious Affairs department?

At the Tech, I began to realise that I was the only person who was going to make something of my life. I got a summer job as a copy typist in the UTV newsroom, which was great crack. When it ended, I wrote to the BBC, and got invited for an interview on a Friday, then got the bus home, and by the time I arrived, they’d phoned to see if I could start on Monday.

It was 1981, the year of the hunger strike, so it was very exciting working so close to news being made and being phoned at four in the morning to come in for the latest emergency.

You were in a place where you were the first to hear the news, and news was very important to people then, probably because everyone was affected by it. Two cousins of mine were waitresses at La Mon House when the bomb went off, but weren’t hurt, for example.

I was just on contract, and then I got the permanent job in religious affairs.

Did you have to come in for morning prayers in the Religious Affairs department?

Far from it! It was more tea and buns, and out for a G and T at lunchtime. Fr Jim Skelly was head of religious programmes, and he’d come back on a Friday from a difficult meeting and say: “Come on, girls, let’s go out for tea.” We’d end up in the Ashoka or the Moghul, then rolling home many hours later.

How did you make the leap to presenting?

People write to the BBC every week saying they want to be on TV, so to get rid of the backlog, they invited them all, and all the staff, for a voice test. I thought I’d apply for a laugh, and ended up being one of six picked out of 100. I was gobsmacked, but I started doing continuity and newsreading, and really enjoying it until Stephen Montgomery, the chief announcer, decided I had an incurable weakness for hesitating and stuttering.

So I was sent back to being a secretary, until by a piece of luck an awful bug swept through the presentation department, and they were so desperate they asked me to fill in, and with all the practice I got better, and got to read the TV news after the late film, and before the national anthem, the Queen on a horse and closedown.

Then by another piece of God’s perfect timing, Rose Neill became pregnant, and Keith Baker, the head of news, asked me to fill in for her. I was so nervous my legs were wobbling, and afterwards I could hardly walk with the adrenalin.

How did you feel when you were signed up for Here and Now?

After the poll, which I didn’t know about because they kept it away from you in case you asked for a pay rise, I just got a phone call from a guy called Steve Anderson in London asking me to come over for an audition, so I went over, did that, had lunch with them and came home, imagining that if I got it, I could just nip over to London a few days a week, since Michael and I had just been married for a year and I was entirely happy being here.

It was Christmas time, and we were decorating our wee house off the Cregagh Road in Belfast, and Steve phoned to say that Alan Yentob, the BBC Controller, really liked the audition and they wanted me to start full-time straight away.

I didn’t want to do it, but Michael said if I didn’t, I’d regret it, so I went to London, stayed in a hotel and cried all the way through January. It was different to here in that nobody socialises after work, because it takes them so long to get home.

It was meant to be six or eight weeks, but it turned into a year.

You were getting well established in London, then you turned your back on it for family life. Any regrets?

Not a bit. I was spending my weeks in London, and trying to fit all my home and family life into weekends. I was also in my early 30s, and the body clock was ticking to have a family. We’d bought a house that needed a lot of work done, and the builders messed up so badly that we took them to court. We’d given them our life savings, and it all became a real strain.

By the summer I was pregnant and doing reports for Animal Hospital, after Alan Yentob said at a meeting that he liked my style of presenting and I got loads of offers. You see, it doesn’t matter what the viewers think, it’s the Controller.

I was also not getting on with the new editor of Here and Now, who didn’t want Alan Yentob telling him what to do. So I was miserable, and it was time to go.

You’ve been pretty open about suffering from depression. How did you feel at the time, when you got out of it, and now?

That year was very stressful, and it was as simple as waking up one morning and being completely unable to concentrate on my research notes. I’d get to the end of a line and forget what it said.

I lost all my confidence. I’d be sitting with a group of people feeling as if I was across the room watching them. As if I was an observer on my own life.

I remember going to a pizza restaurant with Michael, and I couldn’t even make a decision on what to order.

The worst thing was not knowing what was happening. My Mum was the first person to suggest I might be depressed, and I said: “Don’t be silly; what have I got to be depressed about? I’ve a good career, great husband and family, baby on the way, and the house is falling down, but it’ll be all right.”

But that’s a typical reaction. I’ve had letters from people saying the same thing: “You’ve got money. What have you got to be depressed about?” But it’s not as simple as that. You think depression is just feeling like staying in bed on a wet Monday morning, and pulling yourself together and getting up and on with it, but it’s way beyond that.

By Christmas, I was home from London, but it had got so bad that I wouldn’t answer the phone or go out of the house. I was so paranoid I thought people were talking about me. Even when my GP came to see me, I hid behind the curtains and wouldn’t let him in.

I’d lost me, and couldn’t find me again, or security in anything. I would always have gone home to my parents’ house if I had a problem because I felt safe and secure there, but now it was like a strange place to me, which was very frightening.

My doctor, the psychiatrist Philip McGarry and the psychiatric nurse Liz really got me through, as well as antidepressants. Whatever they pay those nurses, it’s not enough.

The key thing for me was identifying what was happening, since I really thought I was going insane. All I needed to hear was that my head was broken, like an arm, and would eventually heal in the same way.

But the most important thing of all was family love and support.

And faith, which stopped me from thinking of taking my own life, although I felt so worthless and such a waste of space that I thought at the time that if a bus had knocked me down and killed me it would have been better for everybody.

Afterwards, I started talking about it to groups and conferences to spread the word and lessen the stigma. We need to improve our attitude as a society to mental illness, to the extent that people treat broken heads just like broken arms.

How did you meet Michael, and was it love at first sight?

He was a sports reporter in the BBC when I was a copy typist, but we never had a conversation. Much later, we were both ending our first marriages, and working on Good Morning Ulster, after which it was a tradition to go across to the Linenhall for a pub lunch, and we became close at those.

What do you like and dislike about him?

He’s a very strong character, and very principled. He has great compassion, which is why I’m not surprised he’s doing the job he’s doing. He’ll come after a day talking to a widow whose husband was gunned down in front of their two boys, and I know he comes home, looks at our boys and thinks: ‘Thank God we’ll never have those days again’.

Bad points I’d have to think about. He can be a cantankerous old git at times, but he’s lovely, and I love him very much.

How did you feel when he quit the day job?

He’d had a difficult few years in UTV, so I was behind him fully, even though he had no job to go to, and none for a year after.

Were you pretty sure he was going to say yes in New York?

Well, it’s very hard to say no when you’re being dangled by the legs from the top of the Empire State Building.

Does PJ have a real name?

Peter Joe, but he’s always been called PJ.

Why the life coaching course?

Because as a woman in broadcasting, you know you won’t be around to get your gold watch at 65, so it’s good to have a Plan B.

How annoyed were you at being dumped by U105?

It was a mystery why they did, since it was the most listened-to show on the station. I have my own theories, but they’re not for publication.

How did you end up with a peacock, a rooster and 12 battery refugees? And has Billy the rooster managed to avoid the fate of Henry the peacock?

I’d always wanted chickens, and the rooster was the third one given to us by a farming friend, after foxes got the other two, one after only a day. We’ve called them all William after him, so the current one is William III, who takes his traditional route from the roof of the henhouse to the field next door, which will be his downfall one day at the hands of Mr Fox.

Henry just arrived one day, and was with us for three summers. Poor old Henry. He was lovely, and a really good watchdog. I still haven’t got over him. I know foxes have a family to feed, and I don’t mind them eating the odd chicken, but not a whole peacock.

Favourite book?

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. And the one Michael has just written, about golf, friendship, life, love and death.

Favourite film?

Oh, difficult to choose just one. Any of those good oldies work for me. I adore Brief Encounter, but it’s hard to go past It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a must-watch at Christmas. More recently, Love Actually is one you can have a good old gurn at when you’re in the mood.

First record?

Probably something embarrassing like a Gary Glitter single or similar, but since he is someone whose name must not be spoken these days, the most memorable early record is Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous LP. Still In Love With You is the most amazing live performance.

Favourite country?

Ireland, but I could settle in Israel. I found a remarkable sense of peace there, strangely in an area so recently affected by war, and Jerusalem’s old city is the most amazing place in the world.

Best and worst holidays ever?

Best: a holiday Michael and I took in West Cork/Kerry many years ago before children arrived. We stayed in a beautiful cottage right on the shore, the weather was glorious and we ate seafood in a little place in Baltimore.

Worst: can’t remember – must have been so bad I’ve wiped it from my memory’s hard drive.

Which two people have been most important in your life so far?

Does it have to be just two? I am so blessed to still have two parents at this stage of my life – and two who are so supportive and hands-on in the life of our family. Michael keeps me grounded and is a steadying influence.

My two sons, PJ and Christopher are without doubt the most brilliant boys in the world and remind me daily of the reason I am alive. And my sister, Alison, the one who should have been called Michelle, who is the most Christian person I know and who has helped me so much especially in this last few months.

Vices and virtues?

Being late, as you may have noticed when I arrived 10 mins late for this interview.

Virtues: I’m a stickler for good manners and grammar.

Regrets: have you had a few?

No, I don’t believe in looking back in anger or regret. I treat things as learning experiences rather than mistakes, and I believe we are where we are at any time in life for a reason, and that it’s all part of a greater plan that the man above has for our lives.

Who would play you in the film version of your life?

Don’t know, but I’d have it written into my contract that Jimmy Nesbitt would play the part of my husband. Jimmy calls himself the younger, more handsome Nesbitt brother.

When were you happiest?

I’m generally happy most of the time.

And saddest?

During ‘the great depression’.

Pet hates?


If you had a time machine, what year would you go back to?

I fancy going back to Victorian times to see how my grandmother and great grandparents lived on the old home farm at Lisdoonan, near where my parents live. It’s now an idyllic organic herb and vegetable farm owned and restored by Barbara and Jonathan Pilcher. Barbara is a regular expert on Gardeners Corner on Radio Ulster.

If you were a colour, what would it be?


Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

I’d be happy being in the same home, with the same people around me, making the most of any remaining years with Michael and my sons before they go off to university or travelling or before some woman steals their hearts away. That’s the sons, rather than Michael.

Tell us something no one knows about you.

I have a bodhran and sometimes even play it.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence.

Borrowed from Ronan Kelly, it’s this: yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.