Nothing ever stays same for this continuity man

UTV's most idiosyncratic presenter was born in Belfast, but spent all his holidays in his parents' native Kent. With a father who worked all over Europe the young Julian got a bug for travelling which, fuelled by growing up near Belfast City Airport, progressed into a dream of being a pilot.

Well, that or a theatre impresario, since as a boy he used to stage puppet shows in a model Victorian theatre in his parents' house.

"These puppet shows were very professional. I put posters up around the street, designed and printed tickets and charged a small fee for the show. I gave all the proceeds to the RSPCA," he said recently.

At Belmont Primary School he spent most of his time being terrified of yet another caning from the headmistress, then escaped to Methodist College where he got into more trouble when Miss Eames, the divinity teacher, asked the class to draw a picture of Samson and Delilah.

"She was not amused when I gave Delilah a mini-skirt and a massive bust. I had to write out the school's rules and regulations as a punishment for that particular imaginative illustration," he said.

Julian's career in broadcasting began after he appeared in amateur drama productions in Belfast while working for Air Canada.

"Somebody saw me in a Belfast comedy and said: 'You should be on TV, I know somebody who you should speak to', so I sent my letter in and duly arrived up at Havelock House with amateur tapes that I had made of comedy sketches that I was performing in my kitchen and bathroom and bedroom ...

"They listened to them and said: 'Yes, those are quite funny, but there's no opening for that sort of thing here at the moment. Here's a news bulletin, let's hear you read that'."

He was offered a six-week trial as an announcer at UTV, introducing programmes and reading news and sports bulletins, but was always worried that he'd burst out laughing at the wrong moment.

"I have this thing if I'm hearing bad news, or someone goes to tell me something grave. It must be a nervous thing, but I feel myself starting to smirk. So I was always terrified when I was reading the news that I was going to laugh."

Then he had the stroke of inspiration that changed his life.

"Continuity was very straight and then one Christmas I was in for four or five days over the Christmas period, all done up like a dog's dinner, with a dickie-bow on and no news to read, so I started introducing these programmes and acting a bit of the lig. And it went down very well, apparently, so they put me on weekends, where the programmes are all entertainment – nothing hard or heavy."

Before long, his introductions to Coronation Street and Emmerdale became an institution and he made his film debut in the Colin Bateman-penned film Wild About Harry.

He's confessed to spending 40 minutes pampering himself in the bathroom every morning, popping so many vitamin pills that it's like a scene from Valley Of The Dolls and going to the gym three times a week.

Always flamboyantly camp, he finally owned up in a national newspaper earlier this month to being gay, but said he'd never told his beloved mum Pearl, who died on Christmas Eve 2006.

"I used to appear in her bedroom every morning with a cup of tea. I'd be draped in a feather boa and do a song-and-dance routine. She used to laugh her legs off.

"She never asked about girlfriends or settling down," he said.

Julian, who says he's 42, admits to being the jealous type. He is fairly sceptical about relationships generally, having been to 38 weddings in 10 years and seen nearly all the couples break up.

If he was to be marooned on a desert island he'd take a video of Frank Michell's weather forecasts.

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

When I was about four, throwing up over my dad's suit on the plane to a business trip. He organised trade fairs and the like and Mum and I would often get to travel with him, which is where I got my love of travel.

I was an only child, but very happy. We lived off the Holywood Road and it was very eclectic, with neighbours like Tubby Dash the flying instructor and his wife, and people who had come from all over the world to work in Shorts.

I loved travelling, which seemed very exclusive and elitist at the time. Even flying from London to Belfast you checked in at West London air terminal on the Cromwell Road, then got taken by coach to the airport along the Great West Road.

I loved airports, although I was always filled with this great sense of foreboding landing at Berlin because the terminal had a huge curved canopy that seemed to reach out over the runway.

Paris Orly was very glam and I loved the announcements, which sounded like a huge xylophone playing.

I adored flying and loved aircraft. I remember always being more interested in the aircraft than where we were going and was so excited when we finally got to fly in the Caravelle.

How come your parents ended up in Belfast?

Dad was offered a post in either Rhodesia or Belfast and Mum bawled and yelled and said she wasn't going to any Rhodesia, thank you very much, so here I am.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

The worst was when Dad was in London for the day and I told my friends I'd found this fabulous outfit in the wardrobe. Half-an-hour later I was running up and down the road in Dad's Masonic outfit, with the whole lot – including the sword – dragging behind me. Only for Dad to come around the corner in his car and find me. God, did I get into trouble for that.

Best memories were the puppet theatre shows, put on by a huge production team of three. There's be much talk about them in the two weeks before and if I was doing Aladdin I'd greet everyone as they arrived in a Chinese costume hired from a place in the Presbyterian Assembly buildings. I'd be a sea captain for Robinson Crusoe and a bell boy look for Cinderella. There was no expense spared, I tell you.

How was school?

Miss McMinnis, the headmistress at primary school, put the fear of God in me.

Methody was good fun and where I did my first production, Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde on the big stage in the Whitla Hall, which gave me my taste for drama.

Also when I was 11 or 12 I was approached by the Holywood Players to play a very precocious American brat. Typecasting, you may say, but I loved it. The Queen's Hall in Holywood, Co Down. I really thought I'd arrived.

Mum was so impressed she had all her friends around for drinks and mushroom puffs and my second line in the show was: "Your hips are not wide enough to provide a birth canal for the baby." I think all the mushroom puffs were spluttered back up again.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A pilot. But my limited appreciation of maths meant there was no way that was going to happen. Then I thought of RADA, but in the end my love of travel got the better of me and after school I started as an office boy in Rigby Travel in Belfast.

Then I moved to McCalla Travel and really got the travel bug: Malta, Athens, Paris and so on. Then when I joined Air Canada in the late Seventies I'd find myself flying off to Vancouver for parties for the weekend, or Toronto for shopping.

The Air Canada office was in Canada House in North Street, in the same building as the Canadian consulate and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Then the lot closed because of the Troubles and we were offered redundancy, commuting to London or moving to London.

Dad had died of a heart attack when I was 12, so I moved me and Mum to London and after a year I was at Heathrow dealing with delayed flights, VIPs like film stars and Royalty, and working six days on and four days off, so I thought we may as well move back to Belfast and commute, since Mum and I both felt we had lost our identity living in London.

You've been in the news a lot recently after coming out of the closet. How did that happen?

I didn't suddenly decide to do it. The Daily Mirror was doing an article on coming to terms with the death of my mother and it appeared with the headline Glad To Be Gay.

I never thought there was any necessity for me to make any statement. This is just the way I am and I'm sure it's no big surprise. No one's blocking roads and burning buses over it, anyway.

When did you first realise you were gay?

God, I knew from when I was a kid. Here's a crazy mixed-up kid for you: when I went to the panto I always fell madly in love with the principal boy, who was played by a girl. What would Freud have to say about that?

I knew there was some sort of conflict in me, but it wasn't until my teenage years that the cookie finally crumbled.

Why did you feel you couldn't tell your mum and other people?

There was no need. Mum had her life and I had mine and we were both so busy that, although we lived together, we only really saw each other for Sunday lunch and went away together to Guernsey at Drumcree and Christmas. That was our traditional route.

To be honest, I think being gay is irrelevant, even in Northern Ireland where the two big bete noires were always unmarried mothers and homosexuality.

I do love Northern Ireland, but bless it, it can be a bit medieval at times. I mean, look at the whole Iris row at the minute, although she can't help the way she is, because that's all she knows.

Mind you, normal people are becoming much more liberal and it's changed dramatically from when I was growing up, when you couldn't even talk about it.

It was only when I worked in Heathrow that I realised just how inconsequential it was, because the airline industry, television and theatre are peppered with gay society. That's what makes it such a howling, screaming laugh, because gay people have much more fun and a better sense of humour.

How have other people reacted to it?

The other day I was walking down Royal Avenue and about eight people came over and didn't even mention the gay thing, but said they didn't realise until they read the piece in the paper that my Mum had died. That was very moving. I was in a bit of a state.

Why do you think you're so jealous in relationships? Is it insecurity?

I think it comes from having been an only child. In relationships I've been very possessive, which is why I think more and more I couldn't be bothered with relationships and I just want to be footloose and fancy-free. You know that saying: if you love someone, set them free. That's the way to live life. Nothing lasts for ever anyway, so just enjoy things while you have them.

Why do you think you're so sceptical about relationships in general?

Well, look at all those wasted wedding presents: 38 soda syphons and I needn't have bothered.

Modern life is the reason why relationships don't last. People's outlook and circumstances change so quickly and they want everything from the word go. There's no concept of saving up for anything. I think it makes people very unhappy and dissatisfied because they want, want, want all the time. Look at kids at Christmas. They want everything and it means they have nothing to strive for.

You've said you get very little leisure time because you live on the edge all the time. Why?

I'm not on edge, I'm just always busy and I do quite enjoy that. I leave the house at 7am with two outfits, do an event in the morning, another in the afternoon, then do the TV thing and crawl through the door on all fours at one the following morning.

The new series of Rewind is about to come out and I'm doing a series on learning to drive at the minute. The last lesson was purgatory and I'm doing roundabouts this afternoon. That'll be a challenge.

Favourite book?

Wind in the Willows. I love the cosiness of it and the sense of this whole animal kingdom going on under the world. If I'm ever in bed with a cold or 'flu that's what I read, imagining the animals sitting by roaring fires. Lovely.

I loved Night Over Water, Ken Follett's novel about the last flight of the Pan-American Clipper at the start of the Second World War. And the Da Vinci Code had me hooked, but the film was a real disappointment.

What is it you like about soaps?

They're so lovely and basic and people do talk about them as if they're real life. That's what I was trying to recreate on TV, the way people talked about them.

First record?

Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas.

Favourite country?

Thailand because of the courtesy of the people, the temples and the shopping; China and Australia. I loved the freedom and ethos of Sydney: That work is secondary. Breakfast down at the quay, with people coming to work on the ferries in open-necked shirts, with their gym gear in their backpacks – perfect.

I mean, I only work flat out so that I can travel. Even if I have a day off I'll go over to London to meet friends for lunch.

I travel a lot with friends who are cabin crew. Turn up 45 minutes before the flight, crew bus from the airport and all the crew hotels are lovely.

Great way to travel.

Best and worst holidays ever?

Best memory is the plane banking in to land over Sydney with the sun coming up over the sea.

Worst was when Mum got heart failure in Jersey and a four-day trip turned into 10. She did recover for several more holidays, though.

Heroes and villains?

Well, George Bush and Tony Blair will never get a Christmas card after Iraq.

When I was younger I thought the world of Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams.

Which two people have been most important in your life?

My mother and my old boss Stanley Hamilton of McCalla Travel. I thought everything he said was a load of nonsense, but every word turned out to be true.

Regrets: have you had a few?

I wish I'd persevered at maths and I might be piloting 747s now. I wish I'd persevered with Miss Boner's braces on my teeth – rather than throwing them in the bottom of my schoolbag– and I wouldn't look like Dracula.

When were you happiest?

When I was working for both Air Canada and UTV. I'm generally happy and always keen to know what happens next. I'm happiest when I'm packing a bag.

And saddest?

When my father died I was so sorry for my mother. He was such a strict man that at 12 I almost felt relieved that he'd gone.

I wasn't as sad when Mum died, because she'd been ill for three years and it was almost a relief when she died on Christmas Eve two years ago.

She was in hospital and I was on the radio with Gerry Kelly when someone stuck a piece of paper in front of me saying to ring the hospital immediately.

I rang and the wee Sister was in tears.

"Your mother isn't well at all," she said, and I knew what she meant.

By the time I got there she'd already passed away, then my friend Gabrielle – Eamonn Holmes's ex-wife – arrived. She was the only one who knew about it but I didn't tell any of my friends because they all do such big, lovely Christmases that it would have just ruined Christmas for them. Mum would have been furious.

So the next day I just got up, went to Gabrielle's for lunch, then went to work in UTV. I was doing the Santa Updates and the undertaker was sitting there asking me what flowers I wanted.

I finally told the rest of my friends on Boxing Day.

What would be your perfect life?

I'd love to have a place on Guernsey – although you'd need a lottery rollover – and commute to work here. And be free to have lunch in Harvey Nick's whenever I fancied.

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

I'd like the first two nights at sea on Titanic, then a helicopter off.

Would you really want a video of Frank Mitchell's weather forecasts on a desert island?

Absolutely, just to remind me of home. But maybe a couple of other ones as well.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence.

You really do learn something new every day and life never, ever stays the same.

- Julian Simmons returns this Friday at 8pm for a new series of UTV Rewind, with guest appearances from Louis Armstrong, Jackie Kennedy, Elton John and U2, as well as a host of familiar faces from the UTV archive including Eamonn Holmes, Gloria Hunniford, Lesley Dawes and Charlie Witherspoon. In this first programme Julian takes a light-hearted look back through almost 50 years of footage from the film library