Frank Mitchell talks to HELEN MCGURK about his love of broadcasting and football and why recent revelations about his former school hurt him deeply.
Some years ago, even by our atrocious weather standards, Ulster was in the grip of a particularly grim summer; rain-soaked and grey-souled after seemingly relentless weeks of slanting mizzle, we hoped, beyond hope, for just one day of sunshine - a glimmer would do.
During that awful spell of weather I recall UTV weatherman Frank Mitchell standing in front of a weather map bedecked with sorry-looking rain clouds, quipping, ‘‘And now for the summary, or should I say wintery’’.
Despite the lamentable forecast, the Co Down man delivered the bleak news with wit, warmth and a determination to keep things cheerful.
Those qualities are as evident off-screen, as on screen; there are no airs or graces with Frank Mitchell. He’s funny, likeable and a bit of a chatterbox.
The 57-year-old is one of the most recognised personalities on local television and radio.
He has been presenting the weather on UTV since 1993 and is cherished for his distinctive down-to-earth manner and, of course, his signature sign-off ‘Take care, be good, bye bye.’’
And after some 20-odd years talking about cold snaps and chilly outlooks he says he never gets bored being asked about the weather.
‘‘Absolutely not because I think it is a really positive reflection on what we do.
‘‘If people shout to me across the street ‘Frank, you said it’s going to be sunny and it’s not’, that shows they’re listening. I’m happy with the interruptions, happy with the banter, happy with people saying hello.’’
On screen nothing is rehearsed, his quips are off the cuff, he’s ‘‘telling a story about the weather’’, having a conversation with the viewer rather than staring glassy-eyed at an Autocue.
‘‘I suppose the ad libs and the asides are very much in keeping with personality - it’s the way I talk. You do try to make it as conversational as possible - I think that’s the oldest skill in the world,’’ he says.
One of his most daunting weather presentations was with the Queen who visited the studio for its 50th anniversary celebrations.
‘‘The chance to host Her Majesty during the course of a working day is a challenge and a half.
‘‘She came on the weather maps with me and she asked a lot of questions about the weather. What I didn’t know was that it was being filmed by BBC, Sky and ITV - it was shown everywhere. You always know you’ve had an important day at work when a couple of days later you get half a page in Hello! magazine,’’ he laughs.
Frank Mitchell is also a familiar voice on radio - his U105.8 FM phone-in show has become one of the most exciting in Ireland with a fast moving range of topics guided by his sharp questions and equally sharp wit.
Over the years he has presented a range of popular TV shows including UTV Life, School Around The Corner (Liam Neeson wrote to him and asked if his father’s school could be featured on it- after a two-year wait, it was), End to End and Ultimate Ulster.
‘‘I absolutely live the dream in terms of work,’’ he says.
‘‘I’m on the radio in the morning, I’m on the TV in the evening, five days a week - it is just a joy. I’m not joking you - it’s like turning a hobby into a mortgage-paying job and there aren’t a huge number of people who can say that.’’
Frank Mitchell is originally from Burren, near Warrenpoint, which he describes as ‘‘as friendly a place as you could get.’’
‘‘I was surrounded by people with sunny dispositions, so I’m sure it rubbed off on me.’’
He has two sisters and his parents, the late Francis and mother Lily, 87, owned an electrical shop in Warrenpoint.
‘‘My mother and father were the kindest people on earth.’’
His childhood was ‘‘hugely enjoyable’’, growing up ‘‘basically on and off’’ his aunt’s farm.
‘‘My favourite smell is still newly mown hay. I’m a country boy to the core,’’ he says.
The ‘country boy’ now lives in Belfast, and is married to Helena, a primary schoolteacher; they have one daughter, Laura, 27.
He may be a household name - but there’s a few surprises about Frank Mitchell. Firstly, Mitchell isn’t his actual name.
‘‘I was born John Anthony Francis McClorey - I was called John after my uncle, I was called Anthony after the saint, I was called Francis after my father, who wasn’t even called Francis, ‘‘he laughs, ‘‘he was called Frank, and I wanted to be called Frank.’’
The Mitchell moniker came about when he was a teenager and working for a pirate radio station called Carousel in Dundalk.
‘‘There was a loophole in the law about what we were doing and as a result everyone who worked on the station worked under a false name. I was 17 and the boss made suggestions as to what my name might be.
‘‘He was hugely into Country & Western music and had lots of albums, so he pulled out Crystal Gayle, and suggested Frank Gayle, then Dolly Parton.
‘‘I thought I’m not being called Frank Parton, so I glanced at the death column of the newspaper that was sitting there and I saw the name Mitchell and I said to him ‘What about Frank Mitchell?’ And he said, ‘yeah, there’s a great ring to that’. The next album he pulled out was Hank Wangford, so I was really lucky,’’ he laughs.
Frank studied to be a schoolteacher and taught PE and English for about a year, but his first love was always broadcasting - he turned down a full-time teaching job for a three-month contract at Radio Ulster.
‘‘I never wanted to do anything else other than broadcasting,’’ he says sincerely.
‘‘When I was young I had a turntable and a tape recorder in my bedroom and I used to make radio programmes and play them back to myself - it’s a lonely way to spend time as a kid,’’ he laughs.
‘‘I loved broadcasters, the way other kids loved actors or footballers.’’
Among his broadcasting icons were Tony Blackburn, Terry Wogan, BIG T, David Dunseith, and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, the gaelic football commentator on RTE.
His job as a weatherman came about by happenstance rather than design after he was asked to stand in for someone else during rehearsals. After three weeks as a temporary weather presenter he was called in by the head of personnel.
He recalls the encounter. ‘‘He looked over his glasses at me and he said ‘Young Mitchell, what on earth qualifications do you have for doing the weather forecast?’ And I said, ‘When I was at university, I did meterology and physics as part of my degree’ and he said ‘excellent’ - he didn’t know that I did PE and English. When you are given an opportunity you have to make the most of it,’’ he laughs.