On our screens for the past 25 years, presenter Julian Simmons is loved for his particular brand of local wit. He tells Joanne Savage about his formative years and starting out at UTV
Much loved continuity presenter Julian Simmons is known for his witty, broad Belfast introductions to soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale, setting viewers up for a night in front of the box at UTV.
The famous redhead is one of Northern Ireland’s best known presenters, always bantering and playful on camera and well informed about happenings at the Rover’s Return. He always seemed to know exactly what Bet Lynch, Ken Barlow and Sally Webster were up to, finding the humour in so many scenarios and giving his own spin on things with gossipy glee.
Julian presented his last piece to camera in October 2016, looking resplendent in black dinner jacket and white dickie bow, when the station was taken over by ITV. On our screens for the past 25 years, Julian now makes his continuity announcements off camera so his particular brand of local wit can still be enjoyed.
With excellent diction and poise, Simmons is also great company; full of anecdotes and craic, he is a brilliant raconteur and looks dapper in suit and tie at UTV headquarters in Belfast.
Julian’s parents, Alan and Pearl, were from Kent and moved to Northern Ireland just before he was born. An only child, he spent many of his holidays with cousins in Eastbourne by the sea. He grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot and indulged his love of amateur dramatics at an early age, his performative flair already in evidence. As Julian recalls, he got up to a fair bit of mischief too.
“I always dreamed of becoming a pilot but I was chronically bad at maths and you need to be good at sums. I could always write a good essay and for some inexplicable reason I was always good at divinity. At one stage I was an altar boy.”
But it was soon apparent that Julian wasn’t suited to ecumenical life.
“There was a fateful day when I swung the incense and it came loose and clattered all down the church and it was like a bomb of incense went up. When the bishop came to St Mark’s, I was asked to do a reading. I had had my red cassock turned up. My foot caught in the back of it and I was falling and hopping along. The choir were wetting themselves.” At the memory Julian laughs and recalls the early dramatic roles that gave him a taste for the limelight - including playing a robber in a school production.
“I came in through the window with another guy and kissed the wife of the house. That was my first experience of feeling the power of being on the stage.”
Julian began his career working at McCalla Travel - then one of Belfast’s most successful travel agencies. The experience helped him develop the kind of polish and confidence he would need to work in broadcasting as well as a life-long love of travel.
“That really helped me because when I first arrived at McCalla I was actually very shy and timid. I worked there the whole way through the Troubles. There used to be a lot of bomb scares and one of my jobs was to tape the windows to prevent any damage.”
It was while starring in another amateur dramatic production that a friend advised him to write to UTV asking for presenting work.
“I was in a play about the Troubles playing Sean, an IRA boy. Somebody who saw me in this told me that a friend worked at UTV, so I sent this letter in with a photograph saying I really wanted to get into broadcasting. The next thing they called me in and they wheeled me through this rabbit warren of corridors and into studio three, all lit, and they gave me the news and said ‘here, read that’. Then a voice came as though out of infinity and said tell us a bit about yourself Julian. So I talked about myself and after a trial period I got the job doing news, continuity and sports results.”
Workaholic Julian combined his career in the travel industry with his UTV commitments for many years.
He was an air steward for Air Canada from Belfast and then London, keeping his television duties all the while. His stint in London made him pine for home and eventually the strain of doing both jobs became too much; he had to make the decision to focus solely on broadcasting.
“Leaving Northern Ireland completely broke my heart. I would cry buckets, just buckets. Everybody here knows everybody else’s granny. You are on the tube in London and nobody looks at you or speaks whereas if you get on a bus here people will talk to you, people are friendly. I was very glad to come home. I really appreciate the sense of humour people have here.
“For many years I was flying by the seat of my pants, taking off on planes while holding on to the lavatory and the door as we travelled down the runway because it was full to capacity and I had to get back to cover my shift at UTV.”
The self-confessed social butterfly - who publicly announced he was gay in 2008 - says he now feels very comfortable as a gay man in Northern Ireland despite the conservative and bigoted attitudes that can prevail; “some people have their watches set back a good 30 years.”
Julian is single and when not getting off to exotic locations with friends enjoys his own company: “I live alone and it’s nice to come in after a hectic day and close the door on it all. Now and again there will be minor flirtations but nothing serious.”
Later this year the now veteran broadcaster will present a four-part series called Rewind in which he will take a trip through the UTV archives to share memories of growing up in Northern Ireland alongside a host of other local personalities. “I’m really looking forward to taking a trip down memory lane with the viewers and our famous faces, sharing some never before seen footage of days gone by,”