‘Confusing the listeners is our stock in trade’

Anderson and Coyle at the Millenium Forum
Anderson and Coyle at the Millenium Forum

Their banter makes them two of Ulster’s most loved broadcasters. How is it that they never run out of things to talk about? And how come they always seem to be having such a darned good time? JOANNE SAVAGE chats to Gerry Anderson and Sean Coyle

ANOTHER morning on the Gerry Anderson show.

Coalisland farmer Geordie Tuft has phoned in to confide, sadly, that his cockerel has broken one of its legs (he’s making a splint for it out of lollipop sticks); a French rap version of Oh What a Night has plangently graced the airwaves; Gerry natters about preparing to run the New York marathon; Sean Coyle keeps interrupting with gentle put-downs.

This is the show you tune into for a particular brand of Ulster-ish easy-going chitchat that riffs from farming life to old anecdotes, whimsy and good craic, wit and old-school records; Anderson might joke about his showband days with The Chessmen; Coyle may do one of his insanely accurate impersonations of Daniel O’Donnell. Theirs is a brand of broadcasting chemistry that is difficult to atomize.

Masters of unscripted banter, Anderson and Coyle go way, way back. Gerry says he can’t remember when they first met but Coyle is clear: “He was a big, glittering star in the showband,” says the affable co-host.

“Gerry played bass in The Chessmen and I was a big fan. I thought they were fabulous - I was nearly a groupie. Here was this fella from the same town as me who had made it big.”

Born in Londonderry in 1944, ‘Stroke City’ as he famously prefers to call it, Anderson worked as an apprentice tool-maker, then as a clerk in a shipping firm before he picked up a guitar.

After his Chessmen days and a stint with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks which saw him living in Canada and America, frequently staying up for three days in a row as he lived the showband dream, fending off groupies and crazed fans (including Coyle), he enrolled at the University of Ulster. He completed his degree in sociology and social anthropology, plus a postgrad in adult education, and then lectured for a time at the North West College of Technology, realising academia wasn’t for him when he found himself weighing exam papers rather than marking them. He began editing a small local magazine and as part of this did the odd piece on BBC Radio Foyle. By 1985 Anderson had his own show entertaining audiences with his easy wit.

During this time, Coyle insists he was doing very little.

“I had a shop in Waterford for a while,” he says, “selling household things - ornaments, bedding, stuff like that.” Sean has the kind of gently amiable manner that is impossible to dislike.

“I was listening to Gerry on the radio and I loved what he was doing. He was kind of like our answer to Kenny Everett.”

Gerry is all quick charisma; leather jackets; barbed jokes about showband legends and rockstars, Elvis and Rita Coolridge; satirical swipes at ineffective politicians and the sorry saga of the Troubles; surprisingly deft impressions of Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff. His knack for improvised humour and engaging, meandering talk has made him one of Northern Ireland’s most popular broadcasters. Anderson has a slew of awards to show for it and was the first Ulster broadcaster to be inducted into the prestigious UK Radio Hall of Fame, alongside Tony Hancock and John Peel.

In Radio Foyle, on a summer’s day, they come off the air still bantering; neither misses an opportunity to rib or jibe at the other one.

Did they have a good show this morning?

‘I don’t remember,” says Gerry, rakishly. “I do like to play a lot of foreign language music to confuse the listeners - which of course is our aim.”

Sean joined Gerry on the airwaves after sending a tape of his impressions to the moguls in charge at the BBC. Henry Cooper and Barry McGuigan were two of his best subjects.

“When I heard his impersonation of Barry I knew he was doing something that nobody else had done,” says Gerry. “Sean had correctly observed that Barry always sounds like he is talking to you from a great distance away. [Does Barry McGuigan impersonation]. I knew that Sean had something different, that he was really good, very clever.

“So 1943 or there abouts he joined me on the show.”

The spontaneity of their on-air talk is entirely natural.

“Not only do we not script what we are going to say, we also resolutely do not talk to each other in the mornings before we start.”

“It’s not that we hate each other’s guts or anything,” says Sean, laughing again, all baritone chuckles. “We’re just very different and we don’t see each other outside of work. I’m massively into golf, Gerry isn’t. We have very different lifestyles.”

What do they put their on-air magic down to?

“Ach, we just go on air and talk. Why do we never run out of anything to talk about? Well, obviously because we’re mad!” roars Gerry. “And we have all these genuine people phoning in; it’s great because you don’t know what’s coming. That keeps it fresh.”

In the past week Mary from Craigavon has called in to report a missing Claddagh ring (she thinks she lost it in Tesco - can anyone help?); regular Geordie Tuft has described the “sweet” taste of grey squirrel (cooking and eating them is one way to reduce their numbers and advance the cause of the red squirrel); they’ve debated Rory McIlroy’s hair at some length (Coyle thinks Rory is going bald); the Peace Bridge in Londonderry has been given the thumbs up (but Gerry points out that we wouldn’t have needed a Peace Bridge if we’d all just loved each other from the start but, no, we were too stupid); a lot of local and foreign - sometimes questionable - music has been played.

They are, they insist, very different personalities and this accounts for the bantering frisson, the jousting and jibing that is often irresistibly funny.

“I’m a lot more irreverent than Sean and a lot of people don’t like that. I’ve always been quite anti-establishment, anti-authority. I hate falseness and show-biz-y stuff, whereas Sean loves all that.”

“I don’t!” says Coyle, laughing again.

No matter who calls in to the show –farmers, pensioners, aspiring musicians, Anderson devotees, the odd crackpot, Miss Dungannon 1957 (as happened on one memorable occasion), Sean Coyle admirers (Gerry doesn’t like this) – the programme’s narrative always moves easily. Sometimes the talk is as bizarre as if it had been lifted wholesale from the pages of a Flann O’Brien novel; the audience laps it up.

Anderson’s philosophy of broadcasting is straightforward: “You imagine the listener as the man or woman next to you in the bar, or that you’re a window cleaner going around different houses –somebody who knows what to say no matter what. If something is important to someone or they are very emotional, you sense that and respond to it.

“Sometimes I’m cheeky but that’s my way.”

Coyle interrupts: “But sometimes you aren’t switched on Gerry! We are in two rooms separated by glass when we’re on air and on occasion when I look over I can see that he’s looking all around him - at the wall, at the ceiling, at his feet - not paying the slightest attention to whichever caller is on line one or line two...”

“I’m interested in 90 per cent of the callers at least!” protests Mr Anderson.

The Ulster audience captures his attention far more, he insists, than the people he had to listen to during his time at Radio 4: Anderson is glad he didn’t stay there and came back promptly to home soil, where his humour is better understood.

They’re back to some post-show bickering now and on form: “The thing is that Sean basically disapproves of everything I say and do.”

“No it annoys me when he doesn’t listen!”

“Well Sean annoys me when he interrupts me and reminds me that I’ve already told a story before. Sometimes I know I’ve told a story before and I just want to tell it again.

“Then on the days when I’m really cooking, when the words are flowing and I feel I have lots to say – those are the very days Sean decides to keep interrupting me. On the days when I can’t get the words out he has nothing to say. It’s a terrible business.”

Both of them express surprise when told how funny listeners found this or that anecdote, this or that moment in a faux round of aggro as it falls into a happy chaos of peals of laughter, bemused callers, that particular Anderson-Coyle magic.

“People say oh youse were really funny this morning. And I think really? All we did was talk a lot of nonsense,” adds Sean.

It’s a special kind of sense they talk. The funny-haha and funny-peculiar kind.

*Catch the Gerry Anderson Show on BBC Radio Ulster- BBC Radio Foyle, Monday-Fridays at 10.30am or via bbc.co.uk/radioulster.