Davis rides a new wave
Devoted sailor Derek Davis, facing an uncertain trough in his career, brings his passion to our screen in his new TV series on RTE today. He has been exiled to the waters and the wild, but after disappearing from our screens for several months, Derek Davis is back on board.Admirers of the big man will be hoping that his new series about boats, Out of the Blue, will mark a return to prominence in RTE. Relieved of his duties on Live at Three and as compere of the Rose of Tralee contest, Davis has finally realised one of his long held ambitions. He persuaded RTE to allow him to make a series about boats.
``I first put forward this idea 11 or 12 years ago, but RTE did not want it,'' says the affable presenter over a lunch that stretches out into the deep recesses of the afternoon.
``I have knocking around in boats since I was a boy in Bangor and they have always been a passion of mine. It has been in my family for generations. There was consternation in my family when my great uncle Robert failed to gain a position on the Titanic.
``I spend almost every weekend on my cruiser on the Shannon or on a friend's boat. When I first came to Dublin I used to go out on a rowing boat from Bulloch Harbour in Dalkey to fish and I loved it. My cruiser is quite luxurious. As Peter Ustinov put it, it will sleep two prudes or six people who know each other well. I like to lie in state in the big double bed.''
Says Derek, ``Ireland has 220 million acres of territory 90 per cent of which is undeveloped, undiscovered and underwater. We live on just 10 per cent our national territory. The programme will be for and about those who find their recreation or make their living in or from the water.''
Two and a half years ago, the generously-proportioned Derek Davis star seemed to be on the rise. Live at Three may not have been everyone's cup of afternoon tea, but it was popular; and his summer discussion programme, Davis, was a welcome addition to RTE's summer schedules. Without descending to the level of its American counterparts, it was a current affairs with a populist cutting edge that is notably absent from much of the rest of the TV station's output.
Now Live at Three is dead, and Derek is unsure whether RTE will bring back the Davis show for the coming summer: ``If you ask me what I will be doing in a year's time, I do not have a clue.''
Although he now says he is relieved that he no longer presents Live at Three, he winces slightly at the mention of the Rose of Tralee. The gig did his career no favours as it detracted from the newly found gravitas that he brought to Davis.
In 1995, Davis was asked to compere the five hour show with six days' notice after Gay Byrne became ill.
``Mike Murphy did not want to do it. I had never even really watched the show before I was asked to do it. It was extremely tough. I had to interview the girls for 50 hours before doing it and show itself is so long that much of it has to be improvised.
I did not drink for the entire week, but I tell you by the end of the week, I was thirsty.
``I hope that the Davis show is brought back again. RTE has tried that kind of interactive format several times and it is the only time that it has ever worked.''
Born in North Down to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother from Bray, Davis describes his upbringing as ecumenical: ``I went to a tough Catholic boarding school in Antrim. Never min d corporal punishment. If they had been allowed to use capital punishment, I am sure they would have done.''
Davis finds the attitudes in the south to northerners to be riddled with contradictions.
``It is often the most ferocious republicans down here who will tell you to fuck off back to the north. It is the loneliest thing in the world to be a northerner when you come down to the south if you do not have connections. I only had a couple of friends.
``When I came down here, there was huge suspicion of northerners and I call it the paranoid years. Ihad good reason to believe that my phone was being tapped. Put it this way. If you were a northerner asking for your phone to be connected in the seventies, it never took a long time.''
It is often forgotten that Davis cut his teeth as a news reporter with the American network ABC and BBC Northern Ireland before spending 11 years in the newsroom in RTE.
Over the decades his career has swung wildly from hard news to pure entertainment and back again. Before joining RTE, his journalistic career took a brief detour into showbusiness when he went on the road as a country and western singer.
His break into broadcasting in the south came in most unusual circumstances. ``I was sharing a modest dinner with Tom McGurk (the RTE journalist) when someone rang Tom from RTE and asked him to come in because the night editor had had a heart attack. Tom could not go in, but recommended the `distinguished Northern journalist Derek Davis.' I went in to RTE, star ted going in there regularly and I was eventually offered a job.''
Davis was a familiar figure on news bulletins and covered such big stories as the Tiede Herrema kidnapping.
His days as a reporter may be numbered ``It's young man's work'' but occasionally he has to use his journalistic nose. For the upcoming series, Davis managed to step on board the world most successful fishing trawler, an enormous Irish-owned vessel that fishes out of Holland.
Owned by Kevin McHugh, the trawler is believed to be the most expensive privately owned ship in the world. The 350 ft vessel with an Irish crew can catch 3,000 tons of fish.
``When I was told that the ship was coming into Ringaskiddy, I was on my boat in Terryglass. I rushed down there in a taxi; so that I could get on board. It was a most extraordinary ship. The crew cabins were luxurious and were equipped with satellite TV.''
Davis interviews a wide variety of salty dogs for the series from merchant princes who race their yachts at the oldest and poshest yacht club, the Royal Cork, to sailors who race Galway Hookers out of Dublin's Ringsend.