Friday 28 October 2016

Obituary: Derek Davis, Broadcaster and journalist

Born April 26, 1948, died May 13, 2015

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Derek Davis: A smart, versatile and very well-liked broadcaster
Derek Davis: A smart, versatile and very well-liked broadcaster

Derek Davis, who passed away this week, was one of the most popular figures in Irish broadcasting over the last 40 years. Simply put, over and above any objective analysis of his many qualities as a broadcaster, the public greatly liked the man.

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That might be because Davis was, like all of us, the quintessential mess of contradictions - and that's meant in the most complimentary way.

He began as a serious news journalist but segued easily into a huge variety of other broadcasting genres. Friends and colleagues testified that he was a sweet, generous gentleman, but Davis called himself cranky and tetchy.

He looked like a big blond teddy-bear but once knocked a rioter out cold with his microphone. He was renowned for his professionalism and industry, but said the media was "ephemera" which "doesn't matter".

Perhaps Colm Connolly, Davis's old colleague, summed him up best as someone who "took his work seriously but didn't take himself seriously". The man himself said: "We're not brain surgeons. We're not bomb-disposal experts. We do our best to make it diverting. But you really shouldn't take it too seriously."

That sense of humour, that good-natured self-mockery, was just one reason the public warmed to Davis, ever since he pioneered the two-hander news bulletin with Anne Doyle in the 1980s. But there was much more: the warm Ulster tones, the obvious empathy and decency, the clever wit, the curiosity about the world, the ever-present twinkle of mischief in his eye.

Aged just 67 when he died on Wednesday, Davis packed an incredible amount into one life. Perhaps fittingly for a man who spoke openly about his battle with weight, he was larger-than-life, both in personality and achievements.

He was born on April 26, 1948, in Holywood, Co Down, to an unusually (for that time and place) mixed parentage: his father was a middle-class Protestant, his mother a Catholic from Wicklow. They were artistic - an art dealer and painter respectively - which Davis credited with his love of art, creativity and the spoken and written word.

Having attended boarding school in Antrim, Davis studied Law in Queens, Belfast. Already heavy, he constructed an extrovert persona "to go along with my size. It started in school and then I practised sarcastic wit at boarding school, polishing the technique when I got to Queens".

His route into journalism was appropriately colourful: Davis got into an argument with a man who turned out to be a BBC producer, who asked him to contribute to a programme. That led to an audition, which led to being trained as a BBC reporter. Even here, the story isn't straightforward: Davis lost the original invite letter, phoned the BBC, was given an incorrect date for audition, yet "somehow got the job".

The streets of Belfast during the early 1970s were a baptism of fire for a young reporter. At one point, Davis's cameraman had bone breaks in his ribs, fingers and elbow from three separate beatings.

"I was large and handy enough," he later said, "and part of my job was to stop Barry getting killed at regular intervals. I KO-ed somebody with a big steel microphone during a riot, because this fella had attacked us with a hatchet. This kind of madness happened all the time."

Having earned his stripes with BBC and American network ABC - who even asked him to go to Vietnam - Davis landed a night editor gig in RTE through his friend Tom McGurk. He experienced the Republic as "very different" and felt like "an outsider", but moved swiftly up through the ranks all the same.

Having presented the news for 11 years, he became co-host of seminal magazine show Live at 3. Davis and Thelma Mansfield were equally warm, cheerful and sympathetic, and the show was a sensation.

That's not an exaggeration - slagging off Live at 3 became a national pastime for cynical reviewers, but it was a ratings smash (earning RTE millions during the traditional afternoon dead-zone), and ran for a full 12 years. Davis actually wanted to leave after three, but producers were reluctant to break up a winning team.

It also provided an outlet for a certain demographic, who maybe weren't being properly serviced by the media, and was quite ground-breaking in its frank treatment of such previously unbroachable subjects as the menopause.

As Davis explained: "We could get away with anything because we were seen as a safe pair of hands and there was nothing prurient or sleazy about the way we handled things."

His TV portfolio also included the lively, funny chat-show Davis at Large, current affairs programme Davis, and regular appearances on such vehicles as Play the Game. There was also a four-year series on Irish waterways, Out of the Blue, a travel show for older people called Time on Their Hands, and a one-off gig hosting the Rose of Tralee in 1995, when Gay Byrne took ill. In 2009, Davis won Celebrity Bainisteoir, coaching Glasdrumman from his home county.

On radio, meanwhile, he showcased his versatility: summer stand-in for Pat Kenny, quiz show A Question of Food, regular subbing duty on Liveline and, more recently, Sunday Magazine on 4FM. He won two Jacob's Awards for broadcasting.

Having more or less retired in 2008, his final media appearance came last weekend, when he joined a Marian Finucane Show panel on obesity. Davis died on May 13 after a short illness, and immediately the tributes came flooding in.

RTE Director General Noel Curran described him as "hugely popular… always generous with time and advice… full of humour and warmth". Comedian and musician Paddy Cullivan highlighted Davis's playful side: "One of the best brains in the country. Best vocabulary, too. Called a popular dietician a 'strident crone'." RTE colleague Aine Lawlor tweeted: "Can't believe he's gone."

Irish life and broadcasting will certainly be poorer without this consummate professional and immensely likeable man.

Davis is survived by his wife and three sons.

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