Saturday 21 October 2017

All about Steve

'OK, this is where I have to be careful that I don't burst into tears," says Steve Carson. It's a surprising admission, though it shouldn't be.

"I didn't ever really miss my mum until I saw my own first child," Carson continues. "Until I saw my own children having a mother, then I realised that this was how it should have been.

"Jesus," he says, lifting his chin as if to rein in the tears, "It's Monday morning and I'm getting into this. But, you know, that opened the floodgates for a load of different things and I can see now what I missed. Fundamentally, though, it's my mum who missed it. Really, it's saddest for the one who dies."

Carson's sudden rush of emotion occurs as if a button has been pushed, unleashing something over which he has no control. It is only surprising because the subject of his mother, Pat Carson, who died when he was four years old, has arisen already and been addressed calmly and coolly.

When he comes to talk about his wife, Miriam O'Callaghan, and the birth of the first of their four sons, however, Carson wells up.

It is a flood of feeling for the little boy who lost and barely remembers his mother, of course, but also an honest appreciation of what he has, a family and a future that was taken from Pat Carson.

"We're repopulating the South with Carsons," laughs the Belfast-born, award-winning documentary producer and director, while confessing to understanding the public fascination with the houseful of kids he shares with O'Callaghan. It was all fine until a few years ago, he says, when his wife did one of her first interviews with the RTE Guide and mentioned she had (then) seven children. Four with her first husband, journalist and broadcaster, Tom McGurk - Alanah, now 18, Clara, 14, Jessica and Georgia, 13 - and with Carson, three boys, Jack, 8, Daniel, 7, Conor, 4. The family expanded to eight in February, when Jamie("or James, or Seamus") was born, "the last, definitely", accordingto Carson.

"When Miriam and I were first together," he smiles, "We talked about kids and she asked how many I would ideally have liked and I said, 'Oh, about three'. And said, 'Right, but that would mean we'd end up with seven,' and we both fell about the place laughing. It seemed even ludicrous to us."

In reality, though, what has unfolded feels right, though as he relates his earlier years, Steve Carson eventually observes that his story'What I didn't realise was that I'd feel a tribe apart in

England too'

"maybe sounds like I was always a fish out of water". Which is useful when one works as an observer of other people's lives and stories, and it informs Carson's work with Mint Productions, which he founded with O'Callaghan in 2001, but it's not necessarily a trait that promotes personal happiness.

Steve Carson was born in east Belfast in 1968, the only son of Tom and Pat Carson. His sisters, Linda and Carol - "good Protestant names, no chances taken there" - who were seven and eight years older than him, refer to their younger brother as "Damien", the Antichrist from the Omen films. It's one of those family in-jokes we all recognise, the kind that hurt a little bit, help a little bit and carry a deal of truth.

"My dad used to shoot home movies," Steve attempts to explain, "And it was all summer scenes of little girls running around the garden and both my parents. And then I was born, then the Troubles started, then Mum dies and then we lost the house."

None of it was his fault, but it might well have felt like it and Carson grew up with a strong sense that he was out of step, that he'd arrived too late into the family his sisters had enjoyed. Tom Carson, a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph, and his wife, Pat, were members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the Sixties. They were liberal, non-sectarian, and were devastated when "the Northern Ireland that seemed possible in the early Sixties, one that was modern and forward-thinking, that had Van Morrison, and the Rolling Stones coming to Belfast, just fell apart".

When the Labour Party split, many members joined the SDLP, but people like the Carsons were left adrift and eventually became founder members of the Alliance Party. Pat Carson was the first Alliance Party councillor elected in Belfast, but she died before she could take her seat, at the age of 48.

"I don't know if she knew she was dying," he says, "I don't know very much about her, to be honest.

"I was a totally anonymous kid," Carson insists, while explaining how difficult it must have been for his dad, alone with a small boy and two teenage girls in the Seventies. His mother's sister and her husband were a great support, but what Carson calls the loss of the family home illustrates the strain on his father.

"To this day I don't know what happened," he says, "But it was something to do with the oil price shock. But why it hit us so badly, I don't know. And we didn't lose the house, we just moved into a much smaller one. Really, I think my dad feared the end of the world." His journalist father was a huge influence on Carson, who wanted to follow him into that profession from a young age. Tom Carson tried to discourage him, insisting it was a tough business for which his son was too soft.

THERE were two sides to Steve Carson growing up, though. The scooter in the hall of Mint Production's Rathmines office is a reminder of his days as a teenage mod, while the programmes in which Mint specialises, such as the Haughey series, Pearse: Fanatic Heart, Dear Frankie or the forthcoming 1916: The Man Who Lost Ireland, speak of his youthful love of books and Irish history.

"I used to hang around with the east Belfast mods," recalls Carson, "So I had this totally schizo thing where we'd be up drinking and being quite rough, really, and getting into fights on Easter Monday with rockers. They were my local friends, but because I got my 11+, I went to school in south Belfast, where I had a completely different network of friends, not necessarily bookish sorts, but not into beating people up for no apparent reason. But even in the mod gang, I never really fit in. I was more watching them beating people up, being the JD Salinger of the gang, and everyone had a nickname but me. There was 'Budgy' and 'Boiler' and 'Zipper' and Steve. I think I never quite fit in."

The adolescent Steve Carson's burning ambition to get out of Northern Ireland would have contributed to this sense of being not quite engaged. Why get involved if you're not going to stay? He left after A-levels, for college in Manchester, and believed he'd stay in England forever.

A lowly position in the BBC came straight after graduation and then Carson became a reporter in youth programming in Manchester, directing his own items and learning fast about television production. It was fantastic, he says, before laughing that youth programmes didn't sit right with him, that he always imagined his father's slightly disdainful voice in his ear.

"What I didn't realise was that I'd feel a tribe apart in England too," Carson explains.

"I left Belfast in 1987 basically thinking 'a plague on all your houses' and tried to make myself the model little BBC producer,but that kind of never felt comfortable either."

As a young 'lower middle-class Prod' Carson had never looked to the South as a potential home for himself, though he had devoured books on Irish history as a kid and, eventually, it was only love took him away from England.

In 1994, after a stint as a researcher in current affairs, Steve Carson became a producer on BBC's Newsnight in London.

It was there he met Miriam O'Callaghan, who was working for RTE in Dublin, but also as an Ireland correspondent for Newsnight. "And she had four kids, I don't know how she did it," he says, voicing the disbelief he now shares with half the country.

There was no romance for overa year, he says, by which time O'Callaghan was no longer with Tom McGurk.

Carson and O'Callaghan worked together regularly on Irish items and in Northern Ireland and it was, he says, "a nice way of getting to know someone.

"I realised my feelings had changed one time at the top of the White Rock Road," Carson recalls, laughing at just how unromantic it was. "There were all these cars on fire and she was doing a piece to camera to close off the piece and it was getting dark and the atmosphere was very bad. And I remember my emotional feeling took over from my feeling of having to get this in the can."

Not romantic, but significant given Carson's own admission that he's a "hard taskmaster, a terrible perfectionist, probably not a natural manager".

In 1997, Steve Carson moved to Dublin. "It wasn't exactly a marrying-your-childhood-sweetheart situation, I suppose, and looking back, it was testament to how much I loved her," he says, before quickly correcting himself. "Or, really, how much she must have loved me, because it was totally insane. I wasn't exactly a good match from her point of view, coming from living in London with two other lads, to basically going straight into married-with-kids and she took a hell of a risk on me. But Miriam is amazing, she makes everything very easy."

Carson was not fazed by the prospect of instant stepfatherhood and within two months of his arrival, Jack was born and he was afather himself.

With O'Callaghan and fatherhood, things fell into place personally for Carson, but the move to Dublin was the unexpectedly difficult thing.

"It was strange coming here, because I had never imagined myself leaving England," he says, "And you think you kind of know Ireland, because you know the history and read about it as a boy, the South and the Civil War and all, but then when you're in the middle of it, I don't know, it's strange."

Initially, Carson worked in RTE, but in 2001 the couple decided they should set up a production company, which he would run. Carson says this was not the result of any huge entrepreneurial drive on his part, though the volume of work Mint Productions turns around and the reputation it has gained in five years are testimony to some sort of drive. Carson credits his wife with a lot of the ideas - Unit 8 for example, the series of stories from Holles Street's newborn babies ward - and confesses that while some might think he only gets work because he's well-connected "no one's ever said that to my face". On that subject, however, Carson recalls that in the early days, when he was paying himself "tuppence-halfpenny", there were some at meetings who would ask, to his irritation, "where did you park the helicopter?"

"There were hungry times," he says, "And we put most of the money on screen, but where RTE used to commission about eight documentaries a year, now it's a case of blink and you'll miss one." When they set up Mint in Dublin, Carson was also keen that they have a Belfast branch.

"I always had this terrible guilt," he says, "And this comes from my dad, that my generation had just buggered off and left them to it and not that producing shows like Let's Talk (the BBC NI Questions & Answers) makes up for that, but there is a feeling that it is good to have a company up there too. And as much as it's been interesting to immerse myself in down here, it's been weird and interesting to reimmerse myself in up there.

"What has happened with Mint, though," he says, "is that we have tended to do a lot of history documentaries [Pearse, Emmet, Haughey], a sort of pantheon of history greats, if you want - or not-so-greats - and I think my take on them can be interesting, because although I'm not of this state I find it utterly fascinating." He was surprised, however, that Haughey received so muchnegative attention. The only equivalent he can think of would bePaisley - about whom his father's feelings are strong - but evenat that, Carson would love todo a documentary about Big Ian,as much as he loved doing Haughey, now nominated as Best Documentary at the Smart Telecom TVNow Awards.

"After doing that, a difficult programme to make, difficult people to get to talk, a 30-week edit and then reading about it, everywhere, forever, nothing will ever freak me out again," Carson laughs. "It's an insecure business and things can go wrong, but I've come to realise that if it works out, it works out and if it goes wrong, it's not the end of the world."

Before Christmas, Steve Carson got pneumonia and was out of action for several weeks. "Everyone coped alarmingly well without me," he laughs, before going on to explain that around the same time, he and O'Callaghan were told that Jamie might be born very early, so early that he might have long-term difficulties. It was horrible and terrifying and it put everything in perspective and while Jamie was born a full-term, healthy baby, Carson is taking nothing for granted. He knows what he has, maybe more so because he knows what he once lost and, in a way, having happiness in the present has made him begin to think his family past is his to explore.

"I have heard from other people," Steve Carson says, "thatmy mother was a very impressive woman and that's strange tohear. Through work, I met Oliver Napier [the first leader of the Alliance Party] and I mentioned in passing that he might have known my mother. When I told him her name, he was so taken aback and he told me he had known her well and he called in his wife, whoit turned out had been a great friend of hers and she was in floods of tears.

"And it was weird, you know, it was a bit like this, a Monday morning, and they were crying and I was just sitting there with my notepad, wondering if we should get back to talking about the documentary. Afterwards," he says, "I thought how strange it was to see their reaction and maybe, I think, it's time to try to find out more about her."

'1916: The Man Who Lost Ireland' is on RTE One, Tuesday, 10.15pm

The Smart Telecom TVNow Awards take place in the Mansion House, Dublin, on Saturday, April 29. Winners will be announced by Amanda Byram

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