Sunday 18 November 2018

'Radio in Ireland lost its magic'

Books Editor John Spain talks to the legendary broadcaster Liam Nolan

Liam Nolan has written an exciting new book on WW1 U-boats in Cobh
Liam Nolan has written an exciting new book on WW1 U-boats in Cobh

He still has that voice. Mellifluous, instantly recognisable to anyone who was a listener to RTE radio 30 years ago. Back then Liam Nolan was the king of morning radio, the Ryan Tubridy or Pat Kenny of his day. The Liam Nolan Hour was required listening.

And then, after a few years at the top, he seemed to vanish.

He's now 77, retired and living in Loughrea. After his radio career ended he went back to his first love -- writing. His latest book, an account of the British and American fleet based at Cobh which won the battle against the U-boats in the First World War, has just been published. It's a cracking read as well as being a window into a forgotten part of our naval history.

All of which is appropriate since he is from Cobh originally and he is, in a way, the forgotten star of Irish broadcasting. So why did he vanish from the airwaves?

"I eventually gave up because of failing hearing," he says. But he did continue for some time after the morning radio show finished in the mid-1970s.

"I did many other programmes, including Late Date and a Friday discussion programme with panels of guests like Mary Robinson, Hugh Leonard and Mary McAleese. RTE dropped it because it was live and they were scared of it! I also worked for the BBC again."

The reference to the BBC is a reminder that he had an impressive radio career in Britain before The Liam Nolan Hour began. He had started as a freelance journalist, moved to London and worked his way up to scriptwriter on BBC Television's This Is Your Life and a documentary film writer for Rank.

By the time the invitation to work for Radio Eireann came in the 1960s he was presenting BBC Radio's flagship morning news programme Today (now presented by John Humphrys and still going strong 40 years on).

RTE asked him if he would consider coming to Dublin "to introduce serious morning broadcasting for the first time". One senior figure in RTE told him that all they had in morning radio was "marmalade and crochet programmes".

"I wasn't all that interested in leaving the BBC," he says, "but after a year I succumbed." By then he was married and he wanted his children to experience Irish life.

The Liam Nolan Hour was the first Radio Eireann programme to carry the presenter's name in its title. He chose the content himself and what he came up with was a current affairs mix across a wide spectrum of subjects and interviewees. "I interspersed it with my own choice of music, and the ratings went sky high."

In fact, it did so well that it was soon lengthened to an hour and 50 minutes. Which reminds him of a story about Rolf Harris.

"He came over and was a terrific guest and a few weeks later he was back in London doing the Royal Variety Show. He told the audience that he had been in Dublin recently on a great radio programme called The Liam Nolan Hour . . . which went on for an hour and 50 minutes. It brought the house down."

The name of the show was subsequently changed at Nolan's suggestion to Here and Now, and won several awards. Even so, it was never favoured by the critics who found his style too effusive, too conservative, even too Catholic.

This still riles him a little. "I was no Jeremy Paxman," he says. "But there's a difference between courtesy and effusiveness. I detest effusiveness in interviewers."

So what does he think of the radio voices filling the same slot today?

"I think Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy each do a good job. But there is far too much talk-talk-talk on Radio Eireann in the mornings. It bombards listeners. . . and it has a dangerous tendency to depress rather than to inform and entertain."

As for being too conservative and wearing his Catholicism on his sleeve back then, he's not having any of it. "I'm a Roman Catholic and unashamed to say so. But my faith is a private matter. I don't wish to change anyone's thinking."

But it is clear his religion means a great deal to him. "My faith was an enormous help to my wife Oonagh and me when our first-born son, Liam, died suddenly last year. His death devastated us. Three priests helped us through the worst of it. I'm very thankful for that."

Will the Church survive? "I'm convinced that it will. But it will have to change, and it is changing. Men like Diarmuid Martin, courageous, straight-talking, offer real hope."

He still sounds like a man with a lot left to say. So does he miss broadcasting?

"Not at all," he says. "When radio became producer-controlled to the extent that agendas were forced on presenters, radio in Ireland lost its magic for me. It became predictable and prosaic.

"I also don't miss it because for me it was a decades-long interruption of what I felt very strongly was my real career -- writing. I wouldn't go back to radio because I have too many books still to write. I love writing and at 77 there isn't an extravagant amount of time left."

So far he has published 11 books and among the subjects have been: the composer Smetana; famine in Ethiopia; the partisans in Italy in WW2; Tory Island; boxing; the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War (Torpedoed); and his new book, the Battle of the Atlantic in the First World War (Secret Victory).

His interest in naval history goes back to his roots in Cobh.

"My mother's father was an officer on a Royal Navy battleship in the First World War. One of his sons followed his father as a seagoing engineer, and was killed off the Azores in the Second World War when the tanker he was on was destroyed by a U-boat. My grandad, Jim, went back to sea in the Second World War as a chief engineer with Irish Shipping."

Born into a seagoing family and growing up in a harbour town, he has always felt the sea in his blood. So it's not surprising that he is drawn to write about naval history.

But he is best known for the voice. So where did that instantly recognisable voice come from and the ability to speak in complete, richly embroidered sentences?

"Performing in amateur drama as a youngster may have had something to do with the tone I developed. And I've always been a voracious reader.

"I studied how the best writers used words and language. I loved the way they constructed clear sentences.

"I used to listen to the supreme broadcasters of the day -- Richard Dimbleby, Alistair Cooke, Edward R Murrow -- with their mixture of accents and perfect diction, their pauses, their emphases, and I tried to absorb points of technique."

It's a dying art.

Secret Victory -- Ireland & the War at Sea 1914-1918 by Liam Nolan, with research by John Nolan, is published by Mercier Press at €19.99

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top