Tuesday 20 March 2018

Marty Whelan: 'I never sowed my wild oats with other women because I sowed my wild oats at home with Maria'

Marty Whelan has had a long, colourful and sometimes chequered career. With his memoir about to be published, he spoke to Donal Lynch about life, love, grief and getting your dues

Colourful and chequered career: Marty Whelan. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Colourful and chequered career: Marty Whelan. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Family man: Marty Whelan loves spending time with his wife Maria and children Jessica and Tom. Photo: Brian McEvoy

That's Life, the long-running Esther Rantzen-presented BBC series, had a tone that was gently amusing and occupied a broadcasting middle ground which also gave it an enduring appeal. The title also feels perfectly apt for Marty Whelan's forthcoming memoir.

The book is replete with jokes and asides, limericks and observations, which summon to the page the beloved host's amiable on-air banter. It's a formula that undeniably works - it's a gentle entertertaining read. To walk across a hotel lobby with the avuncular host is to witness his enduring popularity. An older lady ventures forth to gently press the flesh and receive a blessing from this pope of light entertainment, while others look on curiously.

I can think of other presenters - contemporaries of Marty's - who might look slightly more weary at such interruptions but people know where they stand with the Winning Streak host and, perhaps more than with most media people, there is a sense that the private person and the public persona are quite similar to each other. The book contains no big revelations or skeletons tumbling from the closet and is suffused with the same benign affability you get from the man himself.

It is an undeniably interesting social history of Irish media and the heart of it all, the story of a young man, who was a radio jock before you needed to shock, an unapologetic mother's boy in a medium that lionised the cool kids and a clean-living public servant in a world where debauchery and hard living seemed to be the coins of the realm. He saw no evil, heard no evil (unless you count the paean to Michael Buble in That's Life) and spoke no evil. Not even the occasional white lie, to his parents?

"My mother would wait up from me when I'd come home from DJing in nightclubs and you'd hardly arrive home early in the morning and say, 'oh, I met a friend.' There wasn't any of that nonsense," he says with a laugh.

He was perhaps a ballast to contemporaries who occupied the wilder slopes of bohemia. Vincent Hanley died from AIDS-related complications but Marty, who was close to the presenter and attended his funeral in Clonmel, had no idea how he had become ill. Gerry Ryan died of cocaine-related complications but Marty had no idea he was into the drug.

He never tried illicit substances himself - not even smoking marijuana. "But Marty, even Michael D tried that!" I wail.

"Well then, maybe I'd be a good president" he responds firmly - which to be fair, he probably would - and says that his refusal of all drugs stemmed from the fact that he was an only child. "I like to be in control."

Affairs, another very popular pastime of media types of yesteryear, were also off limits. He has been with the beautiful Maria, an air stewardess for Aer Lingus, since his teens and married to her since his early twenties.

"Of course there would have been (opportunities) but you have to mind yourself in that regard because that's not a price I want to have to pay", he tells me. "We met very young, we've been together all this time. She knew me when I was in insurance. I never felt I missed out on sowing my wild oats because sure can't I sow my wild oats at home? It didn't really occur to me. I'm not saying it didn't visit itself upon me, or that there weren't opportunities, but you have choices. It was an exotic life, but then I always went home."

He doggedly held onto his moustache over the years, even as people reminded him that having a lady tickler was no longer cool.

"Now people associate it with me and it's almost become a kind of trademark, part of who I am", he says (the book has a recurring motif of the moustache). Perhaps tellingly, the man he looked up to most of all, in a professional sense anyway, was perhaps the ultimate housewife's choice, who never courted scandal of any kind: Terry Wogan.

And yet while his ostensibly cooler contemporaries suckled on the RTE teat all their careers, Marty was the brave if unlikely breakaway. After moving from insurance into pirate radio in his early 20s, he became a star on the national airwaves for 10 years, before beginning to feel that a certain stagnation had crept into his career.

"It had been a very fast transition - the rise was immediate", he recalls of those heady early years. "You're in this other world and you're not really prepared for it. It was a completely different world. I felt really lucky and I knew that I was, but there came a certain point when I felt I wasn't making progress."

The solution was a jump to Century, the new radio station which was backed by Oliver Barry, who had brought Prince and Michael Jackson to Ireland, and which had secured some big-name talent, including Wogan.

Marty agonised for a long time over the decision and when the ink was still wet on the new contract he went into a phone box to ring Maria. "By then I had gone over the precipice and you start to wonder if this is an excitement you're feeling or are you, in fact, starting to do a wee in a phone box."

The problems with the station started almost immediately. Coverage was spotty - people would report turning a corner in rural Ireland and losing the signal.

When Marty saw the plants being moved out of the lobby he knew that the game was up. The trouble was that he had "no safety net" as he put it himself and, while now dipping and diving between gigs is de rigueur in media, the suits at RTE were implacable in those years. If you left you became persona non grata.

"Yes, you do wonder where some of them are now, most of them have long gone, there were a number who were very bitter", he says smiling ruefully. "I had a number of meetings where I was basically fobbed off."

Added to this pressure, Marty had two young children to support, Jessica, who was born during this period, and Thomas.

"It was a very hard time. I had to sign on, it was very hard to walk into the labour exchange, that will stay with me forever."

Temporary salvation emerged in the form of soap manufacturer Daz, which gave him some advertising work.

It would be 13 years before he worked in radio again, however. He credits former RTE chief Liam Miller with opening the door for him to come back into the fold at the national broadcaster and over the following years he would present The Rose of Tralee and The Eurovision, among other programmes.

Winning Streak, like its host, has now outlasted many of his rivals. After 25 years in Portmarnock, he and Maria built a house in Malahide during the recession.

"The crash was bubbling just as we started it but there we are. We waited years and years because we didn't have the money."

He says that nothing has ever given him sleepless nights. "Except for maybe the death of my parents and that was very natural grief. I've never had to talk to anyone (professional). I'm a very positive person."

Does anything every disturb his equilibrium? "Well I cried at the play last night (The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night Time) - my daughter has done some work with children with autism and she told me about it. Other than that, I cried of course when my parents died. And I cried copious tears when our dog died recently. Poor oul Buddy was part of our family for 15 years."

He says he's a "disgrace" when it comes to his health. "I need to get that in order. I probably like my red wine too much and I don't exercise or go to the doctor." But he looks well, I note.

He has less compunction about taking care of the external - he had a hair transplant a couple of years ago. "My Dad was bald at 22 and when I was young I had so much hair it was almost an afro", he explains.

"When I started to lose it, I felt less good about myself and this has transformed how I feel." Would he get anything else done?

"Well I need reading glasses and I read all the time, so maybe I'd get the eyes done. But I've no wish to have Botox or liposuction or anything done or anything like that. I'm very happy with who I am."

Marty Whelan will be signing copies of his book at Eason, O'Connell St, Dublin 1 at 11am on Saturday, October 24.

That's Life is published on Friday by Gill & Macmillan, priced at €22.99

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