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Interview: Denis Tuohy, journalist, actor

28 January 2022

‘Most of the clerics that I knew have been in trouble with the authorities’

John Humphrys called me “a hack of the old school” in his comments in Streets and Secret Places. I hope he meant I believe in factual accuracy supported by evidence, and in telling my stories in clear-cut and engaging language.

In 1960, BBC Northern Ireland advertised for an announcer.
I wasn’t getting much work as an actor; so I applied and became a presenter of the nightly news in Belfast, and a reporter for news and documentaries. I covered apartheid in South Africa, extremism in Northern Ireland, the pluses and minuses of the Cuban revolution, the Children of God organisation in the United States, the Watergate scandal, and the strange death of Pope John Paul I.

I worked for David Attenborough
— not as the world-famous naturalist, but as my boss when he was head of BBC2. He was a decisive executive, always open to new ideas and very approachable. Gerry Hughes was a big influence on me, both for his books and his friendship. I encountered Margaret Thatcher, both as the Iron Lady and as a soft-spoken weary lady. The Ulster writer and broadcaster Sam Hanna Bell gave me valuable advice at the start of my career.

Of course, BBC2’s planned opening night in 1964 was a disaster.
A massive power failure blacked out much of west London, including BBC Television Centre, and the new channel didn’t happen. The following night, I blew out a candle in a dark studio and the lights came on. The clip is aired frequently as I get older and look less and less like the novice presenter. The programme I co-presented, Late Night Line-Up, was the first to discuss and criticise other programmes. It annoyed several BBC executives, who regarded us as in-house saboteurs.

I joined ITV, having moved to BBC1’s Panorama, 24 Hours, and Tonight as a presenter and film reporter;
so my ITV work on This Week and TV Eye was much the same, but there were fewer levels of management in ITV. It was easier to contact the man at the top.

BBC Ulster asked me to contribute to their Thought for the Day in recent years.
When I’m writing these, I let things drift into my mind: memories of people and places, some spiritual experience, something that speaks to me during a walk in woods or by the seashore — songs, poems, movies. Maybe I’m prompted by a newspaper article or a phone call from someone in the family or some other friend.

I’m aware of the wretched divisions along religious lines,
so try to disguise the details that would make listeners say: “That’s not’s for me — that’s a Catholic line of thinking,” or vice versa. It suits my own way of thinking, anyway: I’m not a great fan of institutional religion. Most of the clerics that I knew have been in trouble with the authorities. It’s almost a badge of honour in my book.

I was living in West Cork for a while in the noughties,
and was persuaded back to acting again. I’ve done some television plays for RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland, and some open-air Shakespeare in Cork. I worried I’d forgotten how to learn lines, but James Ellis — famous from Z-Cars, and who I’d worked for at university — said: “Whatever you did will come back to you,” and it did. I went on to write and present some documentaries for UTV, mainly to do with the Troubles.

I got a role in an Irish TV soap opera, Fair City, in 2005,
just for two episodes set in a hospital, and the cast were looking at me and whispering. Eventually, during the coffee break, this girl said: “’Scuse me — didn’t you used to be Denis Tuohy?”

My first memory is of terror,
huddled under the stairs with my parents, my sister, and brother during the German blitz on Belfast in 1941. I was four years old. There was a direct hit two doors away, which blew a hole in the roof of our house. Later, we moved to Derry.

I went to the Christian Brothers’ school.
They were fairly brutal, but if I worked hard, I wouldn’t get beaten. I was then sent as a boarder to the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, which was a very different experience, and I was able to develop as a person. It was 1949, and they didn’t make too much of their former pupil James Joyce. That’s changed: their link to literary genius is now not to the discredit of the school.

At Queen’s University in Belfast I did a lot of acting,
debating, and creative writing — and got a degree in Classics.

These days, I’m divorced and live on my own in Rostrevor, County Down,
in the foothills of the Mournes. I have a special friend not far away in the outskirts of Belfast, and some good local friends. My grown-up children and grandchildren all live in England — as did I for nearly 40 years — but I’m in constant touch with them. We visit each other as often as we can.

My younger son, Chris, died of cancer in May 2021.
He was 57. One of his photos is on the cover of Streets and Secret Places, which is dedicated to his memory, and includes a poem he wrote shortly before his death. That made him part of the project, which was, in a way, a blessing.

Chris’s extraordinary spiritual strength taught me so much in the last couple of years
— his courage amid suffering, his persevering wit and good humour, his evident love for all of us who spent time with him in his final days.

Perhaps my first experience of God
was listening to my mother reciting the Angel prayer when I was in bed: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide.” I thought, if this caring angel was sent by God. then God must be a caring person, too.

Teachers and preachers who taught me that there was a God of infinite love
who could deliver infinite horrendous punishment to those who disobeyed the rules they set out puzzled me. I gradually came to accept that institutional values can get in the way of sensing divine presence in each and every one of us. I’ve come to be aware of that presence in some of the many ways in which the wind blows.

In news reporting, I simply try to tell the truth with supportive evidence,
and if I don’t know what the truth is, I say so, and explain why I don’t know. The same applies to writing about faith for people who may share my faith, and the many who don’t.

Thought for the Day
has taken me into new territory.
There are exciting things happening in spiritual writing and thinking, particularly in America: Cynthia Bourgeault, Joan Chittister, and a few others. I’m not deterred that there’s a long way to go.

Closed minds — in politics, religion, social matters — make me angry.
Witnessing love in how others behave, and experiencing it within myself, makes me happiest, and the sound of birdsong and running water in woodland streams around where I live.

I have hope for the future because of the number of bright young people
— like Chris’s son Sean, who’s just graduated in economics and finance — who want to use their skills to make a green economy work for the salvation of our planet; and because of the spiritual writers and teachers who are encouraging us to be aware of the divine presence deep within each of us.

When I pray, I surrender to God, who loves me and lives in me.
I ask that those dear to me, including those who have passed from this earthly life, may also be aware of his love and mercy and may be granted what they need.

If I was locked in a church, and could have any companion, I’d choose William Shakespeare.
I’d ask him how he came to have such a wide knowledge of history, politics, and the inner workings of the human heart.

Denis Tuohy was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Streets and Secret Places: Reflections of a news reporter is published by Messenger Publications at £11.95 (Church Times Bookshop £10.75); 978-1-78812-489-8.

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