Joe Mahon: I keep on doing Lesser Spotted Journeys for the sheer love of it
Joe Mahon's Lesser Spotted Journeys series regularly bests EastEnders in TV viewer ratings in the north. The Derry broadcaster tells Joanne Sweeney why having a bit of craic with people the length and breadth of Ireland is a job he could do for the rest of his life
SEX appeal is what presenter Joe Mahon says he brings to the incredibly successful and long-running television series, Lesser Spotter Journeys. He's joking, of course, but no doubt there's many a viewer who is charmed by the silver fox with the distinctive voice and his love of local history.
Joe and his team at Westway Film Productions, who produce the series, have proved consistently that when it comes to a home audience, people prefer a good yarn, well told, against some of the most stunning scenery, compared to the scandals and drama of top soap EastEnders.
"It sounds quite boastful but I don’t care – one of the reasons that this programme has been going on for so long is that it regularly gets the top rated spot on UTV," says Joe of the series which is now in its 22nd year.
"We just got the figures for last night's [July 17] programme on Lissan, Co Tyrone and we got 34 per cent. Our nearest rival was EastEnders on 26 per cent.
"In fact, we have had the biggest audience over EastEnders, which is seen as a benchmark to measure your programme on, for the first three episodes of this current series and we only got lower due to a Rafael Nadal game, I think, which ran over at Wimbledon."
Despite the great ratings for this all-island version of the earlier Lesser Spotter Ulster format, working on this current series – 24 half-hour programmes that run until December 14 – Joe says that he's genuinely still working on the show for the love of it.
"From my own personal point of view, I would be happy to make Lesser Spotted Journeys for the rest of my life. I really would as I genuinely enjoy it so much," the retirement-aged Derry man tells me.
"We have a big, big audience and it remains enduringly popular, thank God. I think it's because that the subject matter, which is essentially local history, is becoming a burgeoning kind of thing. I think the people in cities watch it, I suppose, as a bit of escape from real life perhaps.
"I always say to people that the past is with you all of the time. It’s a stalker. Everywhere you go, it’s going to follow you as you can't turn around in this country without seeing something that someone out there has made or designed there, even if it’s only a hedge in a field.
"The past is all around you and the more you understand about the past, the more it can unlock these wee secrets and feel that you really belong."
The other constants in Joe's life are his beloved home town of Derry and his family – wife Phil, children Kevin, Emma, Sarah, Patrick and Brendan, and three grandchildren courtesy of eldest son Kevin. Three of his children, Patrick, Emma and Sarah, work in his production company.
Creggan born and raised, Joe was once taught by John Hume and knew Martin McGuinness's family very well, as their 'mammies' were close friends. Despite his travels all over Ireland, he's never wanted to leave Derry and says that the city is like a "homing beacon" to its famous sons and daughters.
He's a former teacher himself – he taught English and history at St Peter's Christian Brothers School in the Creggan at the height of the Troubles and became involved in the local Columcille debating society. Like many of his age group, he also became interested in the civil rights movement. He gradually moved into broadcasting as a producer, director and writer and once wrote a regular column for BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, before eventually becoming head of BBC Radio Foyle.
It's well known that Joe got to become a presenter of Lesser Spotted Ulster by a twist of fate. When Ollie McGilloway, the presenter of McGilloway's Way, which Joe was producing at the time, died unexpectedly in 1994, it was decided to relaunch the programme as Lesser Spotted Ulster with him as the presenter.
Fortunately, Joe has always been better at talking and teaching than anything else.
"I was a very average cross-country runner, an occasionally all right footballer and a poor swimmer," he recalls of his younger days.
"I was completely overshadowed by my younger brother Kevin, a brilliant soccer player who was well known in Irish football circles in his youth and who ended his career as manager of Derry City FC.
"As to music, well, my most devastating experience was being put out of the Christian Brothers Feis choir at the age of nine, despite my mother assuring me I was a marvellous singer. Fortunately, my youngest son Brendan inherited his musical genes from his mother and is a talented singer-songwriter."
It takes more than six weeks to make one Lesser Spotted programme. These days Joe and his team are swamped by stories to cover.
"There was another 24 that we had to strike off because these other ones suddenly become more convenient to do. We actually started this series last September in Greencastle and have to work all year round. We are literally travelling on the road for three and a half months of every 12 months and sometimes it's really about logistics and getting three cars to the shoot and back."
However, he adds: "The success of Lesser Spotted has been a bit of a double-edged sword. While it’s been our bread and water as a company for the past 20 years, it kind of restricts you from doing other things."
Making an entire series about Lough Neagh is on his wish list of programmes to do one day, as well as shining a light on some of the great feats of civil engineering and construction that have improved our lives here over the centuries.
And as for Joe's secret to his success, he muses: "I think it’s about trying to get people not to think that they are watching a television programme as much as they are overhearing two people just having a yarn. When I find out about something new, I’m like a wee schoolboy saying, 'Wait do you hear this?' I bring that kind of excitement about what I just found out about.
"I’m kind of a historical gossip and I like to pass on things that I would like to imagine people at home saying, 'Jesus, I didn’t know that'. So I contribute my enthusiasm for the subject and my enjoyment, and I really enjoy the craic and a bit of banter with people.
"When it’s going great and there are no problems, it’s the most wonderful job in the world."
:: Joe Mahon visits Greencastle, Co Donegal on the next episode of Lesser Spotted Journeys on UTV, Monday, July 31 at 8pm.