Pamela Ballantine: Life's too short for sitting on your backside

Seemingly tireless broadcaster Pamela Ballantine is one of the most well known and well regarded faces in the north, having appeared on our screens over four decades. She tells Joanne Sweeney how life is good for her ahead of receiving her free bus pass next year

Pamela Ballantine photographed at Cutters Wharf in south Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

IF BROADCASTER Pamela Ballantine had her way, Northern Ireland would be run by business people rather than politicians. The lack of political progress and stability at Stormont has been the only real downer this year for the television comeback queen, whose Friday evening chat show UTV Life has proved to be a welcome winner with viewers.

"We've had to make one person redundant in one of the charities that I'm involved in and put others on protected notice because their salaries come from government funding. There's no budget to fund their salaries, so we can't pay them,” she explains. “That depresses me because they are so many good people in Northern Ireland who would love to be able to do something about that.

"But nothing is being done. You just want to say, 'Seriously how far have we moved down the road to get to this stage? Could you not just put your different agendas aside and come together for the good of Northern Ireland?

"I think we should be run by business people – in fact, business women".

She adds, only half joking: "I've always said that if the Lehman Brothers [the US bank that went bankrupt in 2008, precipitating the global downturn] had been Lehman Sisters, the banks never would have been in the problems they were in. We have some amazing brains in Northern Ireland, men and women, who could do a better job of running the country and balancing the books."

The charity she's referencing is Belfast Activity Centre, which provides outdoor personal and social development programmes for young people from all sides of the community.

The irrepressible Pamela is also regional chairwoman of Action Medical Research, a UK charity which funds research into crippling illnesses in babies and small children, and sits on the boards of the multicultural organisation ArtsEkta and of Youth Action NI.

She gets involved in charity because, she says: "Life is too short for sitting on your backside. I'm in a position where I can help people, so why not?"

We're chatting over a coffee in Cutters Wharf bar-restaurant in south Belfast just before she goes off to rehearse with singer Peter Corry for his festive show The Music Box at the Waterfront Hall, where she will be performing this afternoon and later this evening.

In the show Pamela introduces the acts and does a few readings, as well as emulating legendary news reader Angela Rippon's hilarious high-kicking sketch from the famous 1976 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special show.

For our younger readers, Morecambe (Eric) and Wise (Ernie), both now deceased, had an unmissable family Christmas show. The sight of Rippon, the normally straight-faced BBC newsreader appearing from behind her desk to totally upstage the comedians, was one of the most talked-about events that year due to her surprising lithe legs.

Accompanied by Corry and singer David-Michael Johnson, no doubt Pamela high-kicks in style.

"I'm really looking forward to the show and for doing the skit, as Peter Corry, who will be doing Morecambe, is hilariously funny," she says. "It's the first time I've done a show like this. I did do panto and was the Fairy Godmother about 19 years ago and I toured with The Vagina Monologues."

Recently Pamela, along with DUP leader Arlene Foster and a few other well-known faces, sang a charity version of the Mariah Carey hit All I Want For Christmas Is You, to raise funds for Aspire NI, under the banner Band Aid NI 2017 – just another highlight in a career which has spanned nearly 40 years on our TV screens.

She may well be receiving her bus pass next autumn, but the former news presenter is very much on a career high – her Friday night chat show last week raked in 25 per cent of the north's television-viewing audience, beating EastEnders.

Fellow veteran broadcaster Gloria Hunniford will be appearing on next week's UTV Life Christmas show from a festival Armagh city, while country singer Ashley Campbell, daughter of Glen Campbell who died in August, will be chatting with Pamela and performing on the first show of the new year.

Pamela was offered UTV gig last year, almost exactly six years after being made redundant in the ITN takeover of the independent channel. The chat show has since been renewed for a 45-week run in 2018.

She was naturally devastated after having being so closely identified with the station for so long, working as a reporter/presenter in a UTV magazine programme, also called UTV Life, for 10 years from 1999, and also as a newsreader and continuity announcer.

"I hadn't realised just how traumatic the work had become, particularly with that hiatus with UTV," she says of the lead-up to the decision. "It wasn't a nice time for anyone there, so it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. A decision had been made and that was it. I felt so much better after it.

"But I've never been one to fall out with people. Northern Ireland is just too small and I always continued to work well with UTV as a freelancer and was delighted when they offered me the new show."

It wasn't the first time that she had faced redundancy in her career, which started as a news reader on Downtown Radio in 1977.

"I was made redundant from BBC Radio Ulster in the early 80s and I just went out and got absolutely hammered," she admits.

Today looking better than ever, thanks to a health and diet wake-up call over three years ago when she lost almost two stone in weight, Pamela is known for being 'up for the craic'. Her public persona appears indefatigable. But like the rest of us, she has her down days as well.

"There are mornings when I wake up and if you look at me sideways, I'll burst into tears, but we all get like that. I get frustrations every now and then but when I get really cross, I cry. There's nothing worse when you are trying to have a battle with somebody. It rarely happens as I don't lose my temper often."

She is a popular public figure, and scrutiny and public interest can be considerable.

"I'm a qualified secretary who has been lucky enough to have moved up the ranks of broadcasting," she says. "I was taught at a very early age that there are no stars in Northern Ireland, just stars from Northern Ireland. Everybody in Northern Ireland is accessible. It doesn't matter who or what you are. You're got to be prepared to put up with it.

"I'm still Bob and Edna Rolston's daughter, a sister to a brother and sister and aunt to five nieces and nephews. That's who I am. I'm just lucky that I'm on the telly on a Friday night."

:: UTV Life airs next on Friday December 22 at 8pm and returns to our screens on January 5 at the same time.

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