Seán Coyle on life after Gerry Anderson: I miss him every day

Radio presenter Seán Coyle is a man of many voices, his well-known party pieces including impersonations of Barry McGuigan and Daniel O'Donnell. He tells Joanne Sweeney about how he came to helm BBC Northern Ireland's mid-morning show and how friend and colleague the late Gerry Anderson was 'like a brother' to him

I never switch off from the programme – Sean Coyle at BBC Radio Foyle in Derry Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Joanne Sweeney

THERE'S a song that Seán Coyle plays every so often on his mid-morning show on Radio Foyle that he dedicates to his friend and fellow lead presenter, the late Gerry Anderson.

It's the gentle ballad I Still Can't Believe You Are Gone from country star Willie Nelson and it's only now, nearly four years on since much-loved presenter Anderson died from cancer in August 2014, that Coyle can play it without shedding a tear.

"Of course I still think about Gerry, I think about him and miss him every day," Coyle says. "There's a lot of songs that make me think of Gerry but there's this Willie Nelson song that I play sometimes especially for him. I'm only getting to the point now where I can play it without getting emotional but Gerry never would have wanted any tears or anything like that, which is why I did the programme on the day he died.

"He would have wanted the show to go on but it was very hard and I nearly broke down on air when [phone-in regular, now also deceased] Geordie Tuft called on the day after and I quickly had to put a record on.

"There's a picture of him in reception that I can see when I'm working on the programme from the studio and I sometimes look up to it and think to myself, 'Not a bad programme today, Gerry – what do you think?"

Coyle was Anderson's presenting sidekick for nearly 30 years on Radio Foyle in what was unmissable radio for the whole of the north and beyond, characterised by their distinctive banter and friendly bickering on just about every subject under the sun.

Even though they had very different personalities, somehow the two men from Stroke City, as Anderson renamed Derry, shared the same dry wit which had listeners laughing, commentating and even bickering among themselves about the trifles of everyday life and happenings and about people from years gone by.

Just as Eamonn Holmes gave his cousin John Linehan aka May McFettridge a break into broadcasting when he asked him to do a turn on his radio programme, it was Coyle’s ability to impersonate famous people of the day, like Tommy Cooper and Barry McGuigan, that caught Anderson’s attention and fired up his imagination.

A shy individual at heart, Coyle used to work on construction sites and ran a shop in Waterford before the enigmatic Anderson came on to his radar.

"You see the showbands were everything at that time and when I knew that Gerry was from Derry and was in The Chessmen, well I thought he was just brilliant. Gerry always had an air about him and I thought that he had something different about him. In fact, when I heard him on air, I thought 'this guy is mad' but I loved it."

After initially sending in recorded impersonations of personalities which Anderson would play, the presenter urged Coyle to come in to do them live and so began a broadcasting partnership that resonated with listeners.

Eventually thrown into the deep end when Anderson took two months off in 2012 due to his illness, Coyle took over the daily presenting of the show. Sadly, Anderson was never to come back to the studio.

Bun and games – Sean Coyle with the late and much lamented Gerry Anderson Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

"I'll never forget the morning that we got the word that Gerry had died. It was a Thursday around 10 to eight and everyone was asking me if I was coming to do the show. I knew he would have wanted nobody else but me to do the show as I knew the way that he would have wanted it presented. No over-the-top sadness and stuff like that," adds Coyle, the father of three adult daughters and grandfather to seven grandsons.

"Gerry helped me tremendously. He could see what it was [in me] and helped to bring it out of me. I was always impersonating my mates or people from the street where I lived. I used to do it to entertain myself but never was one to stand up to do it at a party. Even to this day, if people say to me, do Daniel [O'Donnell], I clam up. I would much rather do Daniel in my own time if I’m out in company.

"Gerry was like a brother to me and I could read him like a book. There were times when his energy was down when he came to work and I knew that I would have to take a lot of the calls. I would sing to him, "How's the wee man today, how's the wee man today?" and he would just laugh at me.

"And one of the best things I loved to do was making Gerry laugh as he had a great laugh."

All that said, Coyle has made the 10.30am show very much his own since he took over the helm, along with the producer Michael Bradley, fondly known as 'the Undertone' as a member of the famous Derry punk band, and the ever-patient Janet who takes listeners’ calls.

It seems nothing is too small to be considered and talked about, whether it's the range of waves and salutes drivers do in the country to passing motorists or the name of a bygone music venue.

"People will contact me and say 'Play a request for such and such person and really leather into them –give them the works',” says Coyle.

“Now I’ve never met these people before and haven’t a clue how far to push it. But it’s all meant well – that's the show and the banter. It's good to know that I get calls and texts from guys on a building site or working in a factory and I seem to be attracting a younger audience that I targeted for.

"I’ve no hesitation about admitting to callers whenever I don’t know things but sometimes I pretend that I don’t know something which has been called in by a listener as I want people to be screaming at the radio ‘Imagine he didn’t even know that’. It’s great fun that they really want to get one over on me and it makes their day.

"I never switch off from the programme and I'm always planning in my head what song to play first as the first three songs are really important to get me going for the programme.

"And I eavesdrop on people’s conversations for ideas for the show and make a mental note of what they are taking about so I can raise it on the show.”

:: The Seán Coyle Show is on Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle, Monday to Friday, 10.30am-12pm.

I never switch off from the programme – Sean Coyle at BBC Radio Foyle in Derry Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

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