Connor Phillips on Gerry Anderson's craic, Armagh GAA and life away from wife Holly Hamilton
Jenny Lee chats to Radio Ulster's new morning show presenter Conor Phillips about following in the footsteps of his childhood icon Gerry Anderson and his friend Stephen Clements, as well as his plans to return to the Armagh GAA field
STARTING a new job, relocating and living hundreds of miles away from your wife, and all in the middle of the pandemic? And yet "it wasn’t a hard decision”, says Connor Phillips, Radio Ulster's new morning show presenter.
“I've had some incredible opportunities working for the likes of The One Show and ITV’s Tonight Programme, as well as being one the few presenters who have worked on every local radio BBC channel in the UK and the Channel Islands.
“But Radio Ulster was the only station that would have made me uproot and come home. And Gerry's, Sean's, Stephen's old show – whatever way you want to call it – was one of only two shows in the world that would have made me move.”
And the other? “Radio Ulster’s breakfast show,” says the former Cool FM presenter, who met his now wife, BBC sports presenter Holly Hamilton, while working at the station.
The couple, who live in Manchester, regularly commuted back and forth to Belfast, though the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions forced them to rely upon FaceTime calls to keep in touch.
Now living in Newry, Connor did manage to surprise Greyabbey woman Holly last weekend when he sailed over to England to surprise her for their wedding anniversary.
“It has been tough, but there are lots of people are in a far worse situation," he reflects. “The world is much smaller now than it ever was; granted, it's taken a bit of a hiatus. But when it all settles and we look back on this period in years to come, hopefully the human race will be in a better place and we will no longer take things for granted.”
Connor and Holly, who also presents the BBC/RTÉ travel programme Getaways, are no strangers to travel. “We've been doing it for the last six or seven years. We love the experience of going to airports and we use that waiting time to relax a bit, have a coffee and watch a bit of Netflix.”
In the light of the Coronavirus pandemic, will he still enjoy travel? “I don't see me doing much travel for the next month but I have enough faith in mankind that we all look out for each other and we will reach a safe new normal.”
Covid-19 has also made the couple wave goodbye to their holiday plans.
“My brother's 40th in Montenegro is gone," he says. "Holly and I got married in Portugal and we like to go back there for our anniversary to celebrate and we were supposed to go and see Holly's brother in New York.”
Sandwiched between The Nolan Show and Talkback, Connor sees his role as being to “raise a smile”, among listeners, something that's now become even more necessary than ever.
“Brightening up people’s morning and a little bit of devilment thrown in has been the remit of the show since long before coronavirus was on the horizon,” adds Connor, whose show’s tagline is ‘a mid-morning mix of music and mischief’.
“I was always the loose canon in the family,” he confesses. As well as using his younger sister as an “experimental tool”, as a youngster he was always up to tricks.
“My mum and dad used to make homemade wine, which I decided to try when I was young. I then told my neighbour, who was head of the Pioneers in Armagh, adding I had a hangover and couldn't go to school. Needless to say mum and dad never ever made wine again,” he laughs.
“There is always that bit of cheeky devilment in me as a broadcaster as well,” adds Connor, who looks no further than former Radio Ulster mid-morning show host Gerry Anderson as his inspiration.
“The craic and devilment that came through Gerry was the thing that I always loved. The last time we had a bit of a giggle together was when I worked for Cool FM and we were doing a fundraiser for Children in Need in Belfast city centre and Gerry pulled up alongside us, sticking his head out the window for a chat.”
Connor acknowledges taking the microphone for his first show, and paying tribute to his friend and former colleague at Cool FM, Stephen Clements, who passed away in January was extremely difficult.
“Stephen meant a lot to me and Holly, who worked with him quite a bit in the last year. I used to listen to his show – the show I'm doing now – and there’s a lot of love for what Stephen did for the show.”
Now six weeks into the job, Connor is thoroughly enjoying the “craic” with his listeners.
“What I was looking forward to the most was chatting to the listeners in the north and, my God, they haven’t let me down. The people, the personalities, the characters that we find are unreal. My head hasn’t stopped spinning,” says Connor, who even unearthed the woman George Best took on his first date.
Broadcasting wasn’t his first choice of career, though. He did three seasons performing with the National Youth Theatre in London's West End and even subbed as a teacher for 18 months, before landing his first radio job on Dundalk FM 100.
“I did have aspirations to be an actor at one stage, but my mum persuaded me to apply to do a PGCE. That summer I went to America to work on football camps and when I returned home someone from the new community radio station in Dundalk, who had heard me DJing in clubs, asked me to join.”
While crediting the diverse music selection on his show as a “team effort”, Connor admits his own taste is just as eclectic, from summertime dance music to folk.
“I like music that takes the pace off life, such as Bastille and Glen Hansard from The Frames. I come from a family who love traditional Irish music and Luke Kelly and Christy Moore always relax me.”
Connor even has a plectrum and towel that Christy Moore once gave him at a gig. “I found it recently when I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom, and I’m going to get it framed.”
The recent lockdown has given him the opportunity to dust down his guitar and increase his fitness level again.
“I’ve just finished restringing my guitar and started to fiddle around with it. In his wedding speech my brother said ‘Connor is the only guy with two guitars and doesn't know how to play either of them’, so I'm determined to prove him wrong,” he laughs.
He’s also been running and cycle in order to get fit for when GAA gets the go-ahead to return. A keen footballer, he is currently registered with Oisín CLG in Manchester, but he has his sights on potentially returning to his old club Dromintee GAC in Jonesborough.
“I’m massively passionate about GAA. I've had injuries throughout the years but I've managed to stay in semi-decent nick," he says. “When people ask me if I have any unfulfilled ambitions, I say it would be to put on the Dromintee jersey again.”
And does he have any plans to work with Holly in the future?
“If I had a fiver for every time somebody mentioned we can be the new Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford we could retire now,” he laughs. “Outside of getting this show established, it's my number one priority. We’ve got two very different styles of working but we complement each other.”
The Connor Phillips Show is on BBC Radio Ulster, weekdays at 10.30am and on BBC Sounds.