Celebrity | An afternoon with Julian Simmons

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Northern Ireland’s favourite TV personality Julian Simmons talks about life, his love of Belfast and almost 30 years on TV

From introducing Corrie to standing in front of live audiences, UTV continuity announcer Julian Simmons has been on our screens for nearly 30 years and he has no plans on retiring anytime soon.

“I still love it. I loved it from the word go. I’ve always enjoyed my time at UTV and it’s changed quite a lot.”

Simmons is no stranger to hard work, juggling two jobs for much of his life. “I worked with Air Canada for years, at the same time that I was with UTV. I would adjust my shifts at Heathrow to fit in with my lifestyle. There were so many staff for the airline in Heathrow that there were days where I’d easily get someone to cover a shift. I’d be leaving Belfast for a four day trip to London, to work at Heathrow Terminal 3 when my agent would ring me to ask me to do a gig the following night in Portadown. Of course I’d say yes. I had a lot of rearranging to do. It was chaos but I loved it.”

Looking back on the beginning of his career in Belfast, Simmons recalls working through The Troubles.

“I drive a mini now but I didn’t drive during that time because you’d have to go through so many checkpoints just to get to work. Thank God we don’t have any trouble now. I worked in a travel agency on Donegall St and that was like bombers’ alley. Everything that went off affected us and windows were always falling out. But, then again and God forgive me I loved the drama. I ran the place as if it were the Starship Enterprise. When something happened, I’d shout ‘yellow alert’ for we may have to go or ‘red alert’ for we must go now. It was frightening but a very interesting and elevating time too. I used to be terrified reading the news because I can never keep a straight face. I never laughed reading a bulletin but that’s because I’d set my face beforehand. Putting on a façade is really what television is all about.”

The UTV favourite is a YouTube hit too, as people relish in the quick whips he rattles off before the soaps start. But, Simmons admits that others in his job don’t get away with the carry-on he gets away with. “Sometimes I get away with things by reverting to the Belfast accent. So, in my finest Belfast accent I’ll say, ‘Liz McDonald, you see that outfit she has on, you can see everything she had for her dinner.’ I’m saying everything there but I’m saying nothing really. People are kind enough to accept that kind of thing, otherwise I’d be cleaning toilets. I get away with blue murder using colloquialisms. Maybe other people don’t get away with it like I do. There’s a lot of pussy-footing to avoid offending anyone these days.”

For a man who has worked in one of the world’s busiest airports and the television industry at the same time, Simmons has had to have met some famous faces.

“I looked after dear Cilla Black in Heathrow and I was very sad to hear the news of her passing. I also met David Hasselhoff; I should’ve pulled on my speedos and ran down through the gate lounges. Joan Collins is another one, and Dame Barbara Cartland. There was one lady who was travelling with her husband turned and asked me where their VIP treatment was. He asked a number of times actually. I could’ve said, Llisten love, I’m it.’ I was within a hairs breadth of saying, ‘Did you want 76 trombones and a big parade?’”

 

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From being on screens for three decades, starring in a Christmas pantomime and presenting a radio show on U105, it’s no surprise that Simmons has built up a fan-base.

“I haven’t been stoned out of town yet anyways. I find that you have to be very accepting and ready to give hugs or chat for a little while. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten out of the bed on the wrong side, you’ve always got to give people what they want. Some people don’t realise that I am the same as everyone else, the only difference is that my face is on the TV. But it’s my job, I’m not on a plinth. I’d hate for people to think that I am God’s gift. I was rushing down Donegall Place when a woman stopped me outside Boots. She told me she had just been to collect Philomena’s wedding album, as if I was supposed to know that Philomena was her daughter who recently got married. Then she opened the album and showed me the photographs from the wedding on chocolate paper and the album started playing Ave Maria, like a wee music box. This woman is dressed to the nines with a hat on her head that resembles a UFO. But I had to be nice and humour her, you can’t shatter peoples’ happiness.”

Northern Ireland’s favourite face still juggles work and life to accommodate for both, as he works until midnight for four days across the weekend. But he prefers it that way and makes sure he gets his fix of Belfast’s social scene.

“I’m really lucky that I have a few close friends and we’ll all go out to dinner quite a bit. I love eating at the Merchant Hotel, Shu Restaurant and even Pizza Express across the road from the BBC. I love Pizza Express because it’s fancy free, you can sit there and make a beast of yourself. At the weekends I’ll leave work at midnight and I’ll go out with friends to El Divino. As soon as one person recognises you, the whole place turns to take selfies, or ‘salfies’ as they say in Belfast.”

Pearl Simmons, Julian’s mum, was one of his closest friends and biggest fans. He credits her for his personality, but sadly, she passed away seven years ago.

“Mum went for maximum effect when she passed away on Christmas Eve. I has on the radio when someone showed me a piece of paper which read, ring the hospital immediately. So I went and dealt with it and found the nurses in a really bad way over mum. I thought my mum would be furious with me if I had told everybody about her death and ruined Christmas. So I had a cup of tea, went back to work and presented the Santa updates while the undertaker was in the corner waiting for me, just out of view of the camera. I couldn’t tell anyone for mum’s sake. I definitely got a lot of my personality from her. We were very alike. She was vivacious, she liked travelling and was a bit chaotic around the house. She always went out like a million dollars. She used to say, ‘Here I am walking around looking like a million dollars with a £10 note in my hand bag.’ I made a mistake on air when reading the adverts live once, it involved the word ‘lingerie,’ but I read it wrong. I got a call from mum and she said to me, ‘Julian. You went to the Methodist College, you had tuition in English, and you’re talking on television about lingerie?’ She lived a very good life and was 94 when she died. I eventually told people of her passing the day after Boxing Day. Mum wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

After a long career in television, Simmons says he has no plans to retire anytime soon. “I’m lucky that I’ve had such a long career and that UTV still want me. The channel is an institution in Northern Ireland, for many people it’s on from the morning until they go to bed. Back when I started the channel would shut down at night and I’d say goodnight to everyone. I used to say: ‘On behalf of all of us here at Havelock House in Belfast, this is Julian Simmons wishing you all a peaceful and comfortable night; good night everybody and sleep well.’ People loved that.”

Speaking of love, Simmons came out as a gay man shortly after his mother passed away. But, he says he’s happy being single for now.

“My love life has been turbulent. I’m foot-loose and fancy free and I think I prefer it that way. Any flings along the way don’t cause me hassle. I’m happy the way I am. With my lifestyle, I could decide all of a sudden that I’m going to Bangkok on Tuesday, so the way it is now I’m not affecting anybody. The same way, I would love a husky puppy but I can’t have a dog because it wouldn’t put up with my life.

With a demanding schedule and the pressure of needing to look his best on camera, Simmons says preparation is everything.

“I like to give myself an hour and a half to get ready around the house. I never iron anything until I need to wear something. All of my outfits are pre-planned; I can’t turn up dishevelled, just like I can’t wear the same jacket or tie every night. I bought some ties in Bangkok that look high-end but they were quite cheap. On Thursdays and Fridays I have my makeup done for me and then on Saturdays and Sundays I have to do it myself, those are the times I’m sitting there like I’m from Memoirs of a Geisha with far too much make up on. I always use plenty of moisturiser and I swear by eight hour cream when I’m flying.”