Denis Tuohy

Francis Jones speaks to broadcaster Denis Tuohy about his life and his recent memoirs

Humane, humorous and never less than thoroughly entertaining, Wide-Eyed in Medialand, tells the story of
Belfast born Denis Tuohy. 

At the forefront of his craft, Tuohy, the last of the ‘great gentleman broadcasters’, enjoyed a remarkable career. Covering key events in recent history he travelled to every corner of the globe. Along the way Tuohy was to interview some of the most important figures in political and cultural spheres.  From the pomp and protocol of a meeting with the Shah of
Iran to an impromptu hour in a pub with a prickly Richard Burton Wide-Eyed in Medialand is crammed full of fascinating anecdotes all relayed with Tuohy’s inimitable charm.

Yes, it may at times wander into the realms of self indulgence, but as a unique and insightful chronicle of the development of broadcasting during the eventful and often unruly past five decades Wide Eyed in Medialand is an essential, enthralling read.

You enjoyed the beginnings of a career as an actor, appearing in Over The Bridge and treading the boards alongside Orson Welles.  Jimmy Ellis even said you weren’t a ‘bad bloody actor’!  Do you ever wonder where the acting life might have led?

Yes indeed, every now and then, all through my career, I’ve wondered about that. But to be realistic, there are many actors around who are better than I think I could have become. On the other hand, while there have been presenters and reporters in my time who have certainly been more famous than myself, there are not many, and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant, whom I regard as more talented or better at the job. And also, as an actor I’d have been very lucky to get to see as much of the world as I have done as a reporter.  

From anti-Vietnam war protests and the idealism of Haight-Ashbury hippies to the
riots and student sit-ins, you were witness to the heady, often turbulent, 1960s young people were politically engaged in a way that seems inconceivable today.  What was it that was so special about that time?

I think television coverage of such events, the immediacy of it, was something new and dramatic. And that helped to give young people in many countries a sense of togetherness, a sense that, in Bob Dylan’s words, The Times they are a –changin’. It didn’t matter that the causes or the circumstances might be different. Pictures of French students being tear-gassed in Paris were seen by anti-Vietnam War protesters in
and vice versa. The same was true for Civil Rights campaigners in America and
Northern Ireland
. That helped to create, to some extent, a common spirit, a spirit of internationalism among the young – not all of them, of course, by any means – but very many, and it was an exciting time to be a young reporter.

Margaret Thatcher described it as ‘the most hostile’ interview of the 1979 election campaign.  What are your recollections of your famous tête-à-tête with the ‘Iron Lady’, were you ‘out to get her’?

Well, it was a tough interview, but no tougher than what Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys regularly dish out. I don’t think I was out to get her, but I certainly wanted to challenge her on key parts of her election manifesto, like trade union reform. I was simply doing what a political interviewer, particularly just two weeks from polling day, should be doing.  But of course, Margaret Thatcher, even more than other politicians, tended to divide the world into “them” and “us” and as she saw it, I clearly didn’t belong to “us”. 

Over the course of your career what have been the biggest changes in the broadcaster’s role that you have observed?

Computer technology, satellites, cell-phones, these have transformed broadcasting, as they’ve transformed the world. For a reporter this means you can now get on air more or less anytime from anywhere. There’s a down side to that, of course - the office can always find you!  There are times when it would be nice to be able to hide for a while, either to do some research, or for your own private reasons. Against that, though, you don’t have to worry about whether your film report will arrive back at base in time to be processed and aired before it’s out of date. 

You have encountered, and interviewed, some of the truly iconic figures of the twentieth century, from Muhammad Ali and
Allende to Duke Ellington.  But was there ever a ‘one that got away’?

No question about it, the one that got away – three times – was Fidel Castro. What made it worse was that, on every one of my three trips to Cuba, I was told that he might give me an interview, at any hour of the day or night, but that I would only be told when his people came to fetch me. This of course is part of the intense security that surrounds him, and has indeed kept him alive against the odds for over forty years in power. But alas my interview never happened. 

Actor, broadcaster and now memoirist.  What next for Denis Tuohy?

Well I hope to write another book, though I’m not sure whether it’ll be fact or fiction. And after being preoccupied with Wide-eyed in Medialand for more than a year, I’m now discussing one or two broadcasting projects and intend to have yet another go at acting. Which of these things may come to fruition I’ve no idea but I’m not too bothered. I’ve learned from experience that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.

This article first appeared in Belfast Beat.

Wide-Eyed in Medialand: A Broadcaster’s Journey (2005) , Blackstaff Press.