My Cultural Life: Mark Carruthers

The broadcaster and board chairman of the Lyric Theatre on rebuilding an icon, the charm of John Lennon’s dodgy songs and the nostalgia of Jimmy Nesbitt in drag

The Lyric Theatre’s reconstruction is underway - yet there's still a financial deficit. Can the Lyric raise the money needed?
Absolutely, unequivocally it will get there. It’s basically an £18million project and we’ve raised £17million from scratch. We’ll raise every penny of the final million to see that this building goes ahead.

The Lyric started with a handful of mostly amateur actors performing works in [Lyric founder] Mary O’Malley’s drawing room. What do you think she would make of this multimillion pound project?
I’m certain she would approve, and I’ll tell you why I say that: Mary O’Malley had the most remarkable plans drawn up for a fantastic theatre but couldn’t raise the money. So they took those plans and lobbed huge bits off - rehearsal rooms, second spaces etc.

When the old building was built in the late 1960s it was very much a pared back version of what they had wanted. After changes were made to the Ulster Hall and the Grand Opera House, the Lyric - with its leaky roof - was beginning to look like a very poor cousin. This change is vital and necessary and will be marvellous for the city when it is finished.

What does the Lyric mean to the city of Belfast?
Liam Neeson, our patron, said it best when he said that through the dark days of the Troubles the Lyric was a ‘belisha beacon in Belfast’. During those bleak times in our past, when the city was a dangerous place, the Lyric was a safe and neutral space where people of all backgrounds and none could come together, leave their baggage at the door and be entertained. They could often be challenged about what was going on outside by works from the likes of Martin Lynch and Graham Reid, whose plays made audiences think and perhaps go out and be better citizens.

That whole political dimension of theatre is terribly important to me. Having said that it is also vital that people can just come, switch off and have a laugh. Theatre serves all functions and the Lyric does that extremely well.

What drew you to a career in journalism?
There was no blinding flash but when I was at Queen's University studying politics I wrote for The Gown and realised I could indulge my passion for politics and the arts if I pursued journalism. I contributed to Radio Ulster’s The Bottom Line (a forerunner of Across the Line) and was offered a short term contract by the BBC. I’ve been here ever since.

The audiences on Let’s Talk get very passionate about political issues. Do you think that people in Northern Ireland are more politicised than others?
The people here who are politicised tend to be very vocal about it, some in a good way and others in a bad way. I think that a lot of people have been totally switched off by politics over the past 35 years and I get very frustrated by people who say they’re not going to vote. I’m quite an anorak about statistics and I like to analyse the results and see how the little vote I cast in the privacy of the booth has affected the overall stream of events. I feel very strongly that people who don’t vote have absolutely no right to criticise politicians' choices.

Do you have a particular technique for getting the most out of an interview with a politician?
You don’t have to do every interview like you’re auditioning to be Jeremy Paxman. I’m a great believer in giving politicians enough rope to hang themselves. If you ask a question subtly and let then talk they can soon find themselves in a place where they don’t want to be.

Do you have a journalist hero that you look up?
I’ve always been a great admirer of David Dunseith. He always remains very good humoured while asking the incisive questions and he never lets a politician away with anything. He’s in a league of his own.

Before you became board chairman of the Lyric Theatre you held positions on the board of the Old Museum Arts Centre and Tinderbox Theatre Company. Have you always been a keen supporter of Northern Irish theatre?
We have a vibrant arts community and I’m pleased to be part of it. My dad, who taught English and drama, produced school shows that I acted in. The first play I ever did in the Coleraine Academic Institution was George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which also had James Nesbitt playing Louka the maid servant. Jimmy in drag wasn’t a pretty sight - even with a wig on him!

If you could have three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be and why?
John Lennon because he was a fascinating contradiction but also highly politicised. I was obsessed with his album Shaved Fish, which has some classic songs but some really dodgy stuff too. I’d invite Samuel Beckett too. I love the fact that he was an Irishman who fought for the French resistance during the war. He’s completely and utterly fascinating and would be great to talk to.

In 1989 Tinderbox wrote to Beckett - told him we were setting up this theatre company - and he sent us a cheque with a little note, ‘Best Wishes, Sam Beckett’. High quality copies of the note were made and I was given a present of one recently. I have it framed in my home.

My third guest would be playwright Stewart Parker. I regret that I never met Stewart and that he died such a young man. He’s a very significant figure in British and Irish drama and wrote from a very specific point of view. It’s a point of view that I would share.

If you could have created any work of art in any discipline from throughout history, what would it be and why?

It would have to be a play and I think it would be Stewart Parker’s Pentecost, which says everything about our troubled land and manages to debunk an awful lot of the myths. It’s set in 1974 during the Ulster Worker’s Strike and it’s a play about that big political picture, but told through the eyes of real people. It’s a sad play in many respects but it’s also tremendously uplifting.

If you could write your own epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
It’s all about endeavour, isn’t it? I suppose I’d like it to say , ‘At least he had a lash at it'. That’s all you can do in life - have a go and see how it turns out…

Interview by Brendan Deeds