Davis, Derek (1948–2015), broadcaster, was born on 26 April 1948 in Bangor, Co. Down, one of two children to Frederick Davis, an art dealer and owner of an art and framing shop in Belfast, and his wife Vera (née Algar), an artist, who also helped run the family business. Davis’s family background contributed significantly to what he called his ‘ecumenical’ upbringing: his father was from a middle-class unionist protestant Belfast family, and his mother was a catholic from Bray, Co. Wicklow, so he grew up ‘sitting on the fence. It’s an uncomfortable position but the view is spectacular’ (Davis, 14). According to Davis, both families had reservations about the marriage, so his parents were married twice – the first wedding service in a chapel in Bray, the second in a Church of Ireland church in Belfast.
EARLY LIFE AND UNIVERSITY
As a catholic in a mostly protestant town, Davis felt excluded from activities such as the Boys’ Brigade and Scouts. As a result, he immersed himself in books, leading to a life-long passion for words and a wide-ranging general knowledge. He attended Bangor Grammar preparatory school and then St MacNissi’s College (now St Killian’s College but more colloquially known as Garron Towers), a catholic boarding school in Carnlough, Co. Antrim. His time in St MacNissi’s appears to have been formative. The school itself he described as tough and his time in a ‘posh’ preparatory school did him no favours. His accent and large vocabulary earned him the nickname ‘Dictionary Davis’, he had no knowledge of Gaelic sports, and his father was protestant. In addition, he was very self-conscious about his size, and would later recall that he consciously constructed an ebullient, larger-than-life personality to protect himself from taunts. As a result, Davis honed a gift for sarcastic wit in the school yard which proved useful as a tool in later life. For his final two years of school, Davis left St MacNissi’s to attend St Malachy’s College, Belfast, and was admitted to Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) to study law after sitting his A levels in 1966.
In his first week at university Davis met fellow fresher Tom McGurk in the offices of The Gown (QUB’s student newspaper), alongside hordes of other freshers hoping to become journalists. McGurk says he and ‘the huge guy (Davis) in the corner … were going to end up knowing each other because we were simply both so much bigger, towering over everyone else’ (Irish Daily Mail, 14 May 2015). McGurk recalled that Davis loved adventure and was willing to throw himself into new experiences: he took up bodybuilding and then wrestling, becoming something of a wrestling celebrity in Belfast. He then became an ‘entertainment entrepreneur’ in the disco scene, as well as bouncing for nightclubs. He was also an excellent debater – the sarcasm and wit he had used to deflect criticism in school served him well, and he and journalist Brendan Keenan won the prestigious Irish Times debate in 1969, arguing a topic close to his heart: ‘That domination by religious denominations over the legislative processes of a society is a barrier to social progress’.
JOURNALISM AND TELEVISION
Despite his natural gift for debating and oratory, Davis never practiced law. According to an oft-repeated anecdote that he told over the years, he fell into journalism by accident while taking part in a protest at the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast. Like many students across Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 1960s, Davis was involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement. During the protest at the hotel he became embroiled in an argument with someone who turned out to be a television producer with the British Broadcasting Corporation Northern Ireland (BBC NI). Impressed by Davis’s ability to fluently express himself, the producer suggested he might like to contribute to the programme they were making. This, in turn, led to an audition and his eventual employment as a trainee freelance reporter with the BBC NI. The pay was meagre – £3 10s per interview – and criticism could be harsh. Davis recalls a producer hurling a tape-recorder across the room at him to signal his displeasure.
As a journalist reporting on the early years of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, Davis was quite often in some degree of danger: a cameraman he was working with suffered cracked ribs, a broken finger and a chipped elbow from three separate beatings and Davis says he saw it as part of his job to stop the cameraman from getting killed. At one stage he even knocked someone out with a steel microphone during a riot when they were attacked with a hatchet (Irish Times, 13 May 2015). As a freelancer, Davis also did some work for American television channel ABC, who invited him to cover events in Vietnam for the network. However, a chance phone call changed his career trajectory. According to Davis, he was having dinner with Tom McGurk when Wesley Boyd, head of news at Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), rang to ask McGurk if he could fill in for a night editor who had had a heart attack. McGurk declined but offered to send the ‘distinguished’ northern journalist Davis in his stead.
From 1974 Davis freelanced as night editor for the RTÉ news department and was made permanent the following year. As a northerner, he says his experience of crossing the border was something of a culture shock: ‘I was a foreigner … [and] I never saw myself quite fitting into any of the tribes in the south’ (Irish Times, 13 May 2015). He was also treated with a certain degree of suspicion and at certain stages even believed his phone might be tapped. Nonetheless, Davis became a familiar and comforting figure presenting the news alongside Anne Doyle on RTÉ’s flagship six o’clock news programme. Davis also sought to break into light entertainment. In 1972 he had briefly featured in an episode of Hall’s pictorial weekly playing the part of ‘Mean Tom’ (a parody of the Irish country and western singer Big Tom), which led to him playing with the showband ‘Pat Lynch and The Tree Tops’ in Cork before joining RTÉ full-time. In 1983 he presented a Christmas show The season that’s in it, for which he won a Jacob’s television award, and from November 1984 he hosted his own show, Davis at large. Although these first forays away from journalism were not critically acclaimed, they were well received by the public and did well in the Television Audience Measurement (TAM) ratings.
In 1986, partly for financial reasons, Davis permanently left the news division for entertainment, although initially the move was far from smooth. According to Davis, he was informed by a senior executive in RTÉ that ‘we think you’re too fat for light entertainment’ (Irish Times, 13 May 2015). Having endured jibes about his weight from an early age, Davis was undaunted by the putdown, merely retorting that the day his cheque didn’t arrive, he would see him in the high court. He may have added the words ‘you son of a bitch’! Despite these high-level misgivings, Noel Smyth, head of daytime television in RTÉ, approached Davis and Thelma Mansfield to co-host a mid-afternoon magazine show, Live at three, which proved enormously successful throughout its eleven-year run. The show featured a wide range of topics – fashion and motor maintenance, entrepreneurship and menopause, music and reading the newspapers – and was an immediate success in a slot that had previously lost money for RTÉ. Davis believed that he and Mansfield were seen as a safe pair of hands and so could get away with topics other programmes shied away from. Although mostly light in tone, the show could also cover more serious subjects and in 1991 was awarded a Jacob’s award for the programme marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising. Despite its success, or perhaps because of it, Davis sought to leave Live at three after three years, then again after five, and every year after, but was persuaded to stay on. When the format finally tired and the show was axed in 1997, Davis was free to move away from the cosy, sitting-room-set pastels of afternoon television and into programmes more suited to his interests. However, despite the show’s success, Davis’s future was somewhat uncertain in its aftermath. In an interview given to the Irish Independent in January 1998 he admitted to not knowing where he would be in a year’s time. He also recalled ruefully his short stint as the host of the Rose of Tralee; in 1995 he had stepped in with only six days’ notice when Gay Byrne fell ill, having to interview the contestants for fifty hours before compering the five-hour show. Although he hosted it again the following year, Davis felt it detracted from the gravitas his summer current affairs show Davis had given him and the gig passed to Marty Whelan in 1998.
Following a hiatus of several months, Davis finally returned to the screen in January 1998 with a new series Out of the blue, drawing on his love of all things marine. From childhood Davis had loved ‘knocking around’ in boats: as a boy his father had brought him fishing for mackerel and pollock in Donaghadee, Co. Down; when he moved to Dublin he would take a row boat from Bulloch Harbour in Dalkey to fish. In later life Davis kept a cruiser on the Shannon and fished with friends in Dublin. For more than a decade he had pitched the idea of a programme for and about those who find their recreation or make their living in or from the water to RTÉ, and, when finally commissioned, the idea proved very successful, running for four years with the final series broadcast in 2001. Davis also presented a radio show called A question of food, periodically deputised for Pat Kenny and Joe Duffy on RTÉ Radio One, and delivered a collection of radio columns titled And that was Derek Davis. In 2005 he presented Time on their hands, a travel series aimed at a middle-aged audience, and he was a team captain alongside Ronan Collins and Twink on the charades gameshow Play the game. He officially retired from RTÉ in 2008 but continued to make guest appearances; in one such appearance in 2009 he won Celebrity Bainisteoir while coaching Glasdrumman, a team from Co. Down. He also made regular appearances on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Brown, where he and another guest would preview the following morning's papers. Davis’s final regular radio slot was a magazine programme on Sunday mornings with commercial radio station 4FM, where other veteran journalists such as his good friend Tom McGurk, Gareth O’Callaghan and Jimmy Greely also presented. On the opening morning, Davis apparently greeted McGurk with a broad grin, exclaiming ‘Isn’t it wonderful, they now have a station for ancient broadcasters! It’s like a donkey sanctuary’ (Daily Mail, 14 May 2015).
LATER LIFE AND DEATH
In later years Davis suffered from health problems – he was diagnosed with diabetes in the 1990s and the heavy doses of insulin made it harder to control his weight. In 2014, inspired by the birth of his grandson and determined to take control of his health, he underwent gastric surgery, losing more than forty-five kilograms in less than a year. His last broadcasting appearance was on Sunday, 10 May 2015, on RTÉ Radio One’s Marian Finucane show (hosted that day by Áine Lawlor) as part of a panel discussion on obesity. Derek Davis died on 13 May 2015 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, having suffered a stroke the previous day. He was buried following a humanist ceremony and cremation at Mount Jerome’s Victorian chapel. To mark the occasion, just after midday RTÉ Radio One played Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, a song regularly sung by Davis on social occasions. Attending the funeral were the many friends and colleagues who had broadcast with him over the years, including Thelma Mansfield, Tom McGurk, Gay Byrne and Anne Doyle. Speaking of his friend and colleague, fellow journalist Colm Connolly summed up Davis’s attitude to work and life: ‘We’re not brain surgeons. We’re not bomb-disposal experts. We do our best to make it diverting … But you really shouldn’t take it too seriously’ (Irish Times, 13 May 2015). He was survived by Úna, his wife of forty years, his sons Michael, Colm and Seán, and sister Elizabeth.