Photo by Mirrorpix

Freelancers cannot afford shame

Journalist and actor Denis Tuohy has written a rewarding collection worthy of his colourful career

Artillery Row

Denis Tuohy (b. 1937) has been described “a hack of the old school” by John Humphrys, for whom such a judgement confers the highest praise. 

Denis Tuohy, Streets and Secret Places: Reflections of a news reporter, Messenger Publications

Tuohy is a natural raconteur and wit, who, having decided he would not get all that far as an actor (although he has returned to the stage with some success in more recent times), started his career as an announcer with the BBC in his native Belfast in 1960. He was the first Roman Catholic to be so employed, an appointment that caused quite a stir at the time. Later, he was to move to London to work as a presenter on the newly established BBC2 in 1964, but the very first edition of a magazine programme entitled Line Up was clobbered when a fire at Battersea Power Station blacked out most of West London, including the BBC Television Centre. When Line Up actually did go out, it was trounced in the Sunday Telegraph, which did not find Tuohy’s “youth, … classless brogue, and lazy charm” much to its taste, something which acutely worried the Irishman at the time (he does not have a “brogue” at all, being a native of the North). He need not have been concerned, for, as Sir Trevor McDonald notes in his Foreword, “in news and current affairs [Tuohy] has … played a variety of prominent roles with credit and distinction on BBC and ITV networks. Much of his work has helped to shine a light on important changes in the cultural life of our times. In this anthology, reflecting on public events and private experience, he doesn’t preach. He allows the power of observation to speak for itself.” 

The personalities Tuohy has interviewed over the years include an unexpectedly thoughtful Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) and a gently reflective, even slightly diffident, unbelligerent Margaret Thatcher, who showed an unfamiliar, perhaps even slightly vulnerable, side to her character when she chatted informally with the crew after filming. For an Irishman to be able to speak in a Black Country accent always struck me as a major achievement: Tuohy’s hilarious impersonations of Enoch Powell were authentic, summoning up the man himself in a series of flattened vowels and gritty nasal enunciations. Indeed, Tuohy’s gifts in mimicry are impressive. I have heard him replicate the voices of numerous persons who have been or are in the public eye: the accuracy of his impersonations is truly astonishing, frequently very funny and sometimes disconcerting, especially when he becomes one of the less agreeable figures of our benighted times. 

Tuohy observes that “changing ways of behaviour that may be hurtful to others is a more worthwhile Lenten practice than, say, giving up chocolate”, and recalls a Lent when he had abstained from alcohol. Some forty years after 1945 it had become apparent that antisemitism was gaining ground once again in Austria, a country whose record in that regard was truly shameful. Soon after Reinhold Stecher was appointed Suffragen Bishop of Innsbruck, a position he occupied from 1980-97, he determined to root out the ghastly belief in the “Blood-Libel”, which held that Jews murdered Christian children and used the blood to make unleavened flatbread for use during Passover. 

There’s a priest one would find clubbable!

There was a hideous graphic depiction of three Jews slitting the throat of a child in the church at Rinn, near Innsbruck, where there was also a reliquary containing what were claimed to be the bones of the child. This “blood-libel” was and is widespread (many still believe it), and Stecher not only had the image obliterated, but caused the bones to be buried in the parish graveyard, all in the teeth of fierce local opposition. After Tuohy and the crew had finished interviewing this enlightened, humane Bishop in Innsbruck, the prelate produced glasses of Schnapps. A member of the team ungallantly informed Stecher that Tuohy was off drink for Lent, whereupon the jovial Bishop said that reporting the story was far more important than Lenten resolutions; secondly, that Schnapps is medicinal; and thirdly that he, as Bishop, granted a Dispensation, as he said “God bless you all!” There’s a priest one would find clubbable!

As a journalist, Tuohy has contributed to many journals and newspapers, including The Irish Times, Sunday Independent, Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, New Statesman, The Tablet and The Oldie, and has presented documentaries for Ulster Television, including the award-winning The Troubles I’ve Seen, the title of which speaks for itself. He has also published a volume of memoirs entitled Wide-eyed in Medialand. When he revealed to a friend that Radio Ulster had invited him to do some TFTDs (Thoughts for the Day), the response, after a predictable sharp intake of breath, was to ask him had he no shame, whereupon Tuohy responded that freelancers cannot afford shame (something this reviewer can confirm from painful personal experience). Besides, Tuohy reflected, one reassurance about doing TFTDs, known colloquially as the “God Slot”, was that critics are unlikely to pay any attention to what rather too often are the effusions, oozing unction, of the “Revd J.C. Flannel”, as certain contributors have been irreverently labelled over the years. Some of the snippets in this book are in fact TFTDs, all mercifully free from the Revd’s excruciating oleaginousness.

This rewarding little collection by a true professional, full of acute observations and interesting asides, is dedicated to the memory of Tuohy’s beloved son, Chris (1964-2021). Chris took the photograph that graces the cover, and his poem “Wellspring”, written in the last months of his cruelly shortened life, is reproduced beneath the Dedication.

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