Celebrating 30 Years of Across the Line
Stacy Fitzpatrick Interviews Mike Edgar
Northern Ireland and Ireland is well known for its musical talent – very well known – a lengthy scroll of names to rival Santa’s naughty or nice list. The 4 Of Us, Snow Patrol, Ash, The Divine Comedy, Therapy? … these are just a handful of artists from these shores to have made an impact on the international music scene over the decades. The one thing they all have in common is BBC Radio Ulster’s Across The Line championing them from their early days.
Newer acts such as Foy Vance, Villagers, SOAK, Ciaran Lavery, Ryan Vail and Making Monsters are fast following in their iconic footsteps scooping up acclaimed award wins such as NI Mercury Music Prize and getting global airplay on mainstream radio across the world with performances at some of the most prestigious festivals on the planet. Again, each of these artists have caught the ears, eyes and soul of ATL, who just know pure talent, and just as importantly, see pure commitment to the art of making music.
Across The Line, originally named The Bottom Line is celebrating 30 years of music this year. A special one hour documentary charting the award winning show’s three decade history is to be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday 12 December. The documentary, narrated by Colin Murray, will feature fresh interviews with some of the shows biggest names, archive footage from the Across The Line’s sister TV programme Beyond The Line, and new commemorative performances. Interviewees include U2’s Adam Clayton, Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Neil Hannon from Divine Comedy, Therapy?, The 4 Of Us, Ash and singer/songwriter David Gray.
The programme also talks to Mike Edgar, original presenter and long-time producer, alongside the team that led the way towards its successful longevity, including the programme’s current presenters Rigsy and Stuart Bailie. Mike has had a passion and career in music his whole life. Hailing from Northern Ireland, he initially applied for a position producing the show, as he explains.
“It was around 1985 and I was living in London, and having failed to meet my goal at becoming an international rock star, I was working in music promotion on a record for the late Phil Lynott. My late mother sent me the Belfast Telegraph jobs’ page with a big red felt pen circle around an ad looking for a producer for the BBC’s first ever youth radio department, which would be based in Belfast. To be honest, I pretty much thought I could bluff my way through the interview if I got one! I did indeed get an interview, but the BBC in Belfast sussed me out pretty quickly, that my producing experience was fairly limited at that period and they sent me packing back to London with my tail between my legs.
“Weirdly however in a bit of a twist of fate, the phone rang three days later and Peter Weil, the Head of BBC Youth programmes offered me the job as presenter for their first youth radio programme, The Bottom Line. I couldn’t believe my luck!”, he says, gratefully asserting: “It was just such a fabulous and brilliant offer. I genuinely believe it was, to this day, such a privilege.”
“I remember the very first night of the programme on the national airwaves wondering if anyone was actually listening but thankfully within an hour the phones started to ring and people started to connect with us”. The broad geographical outreach of the shows popularity is remarkable, coming at a time when the internet wasn’t in existence. “We used to get so many letters … and eventually emails. If memory serves me right, I remember hearing from a music fan called Dermot O’Leary who I like to think is the one and same who graces our airwaves today”!
“We were also getting letters from new bands in the other nations such as the Manic Street Preachers from Wales, all of whom were doing the same, just trying to get their music out there. It was so energising that people from Glasgow to Cardiff, London to Portsmouth were appreciating new music from this place.” The show was groundbreaking in its goals, being the first radio programme of its kind to be aimed at a younger audience, leading the way for other radio shows to follow suit and inspire and entertain the next generation of music lovers.
“I think the beauty of the programme was that the BBC were recognising that there was a world beyond children’s programmes,” explains Mike. “When I started in the mid 80’s there were no youth programmes, only children’s programmes, led by a formidable lady called Biddy Baxter who ran Blue Peter. It was a huge editorial shift to realise that young people and young adults needed a platform. It was wonderful that Northern Ireland was the birthplace of youth programming that would be produced by young people, about and for young people.”
The programme’s passion for new, local music was clear, but the show essentially was for the young listeners and aimed not only to entertain, but also to educate and inform its audience on issues that were important, and in a way that would appeal to them. “We took an interest in world affairs and young people at a global level, as well as the harsh reality of what it was like for a young person growing up and living in the troubled environment of Northern Ireland in the mid 80s when life on the street was far from good. Aligned with this though, the backbone of the programme was the music. And for us to have the opportunity to play music made by local bands and throw the doors of the BBC open to them to record music in the studios and talk about their work was such a gift.”
The programme was BBC Northern Ireland’s first weekly network radio programme championing new music from Northern Ireland. Starting at a time when Northern Ireland was in the midst of conflicts, music was overshadowed from the rest of the world’s attention. “Back in the 80s it was next to impossible for an Irish band to get noticed on the wider UK scene so anything I could do to help give our own a leg up was pretty much high on the agenda.”
With his music promotion background, a natural evolution for Mike was to support and encourage young musicians to achieve their ambitions and gain recognition outside on Northern Ireland. “I really wanted to use the programme as a platform to put the music of this place out to as wide an audience as possible, and to celebrate and champion music from the whole island of Ireland. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than having the opportunity to share time with a great young music artist from this place, and then perhaps see that manifest itself a year or two later when they might stumble onto the airwaves of Radio 1 or Top of the Pops.”
The 80’s was a challenging time but The Bottom Line charged ahead and nurtured some formidable musicians. “When we first started broadcasting in the mid 80s the music scene in Northern Ireland was a bit ropey. I am not saying it wasn’t great, but it simply wasn’t as exciting as a few years earlier in the late 70s/early 80s when we were at the forefront of some great music with people like Stiff Little Fingers, Rudi, The Undertones …”
Reflecting on the music scene over the years Mike acknowledges when the tide turned for music from these shores. “I think the big change came for us in the early 90s when bands like Therapy? launched onto the scene with incredible energy, creativity and braveness. I remember recording their first ever session for them at the BBC here in Belfast, I don’t think I have ever been as excited; it was truly jaw dropping. To see them, some years on appearing on Top of the Pops was just such a moment. Bands from Northern Ireland didn’t get those breaks. It really was a shoulders up moment of pride for all of us in this small part of the world. Therapy? blattered the door down and so many other Northern Irish acts took the opportunity to charge through. They really did demonstrate that a band from here could reach the heady heights.”
The programme is widely credited for its friendship and support in the early days of Ash, Snow Patrol, Divine Comedy, The 4 of Us, Therapy?, Hothouse Flowers, Two Door Cinema Club, to name a few, many of whom Mike has fond memories of working with. “If I could pick out any acts that I really enjoyed working with in the late 80s, I guess The 4 Of Us would be very much on that list; they were truly incredible … and so many other wonderful people started to connect with the programme from Ash to Divine Comedy to Snow Patrol and many, many more. All of which, myself and all on Across the Line owe a huge debt of thanks to – what a privilege to have been part of their musical journey. Thankfully it continues to this day with bands like Saint Sister and R51.”
The programme, pioneering in its format has had many firsts throughout its 30 year running. “I am incredibly proud that Across the Line has been a programme of so many firsts.” says Mike. “The first youth music based radio programme for the BBC, first programme to offer local bands sessions, air plays and interviews on a weekly basis, first programme from BBC Radio Ulster to broadcast nationally every week, first programme from Northern Ireland to simulcast music concerts on television and radio at the same time, first programme from here to experiment with the internet broadcasting live gigs visually as well as on the radio … and how weird is this” he proudly concludes: “The first programme ever to play a CD on the Radio Ulster airwaves.”
For many listeners, Across The Line essentially is a first class music show, but as Mike reveals, it has achieved some incredible milestones from beyond the airwaves. “I guess probably one of the most significant moments for Across the Line was when the programme got picked up nationally for a four year run on Radio Five. Some might remember before Radio Five was a Sports station; it was actually a music based station for four years. Across the Line broadcast every single week for the four years and was the first programme and indeed the very last programme to broadcast on the network before it became a Sports channel. It was an amazing time, it really allowed us to take music from this place and share it nationally and internationally.”
The Across the Line radio team also made the transition to television in the 90’s with Across the Line’s sister TV programme, Beyond the Line, and produced the legendary Irish Rock and Pop Awards attracting some of the biggest names in music to Belfast. “I am very proud that we managed to morph from a radio programme into a multi-platform beast with Across the Line on television and online.” says Mike.
“Our TV exploits started with Beyond the Line, a TV show which unashamedly lifted a lot of the format of Jools Holland, but we didn’t care, it was just a chance to get new bands from here on the telly! We then went on to make ATL TV, ATL TV Festival gigs, and ATL Rockschool – a brand new TV show which featured a bunch of talented schoolboys who later became better known as Two Door Cinema Club.”
The Irish Rock and Pop Awards -an extraordinary event-in particular is a proud personal moment for Mike. “One of our biggest nights was when ATL and Hot Press invited an absolutely incredible gathering of musicians to the BBC studios on Great Victoria Street.” he affirms. “The gig took place on the same night that Senator George Mitchell was in town trying to hammer out the Good Friday Agreement. The Belfast studios were absolutely buzzing – we had U2, Radiohead, Morrissey, Ash, Divine Comedy, Sinead O’Connor, Suede, Therapy?, David Holmes and many more, including David Bowie joining us by satellite from New York”.
He reminisces on the mood of the night and its timing. The buzz of good feeling combined with hope for the future, making it especially poignant. “It was just such a beautiful evening for Belfast and for the music community. There was a spirit of harmony and a spirit of hope that Northern Ireland could be about to turn a corner, and it really radiated through all the musicians and artists in the room. Understandably it was still a time of much discontent, hurt and trouble in Northern Ireland, but it was humbling to see a national newspaper report the next day that whilst demonstrations and fears for the future were being played out on the streets of Belfast, a bunch of musicians and music lovers were in another part of town on the same night, very much in a spirit of harmony and hope, and yes, enjoying themselves.”
Contemplating other personal highlights, of which there are a mass, he says: “Beyond that there are so many personal highs; however, on another note I take great pleasure from the amount of amazing people that have come through the programme as presenters and contributors in its 30 year history. Too many to mention but they include Stuart Bailie, Colin Murray, Philly Taggart, Donna Legge, Rory McConnell, Barry Mcilheney, Ralph McLean, Joe Lindsay, Paul McClean, Feargal O’Kane, Paul Hamill, and the absolutely amazing Rigsy who presents the show to this day”.
Demonstrating his respect for Rigsy, aka David O Reilly, he says: “David O’Reilly really is the spirit of Across the Line. He started out as a schoolboy listener to the programme, moved through to being a contributor and eventually the presenter of said show. He is an incredible individual who shares the same passion today for music that we all had when the journey started in 1986. ATL is so lucky to have him.”
Musing on the value of the programme and its future he concludes: “I guess in a multi-platform world it would be easy to dismiss a programme like ATL on the basis that when it started it was a one stop shop for new music and information. However, with such a crowded world of music and platforms where music is available at the touch of a button or recommended to listeners by computer software, I would argue that Across the Line is even more relevant today. If a listener can find a kindred spirit on radio, who curates a great programme and shares his passion and commitment to new sounds, that has got to be worth having. There is enormous value in having a trusted guide and someone you respect musically, and right now I am still picking up so much wonderful local music from Rigsy and Stu Bailie on ATL – who would have thought it 30 years on!”
Across The Line At 30 airs this Monday December 12 at 10.40pm on BBC One Northern Ireland. Tune in to watch the journey of this pioneering show over the last three decades.
Available to watch on BBC iPlayer following the broadcast on Monday night. bbc.co.uk/iplayer
Check out this sneak peek!