Culture Jock

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It’s probably not the best week to call Marie Louise Muir, but she takes the call anyway. On what the Radio Ulster presenter describes as a ‘mad’ day during the Belfast Festival, we talk about Derry, dream jobs and diving into all the City of Culture has to offer. After our chat, Marie Louise goes back to work where she stays - as her Twitter feed shows - until 12:30 that night.

Part of the success of her Arts Extra show - which she’s fronted for the past eight years - and more recently her television show, has to be attributed to that affable and accommodating aspect of the woman herself. A mother of two, Catherine (8) and Rebecca (4), she relishes going home with a good book just as much as attending glitzy premieres, and in her coveted job there are no shortage of invites.

While the Derry woman’s elevation to the position of one of the big hitters at BBC in Belfast could have left her with lofty notions about what to include in her schedule and what to ignore - it doesn’t. On Wednesday twenty minutes for a piece for the paper from her home town was not a problem.

In the week after the City of Culture programme has been announced, as one of the most respected voices in the arts, Marie Louise is only too happy to give her seal of approval. She’s excited about the energy she believes 2013 will undoubtedly bring and says she’s privileged that her job will put her right at the heart of everything that hits Derry next year.

As an arts commentator and someone who grew up here, she’s in the unique position of being able to look at what the city has to offer from local eyes and, make no mistake, the former Thornhill pupil intends to use the massive platform of the BBC to shout loud about everything that happens on the banks of the Foyle.

Marie Louise grew up in Derry in the eighties. She went to school despite the Troubles and like most of her contemporaries, lived life, in all its aspects despite the politicial and social unrest.

“My parents moved us here when I was eleven, right in the middle of the hunger strikes,” she says.

“Patsy O’Hara was days from dying and the atmosphere in the city was unreal. We moved into 27 Clarendon Street so we were right in the middle of everything.”

Marie Louise’s parents Carita and the late John Kerr immersed themselves in all aspects of city life, both politically and socially. Her late father John, was a former SDLP councillor and mayor. Her mother Carita a stalwart in the city’s arts and music scene. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to Marie Louise who cites her mother as the one who kept her focused on academic life in the middle of turbulent times in the city.

“I went to Thornhill and we used to wait for the school bus coming down from Creggan and if it had been hijacked my mother would still make sure that we got to school on way or another!” she laughs.

“She was adamant that we got there and we always did. It was such a strange time in Derry in those days, as a young person there was almost excitement coupled with a strange energy and intensity of emotion. As a teenager it was very deeply affecting and I remember that feeling I had in the pit of my stomach.”

In the face of The Troubles, Marie Louise says there was determination on the part of people in places like Derry to nurture their own culture and preserve it in the face of everything that was going on around them. Speaking about the influence her parents had on her and the cultural landscape of the North West, the arts expert says there was a deeper sense of grass roots culture in the North in those days than anywhere else.

“There was a deep sense of music and drama and a really strong arts scene here at the time and I genuinely believe that because of everything else that was happening here there was a stronger sense of that here than in any other part of the UK or Ireland.”

In 1986, Marie Louise packed her bags and went to Trinity College. At the same time, the arts scene continued to thrive and flourish on the ground in the North.

“You had companies like Field Day basing themselves here with the hunger strikes and all the political energy of the time saying to the rest of the world: “We’re here, come to us and see what we have.” In Derry in those days, the world’s press were here. You regularly had a situation where journalists from The Times and The Guardian were rubbing shoulders with reporters from the Derry Journal. That attiutude that was there when Field Day began is still here today and it’s a thread which has taken us up to the present day.

“Derry is saying to the world, ‘come and see what we have here in 2013,’ and that’s really exciting.

Looking at her own journey through the arts, Marie Louise says there was never any other field for her.

“There was so much music around our house with my mum and dad and they were massive fans of the Derry Feis. At seven, I was handed a cello. It was just something that was instilled in us from such an early age and that’s why I’m really interested in the Music Promise which is a key part of the City of Culture programme. I think giving so many children the chance to learn how to play an instrument is fantastic,” she says.

She’s energised by the whole programme and looking forward to next year’s events on a professional and personal basis.

“The biggest arts and cultural festival in the UK is going to be in my home town. Derry is where everybody will want to be and knowing the city and the dynamics I think that’s really exciting and that’s something I’m determined to reflect. It’s really special,” she says.

Next year, Marie Louise’s BBC2 TV show, the Arts Show, will be based in Derry for the year, giving her a chance to come home more often.

The Arts, she says, is part of her DNA and while she’s reluctant to employ the cliche, she says there’s no doubt she’s doing her dream job.

“I learn new things every single day of my career. I talk to people who are so driven and passionate about their work and it’s my job to get that across to the listener or viewer. The artists I’ve met, have sweated blood and tears over their work and I feel really privileged to be in the position I’m in in terms of presenting that,” she says.

While her public persona has grown over the years and her recent move to television given her an even bigger profile, Marie Louise loves leaving the studio and the social diary behind in favour of quiet time at home with her husband Johnny and her children.

The very nature of her work means that a lot of it will happen away from the studio, and at launches, plays, concerts and other functions which don’t meet the average nine to five lifestyle. While she loves this aspect of the work, like most working women who have families she tries as hard as anyone else to find and maintain the elusive work life balance.

“I probably don’t go to as many jobs as I could, in fact now it’s just as important for me to make the effort to go home. I have a great job and because of the nature of the arts world so many opportunities come with it but I like the fact that after a day at work I can go home, close the door and sometimes bring a book, or a DVD or CD to listen too away from the distractions of the outside world,” she says.

The 44-year-old says being a mum has also given her a new perspective to some elements of her work.

“It’s helped me relate a lot more to some of the artists I meet and I can empathise more with them and their different experiences around families and children and life in general, I think it’s really grounded me as a person. For me it’s not all about high arts and culture but about common experiences, that’s the part of my job that I love.

“The arts is for everyone and my job is to reflect that, which I hope I do!”

The Arts Show, presented by Marie-Louise, is shown on BBC Two Northern Ireland on Thursdays at 10.00pm. Arts Extra is on BBC Radio Ulster week nights at 6.30pm.