Entertainment School Around The Corner: Remembering one of Northern Ireland's best ever TV shows 15 years on from its last episode

15:40  17 october  2020
15:40  17 october  2020 Source:   belfastlive.co.uk

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Northern Ireland is one of the four countries in the United Kingdom, with England, Scotland and Wales. It is to the north of the Republic of Ireland , on an island next to Great Britain. Around 1.8 million people live in Northern Ireland , which is about three per cent of the population of the UK.

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Back in the pre-Netflix days, TV could often be boring when it came to the weekends.

Then again, with the right show on at the right time of the evening, TV could be a time for families to come together to appreciate something they'll all enjoy.

So it was between the years of 1995-2005, when UTV's School Around The Corner became one of the best-loved TV shows in the country.

The show, which was modelled on an RTE show of the same name, saw young children, from schools right across Northern Ireland, interviewed in a chat show setting.

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It was a simple idea - but it was always brilliant in its execution. With the calm, endlessly lovable Frank Mitchell as the presenter, young kids would melt hearts as they talked before an audience of thousands about everything from fire trucks and school dinners, to homework and playtime.

Almost 15 years on from the last episode of School Around The Corner, we decided to take a much-needed look back on the legacy of the show.

When we contacted the UTV about our idea, they told us that Frank would be more than happy to share some his fondest memories of his ten years as presenter. The show, he told us, is something which has always filled him "with an immense sense of pride."

The early days

Frank Mitchell was still very much at the start of his career when he was asked to present School Around The Corner. He was working as a programme announcer and was presenting the weather forecast, when the UTV's head programmer asked him if he'd be interested in doing the show.

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Frank Mitchell wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Frank Mitchell has been one of the leading faces on UTV for years © UTV Frank Mitchell has been one of the leading faces on UTV for years

"I'd a history in education," he explained. "I'm a qualified school teacher, so between that and broadcasting, I think that's why they offered me the oppotunity."

Before the show started, Frank went down to Dublin to learn from their version of the show, which was run by Gerry Ryan.

"I was very aware of the show down south," he says. "I'd watched Gerry Ryan do it on RTE. I remember being sent down to Dublin to meet John McColgan, who is the guy who owns the rights to School Around the Corner.

"At that time, he'd just been massively successful with Riverdance and I thought he'd treat the show was an afterthought. But what surprised me, when I went down to meet him, was how involved and passionate he was about the concept, He told me that School Around the Corner would always be hugely important to him. It was like his baby which he'd nurtured."

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show ad. Puss in boots, will travel: The globetrotting cat which has somehow made its way from The 25- year -old ginger cat was found wandering streets of County Armagh. Named Ozzie by staff, they A globetrotting cat managed to make its way from Australia to Northern Ireland after a stop-off in

Armed with that knowledge, Frank and the UTV began broadcasting the show in 1995, with 12 episodes airing on the first year.

School Around The Corner became a massive hit, and remained so throughout its 10 year stint. Frank believes that, over the course of a decade, every school in Northern Ireland had asked if they could be on the show.

"I was very aware of the feedback we were getting," he says, "because it was such a big primetime family programme.

"You'd hear stories about how parents and children would sit down together with the family tea and watch the show. The amount of mail that we got, with people asking for their school to be on, was incredible. We couldn't keep up. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that every primary school in Northern Ireland wrote to us at one stage, asking to be on. Some of them wrote numerous times. We weren't able to go to them all, but we certainly got letters from them all."

Despite the pressure of having all eyes on you, Frank says that he enjoyed every minute of doing the show.

"It was always fantastic," he says. "We had a brilliant set. Hugely colourful backdrop, colourful chairs. And the kids where brilliant, They'd come on and they'd talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. Everything from P1s to P7s. Generally, the young ones would come on, they'd chat to me, they'd tell me all about life, then at the end of the chat, they'd introduce a friend, who would sing a song or do a magic act or some party piece. So it was all about showing off the talent of each school and hearing the stories of each school, as told by the children themselves."

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As the man in charge of steering the conversation, Frank was finding ways of connecting the young kids on their level.

"I was always relying on the producers finding chatty children, because it was so much easier to do it when the children were live wires. But even when the children were quiet, it was very cute in its own way. And I will say that, out of the 120 shows we did, we never failed to get a good half hour."

It's fair to say that dealing with kids in a live chat show setting comes with its own unpredictability. Was that every stressful for Frank?

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: The unpredictability of the live show was part of School Around The Corner's appeal © UTV The unpredictability of the live show was part of School Around The Corner's appeal

"Not stressful as much as there were times when that unpredictability became really funny! You know, you'd be told by your producer, 'This child is really into Power Rangers.' So I'd be on front of the camera saying, 'Tell me about your Power Rangers', and the child would look at me as if to say they didn't know what a Power Ranger was!

"But I was very lucky, at the time I was doing it, to have a daughter who was young. She's now 28, but she was growing up at the same time as School Around the Corner, so she was into what the children were into. That was a big plus for me. I knew about Rosie & Jim, about Power Rangers, about Harry Potter. I was seeing them at home, so that was a benefit."

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Funniest moments

It's far to say that School Around The Corner has produced some hilarious moments, alongside its heartwarming content. What are Frank's funniest memories from the show.

"There's too many to name, but it would always be in the way kids would answer questions so differently to how you'd expect. I remember saying to a wee fella on the show, 'Do you have any pets?' He said yes, he had a wee hamster. I asked, 'What do you feed it on?' He says, 'I feed it on the bed.' That sort of thing was gold.

"There was also a fella who came on from Warrenpoint. I'm from the Burren so I'd have been near where he grew up. He just sat down and looked at me and said, almost in the tone of an adult, 'You used to go out with my mummy'. And of course the camera always goes to the mummies and daddies when the children say something. So I looked up and of course I had gone out with the mummy back in the school disco days! But I'm sitting there thinking 'My God, at least this kid doesn't look like me!'"

Frank also says there was a moment so funny and embarrassing that it never made it onto the Sunday night broadcast.

"Then there was one that wasn't ever put out, but it was broadcast on the outtakes programme. It was when the child said he loved looking at his mummy's books. I asked him, 'What type of books does mummy have?' And he said, 'Oh mummy has books with people without any clothes on, and she keeps them under the bed.' I have never seen a woman be more embarrassed in my life! But she gave us permission to put that scene on an outtakes programme, so she made £250 out of that clip in the end!"

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Liam Neeson

Frank also reveals that Ballymena-born, Hollywood actor Liam Neeson became an unlikely cheerleader for School Around The Corner, asking the UTV if they'd put his old school on the show.

"One of the most amazing letters we received was from Liam Neeson. He wrote to us from California, and he asked for his old school to be on the show. We actually had to wait for two seasons because there was such a backlog. But when we put his school on, he phoned me at UTV and thanked me for it. I thought that was a mark of someone who really remembered his roots."

Liam Neeson wearing a blue shirt: Liam Neeson asked if his old school could appear on the show © Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images Liam Neeson asked if his old school could appear on the show

It's also a mark of just how popular School Around The Corner was. Frank says that even now, people approach him to talk about the show.

"You can be in your 30s now and have been on School Around The Corner with me," he laughs. "Every week I meet someone who maybe has two or three children of their own, and they'll tell me they were on the show.

"I've met countless kids from the show. I've met people who have gone on to be doctors or nurses, people who've actually fulfilled the ambitions they talked about on that sofa. They're always happy to tell their story.

"I've also had numerous requests from people coming to me, normally best mans at weddings, asking would I send a videos for someone whow as on the show who's getting married. They would show the clip from School Around The Corner, then my modern day greeting. It makes me feel very old!"

He might deny it, but Frank's still young and still very much one of the UTV's best assets. So it begs the question, has he ever had conversation about a reboot of the show?

"The programme is obviously timeless, so I think they could bring it back, regardless of who's presenting it. But for me to be asking to do it again? I'd be more than happy. But the reality is though that it probably suits a younger presenter. I was young at the time and raising my daughter. I think you need someone who fully understands the 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 year olds. So it might be suited for someone younger.

"But overall, when I look back on it. I do so with an immense sense of pride. It's one of the great things to say that you have on your CV. It's one thing that you're always proud to say you've done."

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