Siobhan Maher-Kennedy Siobhan Maher-Kennedy

She starred in the Brookside spin-off Damon and Debbie, enjoyed chart success with River City People and she was also one of the presenters on Children's BBC's summer morning package But First This! for its first two seasons in 1987 and 1988.

Siobhan Maher-Kennedy is a lady of many talents. Now married to top record producer Ray Kennedy and living in Nashville, Tennessee. She still sings and is also a mum.

She very kindly agreed to share some of her CBBC memories with us for our latest interview. She recalls her first TV gig on Children In Need from BBC Pebble Mill, of going on BBC1 live thinking it was a rehearsal, of her time in River City People (and her favourite tracks) - and for fashion fans there are some up-to-the-minute seasonal tips from Phidelma Gusset!

Read on...

Tell us about your early years. As the daughter of BBC Radio Merseyside presenter Billy Maher there was obviously a showbiz influence in your life from a young age.
My dad had a regular day job as a telephone engineer, but was a part time musician/performer and did what was called the variety circuit. It was mainly working men's social clubs and theatres. He was in a musical trio called The Jacksons with my mum and his best friend. They did some cool things like being in the movie Gumshoe with Albert Finney and singing on the soundtrack. It was part of my childhood to know my parents had gigs most nights. He didn't enter a media career until he retired from British Telecom after 36 years! He has such an incredible knowledge of music history and recordings.

Was River City People your first band? How did it come together?
No my first band were called Passion Polka and became Peep Show. They were a true 80s synth pop band. I got my first record deal with them and then the label went out of business just as we were starting to record! After that I jumped ship to another Liverpool band called The Persuaders. This was a huge band with a brass section and we were like The Commitments. Our shows were very entertaining and we dressed up as gangsters and molls. I met the lads I formed RCP with during this time and started writing and rehearsing with them. Ultimately I had to choose to devote all my time to RCP If we we're going to get a record deal. So that's what I did and we signed to EMI in 1988.

How did you get the job at Children's BBC? Did you have to audition? Do you recall how that went?
I was spotted by the BBC's Head of Presentation during a Children In Need live link from BBC Pebble Mill. I was the Children In Need presenter for the Midlands region and they contacted me to audition in London.

On the first season of But First This! (1987) you were a researcher as well as one of the team of presenters. That's quite an unusual arrangement - how did that come about?
Well my job at BBC Midlands (Pebble Mill) was as a researcher - so I said I could do both jobs, research it then present it. They loved that!

The first season of But First This! differed from the rest in that a different presenter each did a week or two. Did you enjoy the experience?
It was fantastic. It was all so new and experimental and we literally flew by the seat of our pants. We got away with stuff sometimes and there were some live links that didn't go to plan. It was great to meet new people and some of them are still friends of mine.

What can you remember about the show?
Oh there were plenty of things that luckily escaped the wrath of higher powers at the Beeb, mainly because we weren't actually a programme - we were only presentation. I went on live once thinking it was the rehearsal and did a stupid dance with a Star Trek spaceship. We dressed up in school uniforms and messed about so much we just got the giggles and the whole link was just us laughing... stuff like that. We would get fan mail from adults off sick from work saying it was the most entertainment they had seen on morning TV.

My favourite item from But First This! 1987 was your interview with Phillip Schofield, which was recorded in his flat. Cleverly you also played his apparent daily help, Mrs Apron, whose surprise/disgust at Siobhan's hasty departure (at the sight of Phillip's pet tarantula) led to much hilarity in outtakes which were shown on Phillip's last day. You can see it here. Was that fun to do?
The most fun ever! I have never laughed so much. How we held it together in the end I do not know. The series of outtakes is hysterical. He just kept laughing every time I backed out of the kitchen.

The series logo for the first season of But First This!, 1987.A publicity shot for the first season of But First This!, 1987.Siobhan interviews Phillip Schofield and also plays Mrs Apron - his supposed cleaner. This film resulted in much laughter and many outtakes.Season two of But First This!, 1988. And here's Siobhan presenting with Andy Crane.

Also in 1987, as an actress, you played Lettuce in Damon and Debbie, one of the first, if not *the* first, soap spin-off. Was that your first role as an actress?
Yes it was and we had a great party with Phillip Schofield, Gordon and all the gang for the first episode of my first acting gig! They were all thrilled for me. I really enjoyed doing it.

What are your memories of recording Damon and Debbie? I recall it was set in York - was it shot there?
Yes, it was shot in York which was so fun for me because I did my degree there and had lived there for 3 years from 1982 to 1985. It was great to go back and film in my old stomping ground. I made great friends on that too. My great friend Michelle Holmes, the Coronation Street and Goodnight Sweetheart actress, and then the floor manager was Mal Young who ended up being Head of Drama at the BBC years later. We had a great time but a soap opera is a quick turnaround. It was a shock how fast it was done. No room for mistakes. It was run lines, rehearse, shoot and move on.

You also presented on The Clothes Show in 1987. Was that stint part of the influence behind the creation of your fashion expert alter ego, Phidelma Gusset (with silent "t"!)
Oh yes. I loved my little peek into the fashion world with Jeff Banks and Phidelma was something else I had such laughter over. Everytime I would put that wig on and start my beauty secrets we would just all start laughing. I was actually chatted up on the beach in Newquay by a real surfer dude who thought I was actually a blonde!

You returned to CBBC in 1988 for the second series of But First This! The second series seemed much more slick, and the presenters appeared in rotation in pairs. Was it a fun season to work on?
I had very little to do with the production. It was so much more organised and I was just brought in for the alotted weeks I was presenting. It was still fun but definitely not like the first time. There was something special about just improvising the way we did in the first season, but I did enjoy us having the budget to do more though. We made more outside films which made it more interesting in some ways.

Do you remember any of the guests or filming? There was an increase in music guests in 1988 and indeed by 1989 But First This (then called BFT) had developed its own music magazine programme, The O Zone.
I remember worrying about my interview technique! Wendy James from Transvision Vamp, Squeeze and Bananarama come to mind but I know I did many more.

Phidelma’s fashion advice for summer 1988 included never being able to have enough white belts and stilettos and the shock return of the rah-rah dress. Was she right?
Sadly it looks like she was. We have entered that realm again.

It's 'Nose Day' on But First This! season two and Siobhan's put out because she thinks she's been chosen to present because she's got massive nostrils!Phidelma Gusset reveals the shock return of the rah-rah dress as one of summer 1988's essential fashion accessories.During season one of But First This!, the presenters made a video for the A-ha song, 'Love is Reason'. Siobhan featured, seen here with Andy Crane.Siobhan as seen in the video for River City People's single, (What's Wrong With) Dreaming.

Tell us about River City People. "(What's Wrong With) Dreaming?" (from "Say Something Good" - great album, by the way!) was released (for the second time) in 1990 and appropriately was played on CBBC as part of the Blah Blah Blah video on which viewers' messages were superimposed. A good luck message for 'Phidelma' was included, which was a nice touch. I recall you made a guest appearance in the Broom Cupboard with Andy Crane to talk about the single, too.
They were always so supportive of my music career. They all knew I wanted that more than anything. My favourite time was coming back to do Top of the Pops and Anthea Turner - who'd co-hosted the first season of But First This! in 1987 - being the presenter and saying I was her friend and she was busting with joy for me being in the charts. Phillip and Stephanie Schofield and Sue Morgan the director were all there to congratulate me the day I came to record that show. One of the happiest days of my life and at lovely Television Centre which is now gone.

What is your favourite River City People track?
An acoustic B-side of All My Trials. From the albums I would say California Dreaming, Huskisson Street, Walkin' on Ice and Mile High Cafe.

The band also appeared on CBBC's What's That Noise, with California Dreaming in a jam session with a host of other musicians. That looks like a complicated recording - any memories?
Yes I remember how noisy it was! That was a lot of instruments all playing at once but when you think about it, very similar to what Later with Jools does now when they all play together.It was a rewarding experience. To hear all that instrumentation on our songs.

Can you fill us in on what you've been doing, music-wise, more recently?
I recorded a solo album in 2002 called Immigrant Flower and I also perform with other artists on their albums and some live work. I am on a number of Steve Earle albums and recently did the new Richard Thompson album, Electric.

And I wondered why we don't see you on TV any more. Presumably that's because you live in the USA now - do you miss the UK?
I am permanently homesick. I miss the UK so much.

Do you keep in touch with anyone from your CBBC years?
Yes. But First This! helped get Phillip and Stephanie Schofield together and I am still very close to them. We have managed to have summer visits as our children have grown up. I am still friends with Sue Morgan who was the Director, and her husband Peter who was a Cameraman on a lot of the shoots. Anthea Turner and I still send Christmas cards to each other. We really did have a great little gang and because we were having so much fun it translated to viewers young and older!

And finally, could you pass on any of Phidelma's fashion tips for autumn/winter 2013?
Well, Phildelma has been at a special fashionista weekend in Liverpool and she is really loving the scouse brow. Fall and Winter she sees a general darkening of eyebrows, eyeshadows and dark graphic clothing with black, purple and green tights, tight skirts and very blousey blouses. Big hair is always a must and being able to wear rollers during the day and to sleep in is a great new trend. Those waves will be unstoppable!

September 2013

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