‘It’s down to luck and fearlessness’: Pamela Ballantine on secret to 40 years at UTV

National treasure recalls how she was so sick before audition in 1984, she almost didn’t make it

The presenter, who marks four decades with the station this month, said she made the most of every opportunity because she did not want to look back on her life with regrets.

Pamela Ballantine is toasting 40 years at UTV

The Belfast broadcaster, who was honoured with an MBE earlier this year on the first anniversary of her shock breast cancer diagnosis, hopes to continue her work as the host of UTV Life for as long as possible.

But it all could have turned out very differently for the 65-year-old, who was violently ill with food poisoning the night before her UTV audition and almost didn’t make it for the screen test.

“My first official day was on March 8, 1984, when I appeared on television as a continuity announcer and newsreader,” she said.

“I’d worked in Radio Ulster for a brief spell and, before that, at Downtown Radio as a continuity announcer.

“UTV were hiring in continuity for the first time in 10 years, and someone asked, ‘What about Pamela? What is she doing?’

“The night before the audition, I got terrible food poisoning and was sick the whole night. I felt awful the next day but knew I had to go in.

“I put on my make-up, a nice blouse, went in and did the audition. I wasn’t going to miss out on that chance.”

Pamela Ballantine at ITV in Belfast

During her years with UTV, Pamela has worked in news, features and sport.

She became a regular newsreader on UTV Live when it launched in 1993 and presented UTV Life from March 1999 to February 2009.

She also hosted the game shows Hot Pursuits and Ulster Schools Quiz, and was a regular presenter and reporter on RPM and Farming Ulster.

“Jacqui Berkeley, who was working on Farming Ulster at the time, had just told the boss she was pregnant, and I just happened to walk past the door and got called in,” she said.

“I remember the producer saying to me, ‘I love working with you because you ask stupid questions’.

“Everyone else was heavily involved in farming, but I asked the questions the people at home wanted to ask.”

Pamela Ballantine on Hot Pursuits

Her interest in motorsport helped land her a regular presenting slot with RPM, but fate had a hand in it too.

“That came about by accident. I was asked to sit in the passenger seat of a car at Lurgan Park Rally and do a few interviews (and) the bosses twigged I had an interest in motorsport,” she said.

“Again, I was in the right place at the right time when the right opportunity came along.”

It’s typical of the ever-modest Pamela to play down her talents. A natural ease in front of the camera helped raise her profile from former secretary at Downtown Radio to broadcasting all-rounder, not to mention the eloquence she acquired at a finishing school in England.

But there’s something else about Pamela that made her a much-loved household name: an approachability that endears her to the public.

Pamela Ballantine hosting Telethon 90

This became apparent when, in 2009, she became a casualty, along with other high-profile UTV personalities, of cost cutting at the station.

UTV Life was axed, with many unhappy viewers expressing their outrage.

Pamela stayed on as a freelance continuity announcer and newsreader, but in 2016 returned to presenting UTV Life when it came back to our screens.

The support from the public helped buoy Pamela after she revealed her breast cancer diagnosis last year.

In a self-penned article in the Belfast Telegraph in August, she told how, seven months previously, she’d found out she had cancer following a routine mammogram.

Pamela wanted to highlight the importance of early detection, so she spoke out, and was highly praised for doing so.

Pamela on UTV Live back in 1998

The outpouring of good wishes and affection she received was overwhelming and completely unexpected.

She said: “I totally underestimated the response. I’d been in and out of hospital since the end of December 2022 and was sure that word would’ve got out somehow, but the medical staff, the other patients, everyone kept quiet about it.

“When I wrote the article about my diagnosis, I really wasn’t expecting the response that I got.

“I was overwhelmed by all the messages of support. It was very touching.”

Having undergone surgery to remove tumours, intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Pamela has two more chemo injections before her treatment ends.

Her final one is on April 10, and a week later she’s off to Windsor Castle to collect her MBE, accompanied by her partner, sister and niece.

Pamela Ballantine and Shane Filan on UTV Life

She has also sent her support to the “brave” Princess of Wales for going public with her cancer diagnosis.

“I think it’s very brave of her to talk about what she’s going through,” she said.

“It’s a shame she has had to go through all that (speculation). People should respect her wishes because what she is dealing with is not pleasant and she has a tough time ahead.”

After such a challenging year, Pamela is looking forward to the future and celebrating her award and milestone UTV anniversary with family and friends.

While she’s focused on what’s ahead, she is also grateful for the opportunities of the past.

Pamela Ballantine rings the bell at Belfast City Hospital’s cancer unit

Looking back over her 40 years at UTV, she recalled a trip to Barbados with RPM, a visit to Jamaica with Hot Pursuits and a somewhat intimate lunch with the late Queen at Hillsborough Castle as particular highlights.

Despite the starriness of her showbiz life, it’s people like Vera Magee from Armagh, “an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things”, who stand out as her memorable interviewees.

Vera, who passed away shortly after her 90th birthday, was sent to France as a governess at the start of the Second World War and ended up playing a vital role in the war against Hitler.

“Vera had to report to the Gestapo every week, but she was this amazing woman who helped General Patton and his army liberate France,” Pamela said.

“That’s the sort of story I love hearing and that sticks in my mind.

“I’m just incredibly lucky that someone saw something in me all those years ago and decided to give me a chance.

“I make the most of opportunities when they come along as I don’t want to have regrets. I hope I can keep doing that for years to come.”

Pamela Ballantine at The Wolfpack on the set of Emmerdale in 2017

Belfast Telegraph Life