Ian McMillan - the Bard of Bolton

Poet, broadcaster and Yorkshireman Ian McMillan has crossed the Pennines to become a professor at the University of Bolton

YOU hear Ian McMillan before you see him.

His voice, instantly recognisable from countless radio and television appearances, rises above the hubbub. It's just one of the ways this infectiously enthusiastic poet and broadcaster stands out from the crowd.

A Yorkshireman teaching English in Lancashire is likely to get noticed but there's more than a few eyebrows raised when he walks by, heads turn.

His voice carries through the cavernous new social learning zone at University of Bolton where he is now mid-way through year one of a three year professorial post. 'Lancashire Life, eh? I'd better start sounding like a Lancashireman.'

For someone as famous for his Yorkshire sound as for the work he's done, it's an impossible task. His accent is pure Barnsley but he is keen to stress his Lancashire credentials.

'I have spent a lot of time in Lancashire,' he says. 'I had some residences in schools in Bolton and Wigan where I was getting people interested in poetry and writing and performing their own work.

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'My mam was stationed at RAF Blackbrook near Wigan during World War Two. They married on a 48-hour pass but they would only give my dad a pass, not my mam, so she had to go AWOL for love. Isn't that great? She was put in the glasshouse for a week when she came back.'

His work in schools was aimed at inspiring children to be creative, something he remains grateful to his teachers for.

'I was told at school that all children were creative and that they could all write and sing and perform and draw and dance and that really got me going. I wanted to be a writer when I was at junior school.

'Secondary school wasn't quite as creative but there was a teacher there called Mr Brown. He wore a green corduroy suit - my mate asked me why I thought he was wearing a corrugated iron shed - and he was an inspiration.'

But then, as seems to happen quite a lot with Ian, he is reminded of an anecdote, which leads to another. 'He left teaching to be a voiceover man, Mr Brown.

He's got an amazing big deep voice. He's the bloke who says ''Channel Four'' and ''Sky Sports''. I think he gets �20 every time his voice is used.

'I did a voiceover last year and it's a bizarre thing to do. I had to say ''Persil blue gel, it gets tough stains out'' about 150 times, with all sorts of different inflections and then they'd say we quite liked take 98, can you do it like that again. They all sounded the same to me.'

After school and a degree in modern studies Ian took jobs on a building site and in a tennis ball factory but he had been gaining vital experience along the way. He made his first steps in showbusiness in Barnsley where he was a founder member of the town's first folk-rock band, Oscar the Frog.

'I was the world's worst drummer but I was sacked and they didn't tell me. I met someone who said ''I saw your band the other day and you weren't in it''. The rest of the band said they thought I'd lost interest but I knew it was because I was rubbish.

'I was 17 and I started a comedy duo with my mate who'd also been sacked from the band and I was doing some stand up and some writing for magazines.

'The Yorkshire Arts Association had a scheme where they offered �1000 if you gave up your job and my family were supportive so I did. But I only got �800 and then nothing happened so I started doing some writing workshops all over south Yorkshire and writing reviews for the NME. It was before faxes and email so I'd type it out and put it on a train down to London.

They paid �16 per review but it cost me �14 to send them on the train.' Since then he's been poet in residence for his beloved Barnsley FC, Humberside Police and Wakefield Prison and has forged a successful career as a poet, with regular television appearances and his own programme on Radio Three, The Verb.

He also has the Ian McMillan Orchestra (new album out soon, but they don't let him drum) and now the father-of-three can add professor of English literature to his CV. 'It's great here, I always wanted to be a professor.

'I've got three honorary doctorates, so I'm Doctor Doctor Doctor Ian McMillan. The three honorary degrees, I sound like a tribute band.

'I'm working with students doing writing, there's a fantastic creative writing course here at Bolton - isn't it brilliant that there's a university in Bolton? We never had courses like this when I was a lad.'

And his own learning hasn't finished either. 'I want to learn how to speak like a Lancashire man,' he says.  'Regional accents fascinate me. I have family in Derbyshire who call their house their arse. They say things like ''I've just had double glazing put in me arse''.

There must be a place where people with Yorkshire accents start talking with a Lancashire accent, maybe it's that farm on the M62.' 

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