Meet the PSNI Chief Inspector who’s set to play a panto dame
Ian Magee, who’s based in Coleraine and headed up the Colin Howell double murder investigation, tells Ivan Little why he’s delighted to be swapping his uniform for a dress and make-up to take to the stage in a Wizard of Oz festive season show
Ello, ’ello, ’ello — top police officer and former murder squad detective Ian Magee certainly won’t be in plain clothes next month as he takes centre stage with an arresting new role on a very different beat in Portrush. Instead, the PSNI chief inspector will be dressed up to the 999s as he dons a wig and dress to prove there ain’t nothing like a dame when he swaps his pants for panto.
Ian (50), who headed up the Colin Howell double murder inquiry, has copped for one of the lead roles in a Christmas cracker of a Yuletide show in the Port’s Town Hall.
And Ian, who is based in Coleraine, hopes audiences will give up their right to silence to heckle him so that he can pay back their stick in spades.
Ian’s no stranger to pantomime, which is acknowledged as a very special branch of the entertainment business.
This time he’s playing Auntie Em in a fresh twist on the classic Wizard of Oz story. But as his new identity is paraded in front of packed houses, he won’t be playing it just for laughs.
For Ian wants his participation in the panto to be seen as a positive for the PSNI. Even though Ian will be heavily disguised, virtually everyone in the audience will know who he is and what he does in his day job.
He says: “I take every opportunity I can to promote the PSNI. I’m showing people up here the softer side of policing. And I like to think I’m constantly enhancing the reputation of the force and breaking down barriers by letting everyone see I’m a father, a husband and that I’m just like them.”
Ian says he always seeks approval from PSNI headquarters about his theatrical adventures. “I get wonderful support from the PSNI, even though I’m always slagging off everyone, including myself and my police colleagues who I will sometimes get up on stage.
“I always take a wee peek out into the auditorium before the curtain goes up to see who’s in and who I can pick on. They love it.”
What Ian would do if the Chief Constable George Hamilton turned up in the Town Hall out of the blue isn’t clear.
However, as St Nick’s big day approaches, lawman Ian confesses that he’s been doing a little bit of nicking of his own.
The man who’s had starring roles in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the past admits that he’s stolen a few ideas from the grandest grand dame of them all, May McFettridge.
Ian says: “I model myself on May. I was at the opening night of the Grand Opera House panto last week in Belfast to see May in Jack and the Beanstalk.
“And he was his-or-her usual hilarious self. So much so that I am borrowing one or two of May’s best lines for our show, though I won’t be going as near the knuckle.”
For Ian and his colleagues it will be their fourth Christmas show since the panto idea was revived in Portrush after a 20-year intermission.
Ian, who has always played the dame, says the support that the Portrush Theatre Company has been receiving from sponsors in the town has been overwhelming.
And he says the idea is to try to get as many people as possible from the Port squeezed onto the Town Hall stage.
“We’ve got teachers, students, busi- ness people and bar owners on board,” he explains. “The response to our initial appeals for actors was very encouraging.
“The interest in theatre in these parts is brilliant. And don’t forget that Jimmy Nesbitt started in amateur productions up here. I’ll be looking for his support the next time I see him at a Coleraine football match.”
Ian says that not everyone in the Portrush Theatre Group has designs on stardom, adding: “We are extremely lucky to have talented and willing people doing the music, the choreography and the technical work as well.”
And his 10-year-old son Archie, who has ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, is playing one of the Munchkins. Ian says: “He enjoys getting up on stage. And it’s a great way for him to socialise. It’s fantastic for me, too, to have him on stage. He’s been in the shows before and we have a bit of banter between us.”
One of the panto shows will be a free ‘sensory friendly’ performance for children with ADHD. The lights will stay up and the sound will be turned down to allow the youngsters to do whatever they want.
“It’s always a fantastic night,” says Ian, who adds that panto fits The Bill for him perfectly.
“I love everything about it,” says Ian. “I enjoy prancing about the stage and I genuinely get a kick out of brightening up people’s lives. I know that sounds a little trite but it’s good to bring some light into the dark nights of winter.” Fortunately, Ian has been able to call on expert help to assist him in his personal preparations for panto. Grant O’Neill, who’s a drag queen in Portrush and playing the Scarecrow in the Oz show, helps Ian with his make-up.
And Bertha Huey, who’s provided costumes for Game of Thrones, makes the dresses for Ian whose life has taken a new direction from his days as a primary school teacher. He studied at Stranmillis Training College in Belfast where he was president of the students’ union and where he got his first taste of theatre. However, Ian eventually decided to swap the secure world of teaching for the security forces.
And he has garnered a wide range of experience in the PSNI and before that in the RUC.
He started off in uniform in Lisburn before joining the public protection unit and he then moved to Musgrave Street in Belfast as a custody sergeant.
He worked in Ballycastle before he was enlisted into the major murder investigation unit at Maydown in Londonderry.
Ian was one of the high-profile detectives involved in the Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart murder case in Coleraine. He was the PSNI officer who gave evidence during the initial court appearances of the accused who were later convicted of murdering their spouses Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan and were jailed for life.
Nowadays Ian is what is known as the Engagement Chief Inspector for the Causeway Coast and Glens region, which covers a huge area in the north of the province.
His remit centres on neighbourhood policing and community relations and he is regularly the public face of the PSNI.
He says he couldn’t be happier in Coleraine, adding: “We have a really great
I always take a wee peek before the curtain goes up to see who I can pick on
team up here and it’s a fantastic station with good people. And our aim is to make a difference.
“The policing work is really varied. One minute you are dealing with runof-the-mill things and then you have something like the North West 200 on your hands.
“And next year we have one of the biggest sporting events on the planet coming with the Open golf at Royal Portrush.”
Ian, who lists creative writing as one of his hobbies, has been recruited as one of the PSNI’S team to engage in liaising between the organisers, police and other interested parties.
Ian plays the occasional round of golf for fun. “I have my clubs in the back of the car and while I’m not very good, I like going out on a Saturday afternoon for the craic.
“I used to play rugby and hockey but the more sedate pace of golf is better suited to men of a certain age like me,” says Ian, who is very much at home on the north coast.
He says: “We bought a caravan at the start but quickly decided to get ourselves a house and that was 15 years ago. My wife Catherine and I are glad we put down our roots here.”
The only downside for Ian is that he has a lot of travelling to do if he wants to watch his favourite football team Portadown FC.
“I’m a fanatic,” he says. “I have great memories of the good times with Ronnie McFall’s red-and-white army. And I’m hoping they can get back into the big league from the Championship.
“I’m also looking forward to big things from my other team, Liverpool.
“Oh, yes I am…”
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz will be staged at Portrush Town Hall on January 11 and 12 and on January 16, 17, 18 and 19. The January 16 show will be a free ‘sensory friendly’ performance for children with ADHD
Fitting the Bill: Ian Magee at his day job and (left) incostume for panto
All dressed up: PSNI Chief Inspector Ian Magee and (top and below) as the pantomine dame Auntie Em in Portrush Town Hall’s production of TheWonderful Wizard of Oz