Tuesday, 4 November 2008

An Interview With Gloria Hunniford

Broadcaster and chat show host Gloria Hunniford talks about her childhood, her career and how she copes with the tragic death of her daughter, Caron Keating.

With her distinctive voice and affable manner, it is easy to see why Gloria Hunniford has been a staple of the British media for over forty years. At sixty-seven she looks as stylish as ever, wearing a fringed jacket, fashionable leggings and knee-high boots, with her honey coloured chrysanthemum hair perfectly in place.

Born in County Armagh and named after the actress Gloria Swanson, she started earning money at the age of eight, singing in her home town of Portadown.

“It was pre television days so home-spun entertainment was the key. We performed in concert parties as the Mid-Ulster Variety Group which was an amalgam of all sorts of entertainers, ranging from comics and accordion players, to singers, dancers and magicians."

"My dad was a newspaper man by day and a magician by night, so from a young age I was absolutely fascinated by all his tricks, and used to beg to go and stand side stage.”

“I was always singing around the house. We had a big old Bakelite radio up on the kitchen shelf, and I thought aged five or six, that if I could hear them, they must be able to hear me. So I used to spend hours, standing on the stool and singing into this speaker."

"Now these variety shows only operated during the winter, so in the summer my Dad asked the pianist of the show to teach me some songs and at the age of 8, I started to sing at these shows. My first pay was 7”6d which they had gathered up in a hat.”

Earning money at such an early age taught Gloria to be very independent and determined. As the popular form of local entertainment, she was out performing three or four nights a week and managed to amass a fair amount of money.

“I don’t know why, but as a child I always pushed the boundaries. My parents didn’t want me to go to grammar school because we didn’t have that much money. They thought uniforms and books would cost too much, and that I should do a secretary course at the local college like my sister."

"I remember fighting tooth and nail for the opportunity to go to grammar school. Why? I don’t know, but when they said we couldn’t afford the uniforms and books, I said I could pay for them myself because I was earning this money singing.”

“I often look at it in terms of my own children and think, would I have let them travel around the country at the age of 8 or 9? I don’t think so, but I was supervised by my Dad; Mum would always wait up for us, give me a cup of tea and put me to bed; and somehow or another it was just different back then."

"Sometimes I wasn’t going to bed until eleven at night, and I was up at seven for school the next day, but it didn’t seem to do me any harm, and because I started doing this when I was 8, it’s like I’ve had quite a few lives in my time. This is like a whole other life; another period of time.”

The middle of three children, Gloria had a close relationship with her father.

“One thing that I remember very strongly was that one-to-one relationship on a Saturday morning, which was precious to me. We were a cycling family, so he and I would cycle down to this little ice cream shop called Bassey’s, run by this Italian family, for pineapple ice cream. It was actually just ice cream with pineapple mixed through it, but I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever tasted.”

“I think if I had to live my life again, I would try and carve out more individual time for my children, because when you have children, you live life together as a family. Now that I am older I appreciate that one-to-one time I had with my father in particular, and I think children really like that. So these days, I make an excuse to be in the area where my sons work and live, even if it’s just to have a cup of coffee.”

At the age of seventeen Gloria went to Canada to fulfil an obsession fuelled by her great uncle who had emigrated there forty years previously and visited in an older frame of mind looking for his family. As an impressionable young girl, he represented the land of plenty, complete with the burger bars and soda fountains seen in the movies.

“I actually emigrated on the ten pound passage because it was a way to get there. I went on my own but my uncle was my benefactor at the other end, so he vouched for me. It was the best thing I ever did in my life, because I came from a very entrenched Northern Ireland; Catholics at one end, Protestants at the other and never the twain shall meet. So to go to Canada at that age and realise that Russians, Austrians and Italians all lived together and nobody ever asked your religion, broadened my horizons and gave me perspective.”

Whilst in Canada she began to develop a singing career with her own fifteen minute slot singing requests on a radio show. When she returned home, this experience helped her to secure a job at Ulster Television.

“I came back really intending to return to Canada, but I had honoured my promise to my parents to come home for Christmas. My father was very astute because he realised I wanted to go back, so he made plans to keep me there. He said Ulster television had opened up since I went away, and he had seen an advert for a job as a production assistant.”

“I have always believed in fate. I think somebody moves the pieces for you at certain times in your life. The way I looked at it was, if I get this job, I am meant to stay in Ireland; if I don’t I am meant to go back.”

Of course Gloria did get the job at Ulster Television, and it was here she met her first husband Don Keating. In 1970 husbands and wives weren’t allowed to work in the same department, so once married, Gloria switched form working behind the scenes to singing in front of the camera.

Through singing for Ulster television she was asked to record the song, Are You Ready For Love? It went up the Ulster charts which Gloria says didn’t mean much, but it led to her being interviewed in 1979 for the equivalent of the Today programme on BBC Belfast called, Good Evening Ulster.

Gloria hadn’t planned a career in broadcasting - in fact it had never entered her mind, but that was about to change.

“The man in charge of the programme rang me and just offered me the job. On my first day, he said to me; ‘Don’t think you are coming in to do women’s things like knitting and recipes.' He pointed around the room; it was 1969, so the bombs and the barricades had started to happen in Northern Ireland. ‘Remember you are as good as any bloke sitting in this room, and you will take your place alongside them.’"

"He was ahead of his time really, but form day one, I’ve never felt inferior to men. He said that with me not ever having thought about it very much, but as a result, I have always felt that I am as good as the next bloke, because he told me so.”

Whilst on Good Evening Ulster her career in Northern Ireland flourished, but it turned from provincial to national when the Jimmy Young Programme telephoned to ask if she could stand in for two weeks in July.

“Again this is where somebody moved the big pieces because if they had offered me the job the year before, I wouldn’t have been able to go. At first I thought it was some kind of rouse, but I rang back and sure enough it was true.”

“At that time, Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan used to have this interchange in the morning – a big hand over which was legendary. So I put as much work into ribbing Wogan, as I did in to doing the Jimmy Young Programme and I think really in the end, that’s what really got me the job because that caught the attention of the head of programming.”

She was an instant success and the first woman to be offered her own show on BBC Radio 2.

“I remember standing looking at Broadcasting House in London not really knowing anyone, thinking to myself; I have to go into that building, open my mouth and actually say something."

"They had sent a television crew over form Northern Ireland to shoot my first day there, Lord Lichfield was one of my first guests, I was driving the desk myself and it was all new; so it was terrifying but I loved it instantly.”

“I would be sitting spinning the records, reading the news and I would look through the glass and think to myself, Dustin Hoffman is sitting out there, drinking out of a polystyrene cup and waiting to talk to me. It was that unreal feeling, but incredibly thrilling and exciting at the same time.”

Hoffman is just one of the hundreds of big names Gloria has interviewed through her various radio and television shows, including Sunday Sunday.

“If I had to live any period of time again, I would love to relive the Sunday, Sunday series. I had just come over from Northern Ireland, just got myself under the BBC Radio 2 desk when all of a sudden this weekly chat show was offered to me. I was trying to keep up with myself because there was so much to get used to.”

“I used to remember going to the cinema as a young girl and watching The Glenn Miller Story. I thought if I had known then that I would interview John Stewart and Doris Day, it would have been totally unreal.”

Aside from her career, today Gloria also runs the Caron Keating Foundation, a cancer charity she set up in honour of daughter who died from breast cancer in 2004. Last year they topped the £2 million mark, and made many small donations to various projects.

“Losing a child is the most devastating thing that can ever happen to a parent - it’s as simple as that. I am not undermining any other form of grief because I have lost both parents, a former husband and close friends, but to lose a child takes it to another level completely.”

“A woman wrote to me less than a month after Caron died. I thought it was a very harsh letter at the time and couldn’t quite take it on board, but she said; ‘I lost my son fifteen years ago, and I would like to tell you that it gets better, but it doesn’t and you are just going to have to learn to live in and around it. That black hole will always be there.’ She also used an amazing phrase which I've never forgotten. She said, ‘you have to make sense of something that makes no sense at all,’ and that’s what I do with the foundation; it helps me cope.”

“I try to do fun events for Caron, things she would have loved, and I also bring her children Charlie, aged 14 and Gabriel, 11, along now. It’s good for them to know what is being done for their Mum, and they can see other people who need help. I would hope that one day if I manage to keep it going, and keep fit and healthy, that they will get more involved and eventually take it over.”

The book Next To You which Gloria wrote to commemorate Caron’s life has been an enormous success, selling in excess of 700,000 hardback copies.

“Amongst Caron’s things were about twenty large notebooks full of jottings. She had started to write a book about her upbringing and she had also started to write a book about cancer, her experience and what she had been through. I wanted to finish those off as a tribute to her, but most of all, because I was the only person left to know Caron’s life from beginning to end, and I wanted the information to be there for the boys when they grow up."

"When I finished it, it was like a real completion of something – because I had completed what Caron had wanted to do, and I had completed it for the boys. I just thought; if I get run over by a bus tomorrow, this story is there for them.”

“We were in Fuwey in Cornwall last year for Charlie’s 13th birthday at a little restaurant called Pinky Murphy's, which has books and games you can play. I saw Charlie take the book off the shelf, and thought oh my goodness. But I was able to turn to the page where Caron, in her own writing from one of these notebooks, had written how she felt just prior to Charlie’s birth, so it was wonderful for him to read that piece on the day of his birthday.”

Gloria relishes her role as a grandmother, and says some of her happiest days are spent with the grandchildren.

“I just love their exuberance and with Charlie and Gabriel, I see so much of Caron in them – they have her humour all over, and that is very uplifting for me. I have a special cupboard full of goodies and I just think for the amount of time I have with them, I will spoil them.”

Never one to sit still, she lives her life by the words of her father who said; ‘Just live your life one day at a time.’

“I have always packed as much into a day as I can, and certainly since Caron died, I think my home philosophy has been reinforced. I take nothing for granted anymore and I do live life every day like it’s my last - I do, because I’ve seen life ripped away like that."

"I put as much into each day as I can, and take nothing for granted at all. I also try and give back through the foundation because I saw how much Caron was helped during those seven years so that is part of my mission now.”

Today Gloria is as busy as ever, endorsing the Flora pro.activ 'Check for Change' campaign, hosting BBC2’s Castle & Country alongside John Craven, BBC1’s Cash In The Attic and Celebrity Cash In The Attic. She also does work for the Biography Channel and is writing another book.

“I like to be busy and it has helped with Caron. Some of the worst days are when you are sitting at home, looking through the glass. And again like that women who wrote to me said, you can sit and look through the glass and weep for the next ten years but it is not going to change anything, and it is not going to bring her back. Although that is a harsh statement, I do think about that, so I keep my head busy, because the times when it gets to you is when you have a day off.”

Find out more about the Caron Keating Foundation by visiting http://www.caronkeating.org/

Rachael Hannan: 2008

Published on 50connect.co.uk

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