From stepping on stage for the first time at seven years old to remaining an in-demand television personality at 83, Gloria Hunniford has just about done it all.
One of the few things she hasn’t done, however, is to be part of the Edinburgh Fringe, but she will rectify that this year when she makes her festival debut alongside one of her best friends, Sir Cliff Richard.
Gloria will be chatting with the legendary singer at Prestonfield House next month and she is looking forward to continuing a conversation which first began professionally more than 50 years ago and developed into a close friendship.
“It started in Northern Ireland when I had my own programme there, and it carried on when I came to England in 1982 and worked on Radio 2 and Sunday Sunday,” Gloria said. “We always have really good chats and he is so easy to talk to. I knew I was guaranteed a good conversation when he came in. I can ask Cliff anything and I know he will have something interesting to say.
“You don’t ever intend to make friends with the people you interview but we clicked. His manager asked if I would like to come over and play tennis one Sunday and that started the personal relationship, and so it goes on.
“Cliff got to know all my family. He was very supportive of me at various times, particularly when my daughter, Caron, lost her battle with cancer. She lived in Australia for the last two or three years of her seven-year fight, and Cliff was over there performing and stayed at her house for a week. They had long, meaningful conversations into the night and he has never talked to me about that, which I’ve always admired. He’s never said, ‘I remember Caron talking to me from the depths of her soul at 1am’. He’s very discreet.
“When he went through his bad three years with everything that happened to him, he asked me to be in court towards the end of the hearing, so I went on several occasions, especially on the last day he was giving evidence. I was glad to do that and to be there to support him.
“He has one of the strongest fanbases around – how many other people have sold nearly 300 million records and been in the charts every decade since the ‘50s? I like that he is still as enthusiastic and competitive as ever.”
Those are qualities Gloria admires because she recognises them in herself. She remains in demand, co-hosting the long-running consumer series Rip-Off Britain and she is a regular panellist on Loose Women, which goes out on a live tour in September. She even popped up on The Masked Singer last year, the oldest contestant the British version of the show has had.
“I’ve always loved my job because I learn something every day and I meet interesting people every day,” she said. “I’m still doing the same job I was doing in 1969 when I was given a job in broadcasting for BBC Belfast.”
Before that, though, Gloria believed her future was in singing.
Born in Portadown, in Northern Ireland, she quickly became ensconced in the world of variety at a time before television when homespun entertainment was huge business in the country.
“The Mid-Ulster Variety Group had all sorts of acts. My dad was a magician at night, newspaper man by day, and there were also dancers, singers, accordionists and comics on the bill,” she explained. “I was fascinated by all of it from the age of four. I used to beg to see the concerts and I became hooked. Young singers would come from Belfast in marvellous dresses to sing and dance and be paid for it.
“I remember dad asking me during the summer holidays if I would like to join once they resumed. He sent me to Gail Sheridan for singing lessons. In those days, you would queue at the music shop on Saturday mornings for the latest sheet music – this is back in the ‘40s –- and I would take it to Miss Sheridan through the week and she would teach me the song.”
Gloria spent a year in Canada when she was 17 and 18, and it was there that she made her TV debut.
“The girl I worked with used to go and sing on a TV programme called Lunchbox, and she invited me along one day. I was introduced to the guy who ran it and he offered me occasional work. Then, I signed up for radio singing, performing Irish songs for all the ex-pats. I didn’t know that many Irish songs before I went to Canada, but I knew a lot by the time I left.
“Once I was back home, I was interviewed about my time in Canada, and then I was offered the chance to record a single, Are You Ready For Love, which Lulu had sung as one of the long-list Eurovision songs. Dan Gilbert (a major figure in Northern Ireland’s broadcasting history) invited me on to the Belfast equivalent of The Today Programme to talk about being in the Ulster charts, how I would cope with family life and music, and so on.
“Later that night, Dan called me and asked if I’d ever thought about broadcasting, as he wanted a woman on his team. I hadn’t, but I love a challenge, and when he asked when I could start, I said the next day!
“I turned up at the newsroom and Dan asked me what I saw. There were a lot of men with typewriters. ‘Remember,’ he told me, ‘As a woman you’re not coming in here to do knitting, sewing and recipes, you’re as good as any bloke in this room and you’ll be out on the streets of Belfast covering bombs, bullets and barricades just like them.’
“Without even thinking of sexism, he put any thought of it out of my head and because of that I’ve always thought I’m as good as any bloke. I’ve never considered myself a trailblazer, but younger girls like Christine Bleakley (now Lampard) say I was a role model. And now I’m of a certain age, people like Ruth Langford tell me it gives them encouragement, because they want to work on.
“I’ve never had to apply for a job, I’ve been given them all my life. I’ve always been grateful for my luck but once you get a job you need to make your luck work for you, and I’m a hard worker because I’m a demon for research. I tell young people to always do their own research, their homework, and be enthusiastic.”
Those were life lessons which saw Gloria become a household name in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s, when she presented prime time news shows which not only covered The Troubles but provided viewers with more light-hearted content.
“We spoke to the celebrities’ agents and flew them in especially to be interviewed,” she said. “We knew the viewers were getting fed up with the bombs, bullets and barricades stories, and they enjoyed the entertainment and community content. I had to do my own research and write my scripts, so when I came to London in 1982 and there were four researchers on the team, it felt like an unbelievable luxury.”
Gloria says she never had any intention of going to London 40 years ago, but she was offered a job with Radio 2. Her show on the station became the first-ever female-presented radio programme for the network. Gloria has continued to present lifestyle and consumer shows since. One of the most popular is Rip-Off Britain, which has been on air since 2009. She presents it with Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville, and Gloria believes it is their joint experience that makes them so trustworthy to viewers.
“We’re three women of a certain age and the show has never been more relevant due to the cost-of-living crisis, energy prices, and insurance and holiday rip-offs. It’s interesting in life how you coincidentally end up relevant. If that show had been given to three 22-year-olds, it wouldn’t have the same gravitas, but because we’ve lived a bit, suffered a bit, been around the block and worked hard to build up credibility, it works.
“But we must be a million per cent correct in consumer programmes. We have a great team in Manchester who work on it and the three of us are lucky to present the facts. I live by the advice we give out on the programme.”
Another piece of advice she lives by is to keep doing what makes you happy for as long as you can.
“One of my sons is always saying to me, ‘Why do you work so hard?’ It’s early mornings and long days on Rip-Off Britain – sometimes 5.30am to 6.30pm, long hours for any age. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it.
“I like a challenge and that is why I’m still working in my 80s. I like it and will continue to do it for as long as I’ve got the strength – and I definitely have the zest –and for as long as they want me.”
Masked Singer was real thrill
Gloria Hunniford’s experience on The Masked Singer, when she was hidden under a Snow Leopard outfit, was a memorable experience for her.
“I love the show and I was thrilled by the costume,” she smiled. “They said I was probably the oldest to have done it, then Dick Van Dyke, at 97, topped that in the American version.
“It was a very interesting experience. I was a bit rusty at singing, but they give you a few sharpening-up lessons and help you decide what to sing.
“What people might not realise is the level of secrecy. When you’re 15 minutes away from the studio, you need to put on a black sweatshirt that says ‘don’t talk to me’ on it, black trousers, black gloves and black shoes. I also had to put on a black balaclava – which was an unusual thing for me, coming from Northern Ireland – black visors and a black hood. There wasn’t a part of me on show.
“I also had to wear a bicycle helmet underneath the head gear to make sure the mask stayed on. It was quite a palaver, but the talented team was so kind and I loved it.
“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told my husband because I knew I could trust him. Otherwise, how could I have explained disappearing each night with a bag of black clothing! My grandsons were flummoxed when it came on TV and my phone was pinging constantly!”
Sir Cliff Richard In Conversation With Gloria Hunniford, The Stables at Prestonfield, Edinburgh, August 26-27 fringeatprestonfield.co.uk
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