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An Ulster log: How Roma's Ben-Hur is racing to the finish line

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 06/02/2016

No 2: Roma Downey - £303m - Roma and husband Mark Burnett have produced shows such as The Apprentice, The Voice and Survivor.
No 2: Roma Downey - £303m - Roma and husband Mark Burnett have produced shows such as The Apprentice, The Voice and Survivor.

My long-distance friend Roma Downey over there in Hollywood, whom I first met in her native Londonderry - I've always been partial to Derry women - when she was a young and promising actress, is making impressive progress on the re-make of the film Ben-Hur.

She and husband Mark Burnett are producing the new version, the original of which starred her fellow Ulsterman, the late Stephen Boyd in 1959. And I'm delighted to bring readers up-to-date about the new Ben-Hur which I first revealed was on the way a while back. The original was a big hit in the province largely because of Boyd's presence.

Stephen, real name Billy Millar from Glengormley, with whom I was also well acquainted - he used to sit opposite me in a pew at Carnmoney Presbyterian Church - was treated badly in the 1960 Academy Awards.

Ben-Hur received 11 Oscars, including one for Charlton Heston while Stephen was the only member of the cast, playing the character Messala, who got nothing.

Years later Heston, who took part in Ben-Hur's epic chariot race with Boyd, told me in Dublin that the latter's omission from the awards was a terrible slight on a great actor who should have got his reward from the Academy for a fine performance.

So I hope Roma makes up for the way Boyd was treated and dedicates the new Ben-Hur to his memory. He died in 1977, aged just 49.

Roma is still my favourite angel. In other words, I never missed an episode of her television series Touched By An Angel.

Her angelic Monica was always popping up to help someone in trouble and the American production earned the Derry star Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

She later gave an outstanding portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the series A Woman Called Jackie.

Roma has now joined Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn (he used to visit Belfast to see his father who was a lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast) and other film legends on the Holywood Boulevard Walk of Fame where her star was enshrined.

Ben-Hur is based on a book with a religious background written in 1880 by Lew Wallace.

Catherine set to win army of new fans

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, 47 this year, stars in the remake of Dad’s Army which will be in cinemas here next month. She became a household name in Darling Buds Of May, married Michael Douglas, and became a superstar in The Mask of Zorro.

In Dad’s Army, she is journalist Rose Winters, but there are suspicions that she is working secretly for the Germans.

One of her co-stars is Blake Harrison (The Inbetweeners), who takes on the role of hapless Private Pike, but still manages to share a passionate kiss with Catherine’s journalist. “It was a full-on smacker,” he says now, “she went right in there.” 

TV’s Dad’s Army ended in 1977 after a nine-year run.

My interview with Terry became a family affair

Terry Wogan was one of those special people I met occasionally at Eurovisions in Dublin and once upon a time, unforgettably, in the Europa Hotel in Belfast where we had been given a private room for a chat.

Midway through the conversation the phone rang and when Terry learned it was my daughter Zara, then a 17-year-old schoolgirl, who was waiting for me in reception, he summoned her and her friend Jill to join us. The room was getting a little crowded by this time for my son Edward junior, a big Wogan fan, was already there.

Terry was delighted to welcome the two girls. And when he heard they had been shopping for new dresses for their Belfast Royal Academy formal, he demanded to see them. Zara was pleased when he gave her frock and also Jill’s his full approval

I hasten to point out that I didn’t make a habit of turning interviews into family affairs. I don’t know many celebs, Terry apart, who would have allowed me to. He’ll be remembered for turning radio broadcasting on its head and especially for all the millions he raised through Children In Need.

Belfast Telegraph

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