Romper Room's Helen Madden wins writers prize
To children across Northern Ireland she was affectionately known as Miss Helen.
A former presenter of the UTV series Romper Room in the early 1970s, she also went on to work as a professional actress, playing the role of Bobby Sands’ mother in the highly acclaimed Channel 4 film Hunger.
Given her wealth of life experiences, it’s not surprising that Helen Madden should then turn her hand to creative writing.
And at the age of 65 she has just been unveiled as the inaugural winner of the GQ Norman Mailer Non-Fiction Writers Award.
As part of her prize, the Holywood mother-of-two will travel to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this summer for an all expenses paid month of tuition.
She also wins prize money of £1,000. And her winning entry ‘Rod, Roy And Jerry Lee’ will be published in an issue of GQ magazine later this year.
The story is based on a real-life situation and although Helen refuses to give too much away, it features Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a dead man called Rod.
Helen, who has just completed an MA in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, said she was “humbled” by the award and revealed that she had only entered as a “joke”.
“An email came through from Queen’s telling us about the Norman Mailer award and I thought ‘why not?’, GQ is a good magazine and Norman Mailer is a great writer,” she said.
“But I never thought for one minute I would win. To be honest, it was really a joke, but I submitted two stories anyway. I can’t even remember what the other one was about.
“Each entry had to be a narrative non-fiction of between 2,000 and 4,000 words and the one which eventually won the award was based on a real life experience that happened to me some 12 years ago.
“The deadline was May 1 and I had to hand in my dissertation a few days later so I just switched off and went into the zone. I surprised even myself but I got great encouragement from the Seamus Heaney Centre.”
Helen, who wrote a play for Radio 4 called La Belle Irlandaise, was stunned when she found out her work had been selected for the award.
“To begin with I was just shocked, then deeply happy and humbled,” she said.
Helen was an English and drama teacher at Everton school in north Belfast when she landed the presenter’s role on Romper Room, a long-running children’s programme.
“It’s funny, to this day I get people in their 40s coming up to me and asking ‘aren’t you Miss Helen’? It rubberbands them back to being children,” she said.
Helen also worked in the BBC’s schools department in Belfast, writing for radio and acting in her spare time. But she was also busy bringing up her children.
Then a few years ago she decided to take up writing again.