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Falling under Eamonn's spell

Published 19/12/2006

Presenter Eamonn Holmes features in the interactive DVD game 'Spell'
Presenter Eamonn Holmes features in the interactive DVD game 'Spell'

National radio and television presenter Eamonn Holmes is counting his blessings this Christmas, says Jane Hardy. The Ulsterman may have failed to break into American TV, but he believes his guardian angel is looking after him - and there is still a chance that he could win the Lottery

National radio and television presenter Eamonn Holmes is counting his blessings this Christmas, says Jane Hardy. The Ulsterman may have failed to break into American TV, but he believes his guardian angel is looking after him - and there is still a chance that he could win the Lottery

Reaching for the (bulging) file on Mr Holmes from the newspaper library, the librarian says with a grin: "This is just the last two years' worth. It's a big file and matches the man himself. But we don't do touch-ups here." This is a reference to the alleged doctoring of publicity shots of the well-built presenter for his attempt at the American market earlier this year.

You certainly don't need to touch up Eamonn Holmes' personality, which is warm, interested and likeable. In fact, it's difficult to stop him interviewing you in order to ask the questions. This is a man who doesn't need to read Dale Carnegie.

Bringing out the new interactive DVD game Spell, and presenting Hardspell on BBC1 came naturally to Eamonn (47).

He says: "I was a good speller, and was lucky at school as I never really had to think about it."

At St Malachy's College, Belfast, he studied Latin and Ancient Greek to O level standard. "We were always told it would help us with our spelling. " But once you leave school, as he points out, you settle into a state of gentle decline.

"Hard Spell on BBC1 was the programme when I made 11-year-old children cry. Presenting it, I noticed the difference between sitting at a keyboard, or with pen in hand, and standing up in public. Then if you're asked to spell accommodate, say, doubt enters your mind and you think: Is it two ts or one? It's all a question of confidence."

Confidence is something Mr Holmes has in abundance. And, latterly, he has needed his characteristic ebullience. Although his autobiography, This is My Life (Orion), has deservedly been acclaimed this year, his first programme to be broadcast by Fox TV in America, Rich List, flopped.

It was pulled after just one programme with industry insiders claiming it had achieved 'pull me now' ratings. The papers had a bit of a field day, with headlines such as: Eamonn Who? Former GMTV star's show flops in America.

Didn't he mind?

"That was only the Daily Mail really, and they love to see people not succeeding," he says. "Anyhow, I'm not convinced we have seen the end of Rich List."

It's a programme with a slightly complicated format, involving teams guessing how well they'd do in a series of general knowledge questions, and being marked according to how accurate their estimate was, before the winning pair moves on to a new set of challengers. Variety magazine liked Eamonn Holmes, describing him as "jolly", but didn't find the game appealing.

"If there was ever a lesson in the ruthlessness of television, that was it," he continues. "After one showing, in which we were up against Desperate Housewives (in fact, they battled for ratings against Criminal Minds, Lost and a dieting show, The Biggest Loser), we gained five million viewers."

He sounds defiant about the show and warms to its defence. "I know this was a good show - you just have to look at the DVD - and who knows what may happen in the future? We had a lovely reception in America, went to record seven programmes and ended up doing 10, so you just don't know. It may end up surfacing on English television."

In spite of this career blip, he believes in guardian angels and a strange divinity shaping our ends. In Eamonn's case, his protector is his grandmother, Maggie Fitzsimmons, who used to live in Cranburn Street, Belfast, "off the Antrim Road" and with whom he had a close relationship.

Although she died when Eamonn was only four and a half, he has vivid memories of her - "I can tell you to this day what her hands felt like, and recognise her scent, which was violets."

Eamonn may believe in guardian angels, but he is fatalistic about his career path. "America wasn't on my agenda, I just got the phone call," he goes on. "I don't know if people are looking out for you in your career. But sometimes you are taken by the hand, brought in a certain direction."

He feels that this is a daily occurrence - "I don't know if I'll be in a car accident today, or get out of one, but yes, I think there is somebody looking out for me."

The recent media obsession with his appearance, and signs of age, don't faze Mr Holmes. But he does think that what Anna Ford once described as " looks fascism" now applies to both sexes. This may be good news for feminists, but is mildly irritating to him.

"I guess if you're in the public eye, you have a responsibility to look your best," he says. "I've no real complaints about it. The whole question obsesses other people much more than it obsesses me. And looking at some of the people who have criticised my appearance, I think 'Don't they have any mirrors in the house?'"

Later, he adds that if anyone can find the perfect regime or solution to his weight problem, he'll follow it.

Asked about his remaining TV ambitions, Eamonn, who hosts Sky's morning news programme, says he would be keen to do "a show like Tyra Banks' in America, talking to real people about real issues". He is proud of his Saturday morning programme on Radio 5 Live, and thinks that it could translate well into television.

"It's a very good show. We talk to sports people about entertainment, and entertainment people about sports," he says. "We've got politicians and everybody there."

After his bruising break with GMTV in 2005, he feels that the individual presenter's voice isn't a determining factor in programming: "It's all about what the TV stations want to do."

Some career choices are obviously a cause for regret and he says: "I was offered Deal or No Deal and sent a tape in Italian. I thought, 'What's all this about?', and it was being recorded in Bristol, so I thought, 'no'," he laughs.

But refusing Countdown after Richard Whiteley's death was, he feels, the right decision. "I know Des (Lynam) very well and respect him and he rang me, saying 'Do you want it?' But it wasn't for me."

Funnily enough, their careers have often followed similar lines. "He left the Holiday programme, I got it and so on. People often say to me 'You do everything on TV', but they should see what I turn down."

Then he enters the realm of fantasy, or extremely long odds anyhow, when he refers to winning the Lottery (he presents the National Lottery Jet Set).

"My ambition is to win the lottery or do a massive TV commercial which would bring me lots of money," he goes on.

"I've worked too hard for too long. What would I do then? I'd commute everywhere by helicopter, avoiding the queues at the airport, buy a box at Old Trafford, spend more of the time relaxing, eating healthily, having time for my mates and going to the gym."

It is hard to believe the man who loves broadcasting so much would really give up work. "Oh yes, I would. Believe, believe."

Eamonn, now 47, lives with partner and fellow TV presenter Ruth Langsford in Surrey, London, with their son Jack (5). He has three children, Declan (17), Rebecca (15) and Niall (13) by first wife, Gabrielle, who are based in Belfast. He's a commuting father and the whole extended family will be spending Christmas, as usual, in Belfast. "We'll be doing the same things everybody else does - and we have some friends coming over from London to join us," says Eamonn.

l Spell, produced by DDS Media and Whatever Productions, £19.99

Belfast Telegraph

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