Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Candy Devine - back in Australia's sunshine after a short gig in Ireland which lasted 44 happy years

The broadcasting legend has returned to her native land to spend time with her two sons and her grandchildren, but leaving these shores was tinged with sorrow, as Ivan Little finds out

Former Downtown Radio DJ Candy Devine who has emigrated to Australia
Former Downtown Radio DJ Candy Devine who has emigrated to Australia
Former Downtown Radio DJ Candy Devine with her son, celebrity chef Alastair McLeod
Former Downtown Radio DJ Candy Devine with her son, celebrity chef Alastair McLeod
Downtown Radio Presenter Candy Devine with her husband Donal.
Downtown Radio Presenter Candy Devine with her husband Donal.

She's a broadcasting legend with a smile in her voice to go with the one which was invariably etched right across her face, and there's quite simply no mistaking her happiness as Candy Devine, one of Northern Ireland's most distinctive sounding radio stars, talks of her joy to be back home for good in Australia's sunshine state.

"I'm enjoying my new life but missing my old one," says Candy.

But, as she sends a special Happy Christmas message to her friends here, there's equally no disguising the sadness of the former Downtown Radio stalwart as she reveals how the sudden death of a pal from east Belfast cast a huge shadow over her first days in southeast Queensland.

"It was a devastating blow," says the popular presenter, who was a friendly fixture at Downtown from the first day it went on air in March 1976 until she quit a few months back.

Candy came to Ireland in 1969 on a flying visit which was to last 44 years. She was a talented singer and actress and was hired for a cabaret slot at the Talk of the Town club in Belfast.

And the man who booked her, Donald McLeod, later engaged her on a life-long marriage contract – after he bombarded her with phone calls and letters to Manchester where she had based herself after moving to the UK from Australia.

The couple were wed in Dublin in 1970 and the rest is harmonious history.

After a spell down south, they settled in Northern Ireland in 1975, the year before Candy's other "marriage" to Downtown Radio began.

Candy, who'd worked briefly on Australian radio, built up a huge fanbase in Downtown. And her farewell programme on September 29 was an emotional broadcast.

She says: "It was pretty hectic. I had all sorts of things planned but some colleagues dropped by for the 'swan song' and we were so busy gossiping that I forgot all about the job in hand until my colleague Florence Ambrose said 'Candy, you're on in a couple of minutes.'

"I flew down to the studio, opened the microphone and just went for it. It was a pretty down-home sort of programme with old colleagues phoning in with their reminiscences, craic and banter. And there was lots of participation from the listeners, some of whom had been with us on day one back in 1976. How special was that?"

It was a long goodbye for Candy and a week later, scores of her broadcasting buddies gathered at a hotel for a tear-filled final farewell party. "It was a great bash," says Candy.

A week later eight of her closest friends, whom she has compared to sisters, accompanied Candy on her journey to Dublin airport to catch her flight to Oz.

"I'm convinced they just wanted to be sure that I got on the plane," says Candy.

It was a two-day party which was to end in that tragedy of Nora Eassie's death. Nora, who had actually grown up with Donald McLeod, complained of feeling unwell in Dublin. And the day after Candy arrived in Australia, she received the news that her friend had passed away.

Candy admits it was hard to leave Northern Ireland.

"When I arrived in 1969, I knew just one person, Donald. When I left after 44 years of a happy and privileged life, it was like leaving home as I had made really close, wonderful friends in the wee North. Donald always said 'We don't have friends, we have extended family' and ours was the house with the revolving door.

"My buddies all had keys to the front door and everyone knew where the kettle was kept. When I sold my home, those women and some of the husbands helped me to sift, sort and pack. I couldn't have done it without them."

She's only been away a couple of months and Candy says she misses all her friends, but the gap left by the death of Donald McLeod last year is a void she will never fill.

Candy scattered all but a tiny trinket-ful of his ashes in Enniskillen, but she says: "His spirit is with me and always will be."

After Donald's death and an illness of her own, Candy decided it was time to return to her roots to Australia and to her two sons who live there with her grandchildren.

Donald had been talking about going to Australia with Candy. She says: "This was an adventure we had talked about for years but when he took ill, it was no longer a priority."

So the long flight to Australia was one that Candy had to make on her own. "After that two-day party in Dublin, I needed the rest and I slept most of the way. It was so different from my first trip when we touched down six times and had two flight changes. This time it was one flight change and two touchdowns. And I flew business class with Champagne, great food and a comfortable bed."

At Brisbane, Candy's family were waiting to greet her.

One of her sons, Ala stair McLeod, is a celebrity chef down under. He used to work at Roscoff in Belfast but he's now a TV star and writer as well as a busy chef.

Candy has bought a five-acre site in a valley community in Queensland with Alastair and his partner Ashleigh. "It's in a beautiful place called Samford," says Candy. "It's about half an hour from the centre of Brisbane.

"There are two dwellings on the site and I am in the smaller Granny house but there is room for visitors. My first Northern Irish visitors – the Greens from Comber – are coming on January 4."

Candy says the lifestyle and the surroundings are idyllic. "There's nothing like waking up in the morning to a cacophony of bird calls. And I can see cattle eating grass not far from my bedroom window. It takes me back to the farm days of my youth, though I haven't seen any koalas or kangaroos yet!"

Alastair McLeod, of course, grew up in Northern Ireland as 'Candy Devine's son' but now the celebrity boot is on the other foot and she is 'Alastair McLeod's mother' – a complete reversal of the roles.

She laughs: "I'm not going to pretend the ego hasn't taken a bit of a bruising but it is wonderful to see one's children doing so well and being the proud mother of a well-known chef does have its perks."

The wheel has turned full circle in a way for Candy through Alistair. For he's been filming on the Gold Coast for Channel 7 and his mum was contracted to the station back in the 60s.

Candy says she hasn't had much time to put her feet up since she arrived in Australia.

"I have hardly had time to draw breath. Setting up home all over again has been a bit scary because I had absolutely nothing, not even a cup or a chair," she said.

"However, family and old friends have rallied around and though the bank balance has dwindled, my bungalow is starting to look like home. I even have plants on my deck."

However, Candy admits she's become entangled in red tape.

"I just wish that dealing with bureaucracy wasn't so hard," she said. "I'm convinced it would be easier for an alien from Mars to settle in Australia than it is for an ageing woman returning to her roots. If I have to fill out one more form I'll scream."

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who knows her but for Candy, it hasn't been all work and no play.

"I've enrolled for an art class and, at every opportunity, I join the ladies who do lunch," she said. "But I've also spent a lot of time driving around aimlessly, simply because all my old landmarks have gone and I keep getting lost."

The hi-tech world of technology has also meant that Candy hasn't lost touch with her friends in Northern Ireland.

"That has not been a problem thanks to social media," says Candy. "We talk quite a lot and we email – usually through generic letters. But they're so much simpler than communicating in the old days with all those handwritten letters. All of my friends tell me they're coming down under for a visit and I can't wait."

Candy admits, however, there are things that the internet can't provide. "I miss my buddies, the humour, the craic and the banter over dinner with a bottle of wine or two," she said. "I also miss the slower pace of life and watching Donald and his cronies playing croquet on the back lawn every Monday afternoon.

"I miss people greeting me in the street, going to the theatre with my friend George Ellis or another pal Dermot McKee dropping in for a cup of tea and getting out the lawn mower. I also miss a good old gossip with my friends at my Friday Club, but I don't miss the cold weather and the dampness."

Candy says that she also misses Downtown Radio and adds that it's strange not being on the air after 37 years at the station.

"It was such a big part of my life during that time," she said. "I was constantly looking over my shoulder at the young talent joining the station. Their technical wizardry was intimidating but we learned from each other. I miss the studio environment but I don't like to think that my broadcasting career is over."

Candy has already been approached by two radio stations in Australia and says: "When the dust settles in January, I'll set out my stall."

There's been speculation of a link-up between Downtown and down under. And Candy is interested in pursuing the idea. "With so many people from the province over here, it has been suggested that there could be a tie-up and it could just be a possibility."

As yet, Candy hasn't been able to listen to Downtown via her computer. "As soon as internet problems are sorted and I need a Norn Iron 'fix' I will tune in," she said.

Another glitch has meant that Candy hasn't been able to send Christmas cards back to Northern Ireland. "My address book is in a crate somewhere on the high seas but to tell you the truth, I haven't had time to buy a Christmas card let alone write one."

Her excitement about what lies ahead and about seeing more of her grandchildren is palpable. But she hopes to pay a visit to Northern Ireland "in a year or two".

Sources at Downtown Radio haven't ruled out a return to the airwaves for one of their most iconic stars. Even if it is for one night only...

Candy and a Dear John letter

* Candy's real name is Faye Guivarra. She was born in Cairns, north Queensland, and moved at the age of 11 to a sugar cane farm at Garradunga, near the Irish-sounding Innisfail, and was educated in Brisbane.

* She was a pupil at the Queensland Conservatorium, where she studied cello and piano. Later, when performing as an actor and singer, she was asked to do some radio presenting for Australia's national broadcaster, ABC.

* She also presented a classical music series on television in her native land.

* When Candy met her future husband Don McLeod she was already betrothed to a doctor in the American Air Force and later recalled wryly: "I had to write that Dear John letter to say sorry."

* Candy and Don were married in 1970 and had their wedding reception at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where Candy was working in the Maureen Potter show.

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