Candy Devine: My sweet sorrow
As Candy Devine prepares for a permanent return to her native Australia, she reminisces on her her life and a glittering career in showbiz
When Candy Devine was floored by a nasty virus earlier this year, her kind-hearted neighbours and friends were on hand to nurse her through the illness. Her beloved husband Donald McLeod, to whom she was married for 43 years, had passed away the previous year but, before his death, had ensured spare keys were cut for the neighbours as a precautionary measure.
"As I was lying there in bed, feeling awful, everyone was popping in to see me to make sure I was ok, making me cups of tea, ringing doctors and I suddenly thought 'This is wrong'," she explains. "I mean, if I had to go into a nursing home at some stage, I'd want it to be my kids picking that home.
"I guess that's what forced my hand and helped me decide to go home, to go back to Australia."
The doyenne of Downtown Radio and a much-loved adopted daughter of Northern Ireland will leave these shores on October 15 and head back to her country of origin.
Candy, whose real name is Faye Guivarra, was born in Cairns, North Queensland, moved at the age of 11 to a sugar cane farm at Garradunga near the Irish-sounding Innisfail and was educated in Brisbane.
But she has spent 44 years in Ireland – five in the South and the rest of the time in Belfast. The city became her second home. She admits moving back to Australia will be a seismic shift and she'll be saddened to go, but the need to return to her roots is too strong.
"Two of my sons, Alastair and Iain, live in Australia and had been saying to me for some time to come home," she says.
"I have two young grand-daughters, aged 15 and 12. In a few years they'll have boyfriends and won't want to go to the zoo with their granny, though I like to tell myself this won't be the case.
"So I just felt the time was right to go."
Candy, an established singer and actress with broadcasting experience, came to Ireland in the late Sixties when the man she was to go on and marry booked her for a cabaret show at the Talk of the Town club in Belfast. After a second visit a few months later, Candy bumped into Don again and the two fell in love. Candy, who was based in Manchester at the time, relocated to Belfast to be with her man.
"I followed my heart," she says. "Don wrote to me every day and phoned me several times every day. I think he thought I was going to jump on a plane and go back to Australia. I was based in Manchester at the time, working in clubs all over England.
"It was pressure in a way but it worked. We were both pretty smitten. You just know when you meet the one. It's like a bolt of lightning."
But there was a small matter of Candy's engagement to another man to deal with. She was already betrothed to a doctor in the American Air Force who, until then, she believed was 'the one'. Meeting Don changed all that, though.
"I had to write that Dear John letter to say sorry," she says.
Don won Candy over with his feet-on-the-ground approach to life, his sense of humour and his love of showbiz.
"He made me laugh every day right up until he died," she says. "And also he loved showbiz. We always used to say that he loved showbiz and I was in it. It made for a good partnership because he was never jealous of my job. You know, showbiz can be pretty full-on, but he loved being in the background, being in the business, loved managing me. I was very lucky.
"Had I married the other guy I probably would have had to retire and become a doctor's wife. That wasn't for me. Could you see me doing that?"
The couple married in 1970 and had their wedding reception at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where Candy was working in the Maureen Potter show. They decided to stay on in Dublin, where theatrical and cabaret work was plentiful.
"There was a lot of work there and I went straight into television," she says. "I hosted a show for a couple of years and it was a good base. It meant I could work the whole of the country."
In 1975, Candy and Don moved back to Belfast, after she landed a job with a newly established radio station, Downtown. At first Candy, who had worked in radio back home in North Queensland, was reluctant to move. She wanted to go back into theatre. But her husband persuaded her to give the job a chance.
If she didn't like it, he pointed out, she could always give it up after a year. On March 16, 1976, Candy joined the new station along with the likes of Trevor Campbell (Big T), Michael 'Hendi' Henderson and John Paul Ballantine.
"I was the greenhorn," she laughs. "When I worked in radio in Australia, I was lifted and laid. I was like a robot really. I had someone to say 'Do your piece about Sydney Harbour', someone to spin the records. I talked when I was told to. Then when I came to Downtown I saw guys like Big T, Hendi and John Paul firing in jingles at a rate of knots and doing all this hip talk. And I can remember saying to Cathal McCabe and Don Anderson 'Do I have to do that?' and Cathal saying 'No, you just have to be Candy'.
"I've never forgotten that and I've just been myself ever since."
A former pupil of the Queensland Conservatorium, where she had studied cello and piano, Candy's route into broadcasting was via her musical background. She was singing and acting at the time when her agency phoned and asked her if she would be interested in radio presenting for national network ABC.
"I'd done quite a lot of television stuff for the agency," she says. "I had my own series there, it wa s quite high-brow actually, a classical music series.
"It was one show a week they were offering me. I think it was called Candy and Spice. So I said yes. What happened was the girl who presented it went over to news full-time and I went in as a guest. But it lasted a couple of years."
Her radio job at ABC afforded her the freedom to pursue other avenues and Candy notched up a few television acting credits including several appearances in the popular Australian series Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo. In 1968, she starred in the episode They're Singing Me Back, playing Moona, an Aboriginal woman who's run away from her tribe.
"My hair texture was wrong, so I had to wear a wig," she laughs. "My skin colour was wrong too and I had to wear body make-up. But it was good, it was wonderful."
It's fair to say that the multi-talented Candy was destined for a life in showbiz.
"I taught for a few years before I went into showbiz," she says. "You either have the personality to entertain or you don't.
"Maybe it was the Polynesian in me that dictated my not wanting to devote four to six hours of practice a day. I didn't have that Barry Douglas ethos, although I wanted it, I loved it with a passion. I was always told I'd make a great professional accompanist. But I didn't want to travel around the world, playing piano for someone else. So I taught for a couple of years and then literally fell into showbiz.
"It was the need for money that did it. My father was the sort of man who told me I had to learn to be independent. He wasn't going to shower me with pocket money. He got me a wee car to run around in, but it wasn't just handed to me on a plate."
To earn an income, Candy, who was 19 at the time, got a job working with the Jim Shaw Trio in a beer garden for the princely sum of £3 a night. After taking part in a talent competition with a violinist friend, which, she hastens to add, they didn't win, she was approached by the band leader and asked if she could sing.
"I said 'Oh yeah' and that was that," she says. "That's always been my philosophy. If someone asks if I can do something I say yes, then worry about it after. So I was asked if I wanted to sing with the band and I sang Summer Time. Then he asked if I'd like a permanent position with his band and again, I said yes.
"I sang there every Saturday night for about a year. Coming up to the end of that year, a television producer was in one night and said he'd like to book me for a show. I did the show then went under contract to Channel 7 in Brisbane, before transferring to Sydney, where the contract continued."
Candy's desire to perform was nurtured from a young age when she was growing up in Cairns. Along with her brother, she was encouraged to play musical instruments. She grew up in a musical house. Her father, a keen guitarist, ran an all-girl Hawaiian orchestra and was also part of a small group called The Sunday Serenaders.
"Daddy wasn't a professional musician, he was a farmer," she says. "Our house was very much a party house. The guitars always came out. There were always people singing.
"Because of his passion for the music he always encouraged us, probably me moreso than my brother because I had the passion."
Candy says her 'pioneering' parents were determined their children, who were of mixed heritage, would not face prejudice. Racism reared its ugly head in North Queensland and Candy's mum – a 'spitfire of a woman' – formed a club of like-minded friends to stamp out bigotry.
"They had a troupe called The Tropical Troubadours and they used to travel around, giving shows," she recalls. "We grew up with that, with rehearsals on the back lawn on a Tuesday night, with neighbours hanging over the back fence.
"My mum was the driving force behind this. What they did was have floor shows every Saturday night. Once a month they would have a Hawaiian night, the next month a Brazilian night, the next a French one. They were brilliant, incredible shows. I can still see the costumes.
"The dances developed such a reputation, everyone wanted to go to them. And then the white community started coming to those dances and they broke down barriers. And then there was just two way traffic.
"It was incredible from a woman who had no education, just drive. And then when mummy and daddy left Cairns and moved to the sugar cane farm, all of it died.
"It was all very progressive. But we grew up not knowing that we were different from anyone else."
What made Candy 'different' she says, was her mixed race heritage. Her mother was half Danish, half Sri Lankin, her father's father half Spanish, half Filipino, his mother was a mixture of Polynesian, West Indian, Scottish and English.
"It affords no room for prejudice, does it?" she laughs.
Perhaps it was this all-embracing attitude to people and an engrained respect for all colours, cultures and creeds that made her feel comfortable enough setting up home in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. Many non-Northern Irish natives would have been tempted to get on a plane and go home. But not Candy.
"I arrived in Ireland in 1968/69, when the Troubles were just starting and some people said to me, 'Can, that's your cue to go home'," she says. "But Northern Ireland has been so good to me, you'll never know. I owe so much to this place."
Indeed, her love affair with Northern Ireland and Downtown Radio is so enduring that, along with Big T, she is the longest-running presenter on any commercial radio station in Ireland.
How does this make her feel?
"Pretty old," she replies, with a laugh. "But this business keep you young and fresh, the music keeps you young. You just have to keep up with the times."
Last year she was one of the inaugural inductees of the PPI Radio Awards Hall of Fame, in recognition of her interviewing skills, agony programmes and outside broadcasts.
"You don't take things like for granted," she says. "That was so special. I got this award for doing a job, for doing something that I love."
A firm favourite with fans over the years, her 'Dateline' segment was particularly popular.
"Cilla Black had one marriage and one hat, we had a number of marriages," she says. "Just last year or the year before I received a letter from lady in Australia who said 'You may not know but I met my husband through your Dateline'."
These days, Candy hosts two shows on Downtown – Into the Night on Fridays and A Little Taste of Candy on Saturday nights. Although she managed to combine her radio work and singing career when she first moved to Belfast, changes in the entertainment scene meant the latter took a back seat.
"I never consciously stopped," she explains. "It's just the work isn't the same as it used to be. It's very different from the way it was when I came here. Just about on every other corner, there was a cabaret club in those days, places like Tito's, the Intercontinental, the Abercorn, the Talk of the Town, which was the first one I went to. And they were bringing in acts from England and all over and competing and doing business. And then, of course, the Troubles came and things moved a bit to golf clubs and it became a different scene.
"Television's changed too. They're not making variety shows any more. To be honest, I'd hate to be coming into the business today because the whole reality television thing has taken over. At least those kids do get some sort of grooming, but they're not really learning the business like we did, having to sing in every little hole in the hedge.
"I can remember going home to work at Sydney Opera House and coming back to do a gig in Dublin. I said to my husband 'Why the heck am I doing this?', believing my own publicity from Australia. Don said 'That was Australia, this is here, this is what you do for a living, get up there and sing' and I did."
Her passion for showbiz saw her juggle her radio shifts five days a week with a musical and theatrical career. During the winter months, there was panto as well. And she also had four children to bring up – as well as sons Alastair and Iain, she has a son, Gordon, who's 'living the dream' in Thailand and a daughter, Fiona, in Comber.
"I was also writing for Sunday News at the time," she says. "But you do what you have to do to look after the family. Mind you, they all had their little jobs as well, to help out.
"You know people think it's an easy life. It's not. But I love it."
Candy says she will be sad to leave behind her other 'family' at Downtown Radio, which has been such a huge part of her life for almost 40 years. While she admits she won't particularly miss the rain and the cold, she will find it hard to say goodbye to the good friends she has made through the years and the loyal listeners who made her feel at home from the start.
"It's going to be difficult leaving because this country has been damned good to me," she muses.
"You know, I was just looking at old photographs of my time here, and it's been a 44- year-old party. In every picture I look at we either have a drink in our hands, or we're eating, or we're sitting around laughing, or it's a party at my house or someone else's.
"That's what I'll miss most, the people and the very firm friendships I made here. Donald was very sociable and we had a great life. I do have that at home, but I am a bit nervous. I've always kept in touch with friends back there and I'll do the same with people back here, but in those 44 years, when I've gone back to Australia every two or three years, it's been a holiday venue.
"I've always said I have an emotional attachment to two countries. That is a very privileged position to be in and I really mean that.
"At Downtown, we were very much a family and a lot of the listeners who were with me on day one are still listening."
Candy adds: "Looking back, I'd say I've been very blessed. My whole life and career has been a chance of one door closing and another door opening. And to be allowed to come to another man's country and carve a niche for yourself, that's pretty special and I'll never forget it."