Crazy little thing called ... politics
Appearing as a Freddie Mercury tribute act has earned Harry Hamilton a nice living, so what made him consider politics? Alison Millar, director of a BBCNI documentary on tonight, just had to find out
About five years ago my father-in-law gave me his old car. I was naturally delighted but even more so when I discovered he had also left his entire Queen collection on cassette in the glove compartment.
Although I had never been a Queen fan I ended up listening to the tapes over and over. This music has taken on a new meaning, however, since meeting Harry Hamilton.
I first heard of Harry one morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme as the list of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force (UCUNF) candidates for the Westminster election were read out on air. After checking him out on the internet I was surprised to learn that he was well known as one the UK’s best Freddie Mercury impersonators. He and his band, Flash Harry, were successful enough to have packed out the Albert Hall in London as well as the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.
This made his story all the more intriguing. Why on earth would he want to risk all of this to jump onto the political stage? Northern Ireland has in the past had its fair share of colourful characters. Was Harry — with his huge fan base — about to become Northern Ireland’s new ‘celebrity politician’ as he ran for the Upper Bann seat?
If I’m honest, until I met Harry I was convinced he must be a man with an ego the size of the Upper Bann itself. Having got to know him, I admit I couldn’t have been more wrong. While Harry is about 6ft 4in tall and bares a striking resemblance to the late Freddie Mercury, his soft Lurgan accent and infectious laugh are immediately disarming, and he comes across as a remarkably humble and down-to-earth individual.
“Why don’t you come to the Queen Convention next weekend? It will be the last big gig I do with the band before the elections,” Harry suggested.
So I accepted his invitation and headed to Great Yarmouth to see Upper Bann’s newest candidate in action.
The annual Queen Convention was based in a caravan park on the outskirts of the town. The town centre was bustling with a crowd of thousands of die-hard Queen fans there for the convention, where Harry and his band were the top of the bill. Within this world, Harry was already accepted as being at the top of his game — but would the growing demands of political life mean that this was to be one of his last gigs?
I wondered how the band felt about the possible departure of their lead singer. Click, the bass guitarist, a lifelong friend of Harry’s and co-founder of the band, told me that as long as he had known Harry, he had always taken an interest in politics — so he was not surprised when he told them that he wanted to run for the Westminster seat. So the jigsaw started to fit. His decision to run in the elections was not a mad rush of air to his head — Harry had been in the Ulster Unionist Party for 15 years.
Ten o’clock in the evening. Showtime. As around 3,000 fans roared the theme tune to Flash Gordon blasted. Caravans shook as fans of all ages rushed to the front of the stage — Brian May lookalikes and granny-groupies galore. The curtain went up and Harry, dressed in leather, ran on. The atmosphere, I have to say, was electric.
I wondered why on earth Harry would want to swap his leathers for a suit? Why bother putting himself on the line in mid-Ulster?
Two days later I went with Harry to the UUP headquarters in Portadown. I was met by a very welcoming bunch of local MLAs who were clearly delighted with their new candidate for the elections. And it was hard to see why they wouldn’t be.
The Harry I had just met was charming, charismatic, polite and had a passionate outlook as to how he could contribute to the ‘new Northern Ireland’ of 2010 as a candidate for the newly-formed Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force party.
Brought up by his mother and sisters, Harry certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has first- hand experience of how tough life can be for some people in his constituency.
With Harry giving us access to all areas in the run-up to the election, we spent the next three weeks with him on the campaign trail. We walked and knocked the doors from Loughbrickland to Waringstown, ‘pressing the flesh’ as campaigners call it. We were almost mauled by dogs, chased by hoodies and soaked to the skin but Harry’s enthusiasm never seemed to dwindle.
I had no idea that there was a ‘knack’ to good door-knocking. The campaigners would walk ahead and ‘ding dong’ the doors and talk to the people while Harry would come behind and be steered into people’s homes where they genuinely seemed to want to know more about him and why they should vote for him.
He was supported day and night by big sister Elaine, who turned her living room into a campaign office. Out on the campaign trail, one of Harry’s main rivals was DUP candidate David Simpson, current holder of the seat, who was canvassing the estates with a huge well-oiled team, seemingly keeping a close eye on him as he went.
Joining Harry through the estates where he grew up, I saw another side to him. He spoke of how he genuinely did want to get into politics to ‘help people’ and to make things better’. I saw what I felt to be an open and honest man who loved his family and wanted a better and safer world for his children to grow up in. As the Ulster Unionists had joined forces with the Conservative Party every other week senior figures in the Tories were flying in to offer words of wisdom.
There was William Hague and Owen Paterson and just days before the election, in the midst of a volcanic ash shutdown, David Cameron arrived causing a media frenzy. As a filmmaker, it was fascinating to see the action unfold with Harry there in the midst of it all.
Right up until the night before the election we witnessed him and his team work tirelessly and when Election Day came, it did so with bright sunshine and hope.
We witnessed the excitement as the votes were counted and tensions grew. Harry’s basket at one point seemed as full as his rival Simpson’s. It was nail-biting. As the last few votes came in it became clear that David Simpson had retained his seat.
Yet with what seemed like half the resources of Simpson's team, Harry had managed to pull off a very respectable second place. Visibly gutted but still smiling, Harry kept his cool, signed a few autographs and went home for a cup of tea with his family.
I hope this film offers the audience an insight into what it is like for a newcomer to elections as they juggle their political responsibilities with being a father, a husband and, in this case, a popular entertainer.
It was an honour to follow Harry and no matter what he does in life he will remain one of the most genuine people I have met off and on the camera. He has also reignited my love of Queen. The cassettes in my old car have not stopped playing since.
Harry’s Story ...
Why did I agree to do it? How did I think it would benefit me? And had the camera picked up on my complete shock at losing?
These were the questions that I was asking myself on the morning of Friday, May 7. The morning after the election. Before and as the text messages and emails started arriving telling me how well I had done, I was still trying to reassure myself that the stress, pressure and embarrassment of having your life played out in front of the country was still a good idea.
Taking on the challenge of fighting a Westminster election is not something that anyone should undertake lightly. The first time is a challenge for any aspiring politician, never mind with the added pressure of a camera crew watching your every move. The first nervous speeches, the first canvass on the doorstep and the turmoil of juggling work and family life all under the prying eye of the camera lens.
After much consideration and discussion with my family and friends, I decided that if I was serious about trying to make more people engage with politics, then TV was the perfect medium to try and reach them.
Taken at face value, I can’t help but think I must have been crazy. Well, the truth is I’m not crazy, nor do I have an infinite egotistical source of self-belief. Put simply, I am completely happy with who I am. Every question I have, or fear or doubt that I feel, is the same as everyone else’s. Maybe this comes from being on stage for 20 years where you keep telling yourself, as you wait to go in front of a paying audience, that they are only people and that we are all the same.
Therefore, if I make a mistake, stumble over a word in an interview, or don’t quite sum up in two sentences how we can reverse a global recession, then the voter or viewer will hopefully not judge me but rather see a reflection of themselves in me.
Only those who wish to maintain the charade of politics as the preserve of a select group could fail to see that it’s not actually about having the answers but having the genuine desire to search for the answers.
My reason for entering politics is born from a frustration with our politicians and our political system, combined with my belief that our politicians will not say or do anything in case they are seen to be out of step with the rest of the herd.
I think politics needs new people, it needs ideas, and it needs candidates who are prepared to step into the spotlight without a team of researchers feeding them the party line. I hope that this programme strikes a chord with people and that it brings politics closer to them.
Most western democracies are rejuvenated with the steady influx of new ambitious thinkers. This happens because the electorate are engaged with politics, but I think Northern Ireland has had the same political leadership for 30 years because the electorate is estranged and disengaged with politics.
Hopefully this programme will show that you don’t have to be crazy to be involved in Northern Ireland politics, but that, sometimes, it just seems like it.
For Queen And Country is on |BBC One Northern Ireland tonight at 10.35pm