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From Miss Helen to humanist celebrant, much-loved TV star Helen Madden on her very surprising career change

For many, the mention of her name conjures fond childhood memories. Helen Madden tells Laurence White what she did after UTV's Romper Room.

Published 14/07/2015

New role: Helen Madden has now turned her hand to being a humanist celebrant
New role: Helen Madden has now turned her hand to being a humanist celebrant
Youthful smile: Helen Madden
Celebrity appearances: left, Helen switching on Ballyclare’s Christmas tree
Helen planting a cherry tree at a Belfast nursery to mark the 2,000th show
Children’s classic: Helen Madden with friends in the Romper Room

Mention the name Helen Madden to anyone of a certain age in Northern Ireland and they are likely to go all misty eyed and recall how they watched her as Miss Helen in UTV's children's programme Romper Room.

But that was 40 years ago and Helen's role today is far removed from those days of singing songs and playing with primary school age children.

She is now an independent humanist celebrant, performing funerals, child naming and marriages for those who have little faith in religion.

Perhaps the most important word in her title is 'independent'.

She may be in the humanist tradition but if people want to add a little flavour of religion to the service that's fine by her.

She tells me that the day before we met she was celebrant at two funerals. At one there was a prayer in Irish, the Lord's Prayer and the hymn Away in a Manger, which the mother of the dead man used to sing to him as a child.

"You can do what you like as long as you are doing good. I am not anti anything, not even anti God," she says.

Born in Belfast in the 1940s - "just say I am old enough to travel free throughout Ireland" - she was brought up a Presbyterian like her father but as a teenager converted to the Anglican tradition. This was largely as a result of her love of the Anglican choral tradition which she had first encountered at Grosvenor Grammar School and when she sang in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.

Astonishingly she still belongs to St George's Anglican Church on High Street in Belfast. "I go because I love the sense of community and also for the singing. But even as a teenager I never really believed in organised religion.

"I cannot stand religious people who seem so certain of everything. I remember as a child one of my aunts was very pious and kept telling me that I would die and meet the Lord. As an eight-year-old I once said, 'If you are so keen to meet the Lord why don't you kill yourself and go to Heaven'. As you can imagine that did not go down very well.

"I believe that people should always be curious. I feel religion is almost irrelevant in our daily lives. I approach each day by saying that this is the life I am living. I try to live by the mantra - if death alone is certain and time of death is uncertain, how will I live my life? That is the real question. It is what I do that is important in life."

Helen, who lives in Belfast, became a humanist celebrant almost by accident. While in London - she had moved there with her husband, former BBC political correspondent Brian Walker - a friend asked her to go to a hospital where a relative had died.

"I was standing there looking at this dead body and I began to say a poem by the Roman poet Horace. My friend thought it was beautiful and asked me to say it again at the funeral. I did and then I trained as a celebrant with the British Humanist Society."

This introduction to this new part of her life was later to form the basis of a story she wrote while completing her MA in Creative Writing at Queen's University. She submitted the tale to the Norman Mailer writing competition in GQ magazine and, to her surprise, won the prize of £1,000 and a month's stay at the Mailer writer's colony in the legendary author's hometown of Provincetown, Massachusetts.

"I remember when this guy phoned up to tell me I had won. I was so surprised that I uttered an expletive. He laughed and said, 'That's exactly what Norman would have said'," she recalls.

During her time in London she officiated at hundreds and hundreds of funerals, including many of children.

"Those funerals can be difficult, but it is not my grief," she says. "I can empathise with the parents, but for them it must be the hardest thing to bear. However I am a great believer in the ability of people to survive even the most difficult traumas. People survived in Belsen, for example. People who have lost children are still able to function or smile at others and love their other children. Their pain can be transformed by their own love."

Loving ourselves is something she thinks we don't do enough, especially in Northern Ireland. "We are very hard on ourselves in this country. We need to show more compassion."

But she doesn't buy into the idea that people must forgive to enable them to move on with their lives.

"We hear this all the time in relation to the events that took place during the Troubles. We have all seen and heard outstanding examples of people who have forgiven those who have murdered relatives or committed some other crime.

"But I think it is nonsense to say we must forgive. If someone killed my son or my daughter I would never forgive them, but I would want to move on with my life while still acknowledging that someone had done something horrible to me.

"If you tell someone that they must forgive if they are to get closure but they can't then they feel trapped forever. It is wanting things to be what they are not that causes so much unhappiness."

Listening to her as she challenges accepted wisdom it is easy to understand how she was a much sought out counsellor before her humanist experience.

She had studied psychology at the Metanoia Institute in London and worked for a time in Ealing Abbey. Much of that work involved counselling adolescents who had been sexually abused by priests in England, but she also counselled people suffering from drug and alcohol excesses.

As word of her sessions spread she also began meeting adults who had come to England from Ireland after being abused by clergy and also women who had experienced the horrors of the Magdalene Launderies in Ireland.

"This was 25 years ago or more, before all the publicity about clerical abuse of children hit the public headlines," she says. "Some of the stories I heard were unbelievable but these people were so grateful that at last someone was listening to them. To be heard was the most important thing."

Looking at least a decade younger than her age Helen recalls a very happy childhood. She was brought up in Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast - site of the ongoing Orange Order protest camp - and remembers that her first home had a bath in the kitchen which had a lid on it. "I thought it was great and later when we moved up the street to another house which had a sitting room and a bathroom I thought that was heaven."

She went to Forthriver Primary School where she was "a bright button" and one of her earliest memories is buying two ounces of Clove Rock sweets with her ration coupon for three old pennies from the local shop. Wartime rationing of foodstuffs including sweets did not end until 1954.

Her father Dave was a motor mechanic in the Post Office which meant he had a car, the only one in the neighbourhood and every summer, he, mum Flora, Helen and her siblings, David and Sylvia, would travel to some part of the Republic. Dad would return home after his Twelfth fortnight holidays but the rest of the family would stay for the entire summer.

"It was brilliant. I remember going to Donegal, Cork and Phoenix Park Zoo in Dublin. Another bonus was that rationing in the Republic was much less severe than at home so I could get sweets whenever I wanted."

Having passed the Qualifying exam - the forerunner of the 11-plus - Helen went to Grosvenor High School. She really wanted to go to Belfast Royal Academy but her parents could not afford the fees.

It was there she developed her love for the choral tradition and also of the classics - she was put in the A stream and learned Greek.

After school she studied English and Drama at Stranmillis College in the city and on graduation taught for two years at Everton Secondary School for girls.

It was family friend and celebrated former Belfast Telegraph cartoonist Rowell Friers who pointed her towards a television career. "He saw the advert for Romper Room and said, 'You could do that with your love of acting'."

She got the job and her place in the public consciousness was secured. "It was a bit of a fly by the seat of your pants experience. I did virtually everything from working with the children, choosing who would be on the show (it was strictly first come first served) to getting the props and it was all done live."

There was one occasion when she really had to think quickly.

"You have to remember that I was involved with the show from 1969-75, some of the worst days of the Troubles. One day this little boy, he maybe was four or five, said he wanted to sing a song. I asked him what it was and he said, The Men Behind The Wire, a republican song about internment.

"I had to hurriedly tell him that we didn't know that song and we would sing Mary Had A Little Lamb instead. But after we went off air I called him over and said he could sing his song. It was important not to disappoint the child."

On another occasion when the city was gripped by the Ulster Workers' Council strike she had to lie down in the back of a taxi covered by a blanket to enable her to get through the barricades to the studio.

"The amazing thing was that all during those dark days - we were on air for example during Bloody Friday when more than 20 bombs exploded in the city - we just kept going and the children kept coming to the studio.

"Perhaps that is one of the reasons why memories of Romper Room have endured. We were continuing to enjoy life and we had hope.

"People do remember that. I could be known for worse things."

Helen still has her magic mirror and her glove puppet Mr Do-bee. "They are kept in a drawer in my room and I occasionally take them out and look at them."

Though it is hard to imagine, Helen has suffered from MS since 1977. It was diagnosed after she began experiencing problems with her vision and initially it left her partially paralysed but then went into remission. It returned after the birth of her second child and in her mid-40s she again experienced vision problems.

But she tries to follow a recommended diet and the condition is again in remission.

After Romper Room, Helen worked for the BBC for several years producing and presenting programmes ranging from documentaries to Woman's Hour to programmes for schools.

She even appeared in Hunger, a film about one of the most iconic republican figures, Bobby Sands, playing his mother.

"I got a phone call from the director, Steve McQueen, and we got chatting about the black humour of Northern Ireland. I told him that only a few hours after Bobby Sands' death graffiti appeared in loyalist areas saying 'We will never forget you Jimmy Sands'. We chatted for a while and he offered me the role.

"A friend of mine who is Catholic gave me her mother's rosary beads and I used to practise every day taking them out of my pocket and pretending to pray. My friend used to joke that she was my rosary coach. I came in every day for about a week, got dressed for the part, and then was sent to wait in a room. It later dawned on me that McQueen was giving me an impression of what Mrs Sands had gone through as she waited day after day to visit to her dying son in the prison hospital. I found the film one of the most wonderfully creative things I have ever done."

One project that she was involved in many years ago had a particular resonance for her. She made a documentary about the Mater Hospital in Belfast where her father, who suffered from chronic depression, had received treatment. "It had one of the first psychiatry units in the country and it was marvellous. My father gained tremendously from the therapy he received there. Oddly enough someone else has just written a history of the hospital and I was glad to contribute a chapter to it."

Her role as a humanist celebrant will have to be put on hold shortly as she intends to go to France for several months to consider her life options. "It might even be something in public life. My ultimate ambition would be to get to the House of Lords. I feel I would have lots to do."

She admires women like Sylvia Hermon the independent MP for North Down and Dame Joan Bakewell who sits in the Lords. "Why couldn't I be like them. If you really want something then anything is possible."

Belfast Telegraph

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