Belfast Telegraph

Helen Madden keeps her lit

by Natalie Irvine

Why didn’t you see my name in the mirror?” is a question often hollered at Helen Madden.

Complete strangers she comes by on a variety of familiar excursions — supermarket trips, walks in the park, the hairdressers — all still clasping onto their childhood grudge that their dear ‘Miss Helen’ excluded them from her ‘inner circle’ on UTV’s children’s programme Romper Room.

To many who haven’t followed her career much further, this is how Helen is best remembered.

But I am of course too young to remember the Romper Room — so I resigned myself to scouring YouTube and the like to find some tiny tit-bit of her ‘rompering’ performance, so in turn I don’t look a complete tit-bit when I meet up for our interview. But to no avail, I am unable to locate any video evidence that can enlighten me as to Helen’s persona and discover for myself why so many children were entranced by her show.

I needn’t have worried though. The moment I meet Helen in a Holywood coffee shop, it’s obvious why the tots were hooked — putting it simply, the woman lights up the room. This isn’t an understatement or some journalistic double talk — Helen, now 65, is absolutely glowing and to see her in person, you would be aghast to think she had left her early 50s.

She nestled down beside me into the cosy cafe booth, and almost immediately began to reel off all the juicy bits about her life — the life that she has loved dearly and in tiny episodes bitterly, but continues living to the fullest— so she tells me. She also briefs me with what happens after too.

“I want to be alive when I die!” railed Helen. I laugh and nod my head in agreement, that such a statement is worth making note of.

She then explained herself further to mention that only the day before, one of her most precious friends Mike Reid, lost his battle against cancer.

She said: “We were very close and I adored our conversations. We talked about art and poetry an awful lot, in fact the last conversation we had last week was about art. His energy surrounds me, and I am so grateful he was my friend.”

I could see in Helen’s eyes she is deeply upset, yet she is calm and exudes a manner I can only quantify as defiant.

Through the course of the interview discovering she was the first accredited humanist celebrant in Northern Ireland and has led sermons at hundreds of funerals, was something I was not expecting to hear, yet not greatly surprised by. Listening to her, I actually couldn’t envisage a more fitting person to recount and portray the life of human beings.

Helen said: “I trained in London and when I returned to Northern Ireland I was the first fully accredited non-religious celebrant here. I have performed hundreds of ceremonies, not just at funerals, but at baby naming ceremonies and weddings too.

“I first witnessed a humanist funeral when I was living in London, and I just knew it was something I could do — and wanted to do. I have been requested to hold ceremonies at children’s funerals too — in fact this is something that would be asked of me a lot.”

A few minutes later Helen broke off the interview for a telephone call. It was a funeral directors in County Antrim. When Helen ends her call, she tells me she had previously performed a ceremony up there not so long ago — the funeral director had just informed her he was so impressed with her decorum and service, he is putting her name forward to more families facing the difficult task of ensuring their loved ones are remembered before being laid to rest.

Helen is certainly not just the ‘Miss Helen’, the TV presenter of a by-gone era. She has a phenomenal acting history, recently playing the pivotal role of Bobby Sand’s mother in the film Hunger, screened on Channel 4 in 2009 and earning the director a Cannes Film Festival award to boot. For Helen though, it’s not about the fame game: she is no more proud for her onscreen performances as she is for her work as a trained psychotherapist and counsellor when she lived in London.

She said: “I worked for a time as a counsellor at Ealing Abbey. I counselled a lot of young men who had been sexually abused by priests in England. I also worked with a lot of people who had suffered from alcohol and drug abuse in Southall.

“I have read lots and lots of psychology books. It’s important to know life is difficult. You can’t teach your kids how to be happy in life, because they will just be disappointed. Life is difficult, the sooner they know that and the sooner you help develop them to cope with the difficult situations, the better it is for them. That is one of the best things you can give your children — the ability to cope.”

Helen was born and grew up in north Belfast and her mother had an enormous effect on her.

She recalled growing up in Twaddell Avenue to a “very liberal and lovely mother”. Being a Protestant family living near Ardoyne Chapel, she played with Catholic children and remembers her family taking in a Catholic woman whose house had been bombed.

“However some local Protestants didn’t see it that way and threatened to bomb her house too if her neighbour remained there. I will never forget my mother looked them in the eye, told them to wait until she had a witness, and then asked them to repeat what they had just said, in front of them too. My mum was fearless.”

Soon after, a blast bomb left in their front garden damaged a front window but her mother was undeterred and carried on doing what she wanted to do. “At my mother’s funeral the local priest told me my mother did a lot of community work for peace.

“We didn’t have much money growing up and had to share food, drinks, clothes — everything really. I remember the day I was doing my 11+ exam — I came home at lunch time and my mother gave me a whole tin of mandarin oranges to eat. I couldn’t believe it, I always had to share a tin with my sister so I was ecstatic!”

Helen went on to Grosvenor Grammar School where her love of creativity started to flourish. At school, Helen was in the A stream, captained the school hockey team and ran for Ulster. “At that age I believed there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. In fact I still think that.”

For Helen though, her ‘school days’ are never far behind her. In July she graduated with a distinction in her postgraduate creative writing course from Queen’s University Belfast. It was a course that also spearheaded her career full jolt onto the laps of leading literary giants. With the encouragement of her course tutor, the acclaimed writer Ian Sansom, Helen chose her dissertation idea and on complete impulse emailed her dissertation piece at the 11th hour to the Norman Mailer writing competition in GQ magazine.

She said: “He (Ian Sansom) saw me looking pensive in the university canteen one day and sat down beside me to enquire. I told him I hadn’t a clue what to write for my dissertation.

“He began to ask me about my life, and I told him a tale from when I was a celebrant in London. He said ‘That’s it, that’s what you have to write about.’ So I did.

Crediting her psychotherapy training as being a great help in her writing, Helen said it had helped develop characters “if you write what’s underneath”.

“Then I heard wind of the GQ competition. It was three hours to go to the competition, I changed the last line on my story and just sent it, not thinking anymore about it — I was far more worried about what my lecturers marking my dissertation were going to say about it.

“And I completely forgot about it. That is until the editor from GQ (Dylan Jones) rang me up to ask me if I was Helen Madden. I said yes and he said ‘well you have won the GQ Norman Mailer prize’.

“I was so gobsmacked I said ‘oh f@*k!’ to him. He said, that’s exactly what Norman would have said.”

It hasn’t always gone so well for Helen however.

Helen suffers from MS, and experienced her first crippling bout only a few years after the ‘Romper Room’.

She endured some tough times coming to terms with the illness but rallied by reading poetry, and beginning to think differently.

“I wasn’t dying from cancer. I started to change my diet and work around my illness. I rarely think about it now.

“I am so grateful all this in my life has happened to me, and like I always say, ‘Keep her lit!”

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