Claire McCollum: 'I love being a Proms queen'
Claire McCollum talks to Gail Bell about her excitement at presenting Proms in the Park and Songs of Praise, and reveals why her own stage singing debut might just be Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
It is only 11 o’clock in the morning but Claire McCollum, with half a day’s work already behind her, still manages to look effortlessly glamorous — even when answering the door in jeans and bare feet.
To be fair, I have arrived a little early and she hasn’t quite finished getting ready for her photo shoot following a morning run — “a regular head-clearer” — and after rising early to pack lunch boxes, sort schoolbags, find homework and safely deposit Samuel (7) and Rosa (5) at the school gates.
Since leaving full-time broadcasting in 2009, the popular Newtownabbey-based television presenter has been relishing the worthy role of wife (she proposed to self-employed financial advisor Alistair Clarke live on Downtown Radio in the leap year of 2000) and mother but now, after turning 40 in June, she feels ready to optimise time in front of the cameras again.
As luck would have it, this expedient “life begins at 40” conviction coincided with a job offer she couldn’t refuse: the chance to join the presenting team of BBC flagship religious affairs programme, Songs of Praise.
Going “national” on the network show that has been running for nearly 50 years and regularly pulls in 2.5 million viewers has been an “unbelievable privilege”, but before tuning into a special Harvest recording from Kenya next weekend, we will first see Claire in classical mode for the annual Proms in the Park extravaganza live from Titanic slipways in Belfast.
It will be her fifth time presenting the Proms here — and this year she and co-presenter Noel Thompson have a little surprise in store for the 11,000-strong evening crowd who will arrive with camp chairs, blankets and picnic baskets for what is being billed as a truly Titanic night.
As well as introducing and chatting to the artists — including Strictly stars Anton du Beke and Erin Boag, as well as platinum-selling West End star Alfie Boe — the presenters will turn performers themselves (sort of) to belt out a hearty duet from the Mary Poppins repertoire.
Claire McCollum is making her singing debut live on air with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
“Yes, we are singing a Mary Poppins medley and we are singing a duet with that song,” she says, half-laughing, half-grimacing at the cheesiness of it. “But I am hoping everyone will see — and hear — about three seconds at most.
“I really can’t sing — I only do it in the shower or to the children — so it will be hugely embarrassing.”
The ability not to take herself too seriously and have a laugh while still being a professional down to her perfectly manicured fingernails is undoubtedly part of the McCollum charm package, which, added to a hugely likeable and unaffected girl-next-door quality, have helped propel her to the top of her game.
Producers of Songs of Praise were clearly impressed and gave her the all-important call-back after viewing a showreel sent by her bosses at BBC NI.
“It’s basically a compilation of your best bits,” Claire explains. “It’s a bit like an audio-visual CV, so it was a huge honour when they asked me to join the team. Songs of Praise is a sort of national institution.
“My first programme was broadcast on Father’s Day in June and it was really special going back to film at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Jordanstown where my own dad and mum took me to Sunday school as a child.
“I was brought up going to church and now my husband Alistair and I send our children to the same church. I like the constancy, the continuity it represents. Songs of Praise was regular viewing in our house on a Sunday night so I think, for many reasons, the programme is a good fit for me.”
So far, she has filmed in Yorkshire and Westminster Abbey with Bill Turnbull, the BBC Breakfast presenter, and Connie Fisher, the TV talent show winner and former West End lead in The Sound of Music. And in July she was whisked away to Kenya for the special Harvest programme, which is being broadcast next Sunday.
“Visiting Kenya was a moving, eye-opening experience, but very life-affirming and rewarding,” she says. “As we drove from Nairobi, we passed makeshift street stalls and barefoot women with children on their backs. It gave me a real sense of how other people lived.
“I met this amazing potato farmer from Donegal who was really living out his faith in a practical way by teaching people how to grow potatoes properly.
“I think that’s what it is all about — God’s work done through the humanity of others and I have seen at first hand how a little help really does go a long way.”
A geography graduate from the University of Dundee, Claire has always harboured a competitive sporting streak — she rode horses, played hockey and was an unlikely rugby out half while a student — but never saw herself working “on the telly”, having initially set out to be a teacher.
“In my fourth year at Dundee I felt I wasn’t really cut out to be a teacher like my mum and I started to think of other career paths,” she says.
“At family weddings my dad would always produce a camcorder and I would be his ‘reporter’, so I think that’s where the seed was sown. I was certainly always very comfortable in front of the camera; I would just be myself and never felt the need to be anyone else or put on airs or graces.
“I have always tried to stick to that rule — basically, what you see is what you get. The minute you’re not yourself is when things start to go wrong.”
Being a mum has been her best gig yet although her pregnancy with Rosa gave cause for concern after she suffered the same acute morning sickness, known medically as hyperemesis gravidarum, experienced by the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.
“It was a dreadful experience; much more than just feeling nauseous,” she recalls. “Literally, you can keep nothing down. I felt sick with Samuel too, but with Rosa I couldn’t even eat a crisp.”
Fear of repeating the experience is not applicable, she adds quickly, before there is time to speculate on a McCollum-Clarke junior, number three, joining the ranks.
“Now, I am enjoying some me time again, so no, another baby is definitely not part of the plan,” she says. “I love the work-life balance I have now and as the children are at school, I have a little more time to pursue other things so Songs of Praise came along at just the right time.
“Whatever materialises work-wise in the future though, I will first and foremost be Samuel and Rosa’s mum; a mum who does the school run and who organises swimming lessons, gymnastics and football — and tries to remember to pack the right stuff in the right bags.”
She is keen for her children to enjoy and benefit from sport the way she did herself, more as a means to perfect life skills such as good teamwork and discipline rather than a need to win at any cost.
“I think enjoyment of sport is the main thing,” she says. “I loved horse riding but I never competed at any great level. As a teenager, I may have had posters of horses on my bedroom wall — along with the red and white heart wallpaper — but I also had posters of Wham! and George Michael. I think it’s healthy to have a balance.”
She may not have competed at Olympic standard, but she did become something of a professional spectator while working on the sports desk with UTV and later as a freelance broadcaster.
High-profile sporting events on her CV include the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, NI World Cup qualifiers, Belfast International Horse Show, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in Derry or the World Police and Fire Games held in Northern Ireland for the first time last year.
These days, presenting music events seems to have taken centre stage and ahead of next Saturday’s all-singing, all-dancing night at the Proms with big sounds and big names, there is the important matter of choosing the big dress.
“Dressing up for the Proms is part of the fun and there is a real sense of occasion which everybody loves, she says.
“I’m not sure yet what I’ll be wearing, but I’m looking forward to having a look at some nice dresses and trying them on. It will have to be something a bit sparkly if I am standing next to Strictly dancer, Erin Boag.
“I am a huge fan of Strictly and I am hoping Anton du Beke can teach me a few moves.”
Despite the fun elements, it is a high-pressure broadcast — and one which must be scripted and rehearsed down to the last detail.
“I do get a little nervous before the Proms, but hopefully it doesn’t show,” Claire explains. “I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to getting things right; you want to get it right for the audience as well as the artists.”
Confident and composed in front of an audience now, she can still recollect dramatic flashbacks of stage fright as a young child about to perform her first ballet solo.
“I went to ballet classes when I was younger and I still have vivid memories of being too shy to go on the stage. I remember my number being called but I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Of course there’s little chance of that happening to the up-and-coming as well as seasoned performers booked for next weekend, among them 17-year-old BBC Young Musician of the Year, pianist Martin James Bartlett.
Martin will be making his Proms debut in Belfast and also on stage will be virtuoso violinist Krill Troussov from St Petersburg as well as jazz vocalist, Dana Masters, who is from South Carolina but has now made Northern Ireland her home.
“I think it is the best line-up yet,” Claire enthuses. “It is also probably the highlight of my own year socially, even though I don’t get to sit in the audience and enjoy it.
“I see it all from a different angle and get to soak up the atmosphere backstage so I feel very lucky to be doing this job and interviewing these amazing artists.”
As supercalifragilistic as they all are, if she could book anyone she wanted for the event, who would she choose?
“I know it's too late but I would love to have seen the amazing Luciano Pavarotti perform,” she reveals. “He came to Northern Ireland twice, the last time was for his concert at Stormont in 1999.
“I was working for Downtown Radio at the time and went along to his pre-concert press conference. Like other global stars, there was definitely an aura around him. When he walked into the room it was a moment I'll never forget, magical. I know the Proms audience would have loved him, too.”
Having moved on from her Wham! days, she is now more of a soul girl and likes to tune into the velvet voice of Rebecca Ferguson when winding down with some music at home.
“Rebecca Ferguson, who came second in The X Factor competition in 2010, is a real favourite,” says Claire. “I love her voice and I think she is a great performer.
“I was actually a bit of a latecomer in terms of music — my first concert was Robbie Williams at the King's Hall in Belfast when I was 23 and I only got round to getting a CD player three years ago.”
We may only ever see her in full make-up with not a hair out of place and wearing something impossibly gorgeous, but Claire McCollum, good wife and mother, charity supporter, church-goer and glamorous television presenter does have one guilty pleasure. She likes to slum it in pyjamas.
“As soon as I get home, even if it’s in the afternoon, I love getting into my pyjamas,” she whispers, conspiratorially. “The neighbours around here often see me in my slippers putting the bins out or fetching the kids from one of their friends’ houses, so it won’t be a huge shock that I don’t look like I do on television when I’m off duty.
“I love getting dressed up, but as soon as a meeting or work event is over, I’m straight into the comfies.”
She adds: “In any case, I think it would be hugely exhausting to be putting on an act all the time. I am just ‘Claire the mum’, with the so-called glamorous version making up about one per cent.”
The stars getting ready to shine at Proms in the Park
International and home-grown stars will join together for the social event of the year next Saturday in what promises to be a night to remember at Titanic Slipways.
The BBC Proms in the Park 2014 concert boasts a heady line-up of star acts, including award-winning tenor Alfie Boe and Strictly Come Dancing celebrity duo, Anton du Beke and Erin Boag.
Also taking part in what will be BBC Northern Ireland's biggest outside broadcast event of the year are Grammy-nominated saxophonist Amy Dickson — the first saxophonist to win the Breakthrough Artist Award at the Classic BRITs in 2013 — St Petersburg’s virtuoso violionist Kirill Troussov; BBC Young Musician 2014 winner, Martin James Bartlett, and American-born jazz vocalist Dana Masters.
And again, pulling it all together, will be the talented musicians of the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of David Brophy.
There has also been a slight deviation from the script this year with members of the audience challenged to put their own vocal cords to the test by singing their hearts out in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of Mary Poppins.
Those who have already sent recorded videos of themselves singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious will have to wait until Saturday to see if they make the cut — and end up in a virtual choir of singers which will be revealed online and in the parks around the UK during Last Night of the Proms.
Extracts from the Northern Ireland event will be carried across BBC1 and BBC2 on the night and viewers can also watch the entire Belfast concert online at bbc.co.uk/proms.