Christine Lampard's new TV mission to prove Northern Ireland folk are the friendliest
Ahead of her new series which starts next month, Christine Lampard tells Judith Cole how she set about convincing co-presenter Adrian Chiles that her countrymen and women are the friendliest in the UK
Christine Lampard is back where it all began. Bubbling over with excitement to be 'home' again, she is at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast to talk about her new series, co-hosted by Adrian Chiles, her former One Show and Daybreak colleague.
Since her career began here, working as a runner and floor manager at the Ormeau Avenue premises, she has risen to become one of the most familiar faces on television, currently standing in to present Lorraine and hosting Loose Women.
This latest show, Adrian and Christine's Friendship Test, centres on Christine's passion for declaring Northern Ireland the friendliest place in the UK. She sets out on a 'mission' to convince cynical Chiles that her theory is correct. Over three half-hour programmes, she takes him to a wide range of venues and encourages him to engage in 'friendly' activities, such as cross-community fishing, eating yellow man, meeting farm animals and joining a hurling team.
"I take any opportunity to get back home to work," Christine (38) says. "Adrian had been to Northern Ireland several times but he hadn't really explored it.
"When we did The One Show together, I was always banging on about how friendly home was. I feel very passionate about that and he'd go 'yeah yeah, you all smile at each other but you were having terrible times for decades - how can you tell me it's the friendliest place?'
"Suddenly the opportunity came up to film this series and we thought 'why not?' For me, it meant getting back home and staying at Mum and Dad's and it was such a lovely opportunity for Adrian to see what I've been talking about for all these years.
"And I wasn't let down at all - we got ourselves into some bizarre situations but we had a really lovely time and he felt almost emotional when it was finished."
Christine remembers her arrival in London to take up her first job there - and it was not what she was familiar with.
"When I first went across the water, it's not that I didn't find the people as friendly, they just seemed busier. Everything is busier, and the sheer volume of people was overwhelming," she says.
"I remember arriving at Shepherd's Bush, not knowing anything about the place, I didn't know one person, didn't know the area, and I remember walking down the street and getting bashed into and thinking 'gosh, I'm not used to this'. I definitely found it a massive difference. I had my mum with me for the first two months, staying in a hotel trying to calm me down.
"People are very giving with their time here. A lot of the people we filmed, if you turned up at their house, tea and cakes would have been produced - everything that I'm used to. You wouldn't go to my mum and dad's house without being fed."
Christine, who grew up in Newtownards, married footballer Frank Lampard in 2015, and is stepmother to his two daughters Luna (12) and Isla (10). She says that one of the highlights of making the series was meeting two ladies who'd been friends for decades, Nan and Betty.
"They had such a natural friendship, they could talk about things that happened 30 years ago and remember old jokes - they had a real bond, which was lovely to see," she says.
"We did a flip side of that when (for episode three) we went to Queen's University to put science into friendship. An experiment was conducted to compare the interaction between the two ladies and then between two young girls who didn't know each other that well. How you react with someone you know well and are very comfortable with is so interesting: when one leant forward the other would lean forward - it was like symmetry within the friendship."
Adrian (50), sitting on the couch next to Christine, explains how his recent trip to Northern Ireland was so different to his first when, in the late 1980s, he visited a girlfriend in Londonderry.
"I looked a bit like a squaddie - I had a shaven head," he recalls. "It was a massive eye-opener - I had seen it in the news, but to be here, I was absolutely staggered. Somewhere in my mind I thought it was theoretical, you know, soldiers in the streets and patrols, but it was actually real.
"So it was great coming here now and seeing how things are, and getting to travel around the country was just an absolute privilege, the way you're received in people's homes. There is something very easy about it. I was very happy to be cynical about Northern Ireland being the friendliest place. People generally are friendly wherever you go, but I did come away thinking that Northern Irish people were very special. Everywhere we went they were open-hearted, willing to talk."
Adrian says he knows what friendly people are like, having grown up in an affectionate family circle, and believes that Croatians are similar to people here.
"My mum's Croatian and everyone there is very friendly," he explains. "Then, suddenly, a violent fight breaks out and everyone bawls their heads off at everyone else and then a minute later everything has gone quiet and normal again."
"That's NOT what my house is like!" Christine retorts.
However, Chiles contends that his home city, Birmingham, has extraordinary qualities - although he admits they may not be immediately obvious.
"I think Birmingham is a very special place - everyone is a bit like me, a bit dour. We never big ourselves up. Christine says this is the friendliest place, but we would never say we're the friendliest or the best at anything. There's a website promoting Birmingham and it's called "Birmingham - it's not s***.com" which is about the biggest compliment we'll ever give ourselves."
Christine and Adrian agree that lasting friends are often found at an early age. Christine reveals that all her childhood friends are still in Northern Ireland, as well as her sister, Nicola - and she keeps in touch every day.
Adrian adds: "I went to the same school from five to 18, and I'm still close friends with about six people - we go back to 1971 when we started school. There's a special bond. We don't see each other that often but, when we do, we slip in to the same way of being. It's quite precious, that, when you get older.
"And, politically, it's quite interesting - a lot of people live in an echo chamber where they hang around with people like themselves, so if you're a left wing vegan you'll only hang around with left wing vegans. I've a lot of close friends who are proper Corbyn types and others who are out and out fascist - well, no, fairly right wing, I should say. It's good to know a broad spectrum of people."
As for modern-day friendships often being developed on social media, Adrian says he is a "refusenik" when it comes to Twitter or Instagram - but Christine believes it has positive uses.
"It's such an easy way to communicate - I text everything now," she says.
And regarding her two young stepdaughters, she is amazed at how much it features in their lives.
"The elder one in our house would be on everything if you allowed her to be," she says. "She's on Instagram, but a private account, she's on WhatsApp and all the interactive conversational apps, and all her friends are too. She's got a group of 12 girls and they talk about what they're doing at the weekend.
"She's doing the same things as I did but in a different way and, maybe instead of picking up the phone, they text, but does it make a huge amount of difference? I'm not sure that it does. As long as there's still conversation.
"This cyber bullying - we've had various letters over the past couple of years about what it is and how to handle it so there is definitely a darker side to what I'm talking about but if it's used properly then it's probably a good thing."
And Adrian, who has two daughters with ex-wife Jane Garvey, Evelyn (17) and Sian (14), adds: "I think there's more to be gained than there is to be lost on the roundabout, but there are dangers and it must be very stressful for kids."
Aside from the current programme, the pair have busy schedules ahead: Christine is presenting on daytime TV until Christmas.
"I'm loving it," she says. "Lorraine is an hour of live telly and you're totally on your own so it involves you thinking slightly differently. Loose Women is different again - you have a panel of very talkative women who you sometimes have to rein in, so it's all about timing. I really enjoy it all - there's a lot of reading, a lot of research but it's worth it."
And Adrian is working on a programme about alcoholism.
"It's about how important drinking is to all of us. A friend came round to my house recently and he told me he was driving round and I thought, 'Is that all our friendship is worth - you know, you're not even going to be drinking?'. I caught myself on but I went through the memories of my childhood and it's all about drinking."
Quickly, however, his focus changes from drink to food and, glaring at the plate of biscuits on the side table, he wails: "There was one jammy biscuit and it's gone. Who took it? One jammy dodger, and I'm left with a ginger nut."
And suddenly, perhaps Northern Ireland doesn't seem like the friendliest place after all.
Adrian and Christine's Friendship Test, three-part series starts Monday, November 6, 7.30pm, BBC One Northern Ireland