Belfast Telegraph

Gloria, me and those rumours about our 'affair'

For three decades Jackie Fullerton, footballer turned sports presenter, has been one of Northern Ireland's best-loved television personalities. Over the next three days his brilliant and revealing new autobiography is being serialised in the Belfast Telegraph. Today, Jackie (63) reveals how TV bosses confronted him with rumours of an affair with his co-presenter Gloria Hunniford (below)

A few seasons ago, I was commentating on a game between Omagh Town and League leaders Glentoran. "Jackie, Jackie, what about Gloria? Jackie, what about Gloria?" chanted the Omagh fans.

A few seasons ago, I was commentating on a game between Omagh Town and League leaders Glentoran. "Jackie, Jackie, what about Gloria? Jackie, what about Gloria?" chanted the Omagh fans.

I was completely bowled over. Not because I was on the receiving end of some stick from supporters; it was more to do with the subject matter.

Over two decades had passed since the rumour first circulated that I was having an extramarital affair with Gloria Hunniford.

I decided to ignore the yelling and get on with the job at hand. Still they kept calling out. Finally, I turned, smiled and gave my tormentors the thumbs-up. To tell you the truth, I was half expecting a cheer or at the very least some acknowledgement that I was entering into the spirit of this good-natured banter. Instead, this bloke barks back: "Aye, you can smile. But you made love to that woman and then you left her and broke her f***ing heart."

Gloria Hunniford and I come from the same working-class stock: industrious and proud people who also instilled a passion for music. Born in the bedroom of a two-up, two-down terraced house in the Co Armagh town of Portadown, she was singing and performing with the Mid-Ulster Variety Group at the tender age of nine. At 16, Gloria had progressed to appearances on the vibrant dance band scene, and by 18, she was featuring on radio stations in Canada, after taking up an invitation to stay with her Uncle Jim. It would be another decade before Gloria got her big break.

The decision to record the song Are You Ready For Love? helped pave the way. It reached number eight in the local chart, and the novelty of a singing Lisburn housewife soon came to the attention of BBC Northern Ireland. Gloria was impressive during her interview on BBC Radio Ulster, so much so that she was offered a job. Before long, she was the one doing the interviewing. The rest, as they say, is history. There was a 10-year stint working for British Forces Broadcasting alongside Sean Rafferty. More importantly, BBC Northern Ireland handed Gloria her own radio programme, A Taste of Hunni.

When Ulster Television decided it was time to revolutionise their traditional teatime news programme, there could be only one choice as presenter.

It was 1979, Gloria Hunniford was on her way to becoming the small screen's new shining star, and I was about to become her studio sparring partner - verbal sparring, that is. I never saw it coming, never for a minute imagined that our on-screen rapport would lead to scandal. I was branded an adulterer, but it was my reputation, not my marriage, that nearly didn't survive.

The camera loved Gloria. She exuded warmth and a confidence born of countless hours' broadcasting experience gained on the radio. This was a time before a broadcaster's best friend, autocue, when scripts had to be memorised and delivered. I was in awe at the way she made it all look so easy. Young English producer Alan Wright steered the ship, but there was no doubt about just whose programme it was. I found out the hard way.

I have Gloria to thank for securing me the sport slot on Good Evening Ulster. On her arrival, it was still occupied by that experienced campaigner Leslie Dawes, but his straight-up-and-down style of broadcasting didn't seem in keeping with the vision of producer or presenter. This was a news programme with a large dollop of light entertainment - right up my street, in fact. It helped me show the public another side to my personality, another dimension beyond the chap who reads the sport. Gloria also played her part to the full, feeding me lines for the quip and the comeback, talking me up as some sort of eye candy for the female viewer. She joked about my wavy hair, introduced me with 'Here he is, ladies', made people sit up and take notice. I was also on five times a week instead of one, and the extra airtime did wonders for my profile. The most important element, though, was the chemistry between Gloria and me. If there's such a thing as professional flirting, then that's what we did. When the red light came on, we switched it on.

Mind you, our warm working relationship didn't extend to taking liberties. I found out to my cost that it didn't pay to get too clever. Gloria had filmed a feature at Belfast Zoo, the piece ending with her kissing a tiger. To avoid coming straight from a shot of Gloria to her in the studio, I was asked to pick up off the back of the story. So I quipped: "Obviously a tiger with the heart of a lion." I could hear sniggering from the gallery and from the cameramen on the studio floor. I looked around to Gloria and she was glaring at me. Back in the newsroom, there was the usual facile post-programme chat. Then, through the door stormed Gloria. She pointed her finger at me and said: "Just you remember whose show this is!" If that didn't put me in my place, our next on-screen encounter certainly did. Gloria made me look like a right girl's blouse. Introducing me, she told the audience that I had been in make-up for four hours, staring at the mirror. She said I'd had my hair in curlers. She stitched me up good and proper. But that's where it ended; there was no bearing of grudges. Gloria had made her point. She'd flexed her muscles, revealing the tough side that would ultimately help her succeed on the mainland.

My first reaction on hearing rumours that I was having an affair with Gloria was to laugh. It was a rather nonchalant response that came from knowing it wasn't true. So I treated the gossip as a joke. Others didn't. Image may not be everything in the television business, but, believe me, it counts for plenty. Tarnished reputations can lead to trouble, and I was too naive to see that there didn't actually have to be an affair. The perception was enough. If the man and woman in the street start to believe the rumours, it can lead to an instant and unwanted image makeover. Before you know it, the decent bloke off the box can become the scumbag who's walked out on his wife to shack up with the blonde.

My employers were not quite so slow on the uptake; they knew straight away the potential for damage. They may well also have wondered if it was a case of 'no smoke without fire'. It was perfectly within their rights to ask me what was going on, and that's exactly what they did. I was summoned to Havelock House for a meeting with management. Waiting to confront me was my friend and former producer Derek Murray, accompanied by Jean Clark, a member of the company's middle management. They said rumours were circulating that Gloria Hunniford and I were having an affair. Not only that, apparently I had left my wife Linda and Gloria had parted company with her husband, Don. We were shacked up together in a love nest. The painters and bricklayers had spotted me leaving, and the gardener and plumber had identified Gloria at the same building.

I didn't mean to be flippant, but all I could say was: "Is it a nice place?"

"Trust you to come up with a funny line," Derek snapped back. "This is serious."

I tried to reassure them. I questioned how it could be serious when I knew it wasn't true, Gloria knew it wasn't true and, more importantly, Linda knew it wasn't true. My conscience was clear. I stressed that I could sleep soundly in my bed at night, but that wasn't enough to put their minds at rest. Derek and Jean asked what I intended doing about the matter. Once more, I appeared to misjudge the mood. "What do you want me to do?" I replied. "Go down to the City Hall with a megaphone and announce to everyone that I'm not having an affair with Gloria Hunniford?" Again, it sounded as though I was taking the whole thing lightly, and when Gloria got to hear of my City Hall comment, she accused me of revelling in the notoriety. I wasn't. As far as I was concerned, there was no affair and therefore no point in letting it get under my skin; the best plan of action was to ignore it. It was the classic ostrich approach and a total non-starter. For this was a story that wouldn't stay buried for long.

It was a Friday morning when Terry Smyth, who had taken over from Leslie Dawes as sports editor at UTV, called me into his office. He told me the Belfast Telegraph planned to run a story later that day about my affair with Gloria. I knew straight away that I had to speak to Linda. We had discussed the issue previously, but that was unlikely to lessen the shock and hurt when the newspaper came through our letterbox. Of course, contacting my wife was not easy in that pre-mobile phone era. Linda was teaching and I was left with no alternative but to ring the school at lunchtime. I told her about the impending Telegraph exposé. It wasn't a pleasant call to make. Linda had always been totally supportive, but it can't have been a bed of roses. Trust is essential to any marriage, but it doesn't make you immune to doubt. My wife and Gloria's husband were the real victims of the rumour mill. The story never did appear, and I'm fairly sure I have Malcolm Brodie to thank for that. I believe that, as sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph, he got wind of the article. Malcolm knew both Gloria and me well, I'd discussed the rumours at length with him, and I am sure it was his intervention that led to the story being spiked.

So what ended the whole affair, so to speak? Well, Gloria did. Or, to be more accurate, her soaring career did. In 1981, she was asked to provide holiday cover on Jimmy Young's network radio programme and became the first woman to present a regular weekday programme on BBC Radio 2.

We remain good friends. I met up with her at Children in Need in 2005. It was the first time I'd seen her since her daughter Caron's death following a long battle with breast cancer. We hugged. She looked sensational, immaculately turned out, as always, and yet there was a strained, pained look in her eyes. "How are you, darling?" I asked. Her reply was brief: "Every day's different."

It was a typical family get-together, a chance for the Fullerton clan to enjoy the craic and catch up on any gossip. The latter clearly interested my second cousin Addy, who appeared anxious for some confirmation of a rumour that had been "floating around", as he put it.

"Jakey, are yae doing a line wae that aul' thing Hunniford?" he drawled in the local vernacular.

"Do you want the truth, Addy?" I countered with suitable indignation.

"Aye," said Addy, now sure he was about to hear some sordid details.

"Well, it's not true, there's nothing in it."

Addy's response, well, it probably explains why I was still getting stick from football supporters in Omagh more than 20 years after the rumour started. I mean, if you can't convince your own family, what hope the general public? For, when confronted with the truth, Addy merely scrunched up his face and said, 'Away tae f***!'

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