Eamonn Holmes reflects on his 35 years in television
As Eamonn Holmes clocks up an incredible 35 years on our TV screens, he talks to Una Brankin about working with wife Ruth Langsford, that row with Anthea Turner... and how he owes it all to his 87-year-old mum, Josie
He was at it again yesterday on ITV’s This Morning. Famous eyebrows raised, our Eamonn challenged two commentators who were supporting the proposed sacking of a teacher in Wales for throwing an insubordinate pupil’s phone out the window and allegedly hitting him with a book.
The 17-year-old had ignored the experienced maths and German teacher (54) when she asked him to stop watching a music video on the phone and Eamonn was backing her all the way when one of the guests questioned the example her action gave.
“It shows who’s in charge, that’s what it does,” he countered, having put on his best Kevin-the-teenager face to illustrate his point. “We were ruled by fear (at my school).”
Not that he’s complaining — the former St Malachy’s pupil was full of praise for the prestigious north Belfast grammar school when I caught up with him this week.
He’d just been grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sky News, frustrated at his bland deflection of questions on his leadership style and had set aside an hour of his hectic schedule for a chat.
He’s very friendly and exactly the same as he is on-screen, albeit less mischievous, and with the odd curse word thrown into the conversation. Confident, but self-deprecating at the same time, he’s slick, yet gritty and proud of his working-class roots.
“My parents had to pay St Malachy’s a maintenance fee of £99 each a year for my brother and I, and they couldn’t afford to pay it all at once. And then there was the disgrace of having to wait six months before the rest of it could be paid at the end of the year,” he recalls.
“Without the education I received at St Malachy’s, I wouldn’t be anything. It made me someone and gave me confidence. I really believe, if you’re good at something, whether it’s sport, science, or something non-academic, like working with your hands, you have a moral duty to use it.
“It’s a gift from God and it’s a sin not to use it.
“I’m useless at most things, but I know it’s my duty to do the best I can at my job.”
No one can deny Eamonn's a great anchor on Sky News and a very entertaining co-host, with his wife Ruth Langsford, on This Morning on Fridays. But he admits that one day is enough for working together.
"We have our moments when it can be quite strained at times. Most other people tell lies and say 'Ooh, it's wonderful daarling', but if you are in any sort of relationship with someone, could you work 12 hours a day with them?" he wonders.
"You do say things to them you wouldn't say to a stranger; you take advantage of them. It can be the nicest thing, but you can get fed up with the sight of each other.
"But that's part of the attraction for viewers, wondering if we'd had a row. And if you're not giving them an insight into your relationship, as a husband-and-wife presenting team, what's the point?"
The couple will be going their separate ways soon - but only for their son Jack's half-term school break. While Ruth's off to see her family, Eamonn's coming back to Belfast to get some extra sleep and "see the people I love", including his 87-year-old mother, Josie, who had a successful operation to remove a cancerous tumour in 2010.
"It's very sad sometimes. She said to me this morning, 'Everybody I knew is dead; they're all gone'. It's hard when you get old and all those who were around you have died," he reflects. "But she's incredibly strong. She was the most wonderful, patient mother to five sons - she was the strongest one in the house.
"Oh yes, she's still stubborn. I think, as we all get older, we get set in our ways. She complains about aches and pains, but won't do anything about it. Very independent. Won't ask for help, won't seek charity and doesn't like taking benefits due to her, in a hugely admirable way, like all that wonderful generation who lived through the war.
"I'm physically very like her, but I'm a much weaker person."
Josie doesn't like the screeching headlines in some of the magazines which have Eamonn and Ruth killing each other on a regular basis. When Eamonn comments on-screen that he doesn't like Ruth's hair dark, for example, or ticks her off for showing a "private" photo of him sleeping on the couch, the showbiz weeklies have a field day.
"Ruth was in tears the first time," he recalls. "We were in a petrol station, paying and minding our own business, and there was us on the front of one of these magazines, with this big headline: 'I Want A Divorce, says Eamonn'.
"And it was a true story. Ruth had got (son) Jack a full professional set of drums - the worst thing ever. What person in their right mind would want all that banging going on in the house?
"So, after I found them in the front room, I said on Twitter, 'Surely grounds for divorce ... and that's where they got the line. They get round it by putting a nice enough story inside that has little to do with the headline. That was about five years ago - they make us out to have a very turbulent life. It does add strain within the extended families - they'll be on the phone saying: 'You two hate each other.'"
Acknowledging that he spends far more time getting to see his wider family than his friends, Eamonn credits his late father, Len, who died of a heart attack in 1991, with teaching him generosity, a trait he has always shown to his colleagues and rookie reporters in the Northern Ireland media.
"Very few helped me - only Jackie Fullerton, really," he remarks. "There wasn't much guidance; you were thrown in at the deep end. I always wondered why there was no help.
"I've always had a kindness; I get that from dad. He used to say: 'If you can't do a good turn, don't do a bad one.' I try to apply that to my life. And you won't get anyone more open-minded than me. I'm from a very working-class background - dad was a socialist.
" He used to say about the politicians: 'None of them care about the working man' and he was right. I'm not political, but I'm very pro-trade unionist; society's weaker without their influence. It's just a pity the extremists spoil it."
Although he now lives in a six-bedroom mansion in Weybridge, Surrey, the broadcaster denies he's fabulously wealthy.
"I've done well, but I'm not even in the Top 500 richest. It's the ones that keep quiet who have the real money - I'm middle-league and Ruth and I lead very ordinary lives. We'd rather go home and watch Coronation Street than have to go to some event.
"I find Celebrity Big Brother a guilty pleasure, too. I wouldn't like to be in there as a contestant. I wouldn't trust myself; what I'd say or do. It's designed to make you as irritable as possible."
Looking back on his award-winning 35-year career, Eamonn feels blessed, but he recalls the last eight years of his 12-year run on GMTV as a dark period in his career, which led to his divorce from his first wife, Gabrielle.
He joined the morning show in 1993 and landed in hot water when he described co-host Anthea Turner as "Princess Tippy Toes", in a private conversation with a Press officer, who went to the papers with his juicy nugget.
"Anthea and I are very chilled with each other now, but 20 years ago we were very different types of presenters," he explains.
"It was an arranged marriage, by the people in power, that didn't work. Anyway, the Press officer left and it was me who was threatened with the sack by the egotistical management, who didn't like to be challenged.
"GMTV fuelled it for the publicity, which was massive. It was unjust - was I not allowed my personal, private opinion?
"All that spotlight and pressure we were under led to the break-up of my first marriage. It was horrendous - the Press was camped outside our front door in Belfast.
"I remember asking one of them, 'Why are you doing this to me?' and he said, 'It's simple - you're the best thing we've got'. They didn't give a monkey's. I was just 30 and had three kids and thought the TV business should be fun and here I was, being threatened with the sack.
"There was a lot of stress. I was facing losing my house and my family. They didn't sack me in the end and Anthea left, shall we say. It was purely a financial decision, because I gave them their (audience) figures. I had no relationship with management and always used the side door after that. It was a work-to-rule situation.
"Very unhappy part of my life. I survived, but it was like a cancer that got me in the end and I wasn't free until I walked out the door eight years later."
Eamonn went on to present Songs of Praise while making GMTV the most watched morning show, with co-host Fiona Phillips, until he left for Sky News in 2005. "I always loved working in a breaking-news environment - back in UTV, it was only hourly updates if you were lucky and the BBC, having better resources, made UTV more competitive and a pain in their backsides. We were the underdog and we were hungry.
"So much has changed technology-wise - although there's you in the car on Bow Street talking to me and taking notes. Respect! That's what we all had to do when I started in UTV in 1986. There weren't even tapes; it was all shorthand, and there were no mobiles; you had to phone in from a phone box. No one would believe it now."
I wonder if he's missing his lunch; he hopes I'm not missing mine.
He has put on a few stone over the years, which hasn't helped his "crumbling" hips. He needs a double replacement, but is putting off the operations until "they spit me out".
He made the headlines yet again two weeks ago on Ryan Tubridy's RTE radio show, when he gave off about his experiences with an uptight Meg Ryan and a pampered Rihanna and her obnoxious bodyguard.
He's a guest on the show in January, ahead of a new Channel 5 series he's co-hosting with Ruth on the lifestyles of the mega-rich (including a famous, soon-to-be major investor in Norhern Ireland.)
So would he ever like to present the Late Late Show?
"I would think of it, but Ryan (Tubridy) is a wonderful host. I don't like being a guest. I'm nosey and I like asking questions. I had a brilliant interview with Christopher Lee in St Paul's Cathedral and I'd love to interview Doris Day before she dies.
"What an amazing career and life she's had and there are so few real stars like her left. And I'd love to interview Stephanie Powers (of Hart To Hart fame). She was in McLintock with John Wayne, very young at the time.
"Westerns and films are my escapism. Don't like these depressing ones that win Oscars. Going to see that Matt Damon one, Martian, with two of my sons. It's a good way to spend time with them - that and sport and with the dog."
He chats on in his desultory way, 90 to the dozen, before he has to continue with his 12-hour day and prepare for This Morning.
(Ever the professional, he was texting the Belfast Telegraph between yesterday's live segments and before his ice-bucket dunking to make sure we got the pictures he sent for this piece).
He still has a cardboard cut-out of John Wayne that I saw in his house in Carryduff nearly 25 years ago, by the way. He was as self-assured and down-to-earth then as he is now. And as kind.
"I always had an innate confidence in myself and I don't need other people's approval to feel confident. I'm my own person and I'm my own biggest critic - I can't speak a foreign language and I have no huge talent. I'm just well-known for being well-known; my biggest achievement is to have survived and kept relevant.
"I've had a really good run. I just do me. You be you and I'll be me."