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Gloria Hunniford: Mum cried for an entire day because she wasn't at my wedding

Part 2 of our revealing interview with Gloria is in tomorrow's paper where she talks about the heartbreaking loss of Don, her daughter Caron and finding happiness with her new husband, Stephen Way

Gloria's apologising for coughing and spluttering. She doesn't have a cold - she has no idea what has caught in her throat. In fact, she confirms, she's in fine fettle, bar the odd twinge from an old shoulder injury.

At 77, she has no arthritis and still has the skinny pins that earned her the nickname 'bird legs Hunniford' as a young girl in Portadown.

"They're the only part of me that's stayed slim," she laughs. "They've held me in good stead. I managed to crack my pelvis last Christmas, but I've no real complaints.

"I've always followed Jan de Vries' advice. I take high-strength vitamin C very day, vitamin D, fish oil and calcium for my bones."

The much-admired broadcaster is speaking from her beautiful home in Sevenoaks, Kent, to promote her memoir, My Life, out on October 19.

It's a well-written, detailed book that begins with her happy, lively childhood and her year-long adventure in Canada at 17 - a life-changing experience she credits with shaping her outlook on life, as well as her highly successful career.

The seeds of Gloria's ambition and sophistication were sown early, in the three "picture houses", as she still refers to them, in the otherwise austere market town of Portadown in the 1950s.

"I'd go to see these big Hollywood movies three times a week sometimes," she recalls. "I'd see these American houses and their bathrooms and fridges - all these things that we didn't have.

Gloria surrounded by relatives celebrating her father’s 70th birthday

"I just loved Doris Day. I dressed like her and I wanted to be just like her, so it was such a thrill when I eventually got to interview her and Leslie Caron - I named my Caron after her. I really loved the film Gigi.

"When I was in London, I'd see these stars like Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart that I'd seen at the pictures in Portadown - they'd be behind the glass in the studios. It was quite hard to believe."

With stars in her eyes, the tiny Gloria (she was always petite) took to the stage at the age of seven, singing in the town hall and at local festivals. Soon she was singing in churches, schools and concerts across Ireland and aged 10 earned £8 in just one week.

Her innate confidence and sense of independence from that young age comes across emphatically in her memoir. But where did those qualities spring from? Her father was a member of the Mid-Ulster Variety Group, and did regular turns as a magician. "I think it's in my genes," she says, chatting at her home in Kent. "My sister was very happy to stay in Portadown, near mum, and she was very settled and happy there, but I had a wanderlust and I also had to fight hard to get an education.

Gloria sitting in a chair the Queen sat in in June 1959

"My parents said there was no money to send me to Portadown College, which was seen as too posh then. They couldn't afford the uniform and the books, but I had my money from singing since I was seven. Then, at Christmas, I'd get a school trench coat as a present.

"I just had this burning ambition to get a grammar school education. I was always ambitious."

Growing up in the Church of Ireland, as the daughter of an Orangeman, Gloria was aware that Portadown was divided along sectarian lines, with Protestant schools at one end of the town and Catholic ones at the other. But, as she recalls in her memoir, her eyes were opened by her trip to relatives in Canada in 1957. She blossomed in her new cosmopolitan environment, where she landed a job in local radio and found passionate romance with young Canadian.

"It really opened my eyes - all nationalities and faiths lived together there very happily," she remembers. "I'd met this young man and accepted his proposal, but the worst thing you could do then was to get pregnant before marriage. There were lots of restrictions.

"Anyway, I'd promised my parents I'd come back for Christmas and I was always taught to honour my promises. It still would break my heart to break an agreement. Then, I got the offer of some work experience, so I wrote to tell him I wasn't coming back, and that was that."

Teased by her family over her new transatlantic accent, Gloria realised her clear, mellifluous speaking voice, combined with her focus and attention to detail, would get her further in life than singing, her first love.

Gloria with Caron, baby Michael and Paul in 1970

She continued to perform throughout her journey from secretarial work to the airwaves and UTV television screens, and she even made an album along the way that she pitched to BBC Radio 2 in London.

The head honcho was so impressed with her, he offered her a presenting slot, filling in for Terry Wogan. The die was cast for her sparkling career. Her father died in 1981, 10 years after suffering a stroke from which he never fully recovered. "My only regret about Dad is that he never lived to see me achieve the national broadcasting success on television, which was to come so soon after his death," she reflects in her memoir. However, she reckons that, "wherever he is, he knows".

Unfortunately, as she also writes candidly in My Life, the opportunity was to eventually sound the death knell of her marriage to Don Keating, an English cameraman and director with southern Irish roots, whose Catholicism had presented a major problem for her father when the couple became engaged.

Neither of her parents attended Gloria's wedding, which was officiated by a Catholic priest in Belfast and was followed by an inexpensive, jolly reception in the Wellington Park Hotel, on the lower Malone Road.

"It was quite sad," she says now without rancour. "Mum did as she was told, as it was back then. I heard afterwards that she cried all day. She said not being at my wedding was the biggest regret of her life.

"You see, the opinions of the Orange Order and Dad's lodge were more important to him than attending the wedding, and he was always a man of very high principles. He grew up as an Orangeman and he was proud to walk every July. He couldn't go against the lodge.

"I was disappointed, but I didn't hold it against him. I remember saying, 'But Don's an English Catholic and he doesn't even go to church all the time'. That wasn't the point. But Dad was 1,000% okay with Don after we got married and treated him like a son. He was very fond of him. He just couldn't attend the wedding service."

Driving ambition: Gloria during the early days at UTV

Gloria didn't have to 'turn' to become a Catholic to marry Don, although she had her eldest, Caron, baptised in the Catholic church in Don's hometown, as well as in the Church of Ireland back home.

"I never had an identity crisis, in any respect," she says. "I know where I come from. In Canada, I could see that the Irish and the Scots were more popular than the English. I see myself as Northern Irish/British/European, I suppose, but that's not something I focus on.

"I never got any flak for where I came from and the BBC took it very seriously when I was put on the IRA hit list - I was driven to work.

"The only time the way I spoke came up was when I was doing something for the World Service and someone there said to me, 'Do you always speak so quickly?'

"I had to slow down and pronounce words like 'eight' differently, or they wouldn't know what I meant. I notice the timbre of my voice has changed when I listen to old clips. It's not as high."

Don and Gloria's first home was a modest bungalow near Lambeg, outside Lisburn, before they settled in Hillsborough.

As a young mother, Gloria - always resourceful and used to having her own income - sold Avon make-up. Although her mother was a good cook and baker, Gloria admits she was neither - she even had to phone Don at work in the early days of their marriage to ask him how to make gravy. She paints an idyllic picture of village life in Hillsborough, doing the rounds of their neighbours' houses on Christmas morning and socialising in the atmospheric local pubs.

Gloria during as a young woman

In her book, she doesn't dwell on her early romance with Don or their married relationship - beyond disclosing that their wedding night, in Dublin's Gresham Hotel was "worth the wait". But she does address their break-up. After years of drifting apart, they divorced in 1992. "I was working in London and I'd gone back to Hillsborough for the kids to keep up the tradition of the family Christmas," she says. "Don had been away in South Africa working for six months - and I don't believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder." After he returned from South Africa and aware Gloria was relishing her career in London, Don found a job directing the popular current affairs show, Nationwide, but couldn't settle in England.

Gloria says: "Don hated it there, hated the crowds, the trains, the travelling. He wanted to play golf with his friends at home. That Christmas was terrible. I knew it was over."

She agrees that the situation was similar to the one her friend Eamonn Holmes found himself in with his ex-wife Gabrielle.

"The difference was that our two eldest kids were at college in England and I was keen as mustard to be in the same country as them," she explains.

"Don and I kept up a good relationship for the kids. We'd married when I was 21, which wasn't young for the time. You'd have been left on the shelf if you'd left it much longer. We just grew apart." Don was to die young - in 1997, aged just 61.

The marriage over, Gloria moved to Kent and commuted to the BBC in London.

"I remember Caron saying to me, 'Oh my God, you're starting a brand new life at the age of 42.' I'd had the kids when I was young, and really, the best thing in life is to have children. I would have had more if I could go back," she concludes.

"Anyway, there I was - I'd moved from orchard county - Armagh - to the garden of England. I didn't know anyone there at all, but it was an easy transition. I'm outgoing, so I get to know people, but I did miss my friends and family back home."

  • My Life by Gloria Hunniford, Blake Publishing, £20, is out on October 19

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