Michael Cameron on a remarkable series of coincidences that led to penning a play about Ruby Murray
The former senior civil servant and husband of DUP MLA Pam Cameron tells Stephanie Bell how writing the stage drama has helped him to cope with a debilitating health diagnosis
Michael Cameron was devastated when ill health forced him to leave his career as a senior civil servant working at the heart of government in Stormont.
Used to long hours and stressful work as a political officer for various ministers and secretaries of state, he found himself at home in Antrim, faced with long, empty days to fill.
Little did he know he was about to embark on a fantastic journey that would lead him into the world of the arts, where he would make friends for life and pen his first play.
Michael's production, Ruby, is already causing a sensation, even before the curtain goes up this month at Belfast's Lyric theatre.
Tickets for the play, which tells the captivating story of the life of Ruby Murray - one of the biggest singing stars of the 1950s - are the hottest in town. The run at the Lyric is already sold-out, but tickets remain for the province-wide tour.
Such is the interest in the production, there is talk of new dates being pencilled in.
No one, of course, is more delighted than father-of-three Michael (53), who still marvels at the series of coincidences which led him to become a playwright.
It all started with a painting of Ruby Murray he saw when he popped into a gallery in Cornmarket in Belfast during his lunch hour 10 years ago.
Too expensive to buy, it nevertheless made such an impression on Michael that he went back a few days later to have another look at it, only to discover the gallery had gone.
"It was a pop-up gallery and it had closed," he recalls. "I didn't even know who had painted it.
"I Googled the painting, but I couldn't find any information. I ended up forgetting about it until 2014."
What brought it back to his mind was an extraordinary coincidence triggered by a series of events that began with hearing, late at night, of the sudden death of Labour MP Paul Goggins.
Michael, who had worked with the politician, was vexed to hear the news and shared his thoughts on social media.
"I got talking to someone on Facebook. We were messaging back and forward, then I discovered that it was Christine Truman, and that she was the artist of the painting of Ruby," he says.
"Even talking about it now, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, so you can imagine how I felt back then.
"Shortly after that, a good friend of mine, (the singer-songwriter) Duke Special, made a documentary and recorded a couple of Ruby's songs.
"Suddenly, I was surrounded by coincidences and all these things to do with Ruby.
"I had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder, and was off work sick. I eventually had to leave work in 2016, but I needed to keep my brain active, so I started to write little stories.
"I thought I could write about Ruby, never once thinking it would end up as a play."
Michael worked in the Civil Service at Stormont from early 2000. He was only 50 when poor health forced him to leave.
He was at a Duke Special concert in 2015 when he noticed the first sign of his condition - a tremor in his leg.
"I didn't think anything of it, but over the next three months it spread through my body," he explains.
"After I had various tests, I was told it was a functional disorder of the brain.
"It is not life-threatening, but it does incapacitate you in terms of how you function.
"It can affect my speech and my balance. I sometimes stammer, I fall over a lot, my brain gets a bit fuzzy and I can't remember words or what I was going to say.
"It is very frustrating and there is no treatment for it. Basically, it's like my brain is a computer - the hardware is fine, but the software is faulty."
Michael's life-changing diagnosis came not long after he had found happiness with his second wife, Pam (47), the South Antrim DUP MLA.
The couple met in 2011 and made headlines when, just four weeks later, Pam left her then husband, putting the new couple in the media spotlight.
Since then, Pam has spoken about how it was love at first sight. Similarly, Michael admits there was an instant attraction.
"When we met, we just found ourselves talking to each other for ages," he says.
"Very quickly we decided we should be together. That created some difficulties."
For starters, Pam had three grown-up children, William (26), Daniel (25) and Hannah (22) as does Michael - Connor (23), Courtney (20) and Jack (18). Today, Hannah and Jack live with the couple in Antrim.
Michael and Pam married in 2013. They were ready to embark on a new life together but, a short time later, his diagnosis changed their lives.
"Pam and I had just married and there was so much I wanted to do, but suddenly I was confronted by this unknown illness," he remembers.
"It is difficult for her because she has her own career and life to live, and the nature of her work means she is out all hours.
"I was the same in that I was used to being out all day and busy.
"It has been quite difficult for both of us to get our heads round it, but we've been slowly adapting to it. My saving grace has been that I can write."
Michael's play, a one-woman performance by actress Libby Smyth, celebrates Ruby's life, music and triumphs, but it doesn't shy away from exploring the darker elements of her life.
Born in Belfast and raised in humble surroundings on the Donegall Road, she went on to become a huge star, topping the bill at the London Palladium in the 1950s.
Ruby, whose hits included Softly, Softly, When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Dear Old Donegal, remains the only artist in history to have five records in the UK top 20 at the same week.
Sadly, she struggled with alcoholism for most of her life. The illness contributed to the breakdown of her first marriage to Bernie Burgess, a member of a successful television and recording vocal quartet, in 1974.
After the divorce was finalised in 1976, Ruby moved to Torquay to live with an old friend, Ray Lamar, a former stage dancer and theatre impresario who was 18 years her senior. They married in 1993, not long before her death.
Ruby had two children from her marriage to Bernie, Julie, now 58, and Tim (53). She died in 1996 at the age of 61.
As Michael began researching the singer's life, who died in 1996 at the age of 61, he was surprised to find her first husband still ran a website for her. He decided to contact him by email.
"He rang me that same day and we have been talking ever since," Michael says. "It took some time to build up trust and show him that I was not intending to sensationalise anything.
"He shared old stories and memorabilia, which was incredible. I have also become friends with her son, Tim. He has stayed with us and we've become very close. Bernie, Julie and Tim will all be at the opening night of the play, which will be very special."
Michael had been planning to write a book, but after a friend introduced him to Sam McCready, one of Northern Ireland's best-known actors, directors and playwrights, the idea for the play was born.
"I didn't know who Sam was, but he was happy to look at what I had written," Michael says.
"He very graciously asked if I would consider turning it into a monologue. This legendary figure in Belfast theatre wanted to work with me - I couldn't believe my luck.
"I would send him drafts, then he would comment on them and send them back.
"Last year in May we had a reading in the EastSide Arts theatre - people just stood up and clapped.
"Before that we knew we had a story, but at that point we knew we had a play."
Sam, who is now a friend and mentor to Michael, was due to direct Ruby but, because of poor health, he was forced to pass the baton to renowned local director Richard Orr, who instantly bonded with Michael.
Ruby premiers at the Lyric on February 13, running for seven nights, after which it will go on tour around Northern Ireland for another six nights.
"Although the play is quite dark at times as it covers Ruby's battle with alcoholism, Richard has worked really hard to make it a strong piece of drama," Michael stresses.
"Even if you don't know who Ruby is, you are still going to see a powerful play.
"I have spent three years on this and it is so huge for me to be able to honour Ruby.
"More than anything, I just want people to look at her, hear her voice and say what a talent she was. I think Belfast should be proud of her and I hope I have done her justice.
"For me to be able to see the play open and the tickets sell out... it is definitely up there with one of a lifetime's 'wow' moments."
For Michael, the new direction his life has taken has proved invigorating.
"I lived and breathed politics for 10 years in Stormont from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until I closed them at night," he says.
"Now, it is like I have stepped into another world. Getting to spend time with people in the arts means I can see how they are affected by budget cuts.
"It is interesting to see it from the other side."
And what became of the painting of Ruby which set him off on such a fascinating, life-changing journey?
Michael smiles as he explains: "Christine has become a good friend of mine. The painting was on display at a charity. She asked me if I would pick it up for her. I was happy to do so, but then she told me to keep it, put it on my wall and love it.
"It is now hanging in my hall - it's the first thing that people see when they come into my house."
Ruby premieres at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on February 13, running for seven nights, then touring Northern Ireland as follows: Marketplace Theatre, Armagh, February, 21; Web Theatre, Newtownards, February 22; Craic Theatre, Coalisland, February 23; Alley Theatre, Strabane, February 28; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, March 1; and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, March 2. For tour bookings, visit venue websites or visit Little Willow Productions on Facebook or Twitter