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TV legends Gloria Hunniford and Jackie Fullerton on BBC licence fee controversy

This week’s shock announcement has dealt a blow to many older people who reply on their TVs as a vital companion. Gloria Hunniford, Jackie Fullerton and Myra Vennard tell Stephanie Bell about their viewing over the years and how they feel about the controversial decision

Looking back: people gathered round watching TV from the street
Looking back: people gathered round watching TV from the street
Jackie Fullerton
Gloria Hunniford
Myra Vennard

By Stephanie Bell

The BBC's announcement that it is to make most over-75s pay the TV licence fee has caused a furious backlash this week with many of its own stars turning on the corporation.

One presenter, Ben Fogle, has announced he is donating his entire year's salary from the BBC series Animal Park to Age UK which is campaigning against the changes.

Fogle said it is wrong to "penalise" the over-75s in this way. A petition against the proposals has also been launched on social media in Northern Ireland.

The BBC claims that it is the only way to avoid closing channels and making substantial cutbacks.

Millions of households will have to start paying £154.50 a year from June 2020 for the right to watch live television and access the BBC iPlayer service.

The BBC intends to continue to provide TV licences to over-75s who can provide evidence that they claim Pension Credit, a means-tested benefit designed to help older people.

Charities including Age UK, however, claim that some elderly viewers will be pushed into relative poverty by the decision, with concerns over whether older viewers will be able or willing to prove they are receiving benefits.

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It is also feared that it could result in the criminal prosecution of elderly people who do not pay or are not able to pay.

As the furore continues, some of our best-known over-75s talk about what TV means to them and share fond memories of their early years when not everyone was blessed to have a TV in their home.

'It is very shabby treatment of vulnerable people'

Retired BBC NI sports editor, Jackie Fullerton (76) lives in Ballymena with wife Linda (74), a retired school teacher. A former Irish league footballer, Jackie played for Ballymena United, Cliftonville, Derry City and Crusaders before starting his career in TV sports reporting in 1973.

Like most people Jackie is outraged at the news that free TV licences are to be taken from the over-75s.

He says: "I think it is a very poor decision and a very hurtful one. Elderly people have paid their dues with their taxes and national insurance throughout their lives. It is very shabby treatment of people who are vulnerable and it will hit so many people financially.

"Television is a boost for elderly people and I think it is nonsense and cruel to take the licence away.

"The government has made such a mess of Brexit and it makes you wonder what our politicians are doing and if they have any thought at all about the people they represent."

Perhaps unsurprisingly one of Jackie's biggest memories of TV from his childhood is watching Northern Ireland qualify for the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.

Jackie, who still commentates for the BBC, says TV has always - and still does - play a big part in his life. He estimates he watches between five and six hours of TV a day, adding up to around 35 to 40 hours a week.

He recalls: "I grew up at a time when the BBC had all the big sporting contracts and now the whole landscape has changed with Sky Sport and BT Sport.

"Television was invaluable over the years and I will never forget watching Northern Ireland qualify for the next round of the World Cup. We watched it on a grainy 14-inch black and white TV and we were all so proud of being able to do so.

"I grew up in a housing estate in Ballymena. My dad was a postman and my mum worked in Gallagher's factory and I remember cutting ads out of the newspapers for renting TVs and showing it to them.

"It cost around 2 (old shillings) and 11 pence a week for our 14-inch screen - or 3 and 6 pence for a 17-inch which was a gigantic screen back then as most were 12 or 14 inches. They couldn't afford it but they did eventually get one and of course your next step after that was to get a colour TV."

As well as watching all the sports, among his fondest memories as a child are old western movies and in particular, The Lone Ranger.

He says: "All the entertainment programmes we had were a joy and British people of my vintage were brought up with a superb service of sport, current affairs and entertainment and we have now got used to that.

"I loved and still do love old westerns and black and white movies, there is still a real charm about them."

Like many people, Jackie's evenings revolve around his favourite TV programmes.

He and his wife are not big daytime viewers, but enjoy settling down before the teatime news to watch the game show Tipping Point and quiz show The Chase.

Jackie watches the local teatime news on UTV and then catches it again on the BBC at 6.30pm.

He is also a big fan of comedy, but detests reality TV.

"I love Frasier, which is about an American psychiatrist, and would try and catch the old westerns as well as, of course, a good diet of sport.

"My wife loves factual programmes like The Yorkshire Vet which I have been watching with her and it's very good. She also loves GPs Behind Closed Doors.

"She doesn't watch soaps or stuff like that, she likes real TV.

"I don't really watch local political shows as, like a lot of people in Northern Ireland, I am fed up with local politics. We still like our news though and most evenings will watch Tipping Point and The Chase before the news.

"I usually sit down between seven and eight and watch Mash, the comedy about an American army hospital, and that gives me a belly laugh.

"I then have a break for an hour and from 9pm until 10.30pm I will watch Taggart, a police detective series and from 10.30pm to midnight I might watch another Taggart."

‘Where poverty begins and ends is not BBC’s decision’

Broadcast journalist and presenter Gloria Hunniford (79) spends most of her time making TV, but when at home in Kent with husband Stephen Way, she enjoys watching a mix of news, entertainment and documentaries.

Gloria's very first memory of TV was watching the Queen's Coronation in 1953 in a neighbour's house in Portadown.

She recalls: "The first TV I ever saw was in a neighbour's house on the Armagh Road in Portadown. Her name was Mrs McCracken and she was the first person I knew who owned a TV.

"I remember asking her if I could be there to see the coronation and I was first in the line as everyone wanted to go. On a Saturday night I would tap on her door and ask if I could come in and watch Come Dancing.

"I was a singer in those days and it wasn't so much about the show as the dresses. I couldn't believe the dresses with their thousands of diamantes and sequins and all I could afford at the time was about a dozen of them round the neckline of my dresses."

Gloria, who grew up in a two-up two-down terrace house, was around 13 when her parents got their first TV.

She remembers it vividly: "It was this tiny little TV but it was the best thing ever. To have our own TV was just amazing. I remember I loved watching Little Women every Sunday as a young girl and I used to cry at it and tell everyone in the family to stop looking at me. I still love the book.

"We all watched the London Palladium on a Saturday night. I remember my dad loved it and the formation of all the dancers and how high they could kick their legs. It left such an impression.

"We liked entertainment programmes as my dad was a magician at nights but now, because of my job, I mainly watch the news."

As a panellist on the popular daytime show Loose Women, which regularly has guest stars from the soaps, Gloria likes to keep abreast of the plots by dipping in and out of Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Her schedule doesn't allow for watching much TV though as her days can be long and busy with early 4.30am starts to get to the studio in London for Loose Women, usually not returning home until 7pm.

She says: "I love Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night and I enjoyed Britain's Got Talent - it was very amusing and I loved the pensioner from Chelsea who won it, and can't wait to see him on the Royal Variety Show."

One routine that she does stick to is watching the 10 o'clock news every night and, when she can, she enjoys watching breakfast TV, again to catch up on current affairs.

She reckons that she watches around two hours of TV every day and when at home enjoys sitting down with her husband to watch The Chase quiz show. "We like playing along although I don't get to watch it all the time," she says.

Gloria has been vocal this week about the proposals to scrap the free TV licence for over-75s.

"All I want to say is that I don't believe it is the BBC's job to decide where poverty begins and ends, it is the government's job."

‘Many pensioners are poor but not on pension credits’

Myra Vennard (89), from Ballycastle, is the author of three poetry books, Easter Saturday, Blind Angel and Soul Station. A winner of a Belfast Telegraph Women in the Arts award, Myra has two children, Deirdre (62) and Paul (54) as well as five grandchildren and three great grandchildren. She lost her husband, Norman, in 1979 and has lived alone ever since.

Even though she doesn't watch a lot of TV she feels the new proposals to stop giving free licences to the over-75s is unfair.

She will herself be exempt because she is on pensions credit but she knows that a lot of pensioners who are entitled don't claim credits - an issue raised by charities this week.

She says: "It is quite bad they are going to take the licence away. A lot of pensioners are poor and not even claiming pension credits and I think that's a shame and something that needs to be addressed."

Televisions were unheard of when Myra was growing up and her very first TV was bought after she got married in 1953 so that she and her husband could watch live coverage of the Queen's Coronation.

She says: "I remember televisions were very expensive and it wasn't until I got married that I got my first TV when Norman and I bought one for the coronation. It was one of those little TVs with the thick front and big back. Growing up there was no such thing as TVs but I do remember in my teens my father making one. He was an electrician and apparently it was possible for electricians to do this and he made one and I can't remember what it looks like but I do remember bragging about it.

"The Queen's Coronation was a big thing and people met in each other's houses to watch it and have a party.

"I don't remember the names of TV shows that I would have watched back then but I do recall watching Val Doonican, who was an Irish crooner, and some quiz shows.

"Looking back now it was a bit of a novelty but there was a lot of rubbish on too - that's not to say that there is no rubbish on now!"

When her daughter, Deirdre, came along in 1955 and her son, Paul, nine years later, Myra recalls that what little children's programmes were on at the time proved a great relief for her as a busy mum. She says: "I remember the children's programmes Andy Pandy and The Wooden Tops. There weren't many programmes for children but they were a Godsend, just being able to set the children down in front of them. My daughter in particular really liked the children's programmes."

Myra still writes most days and never switches her television on during the day, preferring to listen to BBC Radio 3 instead.

Some days she will tune in early afternoon to watch Escape to the Country but most days she switches her TV on at 6pm for the evening news.

After that she will tune in to her favourite channel, BBC4, to see what historical programmes are on. She says: "I don't watch any TV in the morning or any of the afternoon quiz shows. I like factual programmes and I love catching old black and white movies from the 50s on Talking Pictures.

"My favourite channel is BBC4 because it has historical programmes and I also like anything to do with art.

"I like programmes that you get a message from, something that fires the imagination and I love music, mostly classical.

"I go to bed most nights around 9.30 and read for an hour."

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