‘I moved to England for love... Jeff told me he loved me for the first time in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and proposed this year in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House’
Formerly a newspaper and television reporter in Northern Ireland, Claire Savage talks to Lee Henry about why she moved to England for love, about her impending nuptials and meeting The Fonz.
Northern Irish television viewers will recognise Claire Savage as the former investigations reporter with BBC Newsline, all five foot, four inches of her beaming into living rooms from the scene of a crime or relating the dramatic details of high profile cases outside Belfast Crown Court.
With her husky voice and trademark blonde bob, this self-confessed “pocket rocket” was the on-screen face of news here for over a decade, but three years ago, in 2014, Savage made the courageous decision to up sticks and start afresh in England. Love was the deciding factor.
“I guess people noticed that I suddenly vanished from their screens after 15 years of reporting the news,” Savage laughs over the phone from her new home in Formby, Merseyside. “Even Jim Rodgers, the former High Sheriff of Belfast, messaged me recently asking where I had disappeared to.
“But I moved to England for love,” adds the 39-year-old, who currently works as development producer on ITV’s award-winning current affairs show Tonight. “I met my fiancé, Jeff Hocking (46), a car industry director, while in France on holiday with friends and we kept in touch as pen pals, initially.
“He told me that he loved me for the first time in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and proposed this year in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House. We’re getting married in January, in Mottram Hall, Cheshire, where the Real Housewives of Cheshire have their spa days.”
Here Savage pauses for breath, cracking up down the phone before composing herself to carry on — serious on-screen, she’s a hoot when off duty. “But yeah,” she continues, “Jeff’s an amazing guy with a wonderful personality and we’re very happy together.
“He loves coming to visit my family in Northern Ireland — I’m originally from Saintfield and my sister owns a public house in Co Clare — for some good, home-cooked Northern Irish dinner. Unfortunately, with my workload, he doesn’t really get that from me.
“Jeff loves flying his drone, especially in West Cork, where all the Savages have a holiday home, and we often spend our summers there. We love travelling the world for fun, too. Paris, Australia, Spain, Amsterdam, Qatar, the United States and skiing in France. We share a lot of the same passions.”
It’s a long way from the quiet life of Saintfield, Co Down to the leafy luxury of Formby, but today Claire calls the seaside town in the north west of England home. It is, by all
accounts, the Cheshire of Merseyside — upmarket, neat, astronomically expensive. Everton Football Club midfielder Ross
Barkley lives two doors down. “Formby is like the Helen’s Bay of Liverpool,” Claire adds. “Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp lives in the village and former Kop idol Steven Gerrard is close by, too. They say that it is a bit of a bubble here, but on a personal level I see a lot of similarities with it and rural Co Down, where I grew up.
“People get on with their day-to-day lives. They’re good, hard-working people who send their kids to good schools. They want the best for their children. I appreciate that. It’s a lovely area. I love it here. I go for runs in the morning before work, look out over the Irish Sea and think of home. It’s not too far away, really.
“I haven’t spoken to Jurgen Klopp at any community meetings so far, although fracking is a big issue here, so our paths might cross. I have seen Steven Gerrard out and about around the village a few times though and he’s a really nice guy. If kids want a selfie with him, he’s always very hospitable. Ross Barkley is nice, too, though his security park outside our house all the time.”
Claire was born in 1978 and raised in Saintfield in the company of three siblings, older brother Grenville (48), older sister Rhonda (46) and younger sister Naomi (36). She attended a mixed prep school and was “brought up to be apolitical, so I had friends from both sides of the divide”.
“Rhonda and Grenville were educated at Catholic boarding schools in the south and I was educated in a local country grammar school, Down High in Downpatrick, along with my little sister. It was predominantly Protestant but it was integrated and that gave us a good outlook in life.
“I grew up in a rural environment in a very close-knit community and our parents always encouraged us to have open minds. It’s that background that has been a thread throughout my whole life and career. I was raised to treat people fairly and that’s really why I entered journalism as a profession.”
Seeking out truth was always been a motivating factor for Claire and in that sense the Troubles played their part. She remembers two atrocities during the 1990s that had a huge impact on her and those around her.
“They both happened quite close to home. The first was the death of Telford Withers (one of the last serving Royal Irish Regiment soldiers to be murdered by the IRA) in Crossgar when I was a teenager. I knew Trelford personally.
“The other event was the Loughinisland Massacre in 1994. My parents knew some of the victims in that case. Both of those atrocities were perpetrated by either side of the community and I suppose I wanted to become a journalist to try, in some small way, and drive change toward peace in Northern Ireland after those events.”
Claire’s parents, James and Helena Savage, both worked as accountants and set up their own practice, James Savage & Co, when Claire was young. Proactive members of their community, they each influenced their children in unique ways.
“My father was an accountant and his practice is still running in Saintfield, although sadly he passed away three years ago. But he was a real character. A bit of an eccentric — I suppose I get a few of my traits, some of those qualities, from him.
“He studied for his private pilots licence many years ago and he was a keen scuba diver. He was also a good amateur photographer in his spare time and he had a wonderful sense of adventure.
“My mother really held the ship together. She has always been a very strong, independent, organised woman. She was hard-working, a determined businesswoman, and I think that my brother, sisters and I inherited our strong work ethic from her.”
Her childhood was idyllic and Claire remembers developing an interest in media from a very young age. “Back in the day, when they had video cameras, I borrowed one from school and made my own animations and other personal projects around the Ards Peninsula.
“I guess that doesn’t sound so remarkable today, but media studies wasn’t really on the curriculum in the same way that it is today. Journalism was almost frowned upon, a little bit, but I realised early on how important it was, in many ways, and I always wanted to continue on that path.”
That she did, with all the conviction and determination that had been passed on from her parents. In 2000, Claire graduated from the University of Sunderland with a First Class honours degree in Communication, Journalism and Related Programs and set out on a career path that would take her to the very epicentre of world politics: Washington DC.
“I travelled to Washington after graduating as part of the Washington Ireland Program and worked on Capitol Hill as an intern with former Senator John Dingell. It was amazing. It really broadened my outlook. I was fascinated with how the Americans perceived Northern Ireland’s peace process.
“I was part of the Class of 2000 and Leo Varadkar, the current Taoiseach, was also in the class. It was daunting to be away from home, to a certain extent, and there were cultural differences, but I was quite green, to be honest. While the rest of the class were at house parties, I stayed at home working on video projects.”
That laugh again — though relentlessly career-driven, Claire looks back on her early twenties with some regret that she didn’t let her hair down a little. Nevertheless, she recalls memorable times in the shadow of the Senate.
“I was there for the 4th of July and I remember watching the fireworks go up over the Lincoln Monument. I also met the Fonz, Henry Winkler, who popped in to visit the congressman once, and he told me how much he loved Ireland and particularly the music here.
“John Dingell was a Democrat but he had a lot of Republican values. For example, he supported hunting. They nicknamed him the Old Bull. He introduced me to Ted Kennedy once, who also has strong connections with Ireland. He was a very nice man.”
Back home, Claire found work first as a news editor with City Beat before moving on to GMTV. In 2005, she became the youngest locally appointed news editor in Northern Ireland when Johnston Press launched the short-lived Daily View and finally graduating to BBC Northern Ireland, where she worked as an investigations reporter and acting Ireland correspondent for over a decade.
Since her teenage years, however, Claire has held one particular organisation very close to her heart: Rotary International, a “non-sectarian, apolitical benevolent” society that contributes toward a range of charities and fosters leadership qualities in young people.
Claire first got involved with Rotary in 1997, travelling to Strasbourg as part of the European Youth Leader competition. “Rotary has nearly eradicated polio in the course of a decade, which is incredible. When I went to Strasbourg, we got to speak at the European Parliament. It’s such a wonderful organisation.”
Before relocating to England, Claire was President Elect of the Rotary Club of Belfast and has taken great pride over the years in “giving back” to a new generation of aspiring leaders, thinkers and doers, volunteering to lead student groups on visits to Chicago in 2014 and 2015.
It was while in America that Claire acquired a passion for running, and in 2014 she completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. “Running is just such a leveller,” she says. “It’s a great way to clear your head, plan and enjoy the countryside.”
Having stopped smoking five years ago, she now spends most mornings treading the paths in Formby or training in and around Media City in Salford, where she works for ITV. On October 29, she returns to Ireland to run the Dublin Marathon and is “really excited” about the prospect of beating her Washington time.
“As well as running, I also love horse riding,” Claire adds. “My grandfather, James Carlisle, was always very much into horses and he took us to stables outside Ballynahinch, so I’ve ridden horses from a very early age and have continued with that in America and elsewhere.
“Papa was just a wonderful role model and a great man. He worked for the Department of Agriculture and he kept a number of horses. It’s always been a great love of mine. My mum is an amazing horse rider, too. She has show-jumped before.”
With her wedding on the horizon, Claire currently has her hands full preparing for her big day. She admits to being a “hands-on” bride, regularly flicking through Pinterest boards for inspiration on table decorations, flower arrangements, favours and all else matrimonial.
“Everything is booked, thankfully, and I have very supportive Northern Irish bridesmaids and amazing friends who have offered to help. I am used to coping with highly stressful reporting conditions, so the wedding should be a walk in the park.”
For now, it’s full steam ahead on the Tonight programme. In recent months, Claire has had a major hand in editions such as Trump vs North Korea, The Leadership Specials and The Manchester Attack, and her previous investigative work has been shortlisted for British Journalism Awards.
She couldn’t be more proud of her career to date, which has included bringing about an amendment to UK law with regards to the anonymity of sex offenders, and has high hopes for the future. “I’m currently producing my own edition of Tonight, which will hopefully go out in November. It's an exciting time to be a journalist.”