Sir Martyn Lewis: 'My mother-in-law received exceptional care in a hospice during her last days and I vowed I'd one day repay that favour'
Ahead of the NI Hospice's groundbreaking conference on palliative care for people with dementia, celebrated broadcaster and businessman Sir Martyn Lewis tells Laurence White about growing up in the province and his admiration for the organisation
It was almost by chance that broadcaster Sir Martyn Lewis became an advocate for the hospice movement in the UK. As he prepares to take part in a groundbreaking conference in Belfast on specialist palliative care for people with dementia next month, he tells of the telephone call that made a huge impact on his life.
He recalls: "I had never thought much about charity except to put a few coins in a collecting box in the street and then I got a telephone call asking me to recommend a commercial firm to promote a new charity, Help the Hospices. It had impressive people at its head including the head of the BMA and the Duchess of Norfolk."
He was told that pitches had been received from three companies with eye-watering accompanying price tags ranging from £30,000 to £80,000. These were huge sums of money in 1983.
"I thought those figures were nonsensical. My first wife's mother had spent the last year of her life in a hospice back in 1969-70. I saw her receiving Rolls Royce care even though we had no money at the time but I vowed that if ever I could repay that favour then I would."
Sir Martyn then hit on an idea which money could not buy.
"It was that time of the year which journalists know as the silly season when little of importance happens. I went to David Nicholas, editor in chief of ITN and asked him if he would give me a film crew and an editing suite for a week to make a video for the new charity. He agreed.
"He was a bit concerned that a video on hospices would be all about death and dying which would not make good viewing, but actually he found that the hospice movement was absolutely fascinating.
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"I managed to get five stories during that week - one for each day. We had a great coup in filming the Duchess of Kent when she visited Helen and Douglas House, the first hospice in the world dedicated to the care of children and young adults.
"When I finished editing our film I was left with nine minutes and 46 seconds - far above the time given to ordinary news stories on the main news bulletin - but David allowed it to fill almost the entire second half of the News at Ten bulletin.
"When they saw the reaction other cancer and hospice care charities grabbed me warmly by the throat to help promote their services."
While the stories - the first coverage of the hospice movement on national television - achieved their aim of promoting the movement they eventually also brought a dividend to Sir Martin.
"I had been feeling that the news I was covering was increasingly negative and giving no sense of the things that were going right in society. I saw thousands of volunteers working in the hospice movement and that was an antidote to the negativity of my day job.
"In working with the hospice movement over the years - it was the first charity I became involved with - I found my life in balance in a way it hadn't been before."
And over the years he has dedicated a considerable part of his life to promoting and fundraising for hospices. At the last count he reckoned he had given speeches on behalf of 98 hospices and he is now an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice.
"I address local businesses around the various parts of the country and tell them that supporting their local hospice is the best thing they can do in their life because it is an insurance policy - they or one of their friends may one day need the services of that hospice."
He is full of praise for the conference being organised by the NI Hospice next month. Spread over two days it will feature speakers from these islands, Europe and Australia on the latest advances in palliative care for people with dementia.
In a way his attendance at the conference will be like coming home for Sir Martyn who spent his formative years in the province and also got his first taste of broadcasting.
Born in Wales, he came to Northern Ireland with his father Dudley, a quantity surveyor and his mum Joanie, a nurse. His parents had met in Northern Ireland during the war when both were here on R&R.
"My father was in the Royal Engineers and during the war met a captain who was an architect in Portrush.
"My mum had been a nurse and nursed wounded soldier on one of the ships evacuating troops from Dunkirk.
"My parents married in Belfast and after the war accepted an invitation from the captain who offered my dad a job in his Portrush company. It didn't work out the way my father had hoped and he started his own company and I can remember seeing the company name TJ Dudley Lewis and Partners when I came back to the province. Sadly my dad died suddenly at the age of 59.
"He was well respected in the town, was prominent in the Rotary Club and a great photographer.
"My mum was involved with local charities. She was a fairly formidable woman, very tough and very strict, but in a delightful way."
Sir Martyn was educated at Dalriada where he passed nine O-levels and four A-levels. He was something of an all-rounder at school, and played for the 1st XV rugby team, edited the school magazine, was deputy head boy, secretary of the debating society and acted in the Shakespearean plays.
But one of his proudest achievements was becoming the UK's Combined Cadet Forces .22 rifle champion in 1963.
He then went to Trinity College Dublin where he graduated in Economics, Philosophy and Geography.
His father's friendship with David Hannon of BBC NI pointed him in the direction of a job there, initially presenting Ask Me Another, a programme where sixth formers quizzed people making the news. Then one day he was asked to do a news report - something on an Orange Order parade in Fintona and two weeks later was given a film crew for a story in North Antrim.
"I was absolutely hooked", he says. "From that moment on that is what I wanted to do, broadcasting on television. I believe that a proper television report of two minutes can convey four minutes worth of information. The camera work and the spoken word should complement each other, not just repeat what the viewers can already see."
When, as he puts it, he ran out of road at BBC NI he sat down and wrote to 50 English speaking broadcasters around the world seeking work. He got one reply, from the newly created Harlech TV in his native Wales and for the next two years he learned his craft which was to make him one of the best known faces on television. "I never had any formal training as a journalist, but I learned on the job in Wales. It would be very difficult to progress in that career in that way now but at that time it was great."
Over 32 years as a television journalist he anchored every mainstream national news programmes on the UK's two main terrestrial channels and covered major stories such as the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and the Black Panther, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the Gulf War.
But there is one story which stands out above all others - Princess Diana's death.
"That was an extraordinary day. I broadcast straight for six and a half hours without a script. I would have laughed in your face if you had ever suggested that I would do such a thing and if I had been given advance warning I probably would have turned to jelly.
"However once you start broadcasting in a live programme you are so busy concentrating on what you have to say and also listening to people talking in your ear from the production desks that you don't have time to be nervous.
"Doing stories like the death of Diana you could get emotional - I nearly did when the Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to her as the People's Princess - but there is a protective cocoon that live broadcasts put around you. You cannot allow yourself to be affected by the story you are telling."
He left broadcasting in 1999 to enter the world of business and, if anything, life became more hectic. His CV sent as part of this interview covers eight A4 pages of single line typing and is not an exhaustive resume of his career. His business ventures covered new technologies — including becoming director of a company developing a new type of performance learning for schools and academies and another company developing a new form of video conferencing which replicated a real-time meeting around a table.
He has always been interested in youth issues and founded the UK’s first internet charity, YouthNet, now called The Mix.
And since 2010 he has chaired the main awards committee of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. The next awards ceremony is in June and he expects a strong performance from Northern Ireland entrants.
Throw in his after dinner speaking engagements and attendance at conferences and debates on a wide range of subjects in the corporate, public and charitable sectors — his CV lists 20 organisations he has been involved with.
Having just reached the age of 74 — a recent medical check-up revealed he had the heart of a 50-year-old — he intends to keep busy even if his family want him to slow down at least a little. “The answer to a long life is keeping busy. You have got to keep doing things for if you sit back and do nothing you are done for,” he insists.
Sir Martyn is also a strong advocate of volunteering. “The energy and enthusiasm of those working at grass roots across the community is just fantastic. They make a huge contribution to running society in all kinds of ways. I am all for people doing as much as they can for themselves rather than looking to government for help.
“To my mind the best form of democracy is not elections to the Mother of Parliaments; it is local people on the ground looking at problems in their communities and getting together with neighbours and friends to do something about it.”
And that, he argues, is the strength of the hospice movement. Since Dame Cecily Saunders found the first hospice in 1967 only two have folded. There are around 250 hospices in the UK and only a few get more than 30% of their funding from government sources.
“They have been built by local people for local people and are run by local people and have a huge number of local volunteers”, Sir Martin says. “I believe there are a least 200 volunteers who work with the Northern Ireland Hospice.” He argues that even now the hospice movement does not get the publicity it deserves. “The people who spend their last days or months in a hospice are not a big story in media terms, because each person is an individual with very different lives. But when you think of the number of people who die annually in the UK from cancer (164,000) that is almost the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every day killing all on board.”
He adds: “The important thing to remember is that the NI Hospice is not just about people dying, it is also about people living as long as they possibly can without pain.
“I remember talking to a man who had been discharged from a hospital to a hospice. I asked him if they were looking after him well and he said the staff were fantastic — “it not like a hospital, they really care for you here”. He was not denigrating hospital staff. What he was saying in effect was that in hospitals the priority is to cure patients, in hospices the priority is to care for them.”
And he welcomes the development of new services in hospices, especially caring for people with dementia. “That shows the hospices are able to adapt to changing needs. That is why the conference next month organised by the NI Hospice is so important. Sir Martyn revealed that his first wife Liz — they have two daughters Kate Lewis and singer/songwriter Sylvie Lewis — died in a care home where she spent 11 years with a very advanced form of dementia.
“I wish there had been a hospice which handled dementia cases near us at that time in 2012 but it is only in the last five or six years that hospices have begun to embrace dementia. Some are also taking in patients with severe heart disease or motor neuron disease.”
He repeatedly emphasises the expertise of hospices — “the sound you hear most often in a modern hospice is laughter. They are places of hope and warmth.”
But his contribution is not just words of praise. In 2016 he, his second wife Patsy and director Charles Thompson founded YourBigDay Ltd which obtained the rights to the ITN and Reuters archives which go back to 1917. These are used to produce a short video for every day of the year over the past 85 years.
Essentially the videos will include a personal message, events of the year and date requested and includes celebrities born on that date and images of what life was like then. The market is people wanting to give loved ones a different present for birthdays or special occasions. Anyone who orders a video and clicks a link to the NI Hospice will trigger a £4 donation to the hospice.
- For further details on YourBigDay Ltd including how to order, go to yourbigday.tv
Europa hosting conference
The International Conference on Palliative Dementia Care runs from May 8-10 at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
It is hosted by the NI Hospice Palliative Care Learning Academy.
Speakers will come from the UK, Republic of Ireland, Europe and Australia.
NI Hospice CEO Heather Weir, Hospice Dementia Lead Joanne Ballentine and a number of hospice medical and academic staff will also deliver sessions and chair panel discussions.
- For further details go to www.icpdc.org