GLORIA Hunniford was in her element - and in her natural habitat. It was a case of her past catching up with her as she fronted a programme for BBC Northern Ireland, capturing days past in her home town Portadown and in nearby Richhill.
The all-action septuagenarian (72) was in town on Sunday, helping to put the finishing touches to ‘The Travelling Picture Show’, a series of nostalgic reflections on four Ulster towns - Enniskillen, Ballymoney, Newry and Portadown. And the greatest appeal to Gloria is, of course, Portadown.
A ‘rough cut’ of the town’s ‘Travelling Show’ was shown in a special cinema tent on Sunday afternoon, and people like film boffin Fred Cooper, John Stevenson, the Currans, the Lambs of Richhill - all of whom contributed their old reels - were there to see their films shown on the big screen as a precursor to the finished article which will be broadcast in late October. It will certainly be worth seeing.
The tent was pitched close to the Pleasure Gardens, looking across the Bann towards the old Portadown College building which Gloria attended during the 1950s. And also among the interested viewers were old friends like Elizabeth Heyburn (now Fleming), Elizabeth Gordon, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Stevenson and Jeffrey’s wife Valerie, whom she knew when she lived in Hillsborough and who brought with her childhood writings by Gloria’s daughter Caron Keating who died from breast cancer in 2004. And Lord Laird of Artigarvan, eminent historian and leading Ulster-Scot, enjoyed Sunday’s occasion along with his family.
“It was great to be back in the old home town,” said Gloria. “Everyone is so enthusiastic about the old films, and we appreciate the fact that so much old film was loaned to us to work with.”
One of the old films included a youthful Gloria reporting on the 1960s controversy on the cutting down of the old chestnut trees at Atkinson Avenue, to make way for Northway, with some residents for, others against, and the young Eddie Tweedie among the interviewees! Said Gloria, “The producers didn’t tell me about that one. My speaking voice was about an octave higher then it is now!”
The late Charles Cooper, PR for the burgeoning Craigavon Development Commission and ex-Mayor of Portadown, gave the official view on the trees issues, insisting that Northway was vital to the future of the town, and that Craigavon was providing 60,000 new trees and 140,000 shrubs for the entire area. The trees vanished.
The footage began (in black and white) in the orchard country of Loughgall and Richhill, with expert Edwin McClelland stating that the particular year was a poor one for the Bramley - just like this year. There was footage of the Johnston and Curran families spraying the crops, and then it switched to wonderful social footage of Richhill, loaned by the Lamb family, Charles senior and Charles junior, both of whom were there on Sunday.
The Sunday School excursions to Warrenpoint were highlighted - with the trippers led through the village by the flute band - and in Warrenpoint, there were shots of the trips to Omeath, so popular at the time. And stalwarts back in the village were featured, like the Nellins, the Rowntrees, Wilsons and McNallys. And there were Coronation parades, for the ascension of King George VI and later Queen Elizabeth II.
Fred Cooper did the same for Portadown - the church trips, steam engines puffing into town, transporting circus people and animals, the first diesel train, the end of the Derry Road railway line from the town to the north-west - all wonderful gems.
There was also personal family footage from the Stevenson family, with John and Jeffrey, his twin Jennifer (sadly deceased), sister Linda and parents Don and Eileen, both long gone. “It’s sobering to see yourself on screen all of 70 years ago,” said Jeffrey.
Gloria revelled in it all, and couldn’t resist her own look back at days in Portadown. She recounted the day she went on St Mark’s excursion to Bangor and ended up being pushed fully-clothed into Pickie Pool. “It ruined my ringlets, I had to be dried out at a local church hall and I never learned to swim after that,” she recalled.
The apple footage brought her back to the times she rode her bike into apple country, “fogged” orchards and thoroughly enjoyed her childhood in Portadown, where she sang around the halls with her magician father Charles, who worked for Morton Newspapers as advertising manager with the Lisburn-based Ulster Star.
A bundle of energy, Gloria is busy as ever on the TV screens, her major project right now being the widely-viewed ‘Rip-Off Britain’ with fellow experienced presenters Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville. It started off on Daytime TV, but proved so popular that it was moved to prime time and now has two spin-offs - ‘Rip-off Food’ and ‘Rip-off Holidays’.
“Retirement isn’t in my vocabulary,” she said.