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Monday, May 23, 2022

Eamonn Holmes looks back: ‘The lamb piddled down my new jacket’ | Family

Eamonn Holmes in 1979 and 2022

Eamonn Holmes is one of the longest-serving breakfast television anchors in the world. Born in Belfast in 1959, he cut his teeth as a reporter at Ulster Television in 1979, before earning his name as the frank and affable steady hand of morning TV. He has been a co-host on GMTV, Sky News Sunrise, This Morning, with his wife Ruth Langsford, and now GB News. Holmes is raising awareness for the campaign Understanding Shingles during Shingles Awareness Week.

This was me aged 19. It was a publicity shot for my first job in television as an agricultural reporter on the Farming Ulster programme. It was snowing that day in Ballyclare, and I’d not had much contact with animals before this moment. Suddenly I’m holding a lamb and feeling a little bit timid. The lamb ended up being more timid than me: it piddled down the front of the new jacket I was wearing. I got bitten by a pig that day, too.

By the age of 11, being a journalist was all I wanted. Everybody thought it was ridiculous and all a bit pie in the sky: why don’t you want to be a lawyer or a doctor? My mother didn’t want me to do it at all – she thought I should just get a real job. If I was the assistant manager in the local Co-op, that would be the height of her dreams. But I loved it right from the start because it never felt like work to me.

Growing up in Belfast during the Troubles informed how I thought about the world. It gave me a natural curiosity and shaped how I understood global conflicts. Belfast was just like Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle – yet we could have been killed just for an accident of birth, for our religion. People are caught up in the crossfire and it was very traumatic, especially in my teenage years. Farming gave me complete release. It was great to get out of the city, and those two years working as an agricultural reporter remain the happiest in my broadcast career.

When I got my next job on TV, Good Evening Ulster, I was also doing shifts in a sports bar. One night the manager came to me and said: “Eamonn, what’s this all about? You serve them the news until 7pm and at half seven you serve them pints.” I told him I didn’t think this TV lark would last. He pulled my bow tie off, took me outside for a beer and said: “Get out of here.” And that was that.

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I have a magnificent job, but it would be more magnificent if it was at 6pm rather than having a 2.30am wake-up call. I go to bed around 10pm but it can take an hour to get to sleep and then you realise you’ve got less than four hours until the alarm clock goes off. Sleep deprivation is difficult. But it wasn’t the stress from the early morning broadcasts that triggered my shingles. I believe mine to have been related to HMRC.

In 2018, they came knocking at my door, claiming my former jobs at Sky News, GMTV, Channel 5 and This Morning were staff jobs rather than self-employed. They wanted 10 years’ backdated national insurance. To go back a decade to try and get the money that you’ve already spent? I don’t care how much you earn, you spend it. It was gone.

I take paying taxes very seriously, but when something like this happens, people see you as some kind of tax dodger, and it was a humiliating experience. They spent a fortune to make sure they weren’t going to lose the court case, which they didn’t. Two weeks later it was my son’s wedding and I came out in all these shingles. My face, neck and body were covered in massive blisters. It was awful for my son and for the wedding pictures – I tried to get makeup to cover my face, but I looked like Quasimodo. TV is a visual medium, so obviously I couldn’t work for weeks afterwards as I had open sores on my face. It was horrendous.

There have been a few points throughout my career where the Belfast fella in me has come out. The TV industry is about being nice and civil, but it also creates monsters. During the years I’ve watched the climate change and there’s a lot of bullying going on from the celebrities’ entourages. I’m fine until someone is nasty to one of my team – then I will not back down from a fight. I’ve had guests over the years who’ve demanded their dressing rooms be painted a certain colour, or all the plastic be removed, with just 15 minutes’ notice.

There was one time when an American actor came into the studio for an interview. Suddenly her PR person said to one of my researchers: “Oh, is there a couch? My client can’t sit on that couch.” I saw this altercation going on and stepped in and asked if there was a problem, saying: “Sorry – I didn’t realise you were being interviewed on the programme?”

The PR person replied: “I’m not.” So I said: “Well fuck off then.”

I turned to the actor and asked her what was going on. She told me she was worried about the sofa, because she was allergic to most fabrics. I said: “Well, what are you not allergic to?” She said linen. I said: “Stop right there. This is your lucky day. Do you know what this is? Stroke that couch. This is not only linen, this is Ulster linen. I have it flown in from a place called Sion Mills in Northern Ireland. Write that down – and we’re on air in 45 seconds and can have a chat about your new Netflix series.”

Of course, I had no idea what the fabric was. But she didn’t break out in hives, did she?

I made the jump to GB News because options dried up. The “wrong age”, at the “wrong stage” – at some point it becomes very hard to get work. It was obvious that I didn’t tick the boxes for ITV any more, and I wasn’t being treated with respect there. It was a self-esteem thing. You think: “Nah, I’m out of here! Bye!” So that was it. And nothing’s changed: I play what I do straight. I’m not flying the flag for any political agenda. Our breakfast show probably has declared independence from the rest of the channel and Isabel [Webster, his co-host] and I do it the way we do it – as journalists. We have a relaxed approach and try to bend the rules when we can. GB News has been very welcoming – it’s nice to be appreciated.

People always say to me, you work so hard, you put stress on yourself. But doing TV is not rocket science. My father, who was a carpenter, worked hard. We are all defined by what we do. Whether you work in the butcher’s or as a taxi driver. People need the dignity of work and the purpose.

There are people who like to go to the races or sit in the pub all day, or binge-watch TV – but I believe life’s for living. Even at this stage, I still want to accumulate knowledge, learn every day, be better at my profession and evolve. Evolve or die. That just tends to be me, there’s nothing more sinister going on than that. And hopefully, along the way, I won’t get bitten by a pig.

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