‘My husband phoned 999 and the paramedics arrived very fast, I was in a state of shock and pain and a lovely man said: Helen, it’s you’
Ahead of presenting the Belfast Tattoo later this month broadcaster Helen Mark tells Una Brankin about a serious dog attack, running the family adventure centre and her love of the great outdoors
Helen Mark is trying to decide whether to present this year’s Belfast Tattoo at the SSE Arena in a purple silk cloak dress or a blue sequinned number. She’s May.leaning towards the former, which she bought for her eldest son’s wedding in
“It’s really sumptuous; it has a lovely cowl collar and it suits me,” she remarks. “And I don’t believe in only wearing something once. I like to get the value out of it.”
At Jamie’s wedding, in Ballyscullion Park in Bellaghy, the Scottish-born broadcaster had a matching splint for her outfit, having suffered a dog bite, at home in Limavady, in the early hours one Sunday morning. Not wanting to make a fuss of the details — “it’s a very sensitive issue” — she does, however, recall a Tattoo related coincidence that took place in the aftermath of what sounds like a serious attack.
“My husband had to phone 999 and the paramedics arrived very fast, in 12 minutes,” she recalls. “I was in a state of shock and pain, and this lovely man — he’s called Maurice — saw me and said: ‘Helen, it’s you.’
“It turns out he’d been to the Tattoo twice as a spectator but this year he’s playing with the Coleraine pipe and drum band in their first time at the event. He stemmed the bleeding on my arm and tried to distract me in the ambulance to Altnagelvin, talking about the band and how they all take a week off for the Tattoo.
“It was such a funny coincidence.”
The injury to the presenter’s arm required plastic surgery at Dundonald hospital.
“It was hugely traumatic but they stuck me together,” she says, her native Scottish lilt to the fore. “I was off my feet for a few weeks and then my son was getting married in this lovely service outside, in a walled garden.
“It became part of my recovery. I’d started at the new therapy medical clinic in Dundonald for my hand and wrist and the consult ant physiotherapist overheard the nurse asking me about the colour of my outfit for the wedding — a deep purple heather — and she came back, holding up a splint and said, ‘Is this the colour of your dress?’ “It was a perfect match, this piece of plastic. I won’t have it on at the Tattoo and you’ll see my arm, but noone will see my scars from the stage.” Well-known for her likeable and witty presentation of The Kist o Words and Gardener’s Corner for Radio Ulster, and Open Country for BBC Radio 4, the mother-of-two has been through the wars of late. But she’s a good soldier. Two years ago, a passing gallstone left her doubled over in agony backstage at the interval of the Belfast Tattoo. She managed to keep going to the end, earning the undying respect of all around her.
This time round, her only complaint is a bout of “miserable” hay fever, which has worsened in the last few years. Wary of ageist “judgments and assumptions”, she chooses not to reveal the miles on her personal clock, simply commenting: “I’m doing very well for my age; I’ve been doing what I do for a long time.”
Good reviews of her radio work abound. A New Statesman critic was particularly impressed by her jaunt along a Leicestershire railway line for Open Country. “As usual, Mark was exceedingly bossy and had people scuttling about making things appear immediately before her,” she wrote, declaring herself to have been “completely in thrall” by Helen’s presentation of what otherwise may have been a “boring” item.
“I do get a lot of lovely things written about my radio work — I feel terrible about being boastful,” says Helen. “I think it’s my kind of sense of being there; I’m genuinely participating and listening to whoever I’m talking to at the time. The Guardian and the Times have been very nice, too.”
It has been a busy year for the sheep farmer’s wife. As well as her popular programmes for the BBC, she runs the catering unit at the family’s adventure centre Foylehov Activity Centre on the north coast, just outside Limavady. The centre specialises in corporate team-building events, family days out, youth groups, community groups, birthday parties and hen/stag parties, offering a range of daredevil activities from hovercrafts to buggy racing.
“I muck in when I can, in the catering unit,” she explains. “I barbecue burgers and bake cakes — lovely chocolate ones and Victoria sponges, and I’m trying out a new lemon cake recipe.
“People can relax and have a nice coffee and cake. I get recognised a lot. ‘Aren’t you the woman off the TV? I know your voice — it’s your woman’, that sort of thing. I don’t mind. It’s great to see people having fun on the hovercrafts and playing the golf game with a football. I can hear them cheering from the house.”
Between broadcasting and catering she has little spare time, although she’s not complaining.
“I’m happy with what I do, it’s so varied. When I’m free, I enjoy a good walk and a good
There’s no reason why a woman isn’t paid the same as a man in broadcasting
film. I like an early night, I’m not an night owl. I often have to be up for work at 4am.”
She often has adventures of her own on Open Country. In a recent episode, she went up in a hot air balloon.
“I’m not great with heights but a calm came over me — it was so serene being lifted up into the air,” she says. “I thought we’d get bashed by the wind but we were in the wind; we were part of it. Landing was a bit scary but we got down safely enough.”
Originally from Kelso on the Scottish borders, Helen has lived in Northern Ireland for 30 years. Her sister, Judith, who’s single, still lives in Kelso. Helen was in her midteens when she lost her mother, Rachel, to a sudden brain haemorrhage. Her father, Ian Middlemas, of the formerly famous lemonade brand, re-married subsequently. He died six years ago.
“Dad was proud of me in a nice way, not a boastful way,” she remembers. “People would ask him, ‘how’s Helen from the radio?’ and he’d tell them I was doing very well. He was quietly proud.”
Helen met Ian, a fourth generation Limavady farmer, in Scotland while he was studying agriculture at Edinburgh University. She graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow and taught in Edinburgh before moving to Northern Ireland for good.
She was working as an arts administrator when she was discovered by Lesser Spotted Ulster’s Joe Mahon (“a lovely man”) when she was in BBC Radio Foyle promoting a show. Then station master, Joe was launching Radio Foyle’s morning news and current affairs schedule and wanted new voices.
She went on to become a quiz mistress on Radio Ulster’s Put Away Your Books and made several documentary series, including The Ulster Scots and 12 Miles Of The Narrow Sea.
The move to the outdoors came with a long-running television gardening programme called Greenfingers and numerous runs of the natural history series Wildtracks for Radio Ulster.
She then began reporting for Countryfile and presenting Farming Today in 1997, followed soon after with Open Country for Radio 4. She has also presented TV programmes, such as The Family Show and Health Check in Northern Ireland, and she produces reports and packages for a wide range of Radio Ulster programmes.
Since then, she has branched into RTE, and still contributes to their Nationwide television series.
She won’t be drawn on sexism in broadcasting, beyond commenting on the constant challenge surrounding staying so long in the business. But she describes the revelations surrounding the gender pay gap at the BBC as “shocking”.
“There’s no reason why a woman isn’t paid the same as a man in broadcasting,” she says. “There are agents behind many of these people, pushing them all the time. I’m freelance; I get paid for the job at hand and there are so many different levels of fees.
“What came out was shocking and it’s very important that it had been highlighted and that it’s addressed. I’m sure it’s the same in other sectors. The BBC’s issue should start to get the ball rolling elsewhere, too.”
The 2017 Belfast Tattoo is Helen’s fifth time to present the spectacular event. Her chosen highlights this year include the RAF college of music band and a young ‘motorcycles display’ tea. “It just keeps getting better and better — the viewing figures are astronomical,” she says. “The local acts have really stepped up to the game. They work so hard and they perform all over the world, from the Continent to America. “The Belfast Tattoo has led to the first ever one in Glasgow in February next year, a big wow which is going to have an even bigger audience. It will be a wee bit of a rival event.” As for her ambitions, all she really wants is to continue working in radio. “I love radio, but you never know in this business. For the future, I really just hope the family keep well; I’m not a materialistic person,” she says. Jamie, her newly married son, works on the family sheep farm. The younger son, Adam, who works in Glasgow for John Lewis, is getting married in September 2018. “I’m so proud of the boys,” Helen admits. “They have great partners. All’s good and my husband, Ian, is super. He got me through all the trauma earlier this year. He was tremendous support — you don’t realise you have that until something awful happens.”
BUSY LIFE : Helen Mark in the kitchen and (above) the Belfast Tattoo. Below left, with husband Ian and (bottom) with son Jamie, who got married in May