‘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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW - PIC­TURES BY KEVIN SCOTT

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

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