Hunniford, Coulter and Holmes among stars coming Back Home in Mallie UTV series
A new television series from broadcaster Eamonn Mallie sees some of the north's best-known celebrities being taken on a sometimes highly emotional journey back to their home places. Noel McAdam spoke to presenter Malachi Cush about the project
EAMONN Holmes is coming home. As are local legends Gloria Hunniford, Dennis Taylor and Phil Coulter; they are all taking part in a new Ulster Television series, called Back Home, which opens its doors next week.
This is the latest show from the production company set up by former broadcaster and journalist Eamonn Mallie with his son Michael, who is the senior producer. Its presenter is singer-songwriter Malachi Cush who accompanied each of the celebrities on their often heart-rending journeys over a number of days.
Home for Holmes is, of course, Belfast, while the equally indefatigable Ms Hunniford returns to her home turf of Portadown.
For Taylor it's Coalisland, while Coulter naturally returns to the Town He Loved So Well, Derry.
None of them live in Northern Ireland any longer – only Holmes still has a house here – and they come 'home' with varying degrees of regularity.
"For all of them Northern Ireland very much remains home," Cush tells me. "We did the same thing with all of them. [In the show] we meet them at the airport and bring them back to where it all began for them."
Co Tyrone man Cush adds: "The series is still an ongoing project. We have about 90 per cent of it complete." Which is why the identity of the sixth person in the series is still being kept under wraps.
The fifth, however, is West End singing sensation Rachel Tucker (37), also from Belfast. In the first programme, which will air tomorrow, Coulter talks about the loss of his brother and sister in separate drownings within a year of each other.
"It was a very emotional moment," Cush recalls of the interview. "I think this was the first time he had spoken about it so openly. You got a sense of his personal suffering and desperate loss. He had asked us to bring him out to Buncrana pier, the spot near where he lost his brother Brian and his sister Cyd in two different drowning accidents within 12 months of each other."
Brian was out windsurfing when the wind rose very sharply and blew him far out into the treacherous waters of Lough Swilly while counsellor Cyd died when she went out to help one of her clients.
Coulter also visited his very first family home at Abercorn Terrace.
"The couple there now were so excited to see him and told him that the specifications for the house when they bought it, when they were told it was Phil Coulter's ancestral home. It was a selling point," Cush says.
"Although Phil would be home quite often, he said he always tends to stay in a hotel or with relatives and he hadn't been to Abercorn Terrace for years."
Gloria Hunniford ends up in tears, too, on an increasingly rare trip to Portadown because her original family home had become so run down.
"It was something special," Cush tells me. "She was really upset and she felt very sad. Her original family home had become – what would you say? – rather tired looking. But then we went in to the next door neighbours and across the street and the town's football ground [Shamrock Park] where the young Gloria would have taken part in agricultural shows."
For Eamonn Holmes, who has arguably kept coming home more often than the others, the emotional part was a visit back to his alma mater, St Malachy's College in north Belfast.
"Eamonn spoke of it in terms of a sanctuary," Cush says. "He said you could be in class and aware of smoke rising over Belfast from bombs but you felt safe within those walls. He felt he was protected. I am sure that is the experience of many people in Belfast."
In fact the only case where there is someone still living in the family home was with Dennis Taylor, now aged 69, whose sister Brenda remains in residence.
"None of these people were born with the silver spoon in their mouths. Then they are back in the place where their mothers and fathers brought them into the world, where they were nurtured and where they spent their formative years."
Cush was so enthusiastic about the series he turned up at the airport the first time a day early.
"I was sitting there on my own, beginning to think 'Surely I couldn't have got the wrong day'? But I had," he admits.
Presenting has now virtually taken over from singing for the 38-year-old Cush, who is from Donaghmore, where he has built his own family home on the family land near The Rock.
"Home is the number one most important thing to me. I am very lucky to still have my parents, Paddy and Pat, who are both in their 70s although my mum would emphasise the early 70s.
"For all of us, home was the place where the straight talking was done when it was needed and also where there would be the arm around the shoulder, for a cry, when it was needed.
"I think that is why the Mallies first thought of me in terms of presenting. Eamonn [Mallie] knew how important how was to me. I was delighted to be asked and I couldn't speak highly enough of Eamonn and Michael in terms of the work and preparation they have put in over more than six months to make this a reality.
"I think it will be extraordinary in terms of showing very rounded pictures of each of the participants."
Predictably, singing is a huge thread through each of the initial six programmes. Cush sings a very personal song for Eamonn Holmes's 89-year-old mother Josephine, Gold and Silver Days, which in turn was written by Phil Coulter.
"Eamonn's mother was reminiscing and saying in the days of old all the houses would have sing-songs, and I said we still do at our home, so we just started."
The younger Holmes then joined in himself to make an unlikely trio for a version of Billy Jo Spears' Blanket on the Ground.
"I am not sure which song will make the final programme," Cush quips. "But music peppers the entire series. We have come up with six high profile people who no longer live here but to whom home here is very important. There must be countless others.
"And I suppose people will find a lot in these stories which will resonate with them, in their own lives and families."
:: Back Home begins on UTV at 7.30pm tomorrow, Tuesday October 16.