Helen Madden: 'Miss Helen' was thoughtful, kind and loved by friends and the public young and old
AS a child in the early 1970s, there were few greater honours than having had your name read out by Helen Madden on UTV's Romper Room.
Each week 'Miss Helen' would give a wide-eyed look through the magic mirror and see the young viewers at home.
Grown adults today still remember her saying hello to them as they sat in front of their television sets, the songs and the stories, and the giant bumble bee asking “Have you been a good Do Bee today?” It was magic.
Sometimes over the years people would chase me down the street shouting: “Miss Helen, Miss Helen.” When I turned round and they discovered their mistake, their smile faded - I was a severe disappointment.
But that was the power of Helen when it came to the younger generation of her day and, like Miss Adrienne before her, her ‘Do Bee’ fan club was huge and loyal.
Helen grew up in north Belfast and attended Grosvenor Grammar School where she excelled academically and had a love of sport, especially hockey and running.
Before becoming a teacher at Everton Secondary School for girls, she studied English and drama at Stranmillis College.
However, little could she know how her life would change when in the late 1960s she answered an advertisement looking for a presenter for the children’s programme Romper Room, a natural job for the girl who loved theatre and entertaining.
The original presenter, Adrienne Catherwood, had to step down as she was expecting a baby.
“I was asked to sit on the selection panel to appoint my successor. We had lots of applicants but Helen stood out," she said.
"She had such a warm personality, had been a teacher and she was extremely capable. I watched her programmes and I knew we’d made the right decision. A lovely person.”
Aged 25 when she became Miss Helen, she would present the programme from 1969-1975.
Afterwards she worked for the BBC for several years, producing and presenting programmes ranging from Woman's Hour to Up Country on Radio Ulster.
I worked with her when I was presenting At Home on BBC radio. She kept me in check, she was disciplined and a good producer who taught me a lot.
Helen's interests were wide, Pamela Thomlinson speaking of her as a member of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club.
“Despite having back pain she came on outings and brought her smile with her. She had a deep interest in the natural world.”
Indeed, she had an interest in many things.
As an actress, she would play Vera in Marie Jones's hit comedy show Women On The Verge Of HRT; as well as the role of Bobby Sands' mother in the award-winning film Hunger
She studied psychology in London and worked as a counsellor to victims of clerical abuse.
And as a humanist celebrant she officiated at hundreds of funerals and other ceremonies in Northern Ireland.
Her experiences inspired a dissertation for a Masters in Creative Writing at Queen's University, which won her the inaugural Norman Mailer Non-Fiction Writing Award from GQ magazine.
Tributes have come from all round the world, all with the same thoughts - vibrant, a skilled broadcaster, bundle of energy, inspirational inside and out.
Journalist Roisin McAuley said she was shocked and saddened by her death.
"Fondly remembered not just by her friends, children Rebecca and Simon, husband Brian Walker and family circle, but by those who remember her as 'Miss Helen' in UTV's Romper Room, and her acting career on stage and in films.”
Fellow journalist Rowan Hand said “a door has closed”, and from Candy Devine in Australia simply: “RIP Romper Stomper.”
Helen Madden was thoughtful and kind, a force of nature and I hope she realised how much she was loved by her friends and the public young and old.