Denise Robertson was ‘no stranger to sadness and difficulties’

Photo: Denise Robertson has died aged 83 after a short battle with cancer.
Photo: Denise Robertson has died aged 83 after a short battle with cancer.

Sunderland-born Denise Robertson spent more than 30 years helping the British public with their problems but was no stranger to sadness and difficulties in her own life.

Ms Robertson was widowed twice – losing first husband Alex to cancer in 1972 and then Jack to a stroke in 1995.

She also lost her 44-year-old stepson John to cancer in 2006.

The nation’s TV agony aunt always said that the misfortunes in her life, starting with the death of her father in her twenties, qualified her for her long-running agony aunt role.

In a newspaper interview nine years ago, she said: “I learned what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

In the same interview she described her childhood in the North East as “wonderful and awful at the same time”, as her family life was loving but ridden with constant financial worries.

Born in Sunderland in 1932, she never lost her association with that part of the world.

After she married her third husband, Bryan Thubron in 1997, she stayed in the area, living in a village just north of Sunderland.

When she wrote her last column for The Journal newspaper, she titled it: “There is nowhere like the North East for me.”

Robertson described how her ship broker father lost his business in the 1930s, plunging the family into financial turmoil which was an experience which never left her.

She told This Morning: “My childhood taught me to be very aware of people’s tensions and unhappiness.”

Ms Robertson worked as a medical secretary in hospitals in Sunderland when she left school but stopped work when she married and had a son with her first husband, Alex.

In 1972 her play The Soda Water Fountain was made for the BBC, but Alex died from lung cancer within six months of it being broadcast.

She married again, but when her second husband’s business got into trouble she had to be the main wage earner for the couple, her son and her four stepchildren.

Robertson told This Morning: “I started to write articles for magazines about what was happening to me.

“And people started writing to me and I would reply. And then, one day, I got a phone call from BBC Breakfast Time and they said we think we’d like you to be our agony aunt.”

Robertson made her debut on the BBC breakfast programme in 1985 but decided to step away from the screen soon after to concentrate on writing novels.

In 1988, she said she got a phone call “out of the blue” from the makers of a new daytime show Granada was planning.

When she joined This Morning with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, she soon became a household name.

Robertson made a strong connection with millions of viewers, partly due to how she shared her life experiences with the This Morning audience.

When her second husband died, she said, letters from the public filled a number of washing baskets at their home.

And viewers were also included as she married her childhood sweetheart Bryan, after meeting again for the first time in more than 40 years.

Robertson became synonymous with This Morning, known for her strident “common sense” advice and her willingness to challenge public figures over issues she cared about.

She said her best moment on the programme followed a 2004 trip to Uganda where she found two young AIDS orphans living in the bush with nothing.

She told the Daily Mail: “I went back four years later, during which time I’d raised enough money for them to have a house and a small banana plantation and they were both at school. When I got out of the Land Rover, Fred ran over and embraced me. It was a truly memorable moment.”

Robertson’s popularity on This Morning led to her being offered her own TV show in 2000, called Dear Denise.

She was also a regular fixture on Channel 5’s Big Brother’s Bit On The Side.

She told the This Morning audience before her death: “Most people describe their lives as a journey but I would describe my life as a rodeo.

“I have been on a bucking bronco almost all of my life, hanging on for dear life, trying not to get thrown to the ground.

“Only now I begin to think I’ve mastered the art of riding the beast. And I’m enjoying it.”

Robertson wrote more than 20 novels, a 2008 autobiography and a series of self-help books.

She said of the self-help guides: “Of the eight topics, there are only three I haven’t experienced.”

She was awarded an MBE a decade ago and was also given the freedom of the City of Sunderland.

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