Denise Robertson, who has died aged 83, was the resident agony aunt on ITV’s daytime magazine This Morning for nearly 30 years, having offered mumsy words of wisdom, comfort and advice to millions of viewers since the show was launched in 1988.
She made her television debut three years earlier hosting the junior advice line feature on what was then called Breakfast Time, the BBC’s early morning news and current affairs sequence. When she accepted ITV’s offer of a daily daytime slot aimed mainly at housewives, she planned to stay in the job for just a year, but remained a favourite fixture for more than a quarter of a century.
In the course of the 27 years in which she hosted her daily slot on This Morning, Denise Robertson dealt with an estimated 200,000 letters from viewers seeking advice. In her early broadcasts she admitted to having struggled to control her own emotions which, she said, were always quite close to the surface. “I don’t cry as much as I did,” she observed years later.
Before her television career started, and while employed as an agony aunt on Metro Radio in Newcastle, she helped save the life of a woman who tried to commit suicide minutes after her regular phone-in had finished. With the help of her boss she managed to track down the woman’s doctor, put him on the telephone to her and persuaded her to change her mind. The woman later wrote to Denise Robertson thanking her.
Nor did the drama end with her radio days: once, on This Morning, a woman rang in and announced on air that she had been imprisoned in her room by her abusive partner, prompting a call to the police by the producers as well as the television equivalent of tea and sympathy from Denise Robertson.
She also had to cope with several personal traumas of her own. She was twice widowed and lost a stepson to cancer.
Having dispensed so much advice and common sense guidance to perfect strangers, she found that they, in return, rallied to help her. “The viewers fold themselves around you,” she explained. Her softly spoken “salt-of-the-earth” delivery led to her being a regular panellist on Radio 4’s Any Questions, on which she was cast as the average woman in the street amid the weekly ruck of politicians.
Although best known as a television agony aunt, Denise Robertson was also a prolific author, setting most of her two dozen novels in her native north-east, a region to which she demonstrated a fierce loyalty, regarding herself as an unofficial ambassador for the area, and the Durham coalfield in particular.
Her friendly on-screen manner was authentic, as was her Wearside accent. Away from the television studio, she served as an independent on her local council, drove for the Meals On Wheels service and for 10 years chaired her local physically handicapped club.
In 1983, becoming increasingly concerned about rising unemployment, she formed a trust with five others, funded by the Manpower Services Commission, to provide work for the long-term unemployed. By 1988 the group was administering an annual budget of £1 million and had found jobs for more than 240 people.
Her daytime television work was a full-time occupation but Denise Robertson also ran a free web-based agony service. “The great trap of being an agony aunt is to play God,” she warned. “I never tell people what to do. I simply say: 'Here are your options and here are your sources of help.’ You have to feel they’re getting something out of it. Otherwise it’s very gruesome.”
The younger of two daughters, she was born Margaret Denise Broderick in Sunderland, Co Durham, on June 9 1932, shortly after her father’s shipping business failed, and the house was repossessed by bailiffs. There were constant money worries and uncertainty. Although a bright scholarship child, she confined herself at home for a year and even when persuaded to attend Bede Grammar School, remained unhappy. Deciding not to proceed to university, her first job was as a clerk at Sunderland Royal Infirmary, followed by promotion to medical secretary.
While working as a counsellor in the early 1970s, she wrote in her spare time and sent some work to the BBC, winning £1,000 in a competition by writing a television play, The Soda-Water Fountain. She then became a radio agony aunt, but life dealt her a series of blows when her older sister, her mother and her first husband died in quick succession. She was forced to sell her jewellery, including her wedding ring, in order to put food on the table.
On her second marriage, to the widowed father of her son’s friend, she also inherited his four sons. But her new husband’s business collapsed, and they were living in a vandalised house when she determined to write herself out of debt with short stories and further television drama scripts. Her first novel, Nurse In Doubt, a hospital romance, was published by Mills & Boon in 1984. Her second, The Land of Lost Content, which won the 1984 Constable prize for fiction, was followed by A Year of Winter (1986) and Blue Remembered Hills (1987), each reflecting her love for and pride in the north-east, and set in Belgate, a fictional coastal pit village.
She continued to publish further novels for nearly 30 years. Her last, Don’t Cry Aloud (2015), a lightly fictionalised account of the real stories she encountered every day, exposed the evils of forced adoption which she considered a national scandal. Among a clutch of self-help and other non-fiction books was her 2004 biography of Sir Tom Cowie, the Sunderland-born entrepreneur.
Denise Robertson briefly hosted her own television series, Dear Denise, in 2000. She also appeared regularly on Channel 5’s Big Brother’s Bit On The Side.
In 1998 she was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Co Durham, and in 2006 was awarded the Freedom of the City of Sunderland and appointed MBE for services to broadcasting and to charity. She held an honorary degree from Sunderland University, and was president of the National Council for the Divorced and Separated.
Her autobiography Agony? Don’t Get Me Started was published in 2008.
She married Alex Robertson in 1960. After his death from lung cancer in 1972, she married John “Jack” Tomlin, who died of a stroke in 1995. In 1997 she married her childhood boyfriend, Bryan Thubron, who survives her with the son of her first marriage and three three stepsons. A fourth stepson predeceased her.
Denise Robertson, born June 9 1932, died April 1 2016