TV’s Jonnie Irwin has accused A Place In The Sun bosses of dumping him as soon as he told them he was dying of cancer.
Dad-of-three Jonnie said: “That broke my heart.”
Terminally ill TV star Jonnie Irwin has spoken of his despair at the thought of leaving behind his wife and young children.
The former A Place In The Sun host, who says he was axed from the show when he revealed his cancer diagnosis, filled up as he talked about wife Jess, three-year-old son Rex and two-year-old twins Cormac and Rafa.
Eyes brimming with tears, he told The Sun: “Every time something really nice happens with them, I have this thing knocking at my door, saying, ‘Don’t get too happy because you’re not going to be around much longer’.
“Then, I think they’re not going to remember me, they’re really not.
“They’re too young and if I die this year there’s no chance they will have memories. And someone else is probably going to bring them up. I’ve done the hard yards with them and someone else will get the easy bit.”
Medication, radiotherapy and chemo have kept him alive. He had been filming A Place In The Sun in Italy when he became ill — and says producers paid him off and failed to renew his contract after he told them he had cancer.
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Now thin and stripped of his blond hair by chemotherapy, he said: “As soon as people find out you’ve got cancer they write you off. Yes, I have stage four and it’s terminal — but not yet, so let me live my life while I can.
“As soon as I told A Place In The Sun about my diagnosis they paid me for the rest of the season but didn’t renew my contract. They knew I wanted to carry on.
“That hurt. That broke my heart. I feel hugely let down. I can’t even watch the show now.”
Jonnie has not stopped working throughout the months of gruelling treatment, filming for Escape To The Country as well as working on commercial projects.
‘I need to put a roof over our heads’
He has an almost obsessive urge to provide for his family, selling his property portfolio so he could pay off the mortgage on a new home in Newcastle so Jess, 40, could be close to family. “I want to go knowing that Jess and the boys are looked after,” he said.
That’s why, he said, it hurt all the more when Freeform Productions, the company behind Channel 4’s A Place In The Sun, stopped giving him work after his diagnosis.
It also led him to keep his cancer secret for two years, fearful he would lose more work.
He said: “Yes, I’m a family man and I need to put a roof over our heads and food on the table but work is something that’s really important to me. It also stops me thinking about cancer.
“Even though I look thinner and I’m without hair, Escape to the Country and A Place In The Sun Ltd, which runs the show’s exhibitions, have employed me and I’ve been so impressed by them.
“But I didn’t get that support from A Place In The Sun. I told them I wanted to work. When I said I can get you doctor notes and assurances from my oncologist that I am fit to work, I was told, verbatim, ‘Oh, you really don’t want to go down that route, do you?’
“They said, ‘We don’t think we can get the insurance’, not ‘We can’t get the insurance’, but, ‘We don’t think . . . ’ That broke my heart and affected my mental health.
“Within two weeks someone else was on TV doing my job. I just feel I earned a bit more from them after 18 years. That was my first job in TV and it was special to me.
“I started with my good friend Jasmine Harman and to have that taken away from me . . . that wage, that purpose . . . as if the cancer wasn’t bad enough.”
Pointing out that the show won an RTS award when he was presenting, Jonnie added bitterly: “Now I’m just pushed to the side in favour of someone healthier.
I’m just pushed to the side in favour of someone healthier.
“I could still present that show but I don’t think there’s any going back now.”
Jonnie makes no bones about the reality of his situation. He is in pain from a liver problem, which doctors suspect was caused by the chemo designed to give him more time.
He is on morphine and worn out from lack of sleep.
His twins were just a month old and Rex two when Jonnie developed problems with his peripheral vision and flew home from Italy.
“It’s cruel,” he said. “But I’ve tried to resist thoughts of why me.” He was with a friend when he got the news and said: “He saw me visibly exhale.
“You hear the phrase ‘it knocks the wind out of you’, and you don’t think much of it but that’s what it did. Everything just came out of me.
“When I got home I had to tell Jess that, not only did I have cancer, but it was terminal. I was just crying and apologising to her. I felt it was my fault, that I’d let her down.
“It had crystallised in my mind that I would be leaving her on her own to look after our beautiful sons. That still crushes me now. We just held each other saying sorry. We didn’t really know what to say. And we’ve just kind of existed ever since.”
Jonnie describes Jess as an angel, putting up with his grumpy days and looking after him when bedbound. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have dark days,” he said. “But Jess is amazing and I love her more every day. I’m so lucky to have her and I lean on her.”
The couple met through mutual friends in 2016 and were married within a year after he popped the question in India.
But he knows it is likely his wife will go on to meet someone else. “In a selfless way I want her to find someone else eventually and have some support,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t. It breaks my heart.
“Jess is not the sort to go on a dating app and in a perfect world I suppose she will meet a divorcé dad or someone who has lost their partner. But it’s not my business, I guess. That’s her life as much as it hurts me to think this way.”
‘I want to make those memories’
He said: “I want to make those memories for Jess, even if the kids don’t remember it, so if she looks at the photo album when I’m long gone she can say to the boys, ‘Here’s the time your dad chucked you in a pool’ or, ‘Here’s the time we went for that day out’.”
At one point, Jonnie broke down, gently starting to weep but he quickly pulled himself together saying: “What I need is a good cry but I haven’t had a big sob and I’m not going to have one now in front of you.”
Jonnie, who grew up as an altar boy in Leicester, said he had not sought out religion for comfort, adding: “If there is a God why is he doing this to me and my family?”
Nonetheless, there’s also part of him that feels fortunate to have cancer. He said: “Nobody knows what’s around the corner but I do.
“I’ve been given a picture of when the door shuts and most people don’t get that. I feel sorry for the people who will be hit by a truck in a couple of months because they won’t get that.
“They won’t get the chance to say goodbye, to put their affairs in order. Don’t get me wrong, I’d trade lives with most people right now if it gave me more time with my family, but I’ve had such an amazing response.
I’ve been given a picture of when the door shuts and most people don’t get that.
“In TV you meet so many people and have such good times and I’d forgotten.”
Now, he is speaking out to bust the myths around cancer, dispelling the notion that it ends careers, saying: “We’ve learned this past decade to treat people with disability more equality, but not those with cancer.”
A statement from Channel 4 and production company Freeform said: “No stone was left unturned in trying to enable Jonnie to continue his international filming with us during Covid but the production company were unable to secure adequate insurance cover for him.
“We, of course, understand how frustrating this must be for him at this incredibly difficult time.”
Jonnie feels reassured that his effect on people has been positive, with old friends getting in touch, sharing anecdotes of his antics.
Along with the love of his family, it is a sign that he feels his life has been worthwhile.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in my life and it turns out I’ve been quite fun to be around,” he said.
“It feels like I’ve had a chance to see my own wake and hear my own eulogy. In the meantime, I’m determined to just keep living.”