Jonnie and Jess Irwin are discussing their festive plans. You wouldn’t imagine anything was amiss. ‘We’re hosting Christmas again,’ says Jess. ‘My mum and dad. My brother Freddie . . .’
‘My mate Stuart, and our kids,’ continues Jonnie. They have three sons: Rex who turns four on Christmas Day, and two-year-old twins Rafa and Cormac. Just consider the merry mayhem.
‘Is Freddie bringing that b****y dog? He’s lovely but he’s the size of a Shetland pony,’ Jonnie asks before running through the rest of the guest list. ‘Then my two sisters and their husbands are coming up. Safety in numbers! It’s nice to get people to our house now. We’re renovating it completely. It’s coming along, more comfortable. It’s a big house and we’re a sociable household.’
Jonnie and Jess Irwin are spending what could be their last Christmas together with family
Jonnie, 49, host of BBC One’s Escape To The Country and long-time presenter of Channel 4’s A Place In The Sun, is imperturbably upbeat; so doggedly determined to wring every drop of joy and productivity out of the life which is ebbing, almost visibly, from him, you’d never think this is likely to be his last Christmas.
‘I’ve been told I’ve got months to live. We’re hurtling towards where we don’t want to be,’ he says, without actually using the word, ‘death’.
Jonnie was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2020, when the twins were two months old and Rex still a toddler. There was no intimation he was ill until then.
And the cancer, which began in his lungs, spread to his brain then his liver. Today his mood oscillates between defiant optimism and a combative gallows humour.
‘I’ve had a big dose of reality. I’m not going to beat this. People say, ‘Don’t worry. You will.’ Well I probably won’t, mate.
‘I had this wonder drug after the initial prognosis of six months to live. They hoped it would keep it at bay for a bit longer. But it’s come back so violently, it’s even surprised the doctors.’
TV host Jonnie Irwin, 49, was diagnosed with terminal cancer around two years ago
The family decamped to Newcastle upon Tyne from Hertfordshire when Jonnie was told he had a short time to live, so Jess, 40, would have the support of her large and loving family who live nearby. What strikes me when I visit them at their new home is his tenacity and determination to provide for his wife and sons after he is gone.
I arrive just before Christmas. Snow has wrapped the frozen city in whiteness. A tree twinkles in the sitting room; the new wood-burner blazes. Jonnie has coaxed it into life, stashed the logs and is running around, fixing croissants and coffee for breakfast.
‘We try to carry on as normal,’ he says. ‘We made a decision not to mourn and to make the most of every day. I’m still working — I’m doing a voice-over this afternoon — I try to manufacture positive thoughts. People say, ‘How do you stay so upbeat?’ It’s a bit of an act, really.
‘These last couple of months I haven’t liked having no energy, being doubled up in pain. I’m probably more stubborn than positive. But I have this determination to achieve something every day. I feel guilty if I sit down.’
‘He doesn’t sit still!’ agrees Jess. ‘The house renovation has been a good thing. It’s taken his mind off stuff.’ She skirts round the awful finality of death with a euphemism. ‘I’m so grateful for what he’s put himself through in the last months. He’s gone above and beyond to provide for me and the boys.’
Later, privately, she tells me: ‘It scares me, the sadness coming my way. Everyone says, ‘You’ll manage. You’ll be surprised.’ I’ve never had dark thoughts for myself but I wonder now: ‘How will I cope with the sadness?’ I know I’ll have to, for the boys. I’ll have to put a smile on my face. But it worries me, the great grief that will hit me.’
Jonnie with son Rex, three, twins Rafa and Cormac, two, and wife Jessica. He has said there’s no need to tell his children about his illness as they are too young
Jonnie is funny, acerbic and unsentimental. Will it be an extra-special Christmas because it is likely to be his last?
‘How do you make it extra special when it’s already extra special?’ he asks reasonably. ‘We won’t be filling the house with toys for the boys because it’s not good for them. Of course we want to spoil them, but everyone else does too.’
For the first time, Rex will fully understand it’s his birthday tomorrow. ‘My mum has always baked him a birthday cake — a dinosaur or digger; and we have it instead of Christmas pud. She’s done the same for tomorrow. Next year we’ll probably engineer a birthday party on a different day to separate the two events,’ says Jess.
Aside from gifts of scooters, bedding sets for their rooms; football boots for Rex, the emphasis will be on creating memories.
‘We hope to take them to Peppa Pig World and Legoland,’ begins Jess. ‘But we haven’t mentioned it yet, as it’ll be, ‘When are we going?’ ‘ smiles Jonnie.
The happy memories will, of course, be transient. The tragedy that lies ahead is too dark to imagine broaching with the boys. The twins are too young to understand. But have they thought about gently raising it with Rex?
Jonnie and Jess tied the knot within 12 months of meeting in 2016 after Jonnie convinced his new love to hand in her notice at work and go travelling with him
‘Not yet,’ says Jonnie. ‘When I’m more frail or in bed for days we might. If you have 20 days left, why spend them in mourning and confusion? Why not just have 15 days of pure, blissful ignorance and five days of knowing the facts? I’m not looking forward to the chat with Rex. We’re still thinking about it. I’ve learnt that it’s best to do nothing if you’re unsure.’
‘It’s OK to do nothing,’ adds Jess. ‘You don’t have to have that conversation. Why put yourself through it?’ They are still grappling with the enormity of the situation.
‘Jess has been very good at getting me in photos with the boys,’ adds Jonnie. ‘But I haven’t done anything with those 26,000 photos,’ smiles Jess. ‘I’ll get round to putting them in a special book eventually.’ I sense there’s a feeling that if they start cataloguing those pictures, they will be hastening Jonnie’s death.
I ask Jonnie, who has worked so hard to ensure the financial security of his family — ensuring the house is mortgage-free — if he has discussed her marrying again.
‘I want Jess to be happy when I’m not here,’ he says. ‘I don’t want her to be on her own. My most selfless decision is to wish her well for the rest of her life. If that is with someone else, then so be it. If she finds a good bloke to look after her and the boys, that would be great.’
‘You don’t need to say that,’ Jess says. She’s crying and I feel privileged to witness such a tender exchange. ‘That’s the most upsetting part — you not being around.’
‘I don’t think the boys will remember me after I’ve gone,’ says Jonnie.
‘Rex will. Of course he will,’ counters Jess. She’s sobbing now.
‘The twins won’t — which is just as well because I spend most of my life telling them off.’ Jonnie leavens the mood with laughter.
They had been married just four years — a golden couple with a life rich in promise — when, out of the blue, Jonnie was given the earth-shattering terminal diagnosis.
Jonnie recently said he kept his terminal cancer diagnosis a secret over fears he might lose work if TV bosses discovered he was dying (pictured with fellow A Place in the Sun presenter Jasmine Harman)
Their home near Berkhamsted was in a friendly, supportive community: ‘We were a very sociable, upwardly mobile family, living our best life,’ says Jonnie.
During Covid they moved — they thought temporarily — to rented accommodation in Newcastle so Jess could be near her family while their Hertfordshire home was renovated. The twins had just been born; Jess was on maternity leave from her job in finance.
‘Life was the busiest it had ever been,’ says Jonnie who was flying each week to Europe to film A Place In The Sun, then ‘jetting straight back to Jess and night feeds,’ at weekends.
It was during this time that he began to feel unwell. ‘One day, in the baking heat of Puglia, I was driving and I got gold flashing squares coming into my vision. The sound man thought it was a stroke. I said, ‘I’m fine. I just need a sleep,’ but he insisted I went to hospital.
‘I wanted to finish the show but they said, ‘You have to go home.’ I went straight back to Newcastle and into hospital. They did some tests. I went home, returned the following day and they were very gentle, but they said I had cancer, it had metastasised [spread] and I had six months to live.
‘I put a brave face on most things but I couldn’t bluff it this time. People talk about having the wind knocked out of them and my good friend Rahul, a surgeon, who’d come with me, says he saw me physically exhale. ‘It was the biggest blow I could have had. He virtually held my hand back to the car.’
Jonnie had no idea until then that he’d been living with lung cancer for years. The tumours had grown, without symptoms, and spread through his body to the lymph nodes until they were pressing against his brain.
‘I went from no symptoms at all to a terminal diagnosis in a couple of days — and we had two month-old twins and Rex, and had moved house three months earlier.’
Jonnie had to tell Jess: ‘He just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘You’re fit. You’re young. You’ll be fine.’ I just didn’t want to think about the seriousness of it.’
‘You were in denial,’ says Jonnie.
‘I probably still am,’ agrees Jess.
The treatment that ensued was punishing: steroids, chemotherapy, radiotherapy to the brain. ‘And at one stage the cancer mutated and they found a drug that could attack the mutation. I remember the nurse punching the air and the doctor saying, ‘This could give you another year,’ ‘ recalls Jonnie.
And although he has lived beyond the first prognosis, respite was temporary. The cancer has spread to his liver. He now needs morphine to block out the pain. His weight has fallen, his hair is sparse after chemo; his head shaved.
But Jonnie is still working: it has been his salvation. Last week he was on Good Morning Britain, discussing his prognosis and plans for Jess’s future.
To begin with he tried to keep the cancer secret from all but close friends and family, but as he lost weight the intrusive enquiries — masquerading as concern — began to rankle.
‘It hurt my feelings. I didn’t want everyone to find out. I wanted to be in control. People were saying, ‘You look thin, ill. You ought to see a doctor.’
‘Did they think I needed their advice? When I bit back they said, ‘It’s just that we care.’ No you don’t. You’re gossiping. You’re trying to ‘out’ me.
‘When I lost my hair I got sick of the passive-aggressive enquiries, the comments from busybodies. I was paranoid about being treated differently, about not being offered work or invited out, ‘because he has cancer’.
Jess said: ‘It scares me, the sadness coming my way. Everyone says, ‘You’ll manage. You’ll be surprised.’ I’ve never had dark thoughts for myself but I wonder now: ‘How will I cope with the sadness?’
‘It started to wind me up. So I thought: ‘There’s a message here. Treat us as people. Please keep inviting us round.’ I’ll say ‘no’ most times, but it’s up to us to decide, to say yea or nay.’
Since he ‘came out’ — as he puts it — he has been buoyed by a ‘sea of support. And it’s been lovely’.
‘Friends I haven’t spoken to in a few years have been in touch with stories and photos of the fun we had,’ he says.
‘It’s been really positive, like witnessing my own wake. And of course there are s**t days when I struggle to get out of bed. I’ve had dark thoughts this past week — about leaving people behind; about the cosmos, what’s out there. But I think we’d be arrogant to think there’s nothing else.
Jonnie said: ‘When I was diagnosed my goals were to get to the end of the year, then try to sneak in another year’
Once Christmas is over, they’ll be planning Jonnie’s 50th birthday party. The actual day is in November, but they’re holding the do next month, so he can enjoy it
‘I definitely believe we’ll see each other again,’ says Jess, quiet but emphatic. ‘Good. Good,’ adds Jonnie. Then, ‘And you thought you’d got rid of me, you’d done your sentence!’ He laughs.
Their humour, courage and care for each other is heartbreaking. Is it hard not to cry? ‘I’m not a big crier, but when I do cry I feel better,’ admits Jonnie.
‘I’m the crier,’ says Jess. ‘I wish I could do more to take the sadness away by doing more with Jonnie. But we can’t because of the kids. We are so busy and I’m exhausted all the time. But probably if we just had the cancer to deal with we’d have more time to be depressed.’
Once Christmas is over, they’ll be planning Jonnie’s 50th birthday party. The actual day is in November, but they’re holding the do next month, so he can enjoy it.
‘Jess has been very good at getting me in photos with the boys,’ adds Jonnie. ‘But I haven’t done anything with those 26,000 photos,’ smiles Jess
‘Mentally I’m quite strong but you find yourself drifting . . . towards the future. The weirdest thing is, if you’re doing something really enjoyable you get an instant prick: don’t get too happy. Don’t laugh. Down the road something really bad is going to happen.
‘It keeps you in check. I struggle with this, if there’s a God why is He putting me through this? If it’s part of His plan, it’s a s**t plan.’
‘When I was diagnosed my goals were to get to the end of the year, then try to sneak in another year.’
A Christmas, in a big noisy house, filled with loved ones, followed by a party to celebrate his life. They’re hopes enough for now. Beyond that? They’ll just have to see.