Monday 22 July 2019

Keeping it in the family

Kif Inti?, a health and safety educational programme, is the brainchild of Matilde Balzan, which she produces and presents with her daughters Marika and Christine, and her husband Peter Cordina. Josanne Cassar finds out what it’s like when your co-workers are also members of your family, all of whom have very strong and different personalities


2012-09-12 16.25.08Matilde Balzan is a familiar face to many of us over a certain age and, in fact, she admits she has lost count of how many years she has been in broadcasting:

“Before appearing on TV I used to take part in radio programmes for schools with the Broadcasting Authority. However I do remember the first time I went on TV, it was in April 1979. My job was to read a synopsis about ‘the film of the week’ which used to be written by the late Lino Cassar. After that I started presenting educational children’s programmes. To this day I still meet people, now in their 30’s and 40’s who remember taking part in these programmes. Since then I have produced and presented various programmes such as Mill-Qrib, X’ghandek ghal qalbek, Il-Festa, and so on.

She recalls with nostalgia how it felt to face a camera for the first time: “Going on air for the first time was quite nerve wracking even though at first my parts were recorded. But back then, if one made a mistake, very often one had to start all over again. Thank God I didn’t make so many mistakes and in fact they called me ‘One Time Matty’ as I did the recording in one take. At the time there was only Xandir Malta so people who watched local TV could not miss watching my slot since it was on prime time on a Friday night, if I remember correctly. As to being recognised by the public, at times you feel ‘important’ but quite often, especially when people just stare, you feel quite awkward. Nowadays, when I am approached by viewers in the street I like it because they make me feel that I am doing something worthwhile especially due to the nature of this programme which they find useful and interesting.”

Matilde never imagined that she would do a programme together with her daughters. “Since Kif Inti? is health related and since Marika, is an aromatherapist I felt it would be a good idea to include the concept of alternative therapy. I know she is good at her work so I could trust her with the job. Marika manages her own spot but she is also in charge of promoting the programme on Facebook. Christine does most of the work in the studios seeing to Facebook and SMS  comments and questions. Both of them also do some research about the topic discussed.”

As happens when someone plunges themselves wholeheartedly into a project, Kif Inti? has now taken over her life. “Even though this is a family programme I have to do most of the work. I contact the medics, do the filming, editing, research, find sponsors, the whole lot, so that does not leave me much time to do anything else. I decided to include my family because for one thing, I’m not young anymore and I’m hoping that this could lead them to having their own programme in the future. Of  course, working with relatives does pose some challenges. We do meet more often although most of the talking is done over the phone, however, now whenever we meet we end up discussing the programme all the time!”

Matilde firmly believes that health issues need to be  brought out into the open to dispel fears and encourage people to take care of themselves:

I have always wanted to present a health programme because I know that there are a number of people who are afraid to bring up the subject of health. Some keep putting off seeing their doctor about health issues as they fear being diagnosed with a serious problem. Little do they realise that the earlier they seek advice the sooner their health problems can be seen to and they will stand a better chance of being cured. The aim of the programme is to make the public more confident about health matters, learn to recognise the symptoms and seek medical advice as soon as possible. We also talk a lot about prevention, keeping a positive attitude and whenever possible we get people to give testimonals to talk about how their life went on in spite of their illness.”

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Peter Cordina is another familiar face on TV due to the very nature of his work which has always been to create public awareness about civil protection. In fact, every time there is a terrible storm, we are used to seeing Peter on our screens cautioning drivers and asking the public to stay at home if possible.  When he met Matilde they were both widowed and they have now been married for 13 years:

“I have been using the services of the local media for the past 30 years, ever since I was a Police Inspector in charge of the Mobile Squad (way back in the 1976 – 1979 period).  In the year 2000 I was appointed to the post of Director of Civil Protection.  One of the main roles entrusted to me was to communicate to the public, ways and measures on now  to adopt  PPR (Prevention, Preparedness and Response) in case of emergencies particularly fires, traffic accidents and stormy weather.”

This whole concept was reinforced after Peter married Matilde in 2000. “Together (actually under her dictatorial direction) we managed to create a programme called X’gara?,” he says with a teasing reference to his wife’s strong character.  “In this programme, we examined real accidents which happened in Malta and Gozo and instructed  the public on how to respond under such circumstances.  These programmes received an excellent response from the public, but unfortunately they are shelved somewhere in the archives at PBS. We have often suggested that they should be repeated in the interest of the Maltese people but, so far, this has proved fruitless.”

Like Matilde, Peter too feels that Maltese people do not give enough importance to the subject of health and safety at home and at work.  “I have always expressed my worries since the general opinion is that accidents always happen to my neighbour but never to me!”

IMG_4093Marika Fleri is Matilde’s eldest daughter and shares her mother’s determined character:

“If someone had come up to me this time last year and told me that I would be co- hosting a programme with my mother I would have thought that he was taking me for a ride.  This experience is very new to me but in all honesty I am loving it. “

She very candidly describes the first time she appeared on air as “a nightmare”. “I was trying to avoid looking at the camera for the whole programme and I was ready to throw in the towel immediately. Had it not been for the encouragement given to me by Mum, family and our marvellous crew at One especially Pierre Cachia, our Floor Manager, that would have been my first and last programme. “

Recalling her first taste of being recognised is easy because it was not too long ago. “The first time it hit home that I was being recognized was about a month ago. I went to buy groceries at 6am in the morning from the  grocery store next door in my PJ’s (yes, I sometimes tend to do that) and as soon as I walked in there were a group of women, back from their very early morning walk who were head over heels because they had met ‘It-tifla ta’ Matilde ta’ fuq It- TV’ (“Matilde’s daughter, the one on TV”). That was officially one of the most embarrassing moments ever.”

Apart from helping her mother in preparing the programmes (“that is when she let’s us help!”), she delivers an Aromatherapy slot every week.

“My aim is to educate the general public on the safe use of essential oils in their day-to-day life. I have been studying and practising Aromatherapy for the past 12 years, but the subject is so vast that after all these years I sometimes feel that I have only just scratched the surface of it all. I try to travel as often as I can to conduct research and meet experts in the field.  Essential Oils have enriched my life to the extent that I felt it was time to share their ‘secret’.”

Marika points out that in Malta, Aromatherapy is still considered as something that smells nice to be added to a massage even by practitioners. Essential oils are sold in pharmacies and health shops over the counter without any explanation whatsoever on uses and safety instructions.

“I want to change that. I want to empower people with the notion that essential oils are powerful gifts of nature and that they have an amazing potential to heal and restore. I also want to instil the notion that aromatherapy is a treatment in its own merit and that an Aromatherapist is not just there to add some drops of essential oil to her massage blend just because it has a wonderful smell. I am also trying to show people that Aromatherapy is a way of life and show them how they can safely use essential oils and incorporate them in their day to day life.”

As for the delicate issue of how it feels to be working with family, Marika admits, “you’re touching quite a raw nerve there. Mum and I have very similar characters and we are both very, very stubborn and not in the least bit diplomatic when it comes to our behaviour towards each other. So there are fireworks every time we are in the same room. The heat sometimes gets too much especially when we are both under pressure. That’s where my sister comes in. She is our buffer and balancer. Apart from the fireworks, I love every minute I spend working on this project with them. “

On one point she does agree with her Mum, and that it is very difficult to leave work behind when they meet up in their spare time. “When we get together we always end up planning and brainstorming for ideas. Even during the approximately six telephone calls a day with Mum, the programme features during most of the conversations.”

antenna pic criChristine Balzan, as the youngest of the family, has been in broadcasting for less than a year, and is loving the challenge of co-presenting with her mother and sister.

Thrown in at the deep end, with a live programme, was, she agrees, quite daunting.  “You really need to focus and not make any mistakes or say anything stupid because once you say it, you can’t really correct it. However, I was quite surprised that, as weeks went by, I felt more relaxed and the butterflies had calmed down.   I guess I am following my Mum’s footsteps, although I have quite a long way to go. I do not think that at this stage people in the street recognize me, except when I am in the company of my mother. But people who know me in real life sometimes stop to tell me that they have seen me on TV.”

Christine points out that in almost all the programmes which her mother has produced and presented, there is an element of education, perhaps stemming from the fact that teaching was her full time job.  “That is why in each programme, she tries to educate the viewers and raise awareness on relevant issues.  Many people do not realise that one of the subjects she used to teach was biology and that she was very interested in the field of health prior to becoming a teacher.  I guess this programme represents her passion for the subject.”

Christine describes her mother’s drive to produce educational programmes and the importance of involving the audience.  “That is why she has entrusted me with the task of receiving comments and questions from the audience both on our Facebook page  as well as through SMS. My job is to relay questions from the audience to the consultant, who is participating in the programme, to discuss and raise awareness on the topic being discussed.”

Echoing Marika, Christine agrees that as sisters, they have completely opposite characters. “My character is more or less similar to my late father’s although I have also acquired some traits from my mother. As they are both stubborn, my mother and sister never succeed in having a decent conversation for more than 30 minutes before starting to raise their voices and end up yelling at each other, at which point I would have to intervene to calm the situation. It is quite amusing for me actually.  Perhaps a disadvantage could be the fact that when working with family members, we tend to be quite lenient with each other, although still delivering a professional outcome in the end.”

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“In almost all the conversations which  I have with my mother and sister, we always end up discussing something which has to do with the programme, whether it would be the topic itself, sponsors, how we can improve it, what went wrong in the previous programme etc.  It is something we enjoy doing and it is the form of communication which we have managed to build.  Now that  Peter is also taking part in the programme, it is inevitable that every time we meet, the programme crops up in our conversation.”

Kif Inti? airs on One TV on Tuesday at 9.40pm




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