It was 1999, and in many ways, the country was a very different place. It was a time before smartphones and social media, we were all excited about the dawn of the new Millennium, and Britney topped the charts with Baby One More Time. Manchester City were even in the third division.
But the things that make the Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Awards, in partnership with TSB, such a uniquely special celebration are the same today as they ever were.
In 2019, just as in 1999, there are incredible men, women and children who deserve to be recognised for their awe-inspiring courage.
And just like then, these ordinary, extraordinary people are usually too modest to push themselves into the limelight.
That’s why today we launch our 20th anniversary appeal for nominations. We need you to tell us about Britain’s unsung heroes.
Thanks to the immense privilege of hosting Pride of Britain, I have met hundreds of the most remarkable, brave and inspirational people from every corner of the country.
But we can only honour them at our wonderful awards celebration in the Autumn if you tell us about them in the first place.
From children of courage to a 111-year-old Great War veteran and our amazing lifetime achievement recipients over the years, our winners all share the same selfless, indomitable spirit.
Every single one of our winners is unforgettable, and it would be impossible to choose between them.
But if you are unsure about whether someone you know deserves a Pride of Britain Award, then some memorable winners’ stories from the last two decades may inspire you to nominate.
Perhaps you know a foster carer with the same boundless reserves of love and compassion as the wonderful Jean Forrest, a winner at the second Pride of Britain in 2000.
Jean had fostered more than 600 children over 37 years at her home in West Sussex when she won, and a lot of them came up on stage, which I’ll always remember.
She had children of her own, too, but she fostered all ages, from babies to teenagers, and those with special needs.
When she walked on, it was almost like she had this glow around her. There was this immense feeling of love when you were around her, and this incredible calming effect.
We all cried, and she was so incredibly grateful. But it was that feeling; there hadn’t been anyone before where I had felt that and I’ve always remembered it.
Some of our winners have been incredible pioneers, people who changed the world such as Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, Dr Chad Varah, who founded The Samaritans, Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson, and Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 children from the Nazis in the Second World War.
One of those was astronaut Dr Piers Sellers, a winner in 2006. This year is the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, and Piers, the third Brit in space, is at the forefront of my mind.
After I met him at Pride of Britain he became a really good friend, and was such an inspiration to me.
He had broken the British record for the longest amount of time spacewalking with 41 hours.
Space walkers are extraordinary – they are immensely modest, trained to stay very calm, but everything they do is dangerous. He had risked his life to push the boundaries of what we know.
But the great thing about Piers was not just what he had achieved, it was his personality, his Monty Python humour – he was hardworking, but very funny. And he genuinely wanted to help people.
I have always had an interest in space, and through him, I now work with NASA’s education centres – and my daughter, Katie, who is now a nanotechnology scientist, worked there as a research scientist, working on the robot Curiosity which is now on Mars. So Piers had a big impact on mine and my family’s life.
Piers passed away in 2016 aged 61 after being diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and the way he wrote the email to tell his friends said it all – telling us ‘I don’t have to worry about parking tickets anymore.’
He was a great man – but not just because of what he achieved in space.
Another winner who became a dear friend is Pepe Rahman Hart, who I met at Pride of Britain in 2008.
She was a 39-year-old headteacher in a primary school in Radstock near Bath, an old mining town and socially deprived, yet she won outstanding OFSTED reports, results were in the top 5%, and the kids absolutely adored her.
It was again, all about love – she just loved children and they loved her back, and hung off her every word, and that was unforgettable.
She had been brought up Muslim with an Indian mother and Pakistani father yet taught in a Church of England school – she was just unique in this gift for bringing people together.
She met Doreen Lawrence through Pride of Britain and put up a sculpture in Stephen Lawrence’s memory in the school’s playground – that was a great Pride of Britain collaboration.
Doreen and Neville Lawrence had been honoured at the first Pride of Britain in 1999.
Their son Stephen, 18, had been murdered for the colour of his skin, in 1993, and they had been told the men who had done it would not be brought to justice. Yet they fought on and finally forced the government to take notice.
What they went through was horrendous but the strength that Doreen especially, showed, I will never forget.
She was not trained for public life, but she made it her business.
Stephen had only been killed a short number of years before and she was grieving, and as a mother I could feel that in another mother, but she just had this immense dignity. It was how she conducted herself that was so overwhelming to me. I remember the standing ovation.’
Some truly memorable Pride of Britain moments come from the children we meet. Ella Chadwick won a child of courage just last year. She was tiny but just so full of life. I was just bowled over by her.
She was 11 when she won, and had spent her life in and out of hospital after being born with congenital nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disease.
She had undergone six years of dialysis and 40 operations and suffered several strokes before she received a kidney from her grandmother in 2014.
But despite having limited mobility and diabetes she would spend her time making cards for all the other children in hospital.
She charmed everyone that night, and was very funny. This is the thing about all our children of courage, their attitude is always ‘don’t feel sorry for me, because I’m happy!’ That is always fundamentally the message. Ella was an absolute joy and encapsulated that.
Another youngster who won everyone’s hearts on the night was Moin Younis in 2017.
I always remember Moin said he had felt like ending his life the year before, because of the pain he was in. But the teenager from Birmingham watched Pride of Britain and thought ‘No, I’m not going to do that, I want to be the kind of person who wins a Pride of Britain Award’ – and he did.
Seventeen when he won, he had been diagnosed with Epidermolysis Bullosa when he was just two months old and his parents told he would not live beyond his first birthday.
The condition means he lacks the protein needed to bind the layers of his skin together, so it tears and blisters at the slightest touch. He has scarring across his body as well as wounds which will never fully heal.
What was instantly moving was his humour, despite his pain. I’m sure he goes home and does not feel so great, but he had this great way of putting me and others at ease.
And he sent a real message to all of us about appreciating the health we have got.
Our older winners often have the same joyful spirit as the youngest.
Jean Bishop – the bee lady – won Fundraiser of the Year in 2013
I’ll never forget David Walliams surprising Jean with her award, dressed like a bee too.
She shook a collection tin in Hull for Age UK, dressed like a bee. She’d begun in her seventies and raised nearly £100,000.
She also went into residential homes to put a smile on people’s faces - even though she was probably older than most of them at 91.
Dressing as a bee was such a silly thing, but hers was such an incredible achievement.
She was one of that generation who lived through the war – that attitude ‘I’m still here, so I will do something to help others’.
She, like all the winners, are people to learn from – primarily about selflessness.
It was very humbling to meet her, as it has been to meet all of our winners over the last 20 years.
And I know I will feel the same when I meet this year’s winners at the 20th anniversary Pride of Britain Awards at Grosvenor House in the autumn.
So please, please, click here to nominate the unsung heroes you know about.
We can’t do it without you.