Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I Smiled A Lot And I Got The Job: The Redcoat Life Of Michael Barrymore


Somewhere towards the end of my conversation with Michael Barrymore, I ask about Princess Diana. The king of comedy and the people’s Princess struck up an unlikely alliance in the 1990s, and though Barrymore has pledged not to reveal the detail of their friendship, he will say that they had “good conversations”.
They met after the Princess wrote to the rehab clinic where Barrymore was a patient. Her letter said that she hoped they could meet when got out. “At first I thought it was a joke from the psychiatrist,” Barrymore says. “So I ignored it three or four times. Until he said: ‘Are you going to reply to this?’ About the fifth time I said ‘It’s a wind-up’, he said, ‘No, it’s for real.’”
This story is very Barrymore; particularly the part where he thinks that a letter from the Princess of Wales would be a prank played on him by his shrink.
She must have been keen, I tell him. “Very much so. She was fantastic. We got on great.”
A lot has happened since then. Diana has become a creature of myth, and Barrymore’s career has skidded several times, crashing in 2001 with the death in the swimming pool of his Essex mansion of Stuart Lubbock. The controversy surrounding that event seemed to have cost Barrymore his career, but he staged a comeback on last year’s Celebrity Big Brother, being what his CV calls “the most popular known celebrity” (he was second to Chantelle, the show’s fake celebrity).
When we meet in the Star Room of the Liverpool Empire, he is on the last lap of a tour with Scrooge: The Musical, which concludes this week in Edinburgh. “We’re running out of season now,” he says, a little poignantly.
The Star Room is sparse. There is a fridge, a sink, a studded leather couch and a mirror, in front of which Barrymore’s script lies open. Beside it is a battered top hat. Barrymore thinks he might get some flowers later, and maybe a kettle. “The Star Room means the nearest to the stage,” he says. “That’s about it.”
It’s not hard, sitting on the room’s one chair, to catch a whiff of pathos. Barrymore was, after all, the brightest star of Saturday night television, winning awards with monotonous regularity in the 1990s. It’s not just the surroundings that seem out-of-kilter. The man is barely recognisable. Physically, he is almost there – a little more tanned, with whiter hair, and less of it – but the volume of his personality seems to have drained away. He talks in an unexcitable monotone. His face is largely expressionless, with flash-floods of dread coursing over his features when I mention the reopening of the police investigation into the Lubbock case. (He welcomes it, but fears there may never be a satisfactory conclusion. “There’s no real answer to a lot of things. I know where I stand – if I’d been guilty or done anything I wouldn’t be sitting here.”)
Otherwise, he is sedate, if not sedated. Or so it seems. When I play back the tape, without the benefit of body-language – the arms hugging the chest in a St Andrew’s cross, the legs kicking as if being tapped with a reflex hammer – he merely sounds disinterested. Later, Barrymore’s PR tells me that Michael sometimes asks people to sit in on interviews, a habit they have been trying to discourage, because he always ends up performing to the crowd, however small. Mano-a-mano, apparently, you have more chance of encountering the real Barrymore. I had also heard that he treats interviews like therapy sessions, but this, too, seems to have passed. He now behaves like a man who has discovered the value of caution, which is progress.
But perhaps it’s wrong to imply that there is a hidden Barrymore. His story, as he tells it, is that he first realised he was an entertainer in the third form of high school, when he played Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. His English teacher, Miss Jackson, took him aside and told him he was wonderful. “I managed to change somebody around who didn’t like me, and I realised how powerful the stage is.”
His ambition had been born six years earlier, when his mother took him to see Trouble in Store, starring Norman Wisdom, at the ABC cinema in the Elephant and Castle. It was his first trip to the pictures. “We were going back home on the bus, and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I haven’t got a clue how I’m going to do it, but I want to be an entertainer. Then the magic started.”
From there, he joined an amateur dramatic club, working as a car washer for Sainsbury’s to pay the rent. “I was happy doing all that.” He auditioned to be a Butlins Redcoat, lying about his age in the interview. “I smiled a lot, and he said, ‘Go down to Clacton,’ and that was it. I’d got the job. I obviously smiled enough.”
It’s hard now, to remember the effect of Barrymore before he was beset by the doldrums. He was a supercharged Redcoat, operating in an area beyond shame. Tell him he was never alternative, and he will respond by saying that he was never mainstream either.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I was eight, and it came to be. I’ve never queried it. I’ve never wondered why it singled me out, or why I do stuff enough that people like enough for me to earn a living out of it. People say, ‘Would you not like to give it up?’ Well, I don’t know anything else. I’m not qualified for anything else. It’s all that I do.”
In Barrymore’s mind, he is defined by his ability to connect with an audience. He talks about being able to sense warmth in the applause, over and above the response he would get by performing well. “That support and love, and the relationship I’ve had with the crowds for a long time, comes through on stage. You feel it. I’m addicted to that. Always have been.
“I’ve done it since I was a kid – working to a little crowd of mates. All of us want to be liked, but we go about it in different ways, and mine was by making them laugh, making them happy.”
I tell him this reminds me of a scene in Molly Dineen’s Geri Halliwell documentary, where the former Spice Girl is cheered by fans’ cries of “we love you”, before an off-camera voice points out that the fans don’t really know her, so their love isn’t real. “You’ve got to get it in perspective,” Barrymore says. “Obviously they love their family first, and their pets. ‘We love you for what you do’ might work. You can’t take your audience home with you. Your Christmas card list would be enormous.”
Over the years, public attitudes to Barrymore have been tested. When his first autobiography was published in 1995, it recorded his triumph over alcoholism, casting his wife and manager, Cheryl, in the role of saviour. “That’s how I felt at the time. I didn’t realise certain things until a long time after about myself and about us as couple.”
He now characterises himself as the submissive partner in this relationship. “Everything was done for me but it wasn’t healthy. But I didn’t know any different, so I just went along with it.”
After Cheryl, he announced himself as gay, coming out in a karaoke bar. “I didn’t go out that evening and think: I’ll go into a pub and just start singing: ‘I’m gay’. It was a sequence of events. The guy got on the stage, I was round the corner keeping my head out of the way, he mentioned my name and I got up onstage. Then it went from one thing to another. I was carried away on the night. In my naivety I thought that would be the end of it.”
Did he know he was gay when he was married? “It came up now and again, but I would put it into the background, and throw myself back into my work. Fill myself with distractions. I just didn’t deal with it.”
This, he says, is because being gay was not acceptable to someone from working class Bermondsey. “I didn’t come from a background where you put your hand up and said ‘I think there might be something different about me’. There were other things that were more important to do.”
The roots of his torments have remained constant – most of it stemming from an abusive, alcoholic father who was also a compulsive gambler – but the problems were exacerbated by success. He was addicted to work. “I was bringing money into the house at a very young age. Maybe it was ground in from there that you had to keep working all the time. Sometimes obsessing – in the early days – that you can never have enough. Or frightened that it may run out. If you’ve come from nothing there’s always that fear.
“And success breeds its own unemployment. You don’t have to do so much but you get paid more. I started to turn to drink and stuff where I’d never bothered before.” Part of the problem was one common to many performers – they have two hours of exhilaration onstage, and struggle to fill the void between performances.
“Drink is so powerful. You can relapse on being very excited because it’s all going well; you can relapse on because the world is against you. You can relapse for absolutely no reason whatsoever. That’s why on a daily basis you have to remind yourself who you are and what you are. Or find contentment outside of that two hours. The easiest part is being out there. It’s the other 22 hours.”
So what do you do? Crochet?
“No, I don’t crochet. I write and I like fishing. There’s enough other things to do in the day, it’s just I didn’t see them before.
“I’ve learned that it’s all right to be flat, that it’s all right to be quiet. That it’s not a great big deal that nobody’s doing anything to you.”
To escape the fallout from the Lubbock affair, Barrymore and Shaun, his partner of eight years, moved to New Zealand, where they still live. After Scrooge, he will start on The Daylight Atheist, a one-man play by Tom Scott, about a man who flees after getting a girl pregnant, and ends up isolated in a room, examining the roots of his estrangement. “He blames everything that happened to him on the sequence of events. So he’s in his bedroom, where he stays all the time.”
There is a knock on the door. There is a new Ghost of Christmas Past, so Barrymore is required to run through a few lines with her. Before he goes, I ask the former host of Strike it Lucky some quick-fire questions.
Do you believe in luck?
“No, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as luck. I think it’s all laid out. If you win the lottery on Saturday, you were meant to win it.”
How do you define success?
“Success?” There is a 30 second pause. “Oh God.” Another 15 seconds go by. “Success is how strong your contentment is within yourself.”
When did you last cry?
“A week ago onstage. Scrooge gets upset when he turns round and sees Tiny Tim, in the future, has died.”
Finally, I ask him his favourite line of song. He is silent for a minute. There is a stage announcement requiring the cast to report onstage, “with hats and bonnets.” Then, in a flat voice, he recites the lyrics to Your Song, by Elton John.
“It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can easily hide. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. My gift is my song, and this one’s for you.”