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Fight Them On The Beaches

Mark Simpson tests Essex’s coastal defences against renovation 

(The Times Magazine, 2001)

Whitstable, Broadstairs, Brighton and most of Suffolk have gone already.  Swept away forever under a tsunami of renovation. These once proudly tatty towns have been lost forever to the unsmiling, unfriendly, label-dressed invaders who prey on coastal towns (but curiously always seem to come from inland). Planning their devastation with the aid of Psion Organisers and some back issues of House & Garden, these are the worst kind of invaders of all. These varsity-educated Vandals set about destroying your town by doing it up.

The scramble of Londoners looking for a second home where they can actually swing a cat without having to mortgage their grandmother has already taken its devastating toll on much of the South East coastline. Having made London too expensive to lie down in, City and Media types are exporting themselves and their property problem to hitherto inexpensive-but-scenic areas within striking distance of London.

For some years now, sleepy seaside towns have been awoken from their slumbers by the terrifying noise of turbo-charged Land Cruisers, the ominous clatter of Prada-shod feet and the awful rumble of extensive remodelling, as the overachieving, overactive aliens from the Big Smoke have arrived – demanding larger kitchens, ‘wet-area’ bathrooms, cafes offering café latte and shiny fitness centres with comfy sofas in the reception area.

In fact, so successful has their invasion been that they are fast running out of targets. Soon every home on the South East coast will have polished wooden floors, an Aga and a well-into-three figures asking price.

However, there is one plucky strip of coastline between Harwich and Clacton which has so far held out against this onslaught. A part of the country which is forever…Essex. What was once the South East’s first line of defence has become its last. Can this stretch of East Essex beachy coast, considered of the most likely landing point for the invasion fleets of both Napoleon and Hitler, just a tantalising hour or so from London by road and rail, hold out against the yuppie commandos?

On a grey, out-of-season day on the Essex Riviera, Clacton-on-Sea seems blissfully unaware of its imperilment. But then, perhaps this is its best defence. Maybe it’s the sky, but the sea, choppy in a bitter wind slamming in from Holland looks an unfortunate muddy colour. For its part, Clacton pier looks less like an invitation to hedonism than a factory shed on stilts. As if acknowledging the prosaic reality of the English weather, most of it is covered{ it’s one of the bitter ironies of the ‘great English seaside holiday’ that you could hardly choose a place more exposed to the damp English weather than a place by the sea.

The usual ‘attractions’ are all present and correct: dodgems, smoky amusement arcades with twitchy, solitary adolescent lads manning a machine here and there, fluorescent strip-lit works canteen caffs with moulded green plastic chairs, Formica tables and friendly matriarchs dispensing all-day breakfasts; and a palmist booth with a familiar sign outside:

This lady is here to help you with any question you want to ask her. She has advised a very famous astrologer and many other stars who cannot be named as all readings are private and confidential.

I’d like to ask Rosalee what the future holds for Clacton, but it seems she’s gone home early, perhaps to advise another star who can’t be named.

On the sandy but windswept beach, kids watched by their mums, throw stones into the sea or bread to the seagull. Mum seems to be drinking in their child’s limitless enjoyment of such simple pleasures. Probably because they know it won’t last, and soon their little angels will be demanding rave holidays in Eyeebifa. In a greasy caff on the seafront, elderly couples sit snug, sipping hot drinks, counting the summers gone and staring through the plate glass as if looking for early signs of the next one.

Truth be told, Clacton-on-Sea and its pier owe its very existence to the hated Metropolis. In 1872, when seaside holidays had become popular, a local entrepreneur, Peter Bruff, opened the pier so paddle-steamers of the Woolwich Steam Packet Company could stop and disgorge their cargo of loaded Londoners looking to large it and take in the ozone. By 1893 some 327,451 were paying to visit the pier every year. Clacton’s fortunes continued to rise, and in the 1920s-30s the pier was extended and refurbished with three theatres, a dance hall, a zoo, a funfair, amusements and the first open-air swimming pool in the country.

In 1937 Butlin’s arrived and up to 100,000 visitors, many of them Eastenders, would march through their gates every week for some sensibly regimented leisure (Hi-Di-Hi was filmed a few miles further up the coast). The 1930s was Clacton’s heyday and it’s left its mark all over the town: the municipal-style construction of the 1930s is everywhere. Here and there a few Edwardian houses contradict Romford-on-Sea demeanour of the place, but thankfully nobody takes much notice.

Then came the war and Clacton’s famous sands were covered with tank traps, mines, barbed wire and dragon’s teeth to keep out Mr Hitler, and its ‘champagne air’ was filled with the sound of air-raid sirens. Clacton never really recovered – post war, people expected more sophisticated entertainments and had the money to pay for them. Light industry kept the town ticking over, but the recession of the early 1980s put an end to that, and Clacton became a centre for high unemployment.

Along Pier Street there are more amusement arcades. But their neon flashes and the screeching electronic fun sounds seem especially stranded and unhappy. Outside one of them, in the middle of the pavement, a crane-grabber game. A couple with a slightly scruffy kid in a pushchair are playing it avidly, trying to grab a stuffed toy. They fail. They try again. They fail again.

Away from the sea, towards the centre of town, like blood that has retreated from the cold, life returns and the shops and pavements are crammed with busy shoppers, the air filled with the roar of buses and the squeal of Boy Racer tyres. Crop-haired lads in brand new Adidas walk alongside girls in smart jean jackets wheeling pushchairs. No sign of yuppification here. Not even an All-Bar One.

Certainly, space is less of a premium here than, say, Bethnal Green. According to the ads in an estate agent’s window on a 1930s esplanade in the centre of town £90,000 seems to be the going price for a three bedroomed house. Thankfully, however, most of the houses on sale in the window are ugly, fairly modern houses with double glazing, plumbing that works and no dry rot, which should deter the Londoners (what would they have to talk about at dinner parties?).  Something, more Edwardian, more renovatable, more colour supplement will cost significantly more. I pop inside the shop and ask whether Londoners are beginning to buy up property here.  The estate agent, a thirty-something year-old man in one of those estate agent suits I imagine are available through mail order, eyes me warily.  He seems to think that it’s some kind of trap.

‘Well, I don’t think I can answer that question,’ he says hurriedly, turned sideways on to me, as if getting ready to run out of the back door. ‘It’s all very well you asking that kind of question.  And in fact, it’s a question that I could maybe discuss with you – if I had a few hours to spare,’ he explains, his eyes darting around his empty shop. ‘But I don’t, I’m afraid.  Good day to you.’

(I think this meant ‘no’).

So Clacton is safe for the foreseeable future – the seafront wrapped in the arms of a garish, almost Potter-esque memory of 1930s cheap-but-no-longer-quite-so-cheerful popular escapisms, while the town exudes a ‘vulgar’ vitality that should keep most self-respecting Yuppies at bay for some time to come.

Perhaps they will strike a few miles up the coast instead, at ‘respectable’ Frinton-on-Sea, a town whose whole reason for existing would appear to be to keep Clacton and much of the rest of Essex at bay. Once through the ‘gates’ as the locals call them (they’d like you to think that they live in Camelot, but in fact all they’re referring to is a level crossing) you will find no pier, no amusement arcades, no ice-cream vans, no seafront caffs. No fun, in fact.

In a supreme act of snobbery, with the exception of a row of studiously unpainted beach huts and signs threatening heavy fines for cyclists or dog-walkers who dare to venture onto the beach, Frinton refuses to even acknowledge the sea at all. There is merely a treeless windswept green lawn – the famous ‘greensward’ – between the houses and the seafront, where today a bored teenager can be spied flying a kite. Perhaps missing the customary seaside funfair and looking for any kind of thrills he can get, he allows himself to be dragged along the grass by his own kite.

Like Clacton, Frinton also owes its origins to London past. Founded by Richard Powell Cooker in the late Nineteenth Century as a genteel seaside resort for chaps who worked in the City while their wives played tennis or maintained the pallor of their skin in their beach-huts while observing the children paddling, he laid down strict rules which forbade the cooking of tripe and the keeping of ‘houses on wheels’ in the gardens. Frinton grew rapidly and by the 1920s and 30s was the chic place to reside in the Summer.  Edward and Mrs Simpson liked to stay here and once brought their Nazi chum Von Ribbentrop. Legend has it he was so put out by the frosty reception he received from Frintonians that he told Goering to make sure that the Luftwaffe bombed Frinton, which they did in 1942.

Since then Frinton has had to accept a few modern depravities, such as a fish and chip shop (albeit called ‘Nice Fish and Chips’) and, recently – despite vigorous protests from the FRA, or Frinton Residents Association – the opening of a public house.  However the real enemies have clearly been kept at bay: there is no Seattle Coffee House on Connaught Avenue, the main drag (watch out for the electric granny carts: they’re silent, surprisingly fast and driven by demons). While the curtain shop remains a glorious, reassuring temple to chintz. No wooden Venetian blinds here.

I visit the headquarters of Frinton-on-Sea’s Home Guard, otherwise known as the tennis club.  Covered today in that Essex stucco which looks like lumpy cake icing, it was the first thing that Mr Powell built of course, and with 850 members is still going strong today (even if many of the members using the clubhouse this afternoon seem more likely to lean on a golf club than swing it). The Secretary, Lt Col (Rtd) Roger Attrill is a very genial and affable man in tweeds. But I’m not fooled. I suspect that beneath this friendly, modern demeanour is someone who, when called upon, can defend Frinton from yuppie invasion. ‘There is still a men-only bar until 6pm,’ he mentions in the course of showing me round the club. ‘The ladies have their own lounge.’

Mind, there are some very large and draughty looking old houses here. Many of them art deco. So is Frinton at risk after all? I pop into the local estate agents, where I receive a much warmer welcome than in Clacton. ‘I don’t really think there’s much evidence of people from London buying a second home here,’ admitted the estate agent. ‘Quite a few want to hire a house in the Summer, but not so many want to buy here. There’s always been a premium on property in Frinton, you see. It’s managed to maintain the distinction between itself and the surrounding areas.’ Indeed it has. An ordinary semi-detached three bedroom house in one of Frinton’s Avenues will set you back £250,000.

That settles it. Frinton is impregnable. The ‘gates’, the cladding, the curtains, the golf club and the speeding granny carts would deter but not prevent the yuppies. But the property prices make Frinton a veritable fortress against change.

‘You might want to try looking in Walton-on-the-Naze, just up the coast,’ advises the agent.  ‘There you’ll find the same sized house for about half the price.’

Now I’m a little worried. Perhaps Walton is the weak link. I’ve heard there is a marina there, and we know what that means. Once in Walton, I breathe a sigh of relief. Walton has a secret weapon ranged against the invaders – one that will strike terror into their hearts. A pier. And not just any old pier, but one that is bright yellow. So yellow, in fact, that it hurts to look at. It’s almost as if the pier is trying single-handedly to live up to the ‘Sunshine Coast’ Monika Tendring District Council have improbably given this stretch of seashore. Certainly you could get burnt if you stood too close to it.

Inside there’s the usual pier amenities and, even better, a ten-pin bowling alley which smells of chips. The pier extends an impressive 2610 feet out into the sea, and along the last 1000 feet or so are a score of single men fishing in bulky jackets and woolly hats, eyes watering in the wind. Looking landwards you can see the long sandy beach which stretches Westwards up to Frinton and above it a multi-coloured shanty town of English eccentricity, the beach huts. They seem to be clinging to the cliffs like wooden birds staring blindly out to sea, waiting for Summer to come and open their eyes again.

The winding streets of Walton don’t seem to lead anywhere much except the Naze Tower sea mark, a navigational aid for seafarers built in 1720 by Trinity House on the highest point of the Naze (an Anglo Saxon word meaning ‘headland’). On it some nearly writing nearly completely worn away by two hundred years of wind and rain warns that you will be fined ‘a sum not exceeding fifty pounds’ if you vandalise it. Looking at it, however, it’s difficult to imagine how you could vandalise such a solid piece of Eighteenth century perpendicular brickwork. You would have to be very determined and even more bored. (Obviously the sign was erected before the ten pin bowling alley was installed on the pier).

From here you can make out on the horizon the silhouettes of the huge container vessels and tankers churning their way through that mud-coloured North Sea for Harwich, reportedly still training their telescopes on this very spot to make sure they don’t run aground on the treacherous offshore sand banks.

Only a few feet from the tower is the cliff edge, and on the beach below, some distance from the cliffs, are Second World War concrete pillboxes (which would make such lovely bungalow conversions, in the minimalist-brutalist style). Now covered in seaweed and limpets, but which once scanned the horizon for Mr Hitler’s invasion barges that never came.

The sea round here is however intent on its own invasion and remodelling, and it’s winning. Slowly this part of Walton is falling into the sea. In a few years, the Naze Tower itself will tumble onto the beach below. Alas, change isn’t always something inflicted by human activity, or property prices.

Looking on the bright side, however, it does mean that the Naze Tower will probably escape the indignity being converted into loft apartments.

Tears of a Clown: Michael Barrymore’s Trial By Media

A young man drowns in the pool of television’s highest-paid entertainer. The star is branded a killer. But, says Mark Simpson, the case against the ‘OJ of Essex’ doesn’t add up. Now, as fresh evidence emerges, Michael Barrymore talks about that tragic night, his demons and why the facts weren’t allowed to get in the way of a good story

(Independent on Sunday, 02/03/2003 – uncut version)

“FOLLOW THE BROWN SIGNS,” Michael Barrymore’s PA tells me when giving directions over the phone for the Essex leg of my car journey to the infamous “House of Horror” of the former Mr Saturday Night. “The ones pointing to Paradise Wildlife Park,” he adds, without a hint of irony in his voice.

The 50-year-old comedian’s Roydon home may not be an official tourist attraction, but since the body of 31-year-old Stuart Lubbock was discovered in his swimming pool in the early hours of 31 March 2001, it has become, like its owner, the ‘butt’ of countless off-colour locker-room jokes. Many of these focus on the serious sexual injuries the young man was said to have suffered.

But most of the Barrymore “jokes” didn’t come from the changing-room. They were supplied by the Fourth Estate. Most memorably, Private Eye ran a front-page picture of Barrymore being asked: “What killed Stuart Lubbock?” His balloon reply: “Buggered if I know!” And also the front page of the Sunday Mirror (15 September 2002), two days after the inquest into Lubbock’s death delivered an open verdict and the press declared open season on Barrymore, featured a picture of Barrymore and the huge, hilariously serious headline: “YOU ARE A KILLER!”

Jokes are irresistible ideas, as seductive as they are preposterous. Laughter, after all, is a very physical response to something we are rejecting and accepting at the same time; a reflex located somewhere between orgasming and vomiting. Over the past few months, this preposterous idea of Barrymore, the television funnyman, as a kind of murdering anal rapist has proved irresistible to the British media. It’s been having hysterics. Retching, raving, shuddering hysterics.

Barrymore, however, isn’t laughing. “I’m not letting that one go. At all,” he says of the Sunday Mirror’s “Killer” verdict. “It’s being dealt with. Action is being taken,” he insists. Written off only a few months ago, Barrymore seems to be regaining the initiative. In recent weeks the perjury investigation against him, prompted by his ex-wife Cheryl’s allegations, has been dropped and Essex police have reopened their inquiry into Lubbock’s injuries because of fresh claims that they occurred after he was declared dead.

According to Barrymore, the Sunday Mirror headline was a form of revenge. “It only came out because they didn’t get their way,” he says. Apparently, the paper rang the day the inquest finished asking if Claire Wicks {Lubbock’s ex-girlfriend} could visit Barrymore’s house with her two children by Lubbock as they “wanted to see where their Daddy died”.

“Not a problem, we said. Would be very happy to have Claire and the kids here for the day. But, of course, they wanted photographers and journalists to come with her so we asked, is this Claire’s idea? And they had to admit it wasn’t. So we said no. Two days later: ‘You Are a Killer!'” says Barrymore.

Possibly only Iraq or OJ Simpson’s house have been photographed from the air more than Barrymore’s home. He is, after all, by decree of the popular press, the Sodom Hussein of Roydon, the OJ of Essex. The bungalow is not as large as it looks from above through a telephoto lens, but it’s certainly large enough, as are the vast, shiny leather sofas we are sitting on. The “death pool”, as the News of the World dubbed it, clearly visible through the French windows, also looks smaller at ground level but it is also, alas, big enough to drown in.

“I’m actually quite quiet,” says Barrymore, talking about how people expect him to be the hooting extrovert they see on telly. There does appear to be a low-energy shyness to him. He’s sitting diagonally across from me, initially with his arms and legs crossed and his body quarter-turned away. But then, I am, after all, a journalist.

“This is not a trial,” the coroner had declared at the start of the Lubbock inquest. The inquest, however, was turned into a media show trial of epic proportions, and set the climate for others that were to follow, such as that of John Leslie and Matthew Kelly. As with all show trials, Barrymore was guilty until proven innocent and then still guilty anyway – or “morally responsible”, if you’re a broadsheet reader.

I suggest that there has been an almost playground spitefulness in some of the press coverage. “Yeah,” he says, now looking at me directly, “but what have I actually ever done to them? In the playground, or anywhere? What have I done to them?” His gaze doesn’t waver. “Say they succeed in finishing me off, what good does that do them? They haven’t got you any more to exploit, have they? What do they gain from that? Tell me?”

***

IF YOU’RE GOING to drown in a celebrity swimming pool, choose carefully. Not all celebrity swimming pools are equal. In March last year Daniel Williams a 23-year-old fireman drowned in another male celebrity’s pool. But while Lubbock, a butcher by trade, became a household name, Williams became yesterday’s news.

As with the events surrounding Lubbock’s death, there was a party, Williams amused himself in the pool at the London house, while the other guests drifted indoors. No one saw him drown. He was found submerged dead, or dying, in the early hours of the morning. The toxicologist’s report showed that Williams had consumed the same quantities of alcohol (nine pints), ecstasy (four or five tablets) and cocaine (a line or two) as Lubbock. Likewise, there was no forensic or witness evidence of any struggle.

Unlike the Lubbock case, the press didn’t find Williams’s death mysterious or even particularly interesting. They accepted the results of the police inquiry (which, as with Lubbock, ultimately produced no charges) and the Home Office pathologist’s conclusion was that he had died by drowning. They didn’t splash each day’s (carefully selected) inquest “highlights” across their front pages, printing speculation as scientific fact, or constantly interview Williams’s family and friends. Nor did they lynch his host’s career from the lamppost of public indignation. Instead they treated the death for what it was, a terrible accident.

Why? What was the difference? Was it in part that Williams drowned, accidentally, in a swimming pool belonging to a married film celebrity – the actor Art Malik – instead of a very famously gay and off-the-rails television celebrity called Michael Barrymore?

There was however another ‘fundamental’ difference: the injuries to Lubbock’s anus, described as serious and significant by the pathologists, “fearful”, “nightmarish” and “horrific” by the press. These injuries, combined with his hosts very public homosexuality, presented an irresistible idea – arousing all those column inches and making the inquest one of the most heavily and excitedly reported – and distorted – of recent times.

For example, the papers, tabloid and broadsheet, told us repeatedly how Lubbock was found floating face down in Barrymore’s pool. Untrue. All the witness statements agree that Lubbock was found at the bottom of the pool face up. Apparently, the image of a “handsome”, “heterosexual father-of-two” floating dead, face down, and arse up – literally drowning in passivity – in the pool of Britain’s most famous ‘arse-bandit’ was just too seductive for the press to resist.

But this relatively minor kind of kinky distortion was just the beginning. For example, in the space of his first few sentences, (13 September 2002) the Sun’s resident sodomy expert Richard Littlejohn, forced all the important facts to surrender themselves to the impatient heat of his passion: “The inquest is finally underway into the death of the man found floating face down [false] in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool. Stuart Lubbock was pumped full of drink and drugs [false: in fact, he helped himself to Barrymore’s drinks and toxicologist reports showed he was a long-term user of cocaine and/or ecstasy], and had been rogered senseless [fantasy]. Pathologists agree he suffered a serious sexual assault [false].”

In fact, the pathologists were divided as to how the injuries were caused. It was not even established that the injuries were caused by sexual activity. Indeed, DNA testing showed that Lubbock had not had sexual contact in the hours before he died.

Since it seems to have been such an important part of the coverage, I ask Barrymore if he fancied Lubbock when he met him in the Millennium, the nightclub in Harlow that the star attended with his then-boyfriend Jonathan Kenney before returning home in a taxi with Lubbock and two other party guests, Kylie and Jonathan Merritt, who he had met that evening (Kenney following later). “I spoke to that many people at the Millennium that night. I wouldn’t have picked Stuart out. It was reported that I couldn’t even remember his name. Well, I didn’t know his name. He jumped in the taxi with Kylie and Jonathan and I thought he was with them. When he was here he did whatever he was doing, like most of the other guests; I just said here’s the drink and here’s the music. Most of the night I was with James Futers and Simon Shaw, who I knew from the village. If I was trying to chat Stuart up, I think I would’ve spent a bit more time with him. Besides, my boyfriend at the time, Jonathan, was here.” Barrymore adds, “It just doesn’t tally up.”

Barrymore is convinced that the papers built the story the way they wanted to build it. ‘That’s why most of them didn’t mention that there were three girls at the party, because it got in the way of the “Gay Sex Orgy” headlines.’

How many of the guests were actually gay? “None. Just me and my boyfriend,” says Barrymore.

So not much of a gay orgy then. “Nope. Not much of an orgy of any kind. No sexual activity took place whatsoever,” insists Barrymore.

I ask him about the only indisputably culpable thing he did that evening: his departure from his house after Lubbock’s body was retrieved from the pool – and catch a glimpse of the evasiveness that irritates many. “Yeah, well, it was wrong,” he says quickly, “but I’ve answered that. I didn’t run away… immediately – I ran into the house and got Jonathan who knows about resuscitation, while the lads {James Futers and Simon Shaw} were getting Stuart out of the pool. I wouldn’t have know what to do… there were four people working on him… it wasn’t my idea to leave the house. James and Simon said, ‘Come away, there’s nothing you can do here….’

“I’ve admitted it was a stupid thing to do,” he continues, sounding irritated, perhaps with himself as much as the question, “but no one knows how they’re gonna react… it was just a nightmare. I rang my PA to tell him where I was going so that I could be contacted. Why would I do that if I was running away?” Barrymore’s call to his PA, which was reported in some papers as a call to his PR (“something I’ve never had”) was taken as further evidence either of his guilt or his celebrity arrogance: “I’m a celebrity, get me out of this!” Of course, it was precisely his celebrity status which meant that his fears about what the press would do were well founded.

Likewise his reported silence at the inquest was seen as callous and suspicious. In fact, he answered all the questions put to him – save those relating to illegal drug taking in his house. Barrymore’s exercise of his legal right to refuse to incriminate himself was seen as doubly incriminating. Much was made in the press of the allegation that, during the party, Barrymore tried to rub cocaine on Lubbock’s gums; however, leaving aside the fact that Lubbock was a long-term user of drugs, the small amount of cocaine – a stimulant – in his system was not identified at the inquest as a likely factor in his death.

It’s worth mentioning that perhaps that the most unbelievable thing about that night for some was the fact that television’s highest-paid celebrity would attend a nightclub in Harlow, and invite working-class strangers back to his house for a ‘chill-out’ party simply because he might enjoy their company, and that he might not want to treat a butcher like a piece of meat. “It wasn’t unusual for me to have people back for drinks. Wasn’t a regular thing. Just not unusual. It’s partly my Irish background and it’s partly that I don’t like being alone,” explains Barrymore. Much of the broadsheets’ hostility to Barrymore, their almost universal failure to criticise the tabloid gang-bang of his reputation, and indeed their complicity in it, was down to class: Barrymore was a vulgar man who entertained vulgar people in a vulgar way. Worst of all, he was paid vulgar amounts of money for doing so. (A senior editor on a liberal broadsheet, explaining shortly after the inquest why no, he definitely would not be running an article anatomising the press’ distortions, told me in no uncertain terms that Barrymore was ‘low life’.)

Born Kiernan Michael Parker into a working class family in Bermondsey in 1952, this Norman Wisdom fan and former Redcoat’s adopted stage moniker (‘there were too many Parker’s on Equity’s books’) became a household name with his madcap comedy performances on the TV game show Strike it Lucky in 1986. Barrymore brought the physical, audience involvement comedy that he had perfected on the workingmen’s club circuit to the relatively up-tight and staid world of prime-time commercial TV with great success. By 1992 Barrymore was one of TV’s highest paid entertainers, and a prime target for tabloid gossip. After many run-ins with the press over his drinking, drug abuse and sex life, this married working class hero finally came out as gay in 1995 – the first family entertainer to do so. ‘I thought I was finished,’ he says. In fact, more awards and hit TV shows followed, and he remained ‘Mr Saturday Night’ – even after Lubbock’s death in his swimming pool in 2001. It wasn’t until the universally damning coverage of last September’s inquest that his career finally ran aground.

However, the real inquest into Lubbock’s death, rather than the virtual one reported in the media, largely went well for Barrymore. It emerged there was no evidence that he, or his guests, were responsible – even indirectly – for Lubbock’s death or injuries. However, the summing up of the coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, seemed to assume, despite evidence to the contrary, that Lubbock’s injuries must have occurred at Barrymore’s house, and appeared to criticise the partygoers and the host for not being able to explain them. This and the open verdict – itself not uncommon in inquests – provided the press with enough rope with which to hang Barrymore again and again.

“If his injuries occurred here,” asks Barrymore, “why was there no blood on his boxer shorts? Why is there no blood in the house? Or in the pool?”

It’s a vital question. Lubbock’s anal injuries, lacerations as well as bruising and dilation, would have involved a substantial amount of bleeding and even small bloodstains are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Moreover, since the inquest, Stuart Nairn, one of the A&E nurses who worked without success to resuscitate Lubbock for over two-hours, has provided a detailed sworn statement to Barrymore’s solicitor which has sparked the new investigation by Essex police and thrown the coroner’s presumption about where the injuries took place into even more doubt.

Nairn’s assigned task for the entire two-hours was repeatedly taking Lubbock’s temperature rectally with a small, thin, thermal probe. Nairn performed this operation 16 times, pulling apart Lubbock’s buttocks and opening his sphincter each time. His statement makes clear that he saw no evidence of the injuries described at the coroner’s inquiry. Indeed he noticed no dilation or significant bruising (according to the pathologists’ report, even if Nairn’s small temperature probe were actually quite large, he would not have needed to open Lubbock’s sphincter muscle at all). “I am sure that I would have noticed this,” says Nairn. “Moreover, I would have reported this to the doctor.” He also mentions that aside from a small smear of blood on the probe towards the latter stages, which was not unusual given the number of insertions, there was no evidence of bleeding. (Perhaps this level of information is distasteful to you – perhaps, like Yasmin Alibai-Brown of the Independent, you are keen to assert it makes you ‘want to throw up’; but Lubbock’s anus has been made an object of such fascination and symbolic importance not by Barrymore but by the Great British Press and its readership.)

Nairn was due to appear as a witness at the inquest but the police say they lost contact with him. A similar statement by Nairn was read out at the inquest, but it was dismissed by Professor Crane, one of the pathologists, who claimed that someone in A&E would not have had time to notice such injuries, and would have been preoccupied with other things anyway. Nairn’s second statement makes it clear that he would have noticed. In fact, he probably spent more time observing Lubbock’s anus than any pathologist.

If, as now seems likely, the injuries to Lubbock occurred after he was finally pronounced dead at Harlow General Hospital and Nairn’s treatment ended, then they must have occurred in the seven hours between this time and the body’s examination by the Home Office pathologist, who was the first person to record them. Essex police are unable to confirm that the body was guarded during this time. Instead they can only say that this matter, and the issue of who had access to the body during this time, is “part of the current investigation”.

Does Barrymore have any idea how the injuries occurred? “Well, I have my ideas about it, but it would be wrong for me to speculate,” he declares. “That’s for the police to investigate. I’m not about to point fingers at anyone.”

If those injuries did occur after Lubbock was pronounced dead, it seems possible it was Barrymore’s special kind of fame, which was to blame. At the inquest, Emma Bowen, another former girlfriend of Lubbock’s, who was at the Millennium in Harlow that night, stated that when clubbers spotted Barrymore with his partner Jonathan, they “were shouting out: ‘That’s Barrymore’s boyfriend!’ ‘Up your bum!’ and other such comments.” Perhaps “for a laugh”, someone couldn’t resist sticking something up the bum of the dead man who had been found in “that Michael Barrymore’s” swimming pool?

The tabloids were given more ammunition by the scorn of Barrymore’s ex-wife and former manager, Cheryl, and her book Catch a Falling Star about her marriage. It was published immediately after the Lubbock inquest and was luridly serialised in the Daily Mail with front-page headlines including “The Night Michael Tried To Kill Me”. Her claim that Barrymore lied to the inquest when he said he couldn’t swim, sparked a perjury investigation, which has now been dropped.

Barrymore’s views on his ex-wife’s interventions are clear. “She jumped in on the drowning affair, demanding, ‘I wanna know what happened!’ when it was nothing to do with her whatsoever, but she started to get involved as if she cared about Stuart and the Lubbocks and that, and yet has never been to see them once, yet made all these statements. What for? To sell a book. And then in the middle of it turns round and tries to get me done – possibly seven years – for perjury, saying that I lied in court about not being able to swim! The police went to speak to the list of friends of hers that she said would corroborate her statement and not one of them did. They just said, ‘I’ve only seen him stand in the shallow end.’ That’s why they dropped it. They didn’t even get as far as questioning me.”

What about her allegations that he was violent towards her in their final years together? “It got heated sometimes,” he admits, “but I’ve never, ever punched her. I pushed her away. If she comes flying at me then I’m not going to stand there and get scratched to bits. I’d push her away. The way she dramatises it, well, it just makes you sick,” he says.

Barrymore complains now that she wanted to control him, but I put it to him that perhaps the things that drove him away from Cheryl were the things which attracted him in the first place. “Yeah, well I was quite happy to hand over the control, and most of our 18 years together were very happy. But the control got completely out of control. I couldn’t make a move without her say so, even if I went out fishing it would have to be with somebody who worked for us. Somebody who could then give her a run down of everything that happened. That’s one of my weaknesses, I allowed it to happen. It suited me.”

How easy has it been to live without it? “Well, I’ve got freedom from that. It was the thing that was killing me. Or one of the things that was. I just couldn’t live with it any longer.”

But freedom doesn’t appear to have cured Barrymore of his addictions. “Being in a relationship or being free, drinking and drug addiction is entirely different – it’s the disease which takes control.” Barrymore says he attends AA meetings almost every night. “It’s all or nothing. One drink’s too much, 1,000 isn’t enough. You have to keep it in check on a daily basis. I’ve had 21 months of sobriety now, have got involved more [with AA] and become secretary.”

One of his dogs, a Jack Russell, jumps on my lap. “JD! Get down!” says Barrymore. His dogs are called JD and Sprite, his former favourite drink. Since the police inquiry was reopened, Barrymore has had a few offers of work. It was only in November of last year that Granada finally released him from his exclusive contract, having put him on ice for over a year. “‘We’re not using you,'” they said. “‘We’re not paying you. And you can’t work for anyone else.'”

Given the headlines, can you blame them? “I’m not responsible for what the press has done – but the network made me responsible. So that means that they base their business on, on…”

What’s popular?

“Even if it’s incorrect?”

If Barrymore is feigning innocence of the ways of the world, he’s convincing. “That’s a bit sad isn’t it? They were the ones who suggested in caring tones that I go to rehab. I haven’t had one phone call from them since. Haven’t phoned me to ask if I’m well, or have kept off the drink. They haven’t phoned once to ask my office or me, ‘Is this or that true?'”

Maybe they’re not interested. Maybe they’re only interested in what sells.

“If I don’t sell, then why is Strike It Lucky on twice a day on Challenge TV? If I can’t be on family time, as they said in one of their letters, why was I on GMTV the other day at eight in the morning? I was on The Salon the other day on C4.”

It’s slightly pathetic that Barrymore, once the unchallenged king of prime-time, should be invoking re-runs on cable television, or an appearance on an exploitative reality television show, as proof of his popularity. But then, this is a man who, after the inquest, was publicly branded by TV executives as “finished”. Questions were asked about him in Parliament. His autobiography, commissioned long before Lubbock’s death (though portrayed in the press as a ‘cash in’ on it) was dropped by BBC Books. Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee Potter declared that she would “rather stick pins in her eyes than watch Barrymore on TV again”.

Barrymore thinks the television bosses should go with him on his trips to Tesco. They can take him four hours because so many people greet him with smiles and laughs and handshakes, asking when he’s going to be on the telly again, and then call up their mums, dads and kids on their mobiles and ask him to bark “Awoight!” down the phone. “They feel that they can approach me,” he says. “With someone else famous they might say, ‘Oh look there’s so and so over there,’ with me they come up and shake my hand. It’s what my act is based on. If you tried to fake or contrive that you’d be sussed out straight away.”

I suggest though that these are the very people that buy the papers which have attacked him so viciously. He doesn’t disagree. “It’s gossip, isn’t it? The tabloids save you chatting over the garden wall.” I press the point further: couldn’t their casualness towards him be because, like the press, they consider him their property? “They consider me part of the family,” he corrects. “Because of the way I work on telly, which is about approachability and vulnerability. And because,” he adds, resignedly, “yeah, because much of my private life has been acted out in the tabloids.”

How much of Barrymore, or for that matter of Michael Parker (his real name perhaps offering an anonymity which he might be forgiven for missing now), is left after all of this? Has his latest and darkest experience of the celebrity cycle taken the edge off his appetite for ‘success’?

He comes up with a paradoxical and possibly self-deluding reply. “You ask yourself, do I need all this? But thing is, what they’ve done this time in being relentless is they’ve allowed me to get well. Because what used to happen before was I’d go straight into rehab then come back out, go straight into a studio and be ill again. But this time that hasn’t happened, so I’ve had a chance to get well properly this time.”

Oddly, for all the accusations of self-pity, Barrymore hasn’t played his main victim card. He has not cried “homophobia”. Several times in the course of this interview I’ve given him the opportunity to mention it, but he hasn’t taken the bait. Perhaps it’s down to his wish to reclaim his stake as a mainstream entertainer; perhaps it’s down to pride. Whatever, it’s clear that the way the press played the Lubbock story was in large part, a delayed but apparently highly satisfying backlash for his coming out several years ago (a move which, if nothing else, deprived the gentlemen of the press of one of their favourite sports: bullying the closeted gay celeb).

Barrymore, whose act and popularity depended on crossing boundaries of taste, class and genre (and sexuality), grabbing and manhandling members of the audience, male and female, was cast as the predatory gay rapist of the public’s nightmares, and his deceased guest as an awful example of what happens when a homosexual manages to get between a straight-man’s back and the wall.

This, against the evidence of the case and also, ironically, despite the fact that penetrative sex, according to Barrymore, ‘is not my bag’. As Dr Freud pointed out, we like to laugh at what we fear, and by the same token we also fear what we laugh at. One irresistible idea can lead to another. In the same way that laughter provides a socially acceptable way for people to vent their anxieties, the Barrymore-Lubbock affair provided an acceptable route for the media and the public to ‘out’ pent-up fears about male homosexuality, that ‘gay-tolerant’ contemporary Britain otherwise might feel slightly embarrassed about.

He may not quite realise it, he may not want to realise it, but Barrymore, the nation’s most popular, most ‘loved’ funny man, has just been starring in his latest, biggest, if possibly final, hit show. The currently ongoing police investigation at Harlow General Hospital may or may not show conclusively that the injuries to Lubbock’s anus occurred after he arrived there. But whatever the outcome, it will most likely prove difficult for Barrymore to rehabilitate himself – after all, his ‘crimes’ were committed in the minds of the great British public, and they will be unlikely to fully forgive themselves such thoughts, or him for provoking them.

The writing was on the toilet wall as long ago as 1995. After he had outed himself, the front page of the new, ‘gay-tolerant’ Sun joked, “WE’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU MICHAEL – BUT NOT TOO CLOSE!’ In fact, they were there all along – and much too close. Just waiting for Barrymore to drop the ball.

Independent on Sunday, 02/03/2003

UPDATE 3/10/2006

  • A month after this piece appeared Essex Police concluded their (reluctant) investigation into whether the injuries to Stuart Lubbock occurred at Harlow General Hospital or not by saying: ” We are as satisfied as we can be that the injuries did not occur at Princess Alexandra Hospital.’
  • The Home Office Pathologist, Michael Heath, the man who first discovered the anal injuries and the only pathologist to examine them in person (rather than photographs) resigned this year after it was established that he found foul play in at least two other cases when there was none, leading to innocent people being charged for crimes which had not occurred.
  • Whilst Barrymore was in the BB house Stuart Lubbock’s father, Terry, Barrymore’s nemesis, appeared almost daily in the papers denouncing him and tried to obtain permission to bring a private prosecution against Barrymore relating to the death of his son (it was eventually thrown out of court for lack of evidence). Shortly after Barrymore left the house in triumph Terry finally agreed to meet him and told him ‘I don’t blame you, Michael’ (according to The Sun’s front page headline). Though he later apparently retracted this. And then un-retracted it. Now he has reportedly penned a book with well-known homophobe Anthony Bennett called ‘Not Awight: Getting Away With Murder’ due for publication later this month and is picketing Barrymore’s book-signings calling him a ‘liar’ and condemning him for ‘making money off the back of Stuart’s death, how low can you go?’.
  • Shortly after Barrymore’s CBB victory and The Sun’s volte face, Essex Police announced they were ‘routinely’ re-opening the investigation into Lubbock’s death. Both Barrymore and Terry Lubbock have welcomed this, though for apparently different reasons.
  • Essex Police investigated but declined to charge one of the witnesses from the fateful party for perjury, following her retraction of her sworn statement that Barrymore had rubbed cocaine on Stuart Lubbock’s gums that night. She made this retraction when faced with a lie-detector test organised by Barrymore’s new ally – and long-term abusive co-dependent in this celebrity marriage from Hell – The Sun.

UPDATE 29/12/2012

Barrymore gives the Independent what they bill as his ‘first in-depth interview to a national newspaper in ten years – i.e. since the one he gave me above. Although he never did succeed in winning back the Nation’s hearts, time seems to be vindicating Barrymore’s claims of a set up by the press:

He claims he has been “framed” by the press over the death of a man, Stuart Lubbock, found floating in his swimming pool in 2001. He also says he suspects he fell victim to a “conspiracy” to fabricate an earlier allegation in the News of the World that he raped a rent boy in the toilets of a nightclub in central London. Evidence from medical staff support his claims over the timing of injuries sustained by Mr Lubbock.

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