GAY TIMES May 2003

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

A letter in The Pink Paper recently suggested that maybe the gay community hasn’t been completely fair to Michael Barrymore, and that we’ve been too quick to join the tabloid witch-hunt against him. Could it be, asked the correspondent, because we secretly hate ourselves?

So, maybe now, two years on from the Swimming Pool Horror, it’s time to step back from the media-generated hysteria, lay aside the cynicism, and give Barrymore another hearing.

We have the benefit of two in-depth interviews from last month to help us. One was by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times magazine and the other was by one of Barrymore’s most fearsome and unforgiving critics, Lynda Lee-Potter of The Daily Mail. In both features, the journalists had approached the shamed/ fallen/ troubled (take your pick) star to find out how he was faring now, and whether anyone had solved the mystery of what really happened on that night two years ago when everything had changed for Barrymore.

The thing that comes over most in both interviews is that Barrymore is a chastened man. I suppose anyone in his situation would be. His various and well-chronicled failed attempts at rehabilitation have now been superseded by a rather more modest daily visits to his local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is on the wagon, his boyfriend Shaun has returned, and he is still optimistic that he can make a comeback.

Even so, there is still a lot of explaining to do. Barrymore’s life – even at the pinnacle of his success with a TV show drawing a regular 15 million viewers – became a soap opera. Drink, drugs and wild parties were reported with relish by a press corps that couldn’t believe its luck.

He was the scandalmonger’s dream – the most popular entertainer in the country slowly destroying himself in a series of very public – and self-inflicted – humiliations. The ever-present paparazzi recorded his every stumble for the tabloids, and the gang of harpies who are employed by the press to pass judgement on anyone remotely in the public eye had a bean feast at his expense.

Even when he came out as gay his fans didn’t desert him. They stuck by him as his marriage so acrimoniously disintegrated. It seemed that his reputation was impregnable.

That is, until that night in March 2001when a 31-year old man, Stuart Lubbock – until then a complete stranger to Michael Barrymore – was found dead in the star’s swimming pool, under the influence of drugs and apparently suffering from grotesque sexual injuries.

Lynda Lee Potter reveals Barrymore’s side of events on the night when Mr Lubbock met his fate. It comes in the form of a report that has caused the police to consider reopening their investigations.

She begins by telling us that the tabloid portrayal of that night as some kind of homosexual orgy was well off the mark. To start with, there were three girls present, and most of the men were straight.

When Stuart Lubbock’s body was taken to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow it was first examined at 6.20am by a male nurse by the name of Stuart Nairn. Mr Nairn has given a signed statement saying that he saw no injuries on Mr Lubbock and no blood on his boxer shorts.

Barrymore says that the paramedics who were called to the bungalow have also confirmed that they saw no injuries and there was no blood in the swimming pool or anywhere on the premises.

Stuart Nairn was not called to the inquest to give evidence – the police said they couldn’t find him, though he was alleged to be easily contactable.

Ms Lee-Potter writes: “Unbelievable as it sounds, when the Home Office pathologist Dr Michael Heath began the post-mortem at 3.25pm on March 31, he found horrific injuries to Mr Lubbock, which appeared to be no more than four hours old. The body was not then guarded by police as it should have been.”

The only conclusion that she can come to – and it is “beyond comprehension” as she puts it – is that the injuries were inflicted in the hospital.

Leaving aside the boggling implications of that – how did Mr Lubbock come to be in the swimming pool in the first place? Barrymore can offer no explanation. He forcefully denies speculation that he “rubbed cocaine into Stuart’s gums”.

Bryan Appleyard reports: “He has no idea how Lubbock came to overdose and drown. He [Barrymore] did leave the scene – not out of guilt, but solely because he ‘lost it’.”

“That’s all that can be said about the death,” writes Appleyard. “I certainly don’t know what happened. In fact, nobody seems to know, and if the police don’t turn up something new, nobody ever will.”

Having failed to solve the mystery of the drowned man (in fact, far from solving it they seem to have added more questions) the rest of these interviews are taken up with trying to make sense of Michael Barrymore the man, to have one more crack at analysing what it was that sent him crashing headlong into disaster.

Michael Barrymore is blaming his alcoholism – his “disease” as he calls it. “My addiction didn’t come out until late in my career because, until then, my addiction had been my work. I didn’t smoke or drink until I was 22. I wasn’t interested. But success brings its own unemployment. You get paid more for doing less.”

This, combined with the death of a family member who had been a surrogate father to him, sent him in search of yet another false friend – Jack Daniels.

Barrymore’s constant reference to alcoholism being an “illness” annoys Bryan Appleyard who comments that thinking about it in such terms provides an easy explanation for everything else. The I-can’t-help-myself-I’ve-got-a-disease excuse.

Certainly AA doesn’t support this idea. It insists on people “accepting responsibilities, and that cannot mean absolving yourself of everything by saying you have a disease,” says Appleyard.

Nevertheless, Barrymore says he’s been off the booze for almost two years and, although he wants to make a come-back, he puts his recovery first.

The interview with Lynda Lee Potter is the most interesting because of the frequent merciless attacks she made on Barrymore at each stage of his descent. Her barbs would have pierced the thickest hide. But Barrymore, despite appearances, is not an insensitive man; in fact, Appleyard notices that he is painfully shy.

Lee Potter admits that she vilified him. “There was a time when he deserved it,” she says, with her usual compassion, “but these days whenever he goes out the response he gets from the public is affectionate.”

But Lee-Potter is interested in Barrymore’s relationship with his wife and mentor of 18 years, Cheryl. “We had a good marriage and I loved her. It wasn’t 18 years of hell,” he says. Nevertheless, ever since he came out as gay, and their marriage collapsed, Cheryl has pursued him, apparently seeking some kind of vengeance.

When he told the inquest jury that he could not swim, and that is why he had not jumped into the pool to “rescue” Stuart Lubbock, Cheryl said he was lying.

“She tried to get me done for perjury,” says Barrymore, noting he might have gone down for seven years. “But I never thought: ‘you cow’. It never entered my mind. I just thought, why? It’s as though she’s saying: ‘If I can’t have him, nobody will’. It almost got to the point where she’d rather mourn my death than see me alive and not be with me.”

He denies her claims that he beat her up. “We were known as the battling Barrymores,” he explains, “but I’ve never hit Cheryl in my life. I’ve only pushed her away and she’s fallen.”

“She’s sick,” he told Bryan Appleyard, “she needs praying for. There’s an obsession there which I’ve never seen before.”

He says that Cheryl hated his family and drove a wedge between him and them. She caused the rift with his mother that was only healed on her deathbed. Appleyard has a suspicion that he might be blaming Cheryl in the same way that he blames alcohol – to avoid facing up to his responsibilities.

And his homosexuality? “I was raised in an environment where you might have those feelings, and if they lasted past 21 then you had a problem. In that environment you couldn’t put your hand up and say ‘I’m gay’. Then you just say to yourself, ‘I’m married, I can’t be gay’. I had a good marriage.”

Appleyard is not satisfied with this. He suspects Barrymore is “leaving a lot out” and later asks him if he is bisexual. “I’m gay,” responds Michael, “I’ don’t analyse it. I’m not effeminate. I haven’t really thought about it that much.”

He revealed to Lynda Lee-Potter that he has renewed his relationship with Shaun Davis, who had abandoned him long before the Stuart Lubbock episode. He couldn’t stand Barrymore’s life of “partying” and erratic behaviour.

“I rang him and got quite tearful on the phone. He said: ‘Can we meet on neutral ground?’ and he came back on that basis really. I didn’t want to be gay. If I did, I wouldn’t have married Cheryl, much as I loved her. Also, I wouldn’t have taken that long dealing with it. The only reason I did deal with it is because the press were going to go with it anyway.”

So what now for Barrymore? He wants to work again, and his agent has announced that he’ll be doing a stage tour in New Zealand. He doesn’t know what kind of reception he’ll get, although when he made a surprise appearance on the Late, Late Show in Ireland recently he was rapturously welcomed by the studio audience. A survey of 1000 people reported in the Daily Record indicated that the majority think he deserves a second chance.

As Bryan Appleyard says – there are two roads for Michael Barrymore – one leading to the night Stuart Lubbock died and one leading away from it. We know about the first one, but the second one has yet to be travelled.

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