The life and sad times of Michael Barrymore

Michael Barrymore was once the highest paid comedian on British television. Yesterday, he was charged with possessing cocaine, the latest non-event in his slow, downward spiral.

Entertainer and funny man, Michael Barrymore.

Once, a story about Michael Barrymore would have been filed under Entertainment. Certainly he made people laugh; people still laugh, but now they laugh at him rather than with him. As he has just been charged with a criminal offence, it should perhaps be filed under Crime, without of course undermining the presumption of innocence to which we are all (theoretically) entitled.

Anyone au fait with the Barrymore story though would probably agree that it should be filed under Tragedy; Digital Journal doesn’t have that category, but perhaps it should be filed under a new heading, Barrymore, because like Socrates, Michael Barrymore is in a class by himself.

Sometimes, the downward spiral an unfortunate person falls into can be painful to watch. Sometimes it is also fast, that happened to Britney Spears; she appears to be long over the worst of her crisis now - although neither her singing nor her miming have improved.

Sometimes it is slow, like that of full time alcoholic and part time soccer player George Best. Barrymore’s has likewise been slow, and has also been played out in the public eye.

Barrymore, a Londoner born and bred, got his first break at the relatively young age of 29 when he won the TV talent programme New Faces. As comedians go, he probably wasn’t that funny and he certainly wasn’t good looking, but like the immortal Tommy Cooper, he would have them in stitches with the feeblest of jokes because like Cooper, he had bundles of personality, and an ability to engage with his audience, from very young kids to the elderly.

Again, like Cooper he was a family entertainer, a clown, and didn’t need to rely on smut or innuendo to raise a laugh. To say that his star was soon in the ascendant doesn’t tell the half of it. Managed by his wife, Cheryl, whom he had married before he got his big break, he was reputedly the highest paid comedian on British television, and was appearing all over the place.

He had his own show, presented novelty shows, and headlined the Royal Variety Performance; they don’t come much bigger than that. Then, as we have seen so many times before, for the man who has everything there is only one thing left to do, to lose everything. Although the downward spiral was slow, Barrymore’s fall from grace was fast, furious, and entirely of his own making.

It is well known that people in and around showbusiness, including of course the music industry, are plagued with addictions to both alcohol and other - often illicit - substances. Whether it is pressure of work, the need to stay awake and alert for long hours, peer pressure, or for whatever reason, they get hooked. Barrymore’s dalliance with alcohol and later with other substances was accompanied by what appears to have been a particularly bizarre midlife crisis.

One night in 1995, at the height of his powers, he turned up at a drinking den in the East End of London frequented by homosexuals, and came out.

It was such a bizarre thing to do that it might have been dismissed as some sort of publicity stunt or perhaps something connected with a forthcoming TV series, but Barrymore insisted he was now gay.

The reaction from his fans and from the public was overwhelmingly sympathetic, although unsurprisingly his wife took a slightly different view. Two years later, the childless couple divorced. Cheryl appears to have become very embittered towards her ex-husband; she died in 2005 from lung cancer, and asked specifically that he not be invited to her funeral.

Although after his coming out, Barrymore decided to go the whole hog and soon found himself a homosexual lover, his sexuality was by no means cast in stone, and his behaviour became more and more erratic, including an appearance on national television while clearly the worse for drink.

Even then, his career might have survived, although this is not the sort of image the TV moguls want associated with a family entertainer, but in March 2001, Barrymore picked up a group of people at a night club and took them home. Within hours, one of them was dead in his swimming pool, and his showbusiness career was effectively over.

Exactly what happened at his luxury mansion in the small hours will probably never be revealed, but something strange appears to have happened to the body of Stuart Lubbock, in particular it suffered injuries that could not be explained, although later there was a suggestion that these might have been caused post-mortem, possibly even at the mortuary.

The victim’s father accused Barrymore of murdering his son, a belief he holds to this day, but although the entertainer was cleared of any direct involvement in or responsibility for the death of his guest, his behaviour in the aftermath of the tragedy was totally reprehensible; he was concerned only for himself. He was also cautioned for posessing cannabis. His TV contract was terminated, and he decided to quit the UK for New Zealand where he tried to build a new career away from the scandal, something that is difficult if not impossible in the 24 hour global village.

He did appear in a musical in both New Zealand and Australia, but he was lured back to the UK in December 2005 with a £150,000 offer to appear in Celebrity Big Brother, probably because someone at Channel 4 could see the potential for driving up the ratings with a bit of scandal.

Earlier this year, the Daily Mirror reported that he had been booed off stage during his latest shambolic comeback attempt.

One good thing is that Barrymore appears to have turned his back on homosexuality (pun intended), but if only he could turn his back on his other vices.

“Charged with possession of cocaine and being drunk and disorderly following a car crash”, he has been bailed to appear before Ealing magistrates on December 7.

Apart from the necessary embarrassing apologies, that is likely to be the last high profile performance of what was once a glittering career.

[The above was published originally November 27, 2011].

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