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 Alibhai-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…”
“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.