Peter Fincham on sex, lies and the terrible mystery of the body in the pool
Last Friday morning a statement was released on social media by the TV presenter Phillip Schofield in which he finally admitted what some had long suspected, which is that although happily married for many years, he was gay.
I knew Phillip during my time at ITV. He was professional and courteous. Whether he was gay or not, I had no idea. Rumours circulated, but rumours circulate about lots of entertainers. As long as they stayed on the right side of the law – we’ll come to that in a minute – showbusiness stars, as far as I was concerned, were entitled to keep their private life private.
The statement Schofield released was long and slightly tortuous. It’s tempting to think that it was vetted or even written by teams of agents and P.R. experts, but there’s no reason to believe it isn’t exactly what he wanted to say. It reads a bit like the personal statement sixth formers make when applying to university – keen to make the right impression at a critical moment, nervously aware that once committed to, the words can’t be retracted. Reaction will have been monitored carefully by Team Schofield, and the early signs are positive – he’s been widely praised for his courage and honesty, his family appear to be standing by him, and Holly Willoughby gave him an on air hug. What more could a man want?
A momentous day for Phillip Schofield, then, and in the flurry of planning for the big announcement it seems unlikely that he would have found the time the night before to watch a documentary about another famous TV entertainer who came out after many years of being “happily married” – Michael Barrymore. It made sober viewing.
Much has been written about the awful fate of Stuart Lubbock and the still unresolved investigation into his death. Barrymore: The Body in The Pool (Channel 4) didn’t really come up with any new revelations. There doesn’t seem much doubt that he was sexually assaulted at a late night party at Barrymore’s house, and that the sexual assault led to his death, perhaps by drowning, perhaps not. The guests at the party – most of whom Barrymore didn’t even know but randomly met at a nightclub in Harlow – aren’t saying anything. Lubbock’s father and brother, who both gave interviews to the documentary, were pitiable figures, living testament to the never-ending pain of losing a family member in unexplained circumstances.
Barrymore has, over the past 19 years, been investigated, arrested, questioned and released; he’s moved to New Zealand, come back, given numerous TV interviews and appeared on reality shows. The Essex police (the same lot who made a hash of the Jeremy Bamber murders which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago – what is it about Essex that attracts awful murders and useless coppers?) emerge with little credit. Barrymore has never been charged or convicted, and even managed to sue the police successfully for wrongful arrest, but his career – occasional resurfacings aside– is as stone cold dead as poor Stuart Lubbock. Why?
The relationship between the public and the stars they invite into their living rooms is complicated. Sexuality isn’t the issue. From the early days of television, the audience never had any problem with flamboyantly gay performers. Lots of names come to mind – Danny La Rue, Larry Grayson, John Inman, Kenneth Williams and many more. Performers of the ‘non-marrying’ type could choose to say nothing about it, or try to throw the public off the scent. To the end of his life, the comedian Frankie Howerd gave interviews saying that he’d never met the right girl but was still looking. (For my sins, as a young man I once found myself briefly alone in a hotel room with Howerd. I escaped with my dignity intact, but I can confirm that he wasn’t looking for girls.)
Barrymore’s coming out, in 1995, was as far from the sleek, professional operation surrounding Phillip Schofield’s media moment as you could imagine. He went to a gay pub in the East End, got drunk, and gave an impromptu performance of “New York New York”, paraphrasing the lyrics as “Start spreading the news – I’m gay today.” The tabloids, in their ugly mid-90s pomp, feasted on this pungent red meat, even claiming that Barrymore had thrown away his wedding ring on stage. He didn’t, but who cared?
I doubt whether his advisers would have recommended him to reveal his sexual orientation in a clumsy rewrite of the Kander/Ebb karaoke classic, but Barrymore’s career continued largely unaffected in the six years between the night at the White Swan and the party at his house in Roydon.
Further series of Strike It Rich followed, plus My Kind of People and the game show My Kind of Music. True, his flagship series Barrymore was cancelled in 1997 when ratings dipped, but he won the National Television Award for Most Popular Entertainer for five of its first six years, the last time in 2000. He is in fact the last person to win it other than Ant and Dec who have since won it nineteen times (and, in the process, overcome a troublesome brush with the public’s affections for Ant). It’s not hard to see why, when Barrymore said ‘all back to my place’ in the early hours at the Millennium nightclub in Harlow, his new-found friends couldn’t believe their luck.
Barrymore had two series on air when Lubbock died – Bob Martin (a move into acting) and My Kind of Music. Both continued. ITV gave him their backing and later that year he recorded a further run of My Kind of Music which was broadcast in early 2002. It was only in September 2002 when the inquest into Lubbock’s death began – a full 18 months after he died – that he became a non-person in ITV. The revelations were simply too horrifying.
Only a few years earlier the loss of Barrymore to the ITV Saturday night schedule would have had serious commercial implications, but between Lubbock’s death and the inquest Pop Idol, a talent show format in the tradition of New Faces, had launched to massive success. It featured a charismatic record executive hitherto completely unknown to the public – Simon Cowell. A new era had begun. By the time I arrived at ITV in early 2008 Barrymore was a ghost, never mentioned except in occasional conversations such as “Should we book him for I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?” I remember a similar exchange about the convicted rapist Mike Tyson. Answer: no.
And yet… here’s a story so bizarre that if it wasn’t true you’d think I was making it up. Ten years before Barrymore came out the BBC launched their new rival to ITV’s all-conquering Coronation Street, a soap opera they decided to call EastEnders. A lot was at stake. If EastEnders succeeded, the BBC would finally have broken the commercial channel’s monopoly in early evening, low budget drama. Extraordinarily they decided to cast as Dirty Den, the male lead role…. a convicted murderer. There was no ambiguity about Leslie Grantham’s case – he shot a taxi driver he was trying to rob in the head and served ten years of a life sentence. Looking back 35 years later at the decision to gamble the future of their most important launch in years on the public not minding, you can only wonder – what on earth were they thinking of? But they were right – the public shrugged off his criminal past and Leslie Grantham became a big star. (It didn’t all go well for Grantham subsequently, as a quick Wikipedia search will show if you’ve got the appetite for this stuff.)
Why was it OK to be convicted of murder, but not OK to be present at a party where someone was found floating in the pool? Well, there are no rules. Barrymore’s predicament is shared by other TV performers – John Leslie a good example, and like Phillip Schofield a presenter of the ITV daily show This Morning – whose fall from grace seems logical to everyone else but monstrously unjust to the individual in question. When the phone stops ringing, you can’t force it to ring.
Nobody watching Barrymore: The Body in the Pool would be likely to conclude that Barrymore deserves rehabilitation. He wasn’t convicted of anything in the courts, but to paraphrase Mark Lawson’s observation in the documentary, although the court of public opinion has no way of handing down a verdict, it’s just as effective at delivering a life sentence. He’s sixty-seven – far younger than, say, Bruce Forsyth when he hit his late period prime in Strictly Come Dancing – but he’s got no future. You’d have to go back to the 1960s and the case of Simon Dee (anyone remember him?) to see a television career imploding so spectacularly.
With hindsight you could argue that the first crack in the wall for Barrymore was not so much admitting that he was gay, but revealing that for many years he’d lived a lie and lied to his audience. Colleagues of mine at ITV would say this – it wasn’t the pool party, it was the deceit; the audience didn’t trust him any more. When disaster struck, the parachute of goodwill failed to open . But that doesn’t really fit with those repeated NTA awards.
The same charge – of living a lie – may yet cause Philip Schofield some trouble, and we can’t rule out further twists in the tale. It didn’t help his erstwhile co-presenter Fern Britton when she was forced to reveal that she’d fitted a gastric band and hadn’t achieved rapid weight loss simply through ‘diet and exercise’. But we live in a different age, the power of the tabloids has diminished, and celebrities can communicate directly with their audience. Social media is a wonderful tool for getting the public onside – ask Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Barrymore trundles on like a figure from Greek mythology, picking up modest fees for appearances here and there, always hoping no doubt that the turning point is just round the corner. TV stars sometimes complain about the intrusive nature of fame, but they rarely walk away from it willingly. It’s better to be “that bloke on the telly” than “that bloke who used to be on the telly”.
It’s not Barrymore’s predicament that stays with you after watching the Channel 4 film, though. It’s the nightmare of the surviving members of the Lubbock family – scarred, raw, bewildered, angry. They only knew Stuart as a loving son, brother and husband, who fatefully happened to run into a TV star on a night out in Harlow. For most of us, 21 March 2001 is a date that will crop up every now and then in TV documentaries and articles like this. For them, it’s the day their lives changed for ever.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.