He's the nation's favourite jester. But, will Michael Barrymore's public still love him tomorrow?

On Monday, 24 hours after the People newspaper claimed that Michael Barrymore, "the nation's favourite funnyman", had been spotted in a gay club, groping a young man, and the Sunday Mirror stated he once made a pass at heterosexual impressionist Bobby Davro and the News of the World asserted that he had had sex with ex-aide John Davis (twice - Mr Davis counted), the 43-year-old, six foot three inch comic took to a stage in a shopping mall in Croydon, south London and entertained his still adoring public.

He joked. He sang. He encouraged the punters to make fools of themselves - the series being shot is called My Kind Of People - and called out a heartfelt "Thank you very much indeed" when a woman in the crowd shouted: "We love you, Michael."

No one in the 1,000-strong audience could fail to spot Cheryl Barrymore, wife and notoriously tough business manager - not with her fresh-from- the-South-of-France-tan and tense manner. Her husband certainly noticed. If in May he had run away, (there was a three-day separation and a falling off the wagon)today he was in the mood for romance.

During a break in filming, Cheryl was rewarded with a kiss, a display that the cynical will compare with Michael Jackson's attempts to defuse scandal by slobbering over Lisa Marie at the MTV awards, but which the citizens of Croydon bought at face value. As one lady said to the woman who's standing by her man, "He's not gay - we don't believe it."

Cheryl Barrymore managed a nod, perhaps wondering if her husband's kind of people - not to mention London Weekend Television, locked into a rumoured two million pound-plus contract - would still love him half as much seven days hence, after the News of the World delivers its second instalment of "shocking facts".

That's the question: can Michael Barrymore, ITV's jealously guarded jewel in the crown, the undisputed star of the Royal Variety Performance, twice winner of the Top Entertainment Presenter prize at the British Comedy Awards, Public Friend Number One, able to demand pounds 20,000 an appearance, and a permanent tabloid fixture in the Princess Diana/ Liz Taylor league, survive allegations that he is either gay or bisexual?

And if the allegations were to turn out to be true, will his legions of fans forgive, forget and let him continue? Or will they decide that the performer who is revered for his honest emotion should be condemned to career freefall?

It's hard to shake the feeling that we're witnessing the latest episode in a soap opera, albeit a soap opera in danger of becoming a showbiz tragedy. The press have prepared the ground well: the breakdowns, the boozing, the pills, the tortured clown who smiles though his heart is breaking and, maybe, now, the popular favourite who falls from grace. There's no doubting Barrymore's popularity. Barrymore the show regularly pulls 13 million viewers - and deserves to, thanks to this lanky Uncle figure speeding frantically from impressions to surreal ad-libs to improvised interviews to stream of consciousness assaults on his studio audience. Barrymore seems both a madcap force of nature and the very essence of that peculiar British institution known as "a good laugh" - a canny cross between the sheer dementia of, say, a Jim Carrey, and the variety- based, family entertainment values ITV has always held dear, particularly prime time Saturday night.

Grandmas, Dads, kids, the hip and the square tune in to watch him segue from forcing a hapless punter to pretend to be the Queen to interviewing bomb victims to hugging a post-operative transsexual, treating each guest with a down-to-earth dignity that signals to everyone watching: "We're all in this together." And what we're all in is life; the form Barrymore says he makes up as he goes along: "I haven't a clue what's going on - not really".

It's an essentially unstable mix - sincere schmaltz always is - but it's an instability audiences recognise as authenthic (as human) as opposed to formulaic, in the manner of Cilla Black's Surprise Surprise, where it's the framework, not the host, that automatically tugs at frayed heartstrings. But what some sections of the press would have you believe is that the instability, being inherent in the man, will destroy him.

Since ascending to TV stardom in 1986 as the host of the game show Strike It Lucky (he'd previously appeared on New Faces, Russ Abbot's Madhouse and Blankety Blank and, before that, served as warm-up man on The Generation Game, Little and Large and Are You Being Served?), Barrymore has provided irresistible headline fodder. The balance mimics that of the Barrymore show: laughter and tears - professional success paralleled by personal disaster.

Take last year's alcoholism and drugs detox. No sooner was Barrymore proclaimed the rightful heir to Bruce Forsyth than he was booking into Baltimore's Ashley Centre to quit champagne (" I used booze to fill up time") and painkillers, valium and marijuana ("I ate it in chunks"). The tabloids had been hinting something was up for nigh on two years previously, publishing photographs of the comedian on holiday looking wasted, a condition the high-octane Barrymore variouslyaccounted for as stress, exhaustion and grief over the death of his father-in-law, Eddie Cocklin. Barrymore played the papers as expertly as they played him; the overspill from the show's intimacy stood him in good stead.

If anything, his initial admission of a "nervous breakdown" and subsequent checking into a psychiatric clinic brought him even closer to a public primed for sympathy since earlier revelations about his childhood. He described it as loveless - a charge his estranged brother, John, sister Anne, and mother, Margaret, hotly deny - but it was undeniably an existence dominated by his drunken father. George was a violent man who frightened Barrymore so much that the boy finally barricaded him out of the family's Bermondsey flat. Wisely, as Daddy was not above smashing windows to gain entry after a night's heavy drinking, once going so far as to point a gun at his youngest son.

Whatever the truth (his mother said: "He's making excuses for the drink and the drugs") the fans ate it up, along with news of Cheryl's miscarriages, health scares, alcoholic relapses and supposed religious conversion - Barrymore calls the head of the Ashley Centre, Father Joseph Martin, "the man who saved my life". If anything, it made them feel closer to the artist whom they thought most represented their interests - their sensibility - on the box. He obviously understood suffering as much as some of the punters he interviewed; when he choked up, live and on camera, interviewing two blind children on his Christmas programme, they knew it was true empathy, not acting.

That sense of connection could now either save Barrymore's bacon or ruin him. It might be that his constituents don't care if he's revealed to be gay or bisexual. Indeed, taken on trash Freudian terms, it would explain the breach with his formerly beloved mother, the volatile relationship with a spouse widely believed to the dominant partner, the illnesses and collapses and that odd incident back in February 1993 when the star had "one nightcap too many" and nosily tried to break into a fellow (male) hotel guest's room. It could be that many will agree with his former assistant John Davis: "Michael must face up to the truth of just who he is... He's a nice man, but he's throwing his life away." Or...

His people may feel betrayed: did Mr Honestcon them? He's definitely confused them. For if Michael Barrymore is gay or bisexual, he simply doesn't fit the showbiz stereotypes: Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson, Julian Clary. He's caricature, but he's not outrageous, though as acute cultural analyst Andy Medhurst recently noted, "Kenneth Tynan used to argue that the greatest comics had an inbuilt androgyny, a disdain for conventional gender roles that drew on male femininity and female masculinity, and Barrymore clearly belongs to that line. Like Bruce Forsyth, another happily married comic, he has a sure grasp of the codes of camp, flinging a wrist here and an eyebrow there, snapping a spot-on Danny La Rue impersonation whenever the moment demands it. It's never overtly queer, but it's equally devoid of machismo."

Which may be what Barrymore's audience were inadvertently reacting to in the first place; that lack of machismo. They thought it was old-fashioned sentimentality when it might be terribly modern sexual anxiety. It would be something more than ironic if the very qualities that first brought Michael Barrymore adoration were now to be held against him as evidence of deceit. One hopes that a nation that can forgive Jim Davidson his binges and wife beating can do the same for a man who may only have been lying to himself about why he feels hurt, vulnerable and confused.

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