Barrymore's redemption: Fifteen minutes of blame

A bit of hangdog contriteness on 'Celebrity Big Brother' and then Michael Barrymore is back hosting a TV show, apparently 'forgiven' by viewers. Peter Stanford on the art of winning absolution

That he has pulled it off tells us something about the man himself, but also much about ourselves, our capacity for forgiveness and our innate sense of fair play. Barrymore, we decided after watching him hang his head low in the Big Brother house, had been punished enough. He deserved to be given a second chance.

"The British public can be very tough on celebrities who go off the rails," says PR guru Max Clifford. "Or at least the ones who get caught doing it. But there is nothing we like better than the drama of an improbable come-back."

Michael Barrymore's life reads like a medieval morality play in three acts. First comes the worldly success on TV. He rises rapidly from being the warm-up man on Larry Grayson's Generation Game to become the king of the Saturday-night schedules, fronting shows such as My Kind of Music and Strike it Lucky.

Then there is a total change of scene to the spectacular fall from grace. This starts when he says that he is gay but living a double life with his wife Cheryl, and ends up in the fires of hell when, in March 2001, Stuart Lubbock, a 31-year-old Essex butcher, drowns in the swimming pool of Barrymore's Essex home during what the tabloid press label a "gay orgy". Cast out by the TV executives who once treated him like a god, he heads for the wilderness - aka New Zealand.

And then there is the happy ending (at least for now), a triumphant return to the screen as an older, wiser and, crucially, remorseful man, his 15 minutes of blame are miraculously over.

As well as The Friday Night Project, Endemol, the company that makes Big Brother, is talking about finding other vehicles for Barrymore's return to our screens. And even his most indefatigable tormentor, Stuart Lubbock's father, has given the troubled star "absolution".

"I lost my son but you lost everything that night," he is reported as telling Barrymore, "your career, your home, your life here. You have suffered like I have. Enough is enough." It is not an entirely closed chapter, however. The Lubbock family may still take Barrymore to court demanding compensation.

Whatever a celebrity's sins, however, be they criminal or just offensive against taste and decency (for example, Anthea Turner and her wedding-day PR stunt with a Snowflake chocolate bar), it seems that for those in the public eye, they no longer have to face the prospect of eternal damnation and everlasting exile. It's all just a question of biding your time.

Indeed another famous penitent, Bishop Eamonn Casey, is this week returning from exile to his native Ireland. Casey, a one-time papal favourite and the former flamboyant head of the Galway diocese, was revealed in 1992 to have fathered a son several years earlier with American divorcée Annie Murphy. It was not a crime but his hypocrisy caused huge damage to the church in this once most Catholic of countries. The bishop who liked good food and fast cars was packed off to a mission station in deepest Ecuador to prove just how sorry he was.

He has had to wait some time for public forgiveness, but now the people of Ireland seem more than happy to see his return. They have it appears, decided that his remorse is real.

The same generous thoughts do not extend to Jeffrey Archer who has found that no amount of charity fun runs or speeches on prison reform can dispel an abiding impression that he really hasn't learnt from his mistakes and regrets only that he got caught out.

"The English have a strong and distinctive sense of fair play," says Kate Fox, social anthropologist and author of Watching the English. "That gives us a tendency to favour the underdog, the person who has hit rock bottom, but they have to act in a particular way to persuade us to engage with them. In the US, for example, someone whose career had been destroyed by a scandal would have to appear on TV, grovel, weep and wear their heart on their sleeve as they confessed to everything in a dramatic way. But that's the last thing the English want to see. We prefer moderation in all things. Barrymore got it absolutely right - the rueful smile, the sad look, the permanent air of saying, 'Oh dear; I am sorry.'"

Essentially Barrymore was acknowledging that he was flawed just like the rest of us and so, we the public, decided it was time to put an end to his punishment.

It hasn't been enough to silence all the doubters. Max Clifford, a former friend of Barrymore and his ex-wife Cheryl, who died last year of cancer, regards the stint in the Big Brother house as nothing but a performance, designed to dupe viewers into allowing him a second chance. "I know Michael and he is both manipulative and a very convincing actor. This is just a desperate attempt to get back into British television."

Whatever his real motives, enough of the public have been persuaded to place their faith once again in Barrymore. Does that mean we are discovering a renewed capacity to forgive?

If we are, it will certainly cut across accepted political wisdom. In Westminster there is virtual cross-party consensus that the public are in no mood to forgive anyone, that they want longer jail sentences for criminals and ever more prison places.

Yet, Jonathan Aitken, former Cabinet minister and celebrated ex-con, believes his one-time colleagues in Parliament are misjudging the public mood. "Big Brother has a largely young audience and they think differently on this from the politicians. Earlier this week, I took part in a debate at Bristol University organised by the Longford Trust on the motion, 'Should forced labour be reintroduced in to Britain's prisons?' It was knocked out overwhelmingly by the students who were much more interested than I had expected in questions of encouraging rehabilitation, reform and even redemption."

An encouraging sign then. But the biggest obstacle to translating such positive sentiments into practice, Aitken believes, based on his own experiences as a public sinner - and one who the public has now welcomed back as a reformed character - is the spread of cynicism.

"The public isn't nasty or hard-hearted about people like me. They are just instinctively cynical. Especially at a time when the influence of religious belief, which stresses forgiveness and repentance, is on the wane. So when anyone says, 'I am sorry,' or 'I repent,' they think 'What's he up to now?' And if God gets into the bargain, it only makes them trust him less."

The role of the media is crucial in both whipping up that cynicism and putting a stop to it when it feels someone has been punished enough, Aitken feels. The Sun has certainly been closely involved in orchestrating the change or heart over Barrymore.

Not so long ago the television funnyman was being described in the tabloids as a killer, "The OJ of Essex", or "Sodom Hussein of Roydon" (the Essex town where he lived). Even during Barrymore's early days in the Big Brother house, the paper was full of reports about father Terry Lubbock's outrage. But by the end it had brought the two men together for the first time and was trumpeting the message of forgiveness.

A genuine conversion? Just going with the flow of public opinion? Or a stitch up? It is certainly a world away from five years ago when Lynda Lee-Potter wrote in the Daily Mail that she would "rather stick pins in my eyes than watch Barrymore on TV again."

But Barrymore needs to beware of mistaking the current warm embrace of the British public for a genuine happy ending. There are, Clifford cautions, limits to our capacity to forgive. "In Celebrity Big Brother, he wasn't trying to make people laugh but that's what his own shows are about. Will we still want to laugh with him given all we now know and all the questions that still remain unanswered about Stuart Lubbock's death? And will the TV executives be so keen to employ him when the negative publicity starts kicking in, as inevitably it will."

This modern morality play has clearly got several more acts to go.

THEY'RE COMING BACK, THEY'VE DONE THEIR TIME

Anthea Turner

THE CRIME

The former pin-up presenter of GMTV found herself reviled for stealing another woman's husband, and then marrying him while holding a Cadbury's chocolate bar in a bid to make money.

THE PUNISHMENT

Exiled to the tundra of the TV schedules.

THE REHABILITATION

Tried the Celebrity Big Brother route in 2001 to no avail. Now set to host Perfect Housewife on BBC3. She's suffered enough.

Angus Deayton

THE CRIME

The presenter of Have I Got News For You found himself in the headlines in October 2002 following a prostitute's kiss-and-tell tale about nights of sex and cocaine.

THE PUNISHMENT

Before leaving the programme for ever, Deayton was publicly humiliated on the show by Ian Hislop and Paul Merton.

THE REHABILITATION

Apparently chastened, returned in a string of ITV shows including Hell's Kitchen and Help Yourself.

Kate Moss

THE CRIME

Following the publication of pictures which showed her snorting cocaine with her then boyfriend Pete Doherty, the supermodel's career went into free fall - for 15 minutes - in September last year.

THE PUNISHMENT

Chanel, Burberry and H&M dropped her.

THE REHABILITATION

A dose of real rehab, then showed her clean serene body off in Vanity Fair. Returned to the UK last week to be interviewed by police.

Noel Edmonds

THE CRIME

Stopped being funny and was too closely associated with the hateful Mr Blobby. Noel's House Party was axed in 1999 following the death of a contestant, and falling ratings.

THE PUNISHMENT

Not allowed to be on TV.

THE REHABILITATION People felt sorry for him after his messy divorce. Returned to our screens in 2005 with the very popular Deal or No Deal. Transfer to Saturday nights planned.

Christine Hamilton

THE CRIME

Got caught up in her MP husband Neil's disgrace over the cash-for-questions scandal.

THE PUNISHMENT

Public ridicule and a brief period of 'poverty'.

THE REHABILITATION

Won sympathy for standing by her man and parodying herself by penning 'A Bumper Book of British Battleaxes'. Turning point came in 2001 when the pair were falsely accused of sex crimes. Has moved into a £1m Wiltshire manor house.

Jonathan Aitken

THE CRIME

Former Conservative Cabinet minister who perverted the course of justice in a bid to win a libel trial and made some stupidly pompous statements about how bad the press was and how virtuous he was.

THE PUNISHMENT

Sent to prison. Also lost his home and wife.

THE REHABILITATION

Found God in prison. Emerged 18 months later to do good works and study theology.

THE CLIFFORD TEST: COULD THESE FALLEN STARS EVER RETURN?

Max Clifford rates the chances other disgraced stars have of making a comeback:

John Leslie, the former Blue Peter presenter who fought off allegations of sexual misconduct: "He's too arrogant, too cocksure. He doesn't have the personality to convince us that he's a victim and should be pitied."

Frank Bough, face of BBC sport and Nationwide in the 1970s and 1980s, who resigned in disgrace after stories of liaisons with prostitutes: "He lacked a sense of humour. He could have turned it all into a joke and got work off the back of it."

Michael Jackson, the pop star who was found not guilty of abuse charges in 2005 but whose career is now in tatters: "Too much has happened. We know too much of his weird world to want to have anything to do with him again."

Kara Noble, the Capital Radio presenter, who sold pictures to the press showing Chris Tarrant lifting up the T-shirt of the Countess of Wessex to be: "Noble was a whistle-blower and in the media nobody likes that - they have too many secrets of their own."

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