Sport on TV: Cheers turn to tears for story of the clown who lost his smile and then his children

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The Independent Online

Paul Gascoigne may have been "the most compelling footballer of his generation", as Surviving Gazza (Channel 4, Monday) claimed, but his prowess as an entertainer was as much about his ability to make us giggle as thrill us with his sublime skills. The programme chronicled the chronic decline in his health last summer, but it began with that familiar, if emaciated, cheeky grin as "the lovable clown" returned to his estranged family home after a spell in rehab. There seemed to be hope. He was bravely facing the wreckage of his old life in front of the cameras. But it was all too brief. Two weeks later, 10 minutes into the 80-minute programme, he ran away, and was not seen again.

What we saw instead was footage of him published on the internet by a tabloid newspaper, hopelessly drunk in a pub and claiming that he received phone calls from the Pope, Colonel Gaddafi and George Clooney asking him to play darts. Once upon a time it might have made us laugh, but his ex-wife, Sheryl, described his paranoid obsessions and told how "he thinks he's best buddies with the Queen, or the Queen's cousin". The fairytale of the Clown Prince had turned into an unending nightmare, and the Prince Charming she married would not return to awaken her.

We've been here before with George Best, but we never saw the harrowing effects of his alcoholism on his family. Instead Best's second wife, Alex, and son, Calum, cavorted on shows like 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!' and 'Love Island'. 'Surviving Gazza' was real Reality TV, detailing a private grief writ as large as the headlines that celebrated Gazza's exploits on the field – and then the lurid aftermath.

Gascoigne's children read the stories telling how he had gone on tour with the heavy- metal group Iron Maiden. Football may be the new rock 'n' roll when it comes to celebrity – and men behaving badly – but it had come to a pretty pass when the hell-raisers said they were worried about Gazza's health. It was Sheryl who ended up having to play the iron maiden.

It has been said that media attention is accelerating his demise, that they should leave him alone. And that's how it ended, as Sheryl finally gave up trying to save the man she still hopelessly loved. She and her children tracked him down in Portugal to issue an ultimatum that he come back or never see them again. He turned them away with two simple words.

It made for heart-rending drama. Sheryl was never shy of the media glare in the past, but given the heavy psychological cost she is paying, she is surely not trying to cash in on his fame now. So why did she agree to do it all on film? Whatever the answer, it did serve the ulterior purpose of showing how alcoholism destroys thousands of households around the country, very far from the public gaze.