Michael Barrymore: I’m an alcoholic and have had my problems. But I never murdered anyone. I was set up

In his first interview for a decade, the television entertainer tells Martin Hickman how he plans to exact vengeance on the tabloids that brought him to his knees

From his tough background to the wealth and fame of Saturday night television, the struggles with his homosexuality, alcoholism and drug addiction, the nine rehabs, and the death of a young man in his swimming pool, Michael Barrymore's life has been freakishly turbulent.

Clean of drink and drugs for a year and with his vitriolic tabloid tormentors in retreat, he can now reflect on the ups and downs of his life.

At his peak he was one of television's most bankable stars, had a multimillion-pound contract, a mansion and an impulsively-bought collection of 17 luxury cars. At his nadir, suspected of murder by the police and drinking heavily, he came close to committing suicide.

Standing in the kitchen of his apartment in Acton, west London, giving his first in-depth interview to a national newspaper for 10 years, he says: "I'm just grateful I came through."

He admits he has not been blameless, and regrets his alcoholism and the suppression of his homosexuality, which burst into the public domain when he announced "I'm gay," from the stage of an East End pub in 1995.

But he wants to get even with the newspapers he blames for prematurely ending his television career.

From false allegations of sexual assault to the lurid coverage of the death of Stuart Lubbock in his swimming pool, the comedian has been the subject of an extraordinary volume of negative headlines. Looking back, he believes he was the victim of a press vendetta partly motivated by his aloofness towards the redtops (he rarely gave interviews) – and partly orchestrated by his former wife and manager, Cheryl, whom he acrimoniously divorced in 1998.

He also suspects that newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, whose parent company News Corp controls the rival Sky TV network, had a commercial motive in targeting him. "It smacks me that there was a definite conspiracy to destroy ITV's main brand at the time: 'We want to get rid of anything that works for them'.

"I never shy away from the fact that I'm an alcoholic and that I have had my problems, but I've never murdered anybody. I've never got up in the morning and thought I'll harm someone. I've just had an extraordinary sequence of events that have been on public display, that I've had no control over."

He adds: "[The press] killed Michael Barrymore. My [real] name is Michael Parker, but Michael Barrymore is dead. Although I have been a couple of times to the jumping-off point, I didn't kill myself. If I had, it would have completed the story."

Born on the Dickens Estate in Bermondsey in 1952, to an alcoholic father, he rose steadily through showbusiness, adopting the stage name Barrymore and taking elocution lessons to eliminate his strong south London accent.

He had always had homosexual leanings, but thought that would end his marriage to the dancer Cheryl St Claire. The gangly comic, whose career was masterminded by his wife, became prime-time Saturday night property for a decade, presenting Strike It Lucky, Barrymore and other shows, but was unhappy at his carefully choreographed life. He and Cheryl divorced on Friday, 8 May 1998 – when his troubles with the press began.

The following morning, an editor from the News of the World called his flat in London's Docklands to say he was alleged to have carried out a serious sexual assault.

The previous night a man who had tried to engage the star in conversation claimed he had been raped in the toilets of a Soho nightclub, Brief Encounter. The News of the World's front-page that Sunday was: "Barrymore accused of sex assault... Scotland Yard is probing bombshell allegations that TV idol Michael Barrymore carried out an indecent assault on a young man."

Barrymore is convinced the allegation was a plot to discredit him.

The News of the World, which had close links to the police, certainly found out about the complaint quickly, picturing the detectives' entry to the club on the Saturday morning within hours of the attack allegedly taking place.

Yet the police did not interview the star until the following Wednesday, when he himself rang the detectives to ask why they had not contacted him. No arrests were made or charges brought and, in 2000, the News of the World admitted the allegation had been "without foundation" and paid Barrymore substantial damages.

He believes there was "a conspiracy to set me up" and that the paper may have known the allegation was bogus at the time the story was printed.

The Independent has spoken to a witness who was in a house in Ealing, west London, with several others when the complainant returned home about 11pm that night.

Bryan Purchase, a pawnbroker from Peacehaven, near Brighton, said: "You would think he would be subdued or crying, or he would be angry, and neither of those things happened. He made this drama, said he had been raped by Michael Barrymore and then he came back downstairs. None of us took it seriously. If I thought it had happened I would think: 'Well, that's possible', but I don't think it happened at all."

Another witness – who, like Mr Purchase, has signed a sworn statement about the events of that night – believed the complainant had been paid £50,000 by the News of the World.

News International declined to comment. So did the Metropolitan Police, except to say it did not receive a formal complaint about its investigation.

Barrymore was the subject of another false allegation of sexual assault four years later, again an "exclusive" in the News of the World. On 1 December 2002, its front page was: "Barrymore in new sex attack probe." Barrymore had invited a man, Lee O'Brien, into a home because he had travelled all the way from Liverpool to see him. O'Brien had made up the claim and was later convicted of perverting the course of justice.

Over the years the tabloids ran scores of dubious and intrusive stories, including a front-page picture of Barrymore weeping at his mother's funeral.

However, the most damaging came when Stuart Lubbock, a 31-year-old meat factory worker, was found dead in Barrymore's swimming pool at his mansion in Essex in May 2001.

Essex Police began a murder investigation. The redtops went into a frenzy. Justin Merritt, a dustman from Essex, claimed the star had rubbed cocaine on Stuart's lips shortly before he died; Merritt repeated the claim under oath at the inquest, where he admitted the News of the World had paid him £30,000.

On 22 September 2002, the Sunday Mirror pictured Barrymore on the front page next to the headline: You Are a Killer, without even the customary quotation marks.

Cheryl Barrymore, assisted by Max Clifford, the publicist, gave interviews contradicting Barrymore's insistence that he could not swim and branded him a "psychopath". (No pictures have been found of him swimming.)

His television career – which had been flourishing despite his drinking – was wrecked; the ITV executives who had courted him stopped taking his calls and cancelled his contract.

To this day, many people have a lurking suspicion that Barrymore was in some way responsible for Lubbock's death, but two police inquiries and an inquest have found no evidence that was the case. He said he had been smoking cannabis in a side room at the time of the death.

Newspapers enthusiastically reported that Mr Lubbock had received serious anal injuries, which one pathologist said were consistent with a sexual assault. However, the first pathologist to examine the body at 4.30pm that day believed the injuries had been caused only four hours before the post-mortem when the body was lying unguarded. The injuries were not noticed by the police who arrived at Barrymore's mansion, nor by the medical staff who tried to resuscitate him.

Stuart Nairn, a nurse who took Lubbock's temperature anally 16 times, wrote in his statement that he saw "nothing untoward or unusual". Another member of the resuscitation team, Dr Hirani, said: "At no time did I ever see any injuries, or blood." Another, Dr Raymon, wrote: "At no time did I see any noticeable injury to him."

Barrymore said: "There's eight people at a house, there's no blood, nobody saw anybody injuring him. Two paramedics, two coppers see nothing, eight people in the resuscitation team see nothing."

In December 2003 Essex Police – which had investigated the timing of the injuries at Barrymore’s request – concluded that they had been sustained before death. Princess Alexandra Hospital welcomed the vindication. Subsequently, in 2009, an IPCC report found failings in the initial 2001 police investigation, including a failure to preserve evidence, including blood deposits, at the house.

Barrymore continues to believe the injuries were caused by persons unknown at the hospital when the body was unguarded.

Even so, the inquest returned an open verdict in 2003 and the police never charged Barrymore or anyone else with murder. "It was just a party that went disastrously wrong, with a tragic ending. I've basically been framed for a murder – one that didn't take place."

In the aftermath of the drowning, Barrymore and his then partner Shaun Davis escaped the press interest by moving to New Zealand. Barrymore returned in 2006 to appear in Celebrity Big Brother and was seeking to re-establish his career when he was arrested by Essex Police in June 2007 on suspicion of murder and serious sexual assault. Again, no charges followed.

Barrymore – who suspects that in 2001 and 2007 the police were responding to "press pressure" – said: "I'm getting myself back on track and it was effectively wiped out again. Originally they cautioned me for use of marijuana. Five days later they release me with no caution. The Superintendent goes on Sky and all the others and says: 'The murder investigation continues.' And no investigation has been continued. Effectively, it was a show arrest."

Whatever the truth of the press treatment of him, he remains of intense interest to the media. Sixty photographers and journalists gathered outside Ealing magistrate's court last December when he was fined £780 for possessing a small amount of cocaine after crashing his car. Since then he has taken part in another alcohol recovery programme and believes that this time he will stay free of drink and drugs.

While he can no longer bring cases against the articles written about him because they are "out of time", he is bringing cases for phone hacking.

He said: "What always amazes me is that you can sit down and plot the destruction of a human being and not think you're murdering them slowly, because effectively they tried to. They had their hands on my throat and... were trying to choke me."

He has regrets – particularly about how he treated his wife, who died of cancer in 2005. "Nobody's written a book on how to handle fame, or the downside of it. We loved each other. I loved her, and she loved me too much."

In general, though, he is at peace. "I'm never not going to be an alcoholic and an addict, but I haven't got myself well to be in the corner living in pity. I don't have a list of things I want. Maybe because I've been bashed and bullied for so long.

"I'm just pleased that I've survived and that I have got a peaceful enough place to be able to deal with everything. It's got to the point where I can now sit in the ordinariness of a day.

"I don't have to be Michael Barrymore – he's dead. I don't have to do what I've been doing since I was eight, which is making people laugh to deflect things. It's the first time I've ever got to know me and I was 60 in May."

* The fact that Essex Police concluded in 2003 that the injuries sustained by Stuart Lubbock occurred before his death was regrettably edited from the version of this article that first appeared in the Independent.  We are sorry for that omission. A representative of Stuart’s father, Terry Lubbock has also asked us to point out that further police investigation in 2007 led Detective Chief Superintendent Gareth Wilson of Essex Police to conclude that Stuart "received very serious injuries the night he died and the evidence arising from our current investigation suggests they occurred from the address in Roydon". A subsequent IPCC report criticised aspects of the initial police investigation, including a failure to preserve evidence, including blood deposits, at Mr Barrymore’s property.

How tabloids ran bogus allegations

Michael Barrymore has accused the tabloid press of destroying his career by running a decade-long campaign of malicious stories including bogus allegations of sexual assault and murder.

The former entertainer says he is ready to confront the negative stories which culminated in him losing his multimillion-pound contract with ITV.

He claims he has been “framed” by the press over the death of a man, Stuart Lubbock, found floating in his swimming pool in 2001. He also says he suspects he fell victim to a “conspiracy” to fabricate an earlier allegation in the News of the World that he raped a rent boy in the toilets of a nightclub in central London. Evidence from medical staff support his claims over the timing of injuries sustained by Mr Lubbock.

The News of the World’s owner, News International, has agreed to pay 60-year-old “substantial damages” for his breach of privacy claim for phone hacking. He says of the press: “They killed Michael Barrymore.”

Striking it (un)lucky career highs and lows

4 May 1952 Born Michael Parker in Bermondsey, London

1969 At 16, the aspiring comic becomes a redcoat at Butlins.

1974 Meets and later marries dancer Cheryl St Claire who becomes his manager.

1979 Wins TV show New Faces

1986 Picked to host new ITV game show Strike It Rich (later Strike It Lucky).

1991 Launches variety vehicle Barrymore. It is voted 'best entertainment show' at first National Television Awards.

1995 Leaves Cheryl and comes out as gay.

1998 Divorces Cheryl on the same weekend he is falsely accused of raping a man at a club. The News of the World later apologises for its story.

2001 Stuart Lubbock dies in pool at Barrymore's home in Roydon, Essex, and murder inquiry is launched. No charges are brought but ITV cancels his contract.

2002 Coroner records open verdict on Mr Lubbock's death.

2005 Cheryl, 55, dies of lung cancer. A judge rejects Lubbock family's private prosecution of Barrymore.

2006 Runner-up on Celebrity Big Brother.

2007 Detectives re-arrest Barrymore and two others on suspicion of Lubbock murder. No charges are brought.

2011 Caught with cocaine after car crash. Enters rehab for a ninth time.

2012 Brings phone-hacking case against the News of the World.

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