Tony Booth: Confessions of a loose cannon

With his adult film roles, drunken escapades and horribly messy love life, he has already caused his son-in-law, Tony Blair, all kinds of embarrassment. But there's just no stopping the charmingly indiscreet Tony Booth, as Robert Chalmers discovers at the actor's remote home in Ireland
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Once he'd arrested Tony Booth, on a dark road in North Yorkshire, Constable Keith Meadley asked for his address. "The Palace of Westminster," said Booth, who had been charged with drunken driving. When asked to give details of his next of kin, he replied: "The Prime Minister."

That was 35 years ago, when his life was in the hands of a man the actor describes as "the old Tony Booth": a crazed hedonist who, he says, effectively passed away on the day he gave up alcohol, in November, 1979. There were several aspects of Booth's conduct, as described in PC Meadley's statement, that probably helped secure the guilty verdict at East Riding Magistrates' Court. Greeting the officer as "you Yorkshire bastard" can't have helped. It was also alleged that he failed to intervene when his female companion struck Meadley, then - observing no improvement in his mood - put her arm around the constable and shouted, "To the woods!" And yet, with hindsight, Booth's boast of an intimate connection with the highest level of government sounds not so much facetious as prescient: it's hard to believe, more than eight years after his daughter moved in to Downing Street, how right that dead man was.

"I was not driving that night," Booth tells me. "I was asleep. In the passenger seat. With the engine turned off. The police," he insists, "beat me up."

We're talking at Tony Booth's house outside the small village of Blacklion in County Cavan, just south of the border. Booth, 74, has not given an interview since he moved to Ireland two years ago, with his fourth wife, Stephenie. (They have no children together, but he has eight daughters - of whom Cherie is the oldest - from previous relationships.) Their modest detached property, set in spectacular countryside, is not easy to find. People had warned me that, once I arrived, Tony Booth would impose all kinds of conditions, such as his wife sitting in. There are none. He is generous and hospitable. He makes two teas, and we sit down in his conservatory. The heavy mist swirling outside - which Booth fortifies by blowing his Camel smoke through the window - lends a feeling of Brigadoon-like unreality to the experience.

"When reporters appear in Blacklion asking where I am," he says, "the locals are very good. They look politely surprised, and then direct them to Connemara."

Just as every witch acquires a familiar, politicians at the highest level of power seem to be granted a family member whose sole purpose is to puncture their gravitas. There was Bill Clinton and half-brother Roger, aspirant rock-star and cocaine enthusiast; John Major and garden gnome connoisseur Terry Major-Ball. Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy, whose life was dominated by two sincere, but politically unhelpful passions: export lager and Colonel Gaddafi. Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, somehow raised a son whose appetite for wealth exceeded his talent for its orthodox procurement.

But no pair in that list was divided by a world view which deviated quite so spectacularly as Tony Blair's has from his father-in-law's. Blair is one of the very few modern statesmen who appears to have kept his libido under control. Booth bared all in Ken Tynan's notorious Oh! Calcutta! and played Sid Noggett, in the robustly erotic series of films that included Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

It's probably fair to say that the role of Noggett - a priapic Liverpudlian with a van - required less of a mental leap for Booth than certain other characters he has inhabited, such as Hamlet. While Blair embodies the spirit of contented monogamy, Booth - in addition to his four wives - has had two long-term partners and innumerable briefer liaisons. His memoirs include "crumpeteering" as both noun and verb. The existence of his eighth daughter, Lucy, now 38, emerged publicly only in 2001, via a red top: Cherie Booth is one of the few Londoners who, when she passes the sign for the Underground station Seven Sisters, might be tempted to mutter: "and counting".

Blair remains a scourge of irresponsible fathers; Booth, enemies say, fled to Ireland to escape the Child Support Agency. And, while the Prime Minister has been boldly leading the "war on drugs", the other Tony B - according to my Daily Mail - has been smoking his brains out in the Prime Minister's house.

"No," says Booth. "I have never smoked cannabis in any of my kids' houses. I would go outside and do it."

"What about at Downing Street?"

"No."

As for County Cavan, "I can't get cannabis any more. Northern Ireland is apparently awash with it."

It's only a couple of miles to the border, but he looks absolutely sincere.

"I haven't had a joint," he says, "for a long time."

"When you say long..."

"Not since I have been here."

Had it been possible for them to meet as young men, it seems unlikely that Booth and Blair's idea of a serious night out would have coincided. When Tony Blair's student flatmate Lord Falconer was asked - by Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live - if he'd ever seen the Prime Minister intoxicated, he squirmed around the question with memorable obsequiousness. Booth, by contrast, is a man who goes to the pub, drinks his weight in whiskey, meets two SAS officers, invites them home for more Jameson's and, having lost his key, scales the wall while his new friends - just to be on the safe side - burn his door down. He fell on to a five-gallon drum of paraffin, which exploded, causing 42 per cent burns to his lower body. That was the end of Old Tony - 26 years ago, almost to the day. Booth spent six months in hospital and had 26 operations. There are terrible scars on his hands and torso. He hasn't had a drink since.

"Did you join AA?"

"I didn't need to. The smell of wine was enough."

"Of course wine and paraffin are chemically related."

"That's right. I remember one wine bar in New Brighton where the two were indistinguishable."

A large holdall I've brought with me contains hundreds of articles, in which Booth takes beatings from ex-partners who expound on man's inhumanity to woman. On the flight from London, these cuttings alone exceeded my hand-luggage allowance. Stephenie, 50, who has been married three times before, is described as "the wife from hell" and - courtesy of her mother Blanche, from Urmston - "the daughter from hell."

The worst I can say of Stephenie, based on the time I spent with her, is that she is a personable woman who is completing a PhD in politics at Galway.

The criticism is fiercest in the Mail, and intensifies markedly after Blair took office in May 1997.

"Are you sure?" Booth says. "Why would that be?"

When I ask him what qualities he thinks he shares with Cherie, he replies: "I guess people would say: 'the mad eyes and the jaw line.' "

Politically, they don't appear to be converging. My host is an unreconstructed pacifist and socialist, appalled by his son-in-law's catastrophic adventure in Iraq. There are 22 years between Tony Booth (omega) and his son-in-law; if you had encountered their opinions only on paper, you would assume Booth's to be the voice of youthful revolt, and Blair's to be the weary pragmatism of age. Their differences were curiously anticipated by Booth's defining role as Mike, son-in-law to Warren Mitchell's reactionary cockney, Alf Garnett, in the groundbreaking BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part, which ran from 1966 to 1975.

"The world is at war," Mike told his bigoted father-in-law, in one episode. "And pensioners are struggling to exist - abandoned by the moribund policies of your bloody government."

When Booth - who has campaigned for Labour in every election since 1945 - speaks about politics, he appears to be stifling his instincts out of duty, like a guide dog eyeing a rabbit he can't chase. Once we start talking about Iraq, something changes: it's not long before Booth has taken off at speed, with his leash trailing behind him.

"This is not a moral conflict," Booth says. "This war is about the poor people in the world. Some countries are rolling in riches, using up all the energy..."

"Halliburton..." I begin.

"Yes," he interrupts, "I know all about Halliburton. The rest of the world is starving. We respond with token gestures. But Cheney and Bush are in serious trouble because of Iraq."

"Not just Cheney and Bush."

"Sure. But in America a leader has only two terms. In Britain, when a party rules for a great length of time... it runs out of ideas. It runs out of steam. It runs out of honour, in the end."

Booth advocates immediate withdrawal. His son-in-law, I suggest, is guilty of precipitating civil war by supporting the US invasion.

"Yes."

"So the consequences of this war become 'our' responsibility."

"Look," Booth says, "this is ridiculous. You and I know what this whole war was about. It was about oil."

"Do you think Tony Blair knew that?"

A very long pause.

"That question," says Booth, "is what is called a googly."

"It's straightforward enough."

"Yes. But... er... right," says Booth, coming back on-message, "Occupying forces cannot stay anywhere when the population is opposed to them. No matter how many weapons they have."

Tony Booth was born in Waterloo, Liverpool, the son of a merchant seaman. Even as a boy his ambition was plain. "I thought actors were rogues and vagabonds. People with no respect for society. That's the company I wanted to keep. I wanted to change society."

His first wife, Gale, mother of Cherie and Lyndsey, stayed in Liverpool while Tony went to London, and worked in repertory. Booth caught the eye of Johnny Speight, writer of Till Death Us Do Part, while heckling then Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman George Brown, during a Labour election rally in 1964.

Speight moulded the role of Una Stubbs's boyfriend (first intended for Michael Caine) to suit Booth. Mike became the abrasive "Scouse git" who slouched on the sofa reading Militant while Warren Mitchell berated the Irish, Pakistanis, blacks, Arabs and Jews, in a show whose satirical intent eluded many viewers.

"What that series did," Booth says, "was to bring to light prejudices expressed at every level of British society. We set out to change people's attitudes. We knew we risked aiding and abetting."

One area where Tony Booth differed from his character was in his relationship with drink. Mike liked the pub. He was not an alcoholic. Una Stubbs described how she watched Booth change from: "a big gentle bear" to someone who struggled to remember lines. The process, in her words, "was terrifying to watch".

"Why did you start drinking so much?"

"That was to do with the break-up of a relationship."

"With Gale?"

"No."

"Pamela?"

"No."

"Ann?"

"No."

Talking to Tony Booth, I tell the actor, you get a sense of what it would be like to interview Henry VIII. You want to concentrate on his lasting achievements - the songwriting; the dissolution of the monasteries - but mostly you're struggling to remember the names of the six principal women in his life. (Booth's 2002 autobiography, What's Left?, helpfully begins with a diagram.)

"I started drinking," he says, "when I broke up with Julie."

It was his affair with Boston-born Julie Allan - then a TV scriptwriter, now a Hollywood producer - that caused him to abandon Gale in 1961. Cherie was seven, Lyndsey five. Booth and Allan had two daughters, Jenia and Bronwen, who, like their mother, now live happily in the US. The couple spent five years together in London before Julie left abruptly for the States, with the children. The shock, he says, drove him to the bottle.

"I never really had the capacity for it," says Booth, whose mother's maiden name was Tankard. "I was a total asshole when I drank."

His friends don't quarrel with that last assertion, but suggest that his motivations as a drinker were less straightforward than Booth imagines.

"The main reason he drank was guilt," says Booth's close friend, the actor Mark Eden. "After he left Gale and the children in Liverpool, he carried this terrible remorse about what he'd done." The emotion, Eden says, was exacerbated by Booth's Catholic upbringing.

"Presumably he also drank because he enjoyed it."

"He did. And if there was a fight involved, that was the icing on the cake. I've never seen a man who could start a fight so quickly."

Once, Eden recalls, "I was having a drink with him in this quiet pub. I went to the loo, leaving behind this civilised, tranquil scene. I couldn't have been gone two minutes. I came back to witness this horrible mêlée, with Booth at its epicentre. The landlord was trying to grab him; Tony was punching somebody. Strangers were trying to knock him out with pint glasses. He achieved this in the time it took me to go to the gents."

"Was he good at fighting?"

"Well, he wasn't bad... except that he was always drunk. He's had his nose broken several times. He was extremely aggressive. He still can be."

Early press reports on Booth are dominated not by glowing reviews, but by fist-fights, gambling debts and court appearances. The mayhem intensifies in the mid-1960s, when he moved in with the third of his significant partners, Pamela Smith, usually known by her modelling name, Susie Ripley. She never married Booth, but stayed with him for 13 years; they had two daughters, Emma and Lauren Booth; the latter, née Sarah, is now a newspaper columnist.

Susie - at least as serious a drinker as Booth was - has alleged that he beat her. Only last week in the (omega) Mail on Sunday, Lauren Booth recalled hearing of "bloody fights between my parents" in the course of at least one of which, Booth "had punched my mum's teeth out. Another time, apparently, he held her head down the lavatory and flushed it."

"That is absolute rubbish," insists Booth. "And to print it is despicable. The only time I hit Susie," he adds, "was when she stuck a knife in me. She was aiming for my stomach, and it lodged in my hip bone. I hit her because she was trying to get the knife out again."

"Why would she do that?"

"Because she was drunk."

It was Susie who allegedly propositioned PC Meadley, and Susie who was sleeping, together with her daughters, in their Golders Green flat when Booth blew himself up.

"What exactly happened that night?"

Booth - who had recently been declared bankrupt - claims he was hoping to get the SAS men to confess, on tape, to the shoot-to-kill-policy in Northern Ireland.

"We got back and the door was locked. I told them I'd break in through the loft." He arranged three drums of paraffin to form a makeshift ladder. The soldiers began talking about soaking rags in the liquid and setting fire to the door "like we do to the Paddies".

"I was in the loft," Booth says. "I heard this whoomph. Flames came through the hatch. I was screaming at my family to get out. I dropped back outside. I thought they'd have moved the paraffin drums. I was wrong."

In the resulting explosion, the heat was so intense that his testicles retracted into his body. In hospital the agony was such, he says, that "I had to leave my body because I could not deal with the pain." Booth was pronounced clinically dead three times. He says his spirit travelled to Pinewood Studios, where he watched Siân Phillips filming Clash of the Titans. He also materialised, as ectoplasm, to Jack Nicholson while he was making The Shining.

"I thought, I'll fucking give you a shock," Booth says, referring to Nicholson. "I went aaaaaaghh! I freaked him out."

Booth tells me he avoided astral excursions beyond the Greater London area, for fear of not returning to his physical body.

"Are you joking?"

"Absolutely not."

In hospital Cherie visited him every Monday.

"Every time she came," he says, "she gave me hope. Though I hardly deserved any."

During one of these visits, he says, he told Cherie of his fifth-born child Lucy, the result of a fling with an assistant at Radio London.

"I told Cherie because I believed that I might die," he says. Reports that she only learned about Lucy in 2001, through the press are, Booth says, "shite".

Discharged from hospital, he went to his mother's in Liverpool. A few months later he was well enough to look up an old flame: Coronation Street icon Pat Phoenix, who took him in to her cottage at Hollingworth, Cheshire, in the autumn of 1980.

"Pat nursed me back to health," he says. "She was an incredible woman." Every day, he says, Phoenix bathed him, rubbed oil into his burns and changed his bandages. In the 1983 election, Booth and Phoenix canvassed for Cherie, in her unsuccessful candidature at Thanet, and for Tony Blair, who won at Sedgefield.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Booth's life is the role he played in helping advance Tony Blair's early career. It was Booth who arranged Blair's lunch with MP Tom Pendry, at the Gay Hussar in Soho, which supposedly helped his son-in-law decide to become a Labour candidate.

Even after 60 years in the field, Booth is not widely taken seriously as a political activist, perhaps because he is often regarded as the double of Mike from Till Death Us Do Part (much of his subsequent work as an actor - notably in Jim Cartwright's 1999 stage play Prize Night - has passed unnoticed.)

But unlike Mike, who was notable merely for his vanity, indolence and superficiality, Booth can also be smart, articulate and persuasive, as befits his daughter's father. He has been politically engaged from the start. Through the author Ted Allan, father of Julie, he met, and debated with, writers such as Bertrand Russell, William Saroyan and Arthur Miller. In the early 1960s Booth wrote a sketch for That Was the Week That Was in which an infantryman's ghost appeared as a recruiting officer. His Nemesis, the Daily Mail, responded: "You get killed in the army too, Comrade Booth."

He has had good relationships with previous Labour leaders, including Harold Wilson and Michael Foot. At a party thrown by Wilson, Booth mistook the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who was wearing evening dress, for a wine waiter, and ordered Champagne.

"I'll say this for the guy," Booth recalls. "He came back with two full glasses."

"There is one crucial thing you must understand about Tony Booth's relationship with Blair," says the actor's friend Ron Rose, the playwright and former Doncaster councillor. "That is the part that Tony Booth played in getting Tony Blair elected. Tony Booth was the original Blairite. When I began canvassing," Rose continues, "he was already telling people about his son-in-law, who was going to be leader of the Labour Party, and prime minister. This was in the early 1980s, before Blair was even on the political radar."

Their tactic, Rose says, was to "attend every by- election and say we'd come because Tony Blair sent us. It was a calculated act by Tony Booth, with the aim of having his son-in-law lead the party. In those days, remember, the leader was chosen from 160 votes. And Tony is the best canvasser I have ever seen. He was driving all around the country, working for the day when Tony Blair would become leader, long before anybody gave the idea credence."

And yet - given that a list of Booth's soulmates would begin not with Blair, but with Benn, or Bevan - you do find yourself asking: why?

"Because," Rose explains, "we had observed the union-boss-led, ugly face of old Labour. The idea of somebody who was clean of that, and highly intelligent, was very attractive."

After canvassing for Tony Blair at Sedgefield in the June 1987 General Election, Rose and Booth had to share a bed in Blair's house.

"We lay there naming the women we could call as witnesses if the Mail accused us of impropriety," Rose recalls. "One list was slightly longer than the other."

Tony Booth speaks of his six years with Pat Phoenix as one of the happiest periods in an otherwise turbulent existence. In 1986 Phoenix became his second wife, in a ceremony in a Manchester hospital, days before she died of lung cancer.

Shortly after she died, he says, she appeared to him in bed at the cottage.

"She said: 'Do you want to ask me anything?' I said, 'Yes. What's going to win the Cesarewitch on Saturday?' I am totally serious. She said 'Number 23 at 40-1.' "

He catches a look of doubt in my eye. (omega)

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