Deborah Orr: That's Entertainment

Tales of celebrity self-destruction are a recurrent motif of our age. But the protracted, mercilessly public decline and fall of Michael Barrymore has peculiarly tragic lessons to teach us
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The Independent Online

Stuart Lubbock is two months dead. He died among strangers, his body floating in a swimming-pool. His finish was a cliché, a one-man testament to the tortured legend of stardom and death that emerged alongside the blossoming of screen entertainment. Thus ended Lubbock's late night in the firmament.

Lubbock's brush with fame was brief and awful. A meeting with a troubled light entertainer in an Essex nightclub, a late-night trip to his home. Alcohol, drugs, sex, death. A whole career in a couple of hours. But without, of course, the career.

We know very little about this dead young man. We know he was 31 years old, that he had two children, that he worked in a meat-packing factory. We know, too, that he had had sex with three men prior to his death, that during this sex he was injured, and that he had been under the influence of ecstasy and cocaine.

We know that his death was sad, pathetic and sordid, a footnote in the larger drama of another man's life. In his death Lubbock has no privacy. But we don't know how his life brought him to this end. Lubbock did have a past, though, and two children to show for it. Heaven knows what the manner of their father's death will do to them.

His host on 30 March was, of course, Michael Barrymore, a man in whose past we are well-schooled. He was born in Bermondsey, south London. His father ­ known in local pubs as "the actor" because of his gift for mimicry ­ was an abusive alcoholic whose marriage to Barrymore's mother ended when he was still a boy.

From an early age, Barrymore ­ or Michael Parker as he was before renaming himself after reading a book about a Hollywood acting dynasty ­ wanted to entertain people and be liked and admired. He worked hard at his ambition, but didn't quite get the breaks until he met and married a dancer called Cheryl, in 1976.

She became his manager, and her father, Eddie Cocklin, his financial advisor. Suddenly, things started happening, and after winning the talent show, New Faces, Barrymore began a trajectory of fame that led him to domination of the Saturday night TV schedules, and a place as undisputed king of television light entertainers.

He could sing, he could dance, he could tell jokes, he could chat, he could banter. But his special gift was a simple one. He had empathy and warmth, was endearingly self-deprecating, and could tease and relax viewers and victims alike into inclusive laughter. He goofed and silly-walked his way into audiences of millions, contracts worth a fortune, an awesomely punishing work schedule, and into the affections of the nation. He was lovable, beloved, and seemed unassailable.

But the perfect story of fame wouldn't be perfect without its dark side, and as the 1990s began, Barrymore's darkness began to well up into the vast, hungry maw of the public domain. He broke off all communication with his mother and brother, even returning their birthday and Christmas cards. When his adviser and substitute father, Eddie Cocklin, died shortly afterwards, the tabloids were full of stories about his weight. He looked terrible, cadaverous: 6ft 3in of skin and bone. He cancelled a run of his show, Strike it Lucky, citing exhaustion as the reason for a nervous breakdown.

Gradually he seemed to recover his equilibrium, which was why it came as a surprise in 1994 when he appeared on TV, fresh from a rehabilitation centre run by monks in Maryland, declaring himself an alcoholic and drug addict. The late theatre critic Jack Tinker likened this to "being told that the Queen Mother is a fetishist". His recovery, however, was short-lived, and his wife resorted to hiring bodyguards as a means of keeping him away from drink and drugs.

The pattern continued, and so did the career, until in 1995 the news broke that Mr Barrymore had been frequenting an East End gay bar, the White Swan. He came out as a gay man, suggesting that forcing himself to remain in the closet had triggered his drink and drug problems. This latest confession led, in fits and starts, to the end of his 19-year marriage.

Once again, he rode the storm, in a society that had learnt to take the gay community to its heart. Though there was much speculation over the future of Barrymore's career, his popularity was hardly dented. Neither, however, were the drink and drug troubles. More half-hearted efforts at rehabilitation followed, but without success. In mid-March this year, his 24-year-old lover and partner in a gay marriage in Hawaii, Shaun Davies, walked out on him. Davies was fed-up with picking up the pieces after the drink, drugs and parties.

Ten days later, Barrymore saw a dead body in his swimming-pool and ran away from his home in the middle of the night. The next day he checked into a rehabilitation clinic. On Sunday, the boyfriend he had gone clubbing with that night "told all" to the News of the World. Now, Barrymore awaits further developments, as the police investigation into Stuart Lubbock's death continues. The pundits wonder whether his career can survive this time. The death of a career in light entertainment is considered far more important, and far more worthy object of speculation, than the death of a father of two.

Barrymore has no children. He has, through choice, no links with his blood family. The family he made ­ wife and father-in-law ­ began its break-up a decade ago. Now his ex-wife says he is a stranger to her. His lover has not returned to him. He has nobody. He is reported to be fed up with fame, and, newspaper articles tell us, intends to move to Tenerife. A friend of his told the Daily Mirror: "Michael wants to get out of the rat race. He can't handle the pressure of being a celebrity any more. He wants to live somewhere he'll never be recognised." Or, in the parlance of the 12-step programme, he wants to "do a geographical".

If this is true, it is quite, quite pitiful. A man is dead ­ probably a man with his own problems ­ probably a man not so very different to Barrymore. But still, despite the loss of everything he has, save for his wealth and ever more precarious place in the public eye, Barrymore plans to escape.

Why does he think it should work this time? Once, he believed his family to be at the root of his troubles. So they're gone. He made a new one, but that became problematic. It, too, is gone. Once he considered the denial of his sexuality to be his Achilles heel. Again, that is in the past, but his problems are very much in the present.

Barrymore's problem is not any of this. His problem is that he is an addict. This disease, like some of his talent, he almost certainly inherited from his father. This is what he has to come to terms with. Addiction is not a disease that can be cured, but it is one that can be successfully managed.

Much is made of the public clown with the private demons, the tortured genius, the unbalanced artist. Often the private chaos is addiction-related, and treated as the other side of a glittering coin. But the relationship between these seemingly contradictory states is more functional than organic. Addicts are insecure and self-hating. They need reassurance and they need escape from themselves. Fame or creativity, admiration and flattery, feed these needs, so the addict will make that extra effort to be seen as special. With success, a vicious circle develops. The celebrity can always find someone to facilitate their need for attention. As those close to them are eroded away, strangers will do.

One of the strangers upon whom Barrymore relied to feed his addictive personality is dead, horribly and luridly. This should be his wake-up call, his rock bottom. It seems he would prefer to go down further, for instead he has retreated into fantasy. Bolstered by his money, he will find a home in Tenerife and live the life of an exile. If that's the best solution he can come up with, he has no more future than Stuart Lubbock. Barrymore's struggle has nothing to do with continuing or ending his career. What he has to do is cure his soul.