profile: Tony Booth: Old voice for new Labour secret

profile: Tony Booth: Come the campaign trail, Tony Blair's father- in-law promises a lively side-show, says Paul Routledge
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The Independent Online
It's the question that sends shivers down the spine of the spin doctors. "What is Tony Booth going to do in the general election?" A look of alarm comes over their faces. Their hands tremble, and their eyes swivel round as if they are looking for an escape route. He may be Cherie Blair's much-loved father, but he is Rabelaisian, and unpredictable with it.

The star of Till Death Us Do Part - currently undergoing a revival - said recently: "I have been a Labour Party supporter since 1945. I am going to be in the thick of this election, too. We have to win it, rather than wait for them to lose it." One can almost hear the tabloid sleuths sharpening their pencils in anticipation of indiscretions that will make a good story. Booth has already been likened to Billy Carter, the US president's embarrassing brother. He is particularly proud of being the "Scouse git" son-in-law to Alf Garnett.

Next month, in the middle of the election campaign, an updated version of his autobiography, Stroll On, which tells the rumbustious story of his womanising and drinking, is to be published. The serial rights have been sold to the Express, not exactly Labour's best friend, for a sizeable sum. It will be serialised while Tony and Cherie are on the campaign trail.

Will he be with them, a kind of First Father to the First Lady? Officially, the party line is that Booth will have no formal role to play. That means nothing. It may be difficult to keep him away. Booth is well known for turning up unannounced. The MP Denis MacShane reports finding him on his doorstep during the Rotherham by-election, along with his bosom pal Ron Rose, a television scriptwriter and former Labour councillor in Doncaster. And Booth is also promising to keep a full and frank election diary, which most Fleet Street editors would give their eyeteeth to get their hands on.

THE INGREDIENTS for a political soap are in place. And given Tony Booth's background, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. He was born into a Liverpool working-class family in 1932. Socialism was as natural as breathing, but going on the stage was not. He tells the story in his book. "As I was then 21, I told my parents that I was going to try my luck in the theatre. My father said to me 'If you walk out of that door, you'll never walk back again. We don't want anything to do with the theatre. The last time a Booth was in the theatre was a disaster as far as I am concerned. My great-great-grandfather's brother was the father of the actor John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln!'."

Despite the warning, Booth persevered and enjoyed a chequered career that included parts as diverse as narrator of The Rocky Horror Show, star in a soft-porn movie and appearing stark naked in Oh! Calcutta. But it was as the layabout son-in-law with attitude in Till Death Us Do Part that he was catapulted to fame. The Sixties sitcom made him a household name.

Meanwhile, Booth himself became a man of several households: three wives, two long-term partners, and seven daughters. Cherie was born to his first wife, Gale, though he left them both when Cherie was only 21 months old. Gale, also an actress, was forced to take menial jobs including serving in a fish and chip shop.

His drinking, womanising and carousing were legendary, and it very nearly all ended in tears in November 1979. While making a drunken bid to get into his locked flat, he fell on a drum of paraffin and suffered third- degree burns. He was in hospital for six months, and had 26 operations. Cherie visited him every week, which, he conceded, was "above and beyond the call of duty". She has admitted, with commendable understatement, that "life with my father, at the height of his fame, had its problems for me".

But earlier that year Booth had performed her husband-to-be, Tony Blair, a signal service. Blair was thinking of going into politics, and knew that Cherie's father had strong contacts in the Labour Party. (Not, perhaps as strong as Booth sometimes believed: once, when arrested on a drink- driving charge, he demanded that the police get in touch with his mates - Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.) Booth arranged for his future son- in-law to meet Tom Pendry, a boxing fan and MP for Stalybridge. Blair visited him at Westminster and was so impressed by his surroundings he decided to act on his convictions and become an MP.

At that time, the Modernising Tendency had yet to be born, and Booth's old-fashioned socialism was no bar to his enthusiastic backing for his son-in-law. He and the love of his life, Patricia Phoenix, the Coronation Street actress, even broke off their holiday to campaign for Blair in 1982 when he stood in a by-election in the strong Tory seat of Beaconsfield, Berkshire. The TV stars got bigger audiences than the fledgling politician. These days, the roles are reversed - a source of great pride for Booth. "I am very proud of Cherie. She has done everything on her own."

He was there to see her take silk in 1995, and he is a regular front- row attender at Labour Party conference sessions, particularly when she is on the platform with Blair. After her first conference, he gave her rave reviews. "She coped remarkably well with the hurly-burly and rummage- scrummage of the media circus. Bravo! I say." Even so, he could not resist playing the cheeky chappie. Asked to comment on stories about her dress consultant, he replied: "I don't think my daughter's mind is usually occupied with clothes. She is too involved with her briefs." He passed this off as a slip of the tongue, without much conviction.

WE WILL be hearing a lot more about the life and loves of Tony Booth. Granada Television has commissioned a film about his private life as part of a series, The Things We Do For Love. It will chronicle the story of his life-long passion for Pat Phoenix, the Elsie Tanner femme fatale of The Street. The script is being written by Ron Rose, author of the trilogy Love and Reason, and scriptwriter for The Bill among other programmes.

The two lovers first met as young unknowns in the Fifties on the repertory circuit. They had an affair, but it disintegrated under the pressure of stage life, moving from one town to another and living in theatrical digs. "It was very intense, but it fizzled out and then she went through an appalling marriage with a two-bottles-of-vodka-a-day man," says Rose. "They became famous at different ends of the country. He went through his drinking, nihilistic phase."

Then came Booth's near-fatal accident. The Granada film opens with this horrific sequence. It takes up the story of how Booth got in touch with Pat Phoenix when he came out of hospital and was living in Liverpool. The great love affair was reignited, and he eventually married her in hospital a week before her death from cancer in 1986. Sue Durkin, producer of the film, calls it "an inspired story". There was a less inspiring sequel when Booth was criticised for auctioning some of Pat Phoenix's most treasured possessions, including 60 teddy bears, photograph albums and jewellery for an estimated pounds 60,000 after her death.

He subsequently married for the third time, Nancy Jaeger, the daughter of a Canadian diplomat, 23 years his junior. But she moved out of the couple's home in Broadbottom, Derbyshire, a little under a year ago. She declined to tell the Sun why they had split. Cherie was said to be helping her father over the crisis. Booth disclosed: "She is very supportive."

Women, it seems, like to be supportive of this wayward actor. He wrote in a column in the Express last month that he was laid up in bed with "the lurgy". He sought solace from his agent, who was also bedridden, but the agent's wife passed on a remedy for celebrating the flu: a combination of lavender oil plus extra virgin olive oil. "This was vigorously applied by a loving, but by now thoroughly fed-up companion," he continued. "It didn't cure me, but by heck, it beats the old rub-down with a Sporting Life into a cocked hat." He also confessed that he was now the owner of a personal computer, and had received his first e-mail messages. But he couldn't work out how to reply. "Modern technology has done what nothing else has ever managed - to shut me up and down. I have been rendered speechless by a bloody machine."

Labour's spin doctors may be wondering where to buy such a machine. The leader's office says Booth will be doing, via Arts for Labour, "what he has done in every election since Harold Wilson, which is to campaign very effectively for Labour in key seats in the North-west". Booth's political instincts are almost certainly more Old Labour than New. Modernisers in the actors' union Equity say he shows "worrying signs of old-style militancy" and "living with an ideology that went out with the dinosaurs". Booth may have heard that particular line before, closer to home.

"Booth is more gut-driven than idea-driven, more a man of instincts than of ideologies," says one close colleague. "He speaks with very great feeling and often very loudly." It may make the spin doctors shudder but this could be the voice that restores Blair's credibility, which is at some risk in Labour's traditional working-class heartlands.