EVERY WEDNESDAY, a few minutes after 9am, you can watch Beauchamp Colclough, Britain's most famous therapist, at work on the GMTV sofa. His clients don't lie down on the couch - he's not into that old-fashioned psychoanalytic approach, nor the traditional precept that therapy is a private matter. Instead, they sit up, perched between Colclough (pronounced Col-clee, though everyone calls him Beechy) and the GMTV presenter, whose bright smile is temporarily converted into a sympathetic nod.
Sometimes Beechy does ordinary people, talking them through their pain and suffering in front of an invisible audience of millions. A recent session was with poor, sad Georgina, who was given LSD for postnatal depression in the Fifties, and never really recovered. "I've tried to take my life many times," she said, dressed in a smart red outfit and neatly made up for the occasion. "I've had every tranquilliser there is. I'm on Prozac at the moment." Beechy took a positive approach. "You can recover," he said, in his beguiling soft Irish lilt. "You've had the guts to come on today, which is very brave." He was right: Georgina leaves her house no more than once or twice a year, and suddenly here she was, exposed in front of the nation.
You can see why Georgina might put her faith in Beechy: not only for his kind blue eyes, but also because other, more celebrated people have sat on the sofa before her, testifying to his therapeutic genius. If it worked for them, why not for Georgina?
Sometimes, in fact, his television slot seems more like a celebrity interview (complete with plugs for the latest celebrity product), because Beechy is famous for the stars he has treated. Indeed, for his first GMTV appearance, in 1993, to promote his book on how to give up drinking, he was flanked by Elton John and John Reid (Elton's manager), who proclaimed to the viewers that Beechy had saved them from their numerous addictions. Beechy sat between them on the pink sofa, resplendent in his fashionable dark suit and flowing dark hair and magnificently droopy moustache. If anything, he looked more like a rock star (albeit of the Seventies variety) than Elton, who was wearing a sartorially unfortunate shell-suit. But at least Elton was thin - thin after all those years as a fat, alcoholic, coke fiend - a living, breathing testament to Beechy's healing powers.
Other, remarkable coups followed. Beechy did Fiona Wright, Ralph Halpern's ex-girlfriend, who had gone from tabloid bimbo to overweight depressive. She was counselled by Beechy, both on-screen and off-, and returned to the GMTV sofa a few months later to prove to the viewers that a miracle had been wrought: fat no longer, in a tight pink suit, to the strains of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World". "Beechy has helped so much," she gushed. "After sessions with him, I felt on Cloud Five!" Beechy, meanwhile, looked both modest and caring, and encouraged other obese viewers to seek help: "You have to look at why you're eating so much. Why is the fridge talking to you?"
He also let it be known - on this and other occasions - that he had suffered too; that he understood, because he had abused alcohol and drugs in the bad old days, before he discovered the wonders of therapy. Thus, when Paula Hamilton (the famously alcoholic model/ actress) appeared on GMTV earlier this month to talk about her new film and newfound confidence, Beechy could swap notes with her about how awful they had once felt. (Beechy: "Were you dying inside?" Paula: "Yes, I was dying inside.") This on-screen empathy creates a compelling three-way relationship, between Beechy, client and viewer: all suffering together, all linked in the pain of human existence.
But although you can see why Beechy should have become so very successful, his media fame may yet bring pitfalls. For should any of his star clients relapse into madness or sadness or both, you can be sure their failings - and therefore Beechy's as a therapist - will be revealed to the world. The stakes are particularly high at the moment, as Michael Jackson (yes, Beechy treated him too) steps back into the glare of publicity to promote his new album. Jackson never actually sat next to Beechy on a pastel-coloured GMTV sofa; instead, you could find out about their sessions in the Sun. "ELTON DRUG GURU TREATS JACKO" shrieked the headline on 15 November 1993, a "world exclusive" at the height of the media frenzy about the child- abuse allegations against Jackson. The story told how Colclough was helping to wean him from his addiction to pain-killers, with intensive one-to- one therapy. Elizabeth Taylor, said the Sun, had provided the original impetus for Jackson's therapy, phoning Elton John to ask for help. Elton told "worried Liz" that Beechy "was the best man in the world" to treat the stricken singer.
The best therapist in the world is perhaps a scary thing to be: not just because Beechy's reputation now rests largely on the fragile basis of Michael Jackson's sanity, but also because popular expectations of therapy have never been higher. We are lapping up therapy like never before: you can watch it on the telly; you can have it with any number of therapists (over 11,000 registered with the British Association of Counsellors); and you can do it yourself, with books like Beechy's new one (It's Not What You Eat, It's Why You Eat It). If you've never fancied the thought of Freud or Jung, you could try gestalt or psychosynthesis, and that's just for starters. You can have sex therapy, marriage therapy, family therapy; ante-natal counselling, redundancy counselling, bereavement counselling. Whatever the occasion, someone, somewhere, has the answer about how to find that most elusive of things: happiness. And, in the process of this search, a repressed nation can let it all hang out, let the lower lip wobble and the upper lip unstiffen, just as they do on Oprah Winfrey.
Beechy thus has to worry not just about the robustness of Michael Jackson's mental health, but also about the possibility of a more general backlash, should therapy turn out not to be an entirely reliable popular panacea. Forget Prozac: a lot of people are counting on Beauchamp Colclough as an alternative. Which means he had better get it right: first time, every time; or suffer the consequences.
SHOULD you be one of the lucky ones who can afford pounds 70 an hour to see him in person, Beechy's consulting rooms are to be found in a discreet building around the corner from Harley Street. There is no name on the door; just an intercom, and a disembodied receptionist's voice which tells you to go into the waiting- room. This is, when I visit, tactfully empty (no opportunity for sidelong glances to see if there's anyone famous): just velvet chairs and copies of Country Life and The Lady. Then the man himself comes bounding in, smaller than he looks on television but with the same expensive clothes and black suede shoes and big gold jewellery. He takes me to his room, and offers tea or coffee ("White with sugar?" "No, no sugar," I say hurriedly, taking note of the scales in the corner.) There is a picture of Beechy with Elton John, and one with Charlie Watts (a friend, not a client), and one with his wife, Josephine, who is also a therapist. I ask Beechy about his unhappy past, which feels strange. (Surely it should be me telling this likeable man about my childhood?) He acts as if it were strange, too, though he must have gone through it many times himself when he was treated for alcoholism 12 years ago. He was born and brought up in Belfast, "but I never really felt part of it there". He is 47, and describes himself as "a recovering Catholic, with the lifetime present of guilt that it gives you." His father, who is dead, was an alcoholic. "Alcohol killed him," says Beechy. "My family always get upset if I talk about it. But it wrecked his career." (He was a tailor, between bouts of drinking.) It also wrecked Beechy's childhood, and a large part of his adulthood. "I was drinking from the age of 14 until I was 35, and taking drugs. I ended up losing practically everything in my life - I was living on the streets."
Although he regrets the lack of affection and attention he received from his father, he believes that his father suffered from the same illness that he and all other addicts suffer. "It was there in the genes just waiting to happen," he says. None of his five sisters or two brothers has developed any addictions, "but I've got that x-factor in my make-up. There's a definite chemical imbalance."
He became a musician for a while, working as a drummer with various Irish bands, but was thrown out of them all because of his drinking and drug abuse. Eventually, he ended up in Guernsey, lured by the promise of cheap booze. It was there, 17 years ago, that he met Josephine, who was to become his second wife (his first marriage, and his two children from it, he never discusses). Josephine persuaded him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, "but I carried on drinking," he says. "I'd never really been honest." Finally, he was carted off to Broadreach House, a treatment centre in Plymouth. "I was there for six weeks," he says, "and when I came out it was like I'd woken up, like pecking out of the egg."
He returned to Guernsey and got a job washing dishes in a five-star hotel. There, with the fairy-tale luck that is present in every celebrity's life, he was allowed to enter a grand chef's competition. Much to everyone's surprise, he won second prize, was rewarded with a job running the hotel brasserie, and rebuilt his confidence. Then, after two years of sobriety, he started training to be a therapist at Broadreach House, encouraged by his own therapist ("She said that I was very reachable"). From there, he started working at another private treatment centre, the Promis Recovery Centre in Kent: which, like Broadreach, specialises in the treatment of addictions using methods based on those of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, otherwise known as the Minnesota Model (a combination of group therapy, confessional writing, and adherence to the "12-step programme" of abstinence and "God as you understand him"). Beechy loved the work, which appealed in part, he says, to "the performer in me". But what do you actually do in therapy, I ask him. "I go into the darkness and come out the other side," he says. Beechy is nothing if not dramatic.
THERE are some who disapprove of the way Beechy has moved from the anonymity that is supposed to be part of the Minnesota Model. "I think Beechy has a lot of talent," says Dr Robert Lefever, the founding director of the Promis Centre. "But we disagree on our profile, I suppose. I prefer to be a doctor doing my work. I'd be uncomfortable having the camera filming me with my patient - in fact, I wouldn't do it."
Dr Lefever acknowledges, however, that Colclough (who left Promis two years ago) is not alone in his shedding of the principles of anonymity. Indeed, there have been any number of high profile members of Alcoholics Anonymous indulging in what Lefever calls "the American breast-beating theatrical confessional", as if it were as fashionable as drugs were earlier in their careers. Beechy himself seems to feel no embarrassment in talking about his famous clients (who appear to have recommended him to each other, in the same way as they might pass on a reliable hairdresser or accountant). He tells me that Elton John "suffered from cross-addiction" (this is Beechy's big theory: it means that addicts often abuse lots of different things - food, sex, alcohol). I remark on how open Elton John has been about his shameful past (the mountains of cocaine and doughnuts), and about his recovery.
"We worked on the shame," says Beechy. "We worked on the guilt. We worked on the darker side of him. And we also worked on the point that you're OK. And he is so OK. Look at him! He's come out and helped people. They think, if he can do it, so can I."
Elton John not only came out on GMTV, but also wrote the preface to Colclough's first book, about how to stop drinking ("I am now convinced that those of us too proud, too arrogant or too frightened to ask for help need people like Beechy to nourish us and help us claw our way back into existence."). Elton has followed up this endorsement with a second one, for Beechy's new book on eating disorders. Beechy is suitably grateful. "To have a man with an eating disorder to do the foreword is great," he says, "and especially him. But it wasn't so much to sell the book. It was the maleness thing, because so many men are suffering. And men have to come out and own up to their feelings and insecurity. They're not the hairy hunters!"
He is equally enthusiastic about his work with Michael Jackson. "He responded to me wonderfully," says Beechy. "We were together for about 31 days. We just went through a whole process together. We got on incredibly well. So he was just a person to me."
And the results? "It worked out all right. Just look at him. He's clean and well, he's got a new album out, he looks good, he's married... He's immensely creative, he's lovely, lovely."
Still, I say, it must be difficult, having everyone know that you treated him. "It makes things harder for me," admits Beechy. "If Michael Jackson is a fuck-up, I'm a fuck-up. It's the same with Elton - the same with all of them."
IT'S hard being creative, says Beechy, and he should know (so much music in his life; so many performances). "Creative people have this big strain of insecurity. Alcohol and drugs make them feel fine. But they also need that adulation as a constant feed." You'd think that, occasionally, insecurity might get the better of him. It's not as though the therapy he offers is guaranteed to work. Not everyone gets better. "With some people that I see, I get this awful sense that they're not going to make it," he admits. "And some of them don't. People die around me." For a lesser man this could be terrifying - enough to send him straight back to the bottle - but, no, Beechy Colclough is concerned, kind, yet ultimately detached. "It breaks my heart - but what can I do? I've done the best I can."
As for adulation, he's got it. People queue up to see him; they stop him in the street and tell him they watched him on the telly, and he saved them. "I think, Jesus, just with a few words," he says, awestruck by his power. Beechy Colclough never made it as a drummer; but in his own way, he's a rock 'n' roll superstar. !
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies