'The nightmare began when my mum died'
PUBLISHED: 18:30 11 February 2008 | UPDATED: 18:35 10 March 2010
Paul Barber made people laugh as Denzil, the put-upon parcel delivery driver in Only Fools and Horses, but life before showbusiness wasn't wall-to-wall happiness, as Steven Russell discovers.
Paul Barber made people laugh as Denzil, the put-upon parcel delivery driver in Only Fools and Horses, but life before showbusiness wasn't wall-to-wall happiness, as Steven Russell discovers
IT'S surprising, in the circumstances, to hear actor Paul Barber say he enjoyed his childhood - even though he does qualify it with the wry acknowledgement that “some horrible things happened”.
Paul spent a decade shuttling between children's homes and foster families on his native Merseyside when his mother fell fatally ill a couple of days after his seventh birthday in March, 1958. (He would see her once more before she died. His father, a merchant seaman hailing from Sierra Leone, had died of TB a day after Paul's second birthday.)
Some of the youngster's subsequent experiences verged on the sadistic.
A few days after the Barber youngsters were taken into care, they pitched up at a convent in a green suburb of the city very different to the cheek-by-jowl Liverpool 8 district they'd called home.
In the huge hallway was a giant crucifix with a figure of Jesus nailed to it, “blood” oozing from forehead and hands. It was lifelike and frightening.
A week later - having settled in as much as they could, but still wondering when they would see their mother again - the children's world was further rocked by an incident in the canteen.
Paul's brother Brian was refusing to eat his liver. One of the nuns grabbed his hair and pulled him out of his chair. As the boy struggled to get free, she hit him all over his body, including his face. Then she struck him with the gravy ladle as he lay helpless on the floor.
Brian's siblings watched in horror and fear, never before having encountered such physical violence.
Soon after, Paul started wetting the bed. He and brother Michael, and a few other children who did the same thing, would have to stand in the corridor near the girls' dormitories, damp sheets draped over their heads, as the girls went down to breakfast.
The actor's story of his decade in the care system, and the break that launched him on a career in showbusiness, is told in his book Foster Kid: A Liverpudlian Childhood, which was published last year. Now living on the East Anglian coast, he's appearing next month at the Essex Book Festival.
Writing about the ill-treatment upset him a bit, he admits.
“It's still there visually in your head and you think 'Oh my god.' There's one part when (a foster mother) was strapping us into linoleum so we couldn't wet the bed or turn over. I actually said to myself there and then 'This is really happening. It's not a dream.' I was like eight years old and I'm saying this in my head as I look at this woman cutting up the lino.
“She's actually going to wrap me in it and strap me on the bed. 'This is not a dream. I'm not going to suddenly wake up back in Upper Canning Street with my mum.' Those were the sorts of vivid images I had in my head at the time.”
Such cruelty would leave many children emotionally scarred. How did it affect him?
“In a sense, I got through it all,” he says. “When I did this audition for Hair” - the musical - “suddenly I found another 'family'. The actors were all kids from the streets who had joined the show and it became a family where everyone cared for each other and looked out for each other.
“I was able to eventually forget my recent past and make new friends, and get on with the job of acting.”
The actor didn't initially set out to write a book. He also doesn't know quite why he had those initial urges to start writing, but they came during a two-week holiday on a Greek island with a friend in 1986.
There was little to do aside from sitting on the beach. Paul had an exercise book with him and began to jot down his memories. Back in England, his agent gave him a chunky electric IBM typewriter and he continued tapping away.
“Friends would pop round and look over my shoulder and say 'Paul . . . you should publish that . . .' It just happened to be sections that gripped them. I'd go 'We'll see; we'll see . . .'”
He showed it to a producer friend who worked for Radio 4 and was persuaded to read an extract on the Off the Page programme, with Matthew Parris. It was the touching piece where, barely seven, he was playing in the street and watched a creamy white ambulance pull up.
The crew brought out a stretcher from the house: “And at one end of it, poking out of the crumpled bright red blanket, was my Mum's drawn, pale face, her hair neatly combed.” The vehicle drove away. “I couldn't stop the tears streaming down my face. I could still hear Mum's words ringing in my ears: 'Be a good boy . . . I love you.'”
A week later a publishing company rang his agent, having heard the reading, and said it wanted to print the book.
Paul admits the writing process brought to the fore some strong emotions. He'd have to get up a make a cup of coffee, or go for a walk, before returning with his thoughts clear about what he wanted to say.
The actor is quietly pleased with the way the book has been received. Just this morning, after he gave a radio interview, listeners contacted the station to say they'd been in homes and how no-one would ever believe what the youngsters said.
The book, he says, is not designed as a condemnation of the system, simply as a record of what happened to him and his feelings at the time.
The problem for him lay not in the larger children's institutions but in the smaller foster homes. The former were “a bit regimental, but we all got treated the same, basically. My best times, when I was most happy, was when I was in the children's homes, because I had lots of friends.”
Paul was surprised to find he's also been in demand to record an audiobook - with unexpected consequences.
“I found myself getting emotionally upset halfway through the reading. I was sitting there in front of the microphone, reading my own book, and had to say 'I'm sorry, guys; I've got to stop here.' I had to go out.
“It was one of the scenes that I hadn't actually got emotional about (when I was writing it) and it wasn't one of the traumatic scenes. I'd read through them like no-one's business! It was very strange. My eyes were welling up and I was hiccupping and stuff, and I thought 'I'm going, here . . .'”
That extract was towards the end of the book and described how, after he'd auditioned for the musical Hair, he'd gone to his sister Claudette and wondered about what foster brother Ben would think. The lads had formed a singing group called Soul Motion with a friend, but in all honesty it wasn't going anywhere.”
Ben, having gone absent without leave from the army, had been taken to the Colchester punishment centre known as the glasshouse. “Meanwhile, 'I've got this! I'm going to go into showbusiness! How will Ben take it?'
“My sister was saying 'Get a grip. You've done really well. Get out there and don't worry. Ben will back you all the way.' And, true enough, Ben is my mentor.”
In fact, they've enjoyed a fruitful collaboration. Ben later studied at Oxford and became an assistant director of social services. At one time he was responsible for all the children's homes in Birmingham, says Paul. Both men - who had one or two scrapes with the law in their younger days - used their experiences to show others that positive lives could grow from unpromising beginnings.
“I asked Ben one day 'Why the hell did you go into social work?' He said 'Listen; I just don't want what happened to us to happen to other kids.'
“I couldn't do that myself” - work in social services - “but I'm glad I went into showbusiness because it's given me a lot of confidence to go into children's homes and talk to kids and say 'Well, listen guys; I've been there - got the T-shirt - and we thought about it and thought it (crime etc) isn't the life. And there is a life when you come out of care. You can achieve things.”
He's also pleased his book gives folk the chance to see another side of the man they might only know from a TV comedy classic or The Full Monty film.
“It's nice to have made people laugh in things like Only Fools and Horses - and to be known as Denzil, who was put upon by Del Boy - but I think it was time to let the public know that this was my life before I joined showbusiness.
“I enjoyed my childhood, but sometimes horrible things happened. I am just saying 'This is me. I might happen to play a funny character, but I had this life before and you might like to know about it.'”
Foster Kid is published by Sphere at £12.99.
Paul Barber is at Chelmsford Library on March 13, starting at 8pm, as part of the Essex Book Festival. Box office: 01206 573948.
IT'S strange how little things - accidents, sometimes - can alter the course of a life.
Paul Barber's future looked unpromising at best, bleak at worst, after bouncing around the care system for a decade and bobbing along in the lower stream at school.
He got a job in a factory that made tops for scent bottles but lasted only three weeks before boredom drove him away. Other dead-end positions followed.
He failed the army medical because of flat feet and was poised to join the merchant navy - the signing-up papers just awaiting his signature on the dotted line - when he was talked out of it by the superintendent at the hostel for young men about to leave the care system for good.
“There are only so many portholes and doors you can go through on a ship, whereas on land there are thousands of doors, and any one of those can change your life,” Mr Culshaw told the teenager.
Well, at least there was someone with wisdom and feeling working in the care system . . .
“Yeah, yeah,” laughs Paul. “When I was writing the book, I thought 'Ah! This was the guy who actually turned my life around - made me go another way.'”
The big break came later, from an unexpected direction.
Sometime friend Alvin asked Paul if he'd lend moral support at an audition. There, Paul was also asked if he'd like to have a go. He sang Yesterday, by the Beatles, and was asked to go to Manchester the next day - emptying his sister's gas meter to raise the train fare.
He was offered a part in a tour of the rock musical Hair, although Alvin missed out. In January, 1970 - one small bag stuffed mainly with his beloved records - he took a train from Lime Street to London and a new life.
When the tour ended in Blackpool, he thought going back to Liverpool would represent failure, so got a stage manager's job at a variety club in Derby.
There followed a stint in the West End production of Hair and then in Jesus Christ Superstar, opposite Paul Nicholas. His first TV appearance came in a 1974 ITV Playhouse production called Lucky - filmed in Liverpool.
He was in a series called Gangsters, won a part in the film The Long Good Friday, and played the genie in Aladdin at Watford. A starring role came in the comedy series The Brothers McGregor, about two brothers - one black, one white - running a second-hand car lot.
Highlights since have included those 18 classic episodes of Only Fools and Horses between 1983 and 2003, and being part of the gang of unemployed steel workers who formed a male striptease act in the 1997 movie The Full Monty.
He's currently finishing a new six-episode comedy-drama series for BBC Two in Belfast. Desperados is about a group of retired safe-crackers who leave the Costa del Crime and return to England. Its stellar cast includes Warren Clarke, Anthony Head, Jenny Agutter and Jan Francis.
The actor moved out of London about five years ago for the Essex coast, where he has a bungalow on the seafront at Holland-on-Sea, near Clacton. He's still in touch with his brothers and sisters.
What drew him to Essex?
“I don't know, really. The sea, the space, less traffic and stuff. I go for walks along to Frinton and Walton-on-the-Naze. I'm not a sea person, like, but I was born on the Mersey. My father was a merchant seaman, so it's in the blood.”