Michael Elphick was a young electrician working at the Chichester Theatre when he was discovered by Laurence Olivier, who arranged for him to join the Central School of Drama. It was here where he met Bruce Robinson, who would later cast him in one of the most popular British films of all time – Withnail and I. Elphick’s illustrious career also included major supporting roles in films such as Quadrophenia, The Elephant Man, Gorky Park and Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. On television, there was Private Schultz and Boon, which gave his acolyte and friend, Neil Morrissey, his first starring role. One of his characters’ owned houses in Coronation Street whilst another wooed Peggy Mitchell in Eastenders. However, Elphick’s private life was every bit as varied as his acting career. Racked by alcoholism and devastated by the early death of his partner, Julia, Elphick died at the age of 55. And yet, his friends and family will always remember his hugely humorous personality, and everyone he met was left with a ‘Mike Elphick story’...
|Publisher:||The History Press|
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About the Author
Kate Elphick and Nigel Denison are ideally placed to write the first biography of Michael Elphick, as Kate is his only child and Nigel was a close friend of Michael’s for many years.
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Michael Elphick: The Great Pretender
By Kate Elphick, Nigel Denison
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Kate Elphick and Nigel Denison
All rights reserved.
It was a Saturday, the day Dad died, Saturday 7 September 2002.
He had been in and out of casualty during the time preceding his death with a series of drink related problems ... At this time he was hardly recognisable as the good-looking, rugged, leather-clad biker Boon. His body was now struggling, badly bloated and weak. He looked ill, his face puffy and eyes discoloured and watery. He was suffering with diabetes and his body was straining now, seriously, with the effects of years of alcohol abuse and neglect. Above all, at this time, to me he looked sad: so sad, and lost. It broke my heart every day.
He would get up, not late, each morning, pull on his old, blue soft towelling dressing-gown and meander from the kitchen to the garden for a fag, finally settling for a while on the sofa in front of the morning news. Sometimes I would catch him (as I peeked around the door, having quietly come to bring him a coffee and to say 'Hi') sitting forlorn with his head in his hands. I knew that he hated being a slave to the drink, hated what it had done to him and to the rest of us ...
We had divided the two floors of our beautiful Edwardian home so that my little daughter Jasmine and I lived upstairs, converting one of the four bedrooms into our living room, whilst Dad had turned what was once his study into his bedroom. It was a lovely, spacious room at the front of the house with the huge bay window facing out to the front garden and the road. When I was little, my dad's study had a piano that I would go in and play – Chopsticks mostly; he had wanted me to learn, as he wished that he had learned to play the piano himself ... and to tap dance! The room always smelt of him – a mixture of his aftershave, tobacco and his own scent. I remember so well that smell I loved. Now his bedroom, the walls were still terracotta and covered with pictures: some framed posters of plays and pantos he had performed in, memorabilia from Boon, and even a framed silver disc of 'Hi Ho Silver', the theme tune from the series. There was a signed Francis Bacon amongst other prints and various paintings, and also a cork board of photos and children's drawings and cards from Jasmine, and even mine from the past. The ceiling-to-floor dark-green curtains were always closed to allow him his privacy and I think that he liked the dark, safe, cosy effect with the soft lighting. The mahogany desk and piano were now replaced with a double bed and bedroom furniture.
We shared the kitchen, the focal point of most houses. It was where our paths would cross throughout the day: a beautiful, big country kitchen that reminded us both of Mum. We would share some time there in the morning before Dad headed out. The smart, original black-and-white chequered tiles of the huge hallway would give way here to polished floorboards, on which stood a big pine table, breakfast bar and an old pine dresser, displaying Mum's collection of country plates and jugs picked up from different antique shops and fairs. Opposite the door, above the sink was a huge window, filling the room with light; to the right, as you faced it, were stable doors leading through to the utility room, Dad's shower room and the back door to the garden. Dad had chosen the colour of the walls – 'primrose yellow' he had wanted.
I would cherish that morning-time, alcohol-free, when we would chit-chat about nothing, relaxed in each other's company. After a while Dad would chuck on his shabby, dark tracksuit bottoms, squeeze his (now unkempt) feet and overgrown toenails into black trainers or slip-on shoes, find a t-shirt, and walk up to the top of our tree-lined road, onto the grubby, bustling Willesden High Road. Around the corner was the bar, 'Sparkles' as we locals called it (even though, I think, its actual name at this time had changed to 'The Isobar'). It wasn't one of your traditional pubs, far from it, being what I always described as 'a bit of a dive'. It was a converted shop in a parade with constantly sticky floors and stinking toilets. However, during the day it was quiet, and Dad knew all the regulars. He would sit by the glass front, so that he could watch the world go by, with a script or The Guardian. He had got to know the manager Zaman Bader well and occasionally relied on him for a lift home.
Some weeks before he died, Dad had spent a short spell in the Central Middlesex Hospital, where he had been admitted after collapsing in our road on the way back home from the bar. Since then, he had seemed to be noticeably more concerned about his condition: not that this, as far as I could tell, had been reflected in his need to drink. He had got into the habit of calling up ambulances whenever he felt slightly unwell, but then swiftly discharging himself when he felt a little better. That is exactly what happened the night before he died.
On the Friday afternoon he had again had to call an ambulance; this time to pick him up from 'Sparkles'. To my mind, the whole thing was getting ridiculous: he called me about six o'clock in the evening, asking me to come and get him, with a change of clothes, as he was going to discharge himself. I was absolutely furious. We then had the same disagreement we'd been having daily for months: 'You need treatment ... You have to stay in ... They say you must stay in ... You can't keep discharging yourself'.
I was so fed up. I had become totally exhausted from the constant worry: calls from the hospital to say that he was there, or visits from the neighbours to say he had collapsed. Then, within a day, he had discharged himself and the whole sorry process would begin all over again. I called my boyfriend, Luke – reluctantly, as we hadn't been together that long (less than a year). I needed a lift, and some moral support, but felt nervous about exposing him to too much of our family drama, for fear of scaring him off. However, he was great. We had lived on the same road through our school years and even walked there together as kids, as his older sister was in my year (we had reconnected through her earlier in the year). We took Jasmine to a friend living nearby and set off for the hospital. The light was now fading and Luke was quiet during the journey as we sat in the usual London traffic, sensing my anger at the situation. And my fear. I think he knew there were no words to console me.
We arrived at the hospital and were swiftly ushered into a room to meet a couple of doctors who were obviously concerned. Their advice was very straightforward: I had to tell Dad that the best course of action was for him to be admitted. They said that he was in serious need of medical attention.
I felt as if a huge scream was welling up inside me shrieking, 'Yes, I do know! I do live with him!' It was a scream that had been fed for more than ten years by Dad's concerned friends telling me that I really should try and get my dad to stop drinking. It was as if they thought that the idea had never occurred to me, as if I had never tried. 'You know,' they would say, 'he should get help; maybe a move abroad would improve his chances?' or 'He probably needs a hobby; has he ever tried golf?' Only the family of an aloholic can tell you that it's pretty difficult to convince them that golf can be a substitute for vodka or that it's best to live where booze is even cheaper.
We left the hospital in silence. I gave Dad that look that indicated I was too angry even to speak to him. I marched tight-lipped and stony-faced to the car. Dad trundled on behind, looking like a guilty child awaiting his fate. But it was so hard to stay cross with him for long. He was such a gentle man and so vulnerable in these circumstances. He lowered himself into the passenger side of Luke's new Mercedes C200 Sport with a cheery, 'Nice motor, mate!' and as we moved off they both began discussing cars. Soon he had us both laughing over some story or other – I wasn't really taking on board the substance. The stress of the previous few hours had begun to take its toll.
With some relief I leant my head against the window in the back of the car, listening to the murmur of the two men chatting in the front. It felt like an out-of-body experience, as I watched the rest of the world go about its business outside the bubble of Luke's car. It was a warm night, around nine by now, and the 'Friday Nighters' were on the move as we drove through Willesden Green; girls clattered by, dolled up for drinking and clubbing later; local lads began to collect in groups outside the fried chicken and kebab shops; a tired driver was taking the 260 bus back to the depot. Like on most Friday nights, litter was beginning to build up across the pavements and the street benches were moving to full occupancy as even the poor and needy were settling in for the weekend.
I was beginning to doze. The colours from the different lights in the road were reflected in the window ahead, as we turned past the tube station, into our road. What happened next was as shocking as it was predictable. When we look back, Luke and I find ourselves as saddened as we are amused by it. 'Typical!' is what everyone would say.
Luke slowed the car to turn the corner. 'Hang on!' Dad cried, catching us unawares as he had already opened the passenger door to make good his escape, 'Got to see a man about a dog,' he grinned. The car never actually stopped before he had shot out the door. He turned to give us a wave and quick thumbs up as he headed off to Sparkles. Luke pulled the car up by the pavement; he was completely taken aback: 'Has he actually gone to the bar? God, Kate, I really don't think you should let him go – he's just got out of hospital!'
I looked at him. 'What do I do?' I asked quietly. 'Go in there and make a scene? Demand that he leaves? Drag him out? Even if I do that, he'll just go and buy a bottle to drink at home.' So there he was: a man who had experienced his fair share of salubrious drinking holes, back in Sparkles in Willesden Green. 'Come on, Luke,' I said, 'I've got to get back and pick up Jasmine.'
It's strange but I'm really glad now that I didn't try to intervene with Dad's progress to the bar. He usually came home well before eleven on a Friday, before the DJ started his routine and the bar began to fill with youngsters. However, I heard him get in at about one-thirty, so I knew he had had a good night. Apparently, all his friends had been in and Zaman's brother had dropped him off and he'd seemed fine. So I am glad that his last night alive wasn't spent rowing with me or sitting drinking alone.
During the early hours of Saturday morning – it was about 5 a.m., I think – I was woken by a terrible noise; the sort of noise that wakes you up instantly and completely. All senses alert, I was sitting up in bed before I was aware that I had been woken. Then I heard it again and I felt sick: 'AAAAAArrgh!' Dad was shouting out in agony. I rushed downstairs into his room. He was lying on his side, his face screwed up, contorted in pain. I watched as he struggled to move his great bulk, looking for a position that might bring him some relief from the pain. Each movement seemed to hurt him more and he held his arm weakly to his chest.
I helped him (as best I could) to sit up and told him that I was going to call an ambulance; the phone was in the hall just outside his room, so I could see him as I dialled. There was a very gentle female voice at the end of the line asking me questions; as she asked, I was reminded of a first-aid class I'd attended and a video we'd watched of a man having a heart attack. The operator's voice was calm and I was calm. There was no way that I could actually be feeling calm, but I did seem to be responding in a very calm way. I told her everything that was happening and prepared myself for any instructions that I might be given to administer first aid.
Perhaps through shock, the memory of events is now a little erratic. After I put the phone down I went back into the bedroom. Dad was now sitting on the edge of the bed. Under my breath I know I was thanking God for letting him live a little longer. I think subconsciously I had been preparing myself to go back into that room and watch him die. We put his dressing-gown on him and waited together for the ambulance. Jasmine was asleep upstairs, so when it came, I told Dad that I would meet him at the hospital, once I had sorted out somewhere for her to stay.
He seemed a little better now and certainly more relaxed. The paramedics were really sweet, a young girl and guy, gentle and caring. The lad turned to Dad and said something along the lines of: 'You know we can't keep coming out to get you, if you won't stay in? You mustn't keep discharging yourself!' I hoped to God that he'd pay heed to the advice this time. The three of them left, Dad leaning heavily on them for support. His head was bowed as they slowly made their way down the path towards the flashing lights of the ambulance in the road.
Having seen him play so many parts, this seemed like yet another – except now he wasn't framed by the edges of a TV screen, and I could feel the cool, intrusive night air on my face. The ambulance drew away. After a while I shut the door and called his partner, Liz.
By the time that I had organised myself and Jas, and got to the hospital, it was about nine o'clock and Liz was already there. Dad was in casualty, sitting up on a hospital bed, a gurney, waiting for a ward bed to become available. The doctors had told him his heart was struggling to survive, as were most of his organs. On hearing this he had agreed to stay in for treatment. I was totally elated that at long last he'd seen reason. He told me it was going to mean a long spell in hospital and giving up booze for good, but that he didn't want to die. He realised that he had to go through with it. He had agreed to everything the doctors had planned for him and he meant it. I couldn't believe my ears; I could tell that he meant every word.
We waited in casualty, as you do, waiting for a bed, reading newspapers and drinking endless cups of not-very-nice tea. Late in the morning Dad said I might as well get back to Jas: there was no point in hanging about all day. It was my friend Amber's birthday and she was having a barbecue. I said that I'd pop in there and be back later that evening. Liz was going to stay with him. I felt as if a huge weight had suddenly been lifted. Dad was staying here – away from the bar – safe.
As I bent to kiss him goodbye, he put a hand round my waist and gave the low of my back a little rub. The papery skin of his hands felt rough but his touch gentle and reassuring. I remember feeling very conscious of that tiny action, almost as if I were hyper-sensitised. I can recall it perfectly even now. It was the last time I would ever see my dad or feel his touch again. He died early that evening from a massive heart attack.CHAPTER 2
When Michael Met Julia
When you are writing about your parents there is a large part of their story that is inevitably outside your experience because it precedes you. Here I have been reliant on some press interviews that Dad gave, and diaries, but mostly on the collective memories of their friends and our relations. What will always fascinate any child is where their parents met – in my case Chichester, or more specifically Chichester Theatre – the place that I have to thank for being brought into the world. Chichester was also Dad's home town, or city, rather, as the residents will be quick to remind you.
When you're excavating past times it's always good to remember how quickly places can change within a generation or two, and a lot was changing rapidly in post-war provincial England (something that my parents' contemporaries have been keen to emphasise).
My parents met in Chichester in the 1960s. It wasn't exactly a backwater but according to my mum's friend Ros Lemm, who grew up there (and was responsible for my parents' meeting each other) it had a slow, traditional pace of life – resistant to change and unimpressed with the rapidly exploding cultural scene of the capital, less than 70 miles away. It had been a relatively prosperous market town, now city, with a history of livestock farming. Dad's family had been cattle farmers.
Ros remembers a childhood of insufferable boredom. When she describes it, though, it seems to me idyllic. Children 'played out' – no one worried about them, they were independent, could go riding off on bikes, taking picnics, and not returning home till dark. My Uncle Robin remembers cycling to Bognor with a group of children – he was four. A sort of Enid Blyton freedom. But Ros says that nothing seemed to happen. Market day was a highlight. The 'pictures' provided entertainment and all children went unaccompanied on a Saturday morning. She remembers a neighbour getting the first television – to watch the Queen's coronation in 1953 – and being allowed to go in and watch during the short time each day when it broadcast a programme. In their own house they continued to gather round the 'wireless' before her father gave in to her (and her brother's) insistent clamours for a TV. But when they got one it came disguised as a sideboard with doors that closed firmly over the screen. Television gradually gained a hold of the local consciousness and cinemas began to close. As the new rock-and-roll phenomenon reached the south of England, one local band member recalls that it was slow to catch on in Chichester: 'there were ten times as many local dances in nearby Bognor.'
Excerpted from Michael Elphick: The Great Pretender by Kate Elphick, Nigel Denison. Copyright © 2013 Kate Elphick and Nigel Denison. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Neil Morrissey,
Preface by Kate Elphick,
Preface by Nigel Denison,
1 The End,
2 When Michael Met Julia,
3 The Beginning,
5 Hey Jude,
7 Lemon Popsicle,
8 Pennies from Heaven,
10 Going Global,
12 Three Up, Two Down,
13 'Go Number One',
14 Hi Ho Silver,
15 The White Swan,
16 Go Number Two,
17 My Mum's Death,
18 The Great Pretender,
19 Be Lucky,