Michael Cashman’s One of Them is not only a rich, often hilarious, occasionally heart-breaking and surprisingly candid memoir, but also a fascinating and important document of social history and the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. It’s gripping from the very first page where Cashman describes the day of his civil partnership (legal recognition for same-sex couples that he was instrumental in making a reality) with all the drama and tension of an Eastenders cliff-hanger, along with plenty of humour and some serious name-dropping. He starts with this glimpse of his later life before taking us right back to his Thames-side upbringing in London’s Second World War ravaged East End.
Although it’s been over three decades since that brief, but groundbreaking same-sex screen kiss on Eastenders, the first on a British soap opera, Michael Cashman is still most widely known for playing Albert Square’s first gay resident, Colin Russell. In 1987, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, with little if any positive LGBTQ+ representation on UK television or in the media, Colin gave his then boyfriend Barry a kiss on the forehead that sent the rabidly homophobic tabloids into a frenzy. Later, in January 1989, the same newspapers would unleash a torrent of disapproval and prejudice when Colin and his new boyfriend Guido shared a brief peck on the lips. It was a simple gesture of affection that proved so controversial it even led to questions in parliament and the infamous headline “Scrap Eastbenders”, accompanying an article by Piers Morgan in The Sun.
Cashman’s two and half years on the series from 1986 to 1989 was during the height of its popularity, appearing alongside household name characters like Dot Cotton, and the ever-feuding Angie and Dirty Den. The Christmas 1986 episode drew over 30 million viewers, topping even the nation’s festive broadcast fixture, the Queen’s Speech. His time on the soap, friendships with co-stars, and how appallingly he was treated by the UK media, including the outing of his then boyfriend, later husband, Paul Cottingham, could have made for a compelling autobiography in itself. In fact, Cashman’s life has been so varied that several aspects of it taken in isolation would be worthy of standalone books, especially given the compelling and entertaining way he writes.
Cashman’s childhood years in London’s East End are so evocatively, vividly depicted it’s unsurprising to later learn that he has had some impressive professional playwrighting experience, with two of his works directed by Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough. Amusingly and sometimes poignantly, it is frequently through the eyes of himself as a child that he relays his formative years. He takes us through his early life with the nuns at Catholic school, working his first job and getting a taste of an audience standing on crates singing for his granddad’s drinking money. There’s also the trauma of the appalling repeated sexual abuse he was a victim of, again through the eyes of a confused, distressed child, as well as the thrill of entering the exotic new world of London’s West End as he joined the original production of Oliver.
His success as a child actor continued and before his time on Eastenders Cashman shared the screen with legends like Peter O’Toole, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor. A photograph with Taylor is included in the book to prove it (shown above), along with a killer anecdote about how it was taken, shutting down the film set to get the lighting just right. Capitalising on his Eastenders fame and show business connections, Cashman focused on his work as an LGBTQ+ rights campaigner. Firstly in the UK, where he was instrumental in the formation and growth of the lobby group Stonewall, alongside figures such as his friend Ian McKellan, following their campaign to oppose the Thatcher government’s homophobic legislation, Section 28. Becoming more active in politics, he went on to serve 15 years as a Labour MEP for the West Midlands, became Labour’s first ever LGBT global envoy and was eventually appointed to the House of Lords as a Labour peer, just a year after being made a CBE. He proved a crucial part of life changing legislation such as equalising the age of consent, lifting the ban of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces, and civil partnerships.
At the heart of One of Them is a frank portrayal of a deeply moving love story between Michael and his partner Paul that spanned over thirty years, until its tragic end. The agony of the endless hospital visits for treatment and tests which fill the final chapters will be all too familiar to many readers who’ve lost loved ones to a terminal illness and forms a painfully unvarnished and a critical part of his story. Ultimately this aspect of the book is a beautiful tribute to the love of his life. He’s admirably candid about the long-term open status of his relationship with Paul, which gets to the essence of what’s really important about any lifelong romantic relationship, or at least how they made it work for them. There are some descriptions of sex that are fun, suitably racy and passionate, and prove he could have yet another career writing erotic gay novels.
This autobiography should be required reading for anyone interested in gay social history for its descriptions of London’s bars, clubs and steam baths of a bygone era. It also provides insight into the lived experience of facing legally sanctioned prejudice, such as the unequal age of consent for gay couples, which meant Cahsman’s relationship with Paul was illegal for the first three years of it, and that it was only legal for sex between two consenting men if they were in their own homes, until 1998. There are also some absorbing descriptions of New York and San Francisco reeling from the onslaught of HIV/AIDS. One of Them is a beautifully written, captivatingly personal history of an incredible life that had me hooting with laughter on one page, then wiping away a tear on the next.
By James Kleinmann
One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square by Michael Cashman is available in hardback now from Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN: 9781526612328. For more details and to order the book head to Bloomsbury’s website here.