Exclusive Interview: Lord Michael Cashman “we always have to stand in the shoes of those most attacked, those most misrepresented”

Last month saw the publication of actor, activist, former MEP and LGBT global envoy, Lord Michael Cashman’s fascinating, frank and beautifully written autobiography One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square. Read our ★★★★★ review here.

Michael Cashman, now Baron Cashman of Limehouse, grew up in the war-torn resilience of London’s East End of the 1950s and in One of Them he evocatively recalls the riveting tale of his success as a child actor that took him to the bright lights of the West End. Starring in Oliver! in the 1960s he later went on write two plays directed by Alan Ayckbourn, appear on stage in Bent at the National Theatre opposite his friend Ian McKellan, and on screen alongside the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O’Toole and David Bowie. But he’s most widely known as an actor for playing Colin Russell in BBC’s Eastenders in the 1980s and being part of the first gay kiss on a British soap.

It was while he was starring in that long running soap that the UK’s first anti-gay, lesbian and bisexual legislation in a hundred years, Section 28, was introduced. Cashman’s opposition to Section 28 marked the start of his life as an activist and career in politics. He co-founded the lobby group Stonewall and has made a significant contribution to LGBTQ+ equality in the UK and beyond as an MEP, Labour ‘s first LGBT global envoy and now in the House of Lords.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke to Lord Cashman this week about his candid approach to writing One of Them, opening up in the book about the abuse that he suffered as a child, the torrent of tabloid homophobia aimed at him while in Eastenders, his reaction to the current wave of transphobia in the UK and the USA, and his relationship of thirty one years to the late Paul Cottingham.

Stonewall co-founder Michael Cashman at London Pride. Photography by CPG Photography Ltd.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: One of the things I loved about the book was how honest and unvarnished it feels. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, but I suppose it’s because you’re still a public figure and sit in the House of Lords. How conscious a decision was it that if you were going to tell your story you were going to be completely open with the world about your life?

Michael Cashman: “Well, when you’ve seen somebody die whom you love almost more than you love yourself, it gives you a profound awareness of how if you’re not open about the life you’ve led, and the life you want to continue leading, then you waste not only that life, but you do a huge disservice to the people that you profess to love. I knew that I had to be honest and that I had to talk about the journey that I’ve been on. That journey would have been so very different if I hadn’t met Paul. I’d attempted to do an autobiography long before Paul’s illness, but the very first draft that I wrote was clearly a eulogy to him. I mean, the man could not only walk on water, he could fry eggs without cracking them open! So that’s when I had to stand back and say, ‘come on, what kind of book do you want to write and what do you want to say?’ And so I threw any concerns about my public life completely out of the window, because when you’ve had a life like I had with Paul of such amazing complexity and joy, and fights and development and growth, when that comes to an end no one can really hurt you anymore. People can bruise you and your ego, but no one can hurt you anymore. And so it was with those ingredients that I started writing the book that took me on a journey, that made me suddenly feel ‘yes, go with the narrative, you need to say it and you need to say it that way, you can’t hold back’. That was my approach throughout.”

“I was blessed, if an atheist can say blessed, in that very early on Bloomsbury connected with the book. Alexandra Pringle, the Editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury and her young Assistant Editor Callum Kenny immediately got a sense of the book. Initially they turned it down, but then they came back to me through my agent four months later and said that they couldn’t stop thinking about it. The fact that they connected with it very early on, even though they initially didn’t commit to the book, was an amazing gift. It was like someone said ‘OK, you can pull up your anchor, now float and get out there’.”

Paul Cottingham and Michael Cashman in the Soviet Union, 1985.

Touching on what you were just saying about your relationship with Paul, and being honest about it, it would be a very different description of the relationship and a different book if you didn’t mention that it was an open relationship for instance. It’s not exactly a taboo subject, but open relationships don’t get talked about very much, and even couples can struggle to have honest conversations with each other about them. It must have been important to you that you didn’t leave that aspect out?

“Absolutely. The other thing is the more secrets you have, the more vulnerable you become. And the great thing was in talking about that open relationship it means that you create between you a bond, you create a trust and you create a recognition that it’s not going to be easy. Paul and I had an open relationship and we talked openly about it. I look down the history of the Royal Family, where they had these open relationships, but sometimes one of the partners didn’t even know it was open, and then when the husband or wife did know it was open the rest of the world outside a small group were never let in. And that has a dishonesty to it. With relationships there is no one-size-fits-all. You have to work at relationships and the more you work at them, the stronger they become and the more open you are about what you are dealing with the less vulnerable you are. So it was crucial to me to be honest about our relationship, and indeed if I hadn’t have been there would have been a whole host of people coming out of the shadows to say ‘hang on, just a minute, I remember…’ You either empower yourself or you empower others when you’re dishonest.”

After you talk about your civil partnership ceremony with Paul at the opening on the book, you take us back to your childhood and it’s very effective when you write about your younger years from the perspective of yourself as a child. Did you just naturally start writing it that way?

“Yes! I think often as a writer you see things in your head, your hear voices, you become part of the action. And so going back and becoming that child, that once he was hurt, I kind of buried, going back and seeing it through his eyes helped me to open up the narrative in a very different way. I remember in that early part of the book when I describe the housing estate, the council blocks where we lived, and the noises and the shouts and the activity, and all of the commerce going on around, I actually could hear it, I could smell it, and I could see it. I think that is part of having the courage to go back and dig around in my memories and then to go with them.”

Michael Cashman making a public appearance while starring in Oliver!

We’ve been talking about you being so open and honest in the book, including the light and shade; why was important for you to include what had happened to you in terms of the abuse you suffered, not just the highs of being in Oliver! but that darker aspect of your childhood too?

“Having campaigned for equality for many years, I knew that by revealing that someone had abused me at that early age, some people would then grab hold of this and say ‘ah, that’s why he’s gay.’ Incidentally, I’m not interested in the why, I’m interested in how we treat people, and we should treat people equally, not differently. That is why when I reveal that early abuse, I also say that I knew that I was attracted to boys of my own age and I wondered if this man knew it too and that was why he did what he did. And in a way I had to put that qualifier in because I knew of the mischief that those opponents of equality would try and take from it.”

“As for the rest of the demons, if you don’t own them then they end up owning you and I wanted say ‘look what’s happened to me, look how I dealt with it and despite that, look at the amazing life I’ve led.’ You need to own everything that’s happened, otherwise the bits that you don’t want to own will end up owning you and directing you. So it was, importantly, about saying by addressing the demons, by giving them recognition, you own them and actually you can end up living your own life. You don’t become a victim, you don’t become a survivor, you become a victor, you become victorious, because you turned it around and you owned it all. Our lives are like a mosaic and if you only use one set of colours, people know something is missing. Unless you use put those darker colours in you will never get a true picture.”

When you talk about what happened to you as a child in terms of abuse in the book we get the impression that this wasn’t an isolated case in show business in the UK at the time. Then you think of what happened following the brave people who spoke out about their experiences of Harvey Weinstein and others and the #MeToo movement really gaining momentum. People haven’t spoken very much about what happens to children, but I’m sure the #MeToo movement resonated with you?

“Of course it did resonate, and it resonated particularly because I’d started writing the book in advance of those revelations. The other reason why it was important for me to write about what had happened to me was to show how we still need to empower children, we still need to empower people to be positive parents. There is an expectation that parents know what to do and how to protect and how to nurture and how to develop their child, but often they don’t. That’s why I look back at my parents who were either unaware of it or unable to deal with it. That shouldn’t happen to another set of parents and therefore it shouldn’t happen to another child. That’s equally why it was so important for me to deal with that.”

Michael Cashman

I love the queer social history that comes into the book through the bars and clubs and steam baths that you mention. These were the places of your youth, but were you conscious of the LGBTQ social history that you were giving us first hand knowledge of?

“No, it was just that period I lived through. That period when older gay men told you that you were a criminal, you shouldn’t consort in these bars. I suppose another thing that comes up in the book quite frequently is that I wanted to belong and knew the spaces in which I didn’t fit. Therefore when I discovered those places where I did, it was unbelievably exciting and satisfying. I think having lived through the 50s and 60s and the slight changes that came, and the 70s when the changes were embraced, and then being slapped in the face, punched in the gut, by AIDS and HIV in the 80s, meant again that it was something you had to try and negotiate, you had to get through it. I was not going to go back into the closet, I was not going to get married. When I saw that boy that I had the wonderful early relationship with in our teens and he made a decision that he would go off and lead a straight life, I knew that wasn’t for me. When he walked away that day I knew I’d made the better choice. So what I was going through, many other gay men of my generation went through. I was lucky enough to be able to recall it through my personal experiences of living in the East End, but getting out there in this mad, crazy, wonderful West End world of the theatre, television and films. It was a fantastic mix. In fact, if you wrote a screenplay about it they’d ask you to tone it down a bit!”

Paul Cottingham with Michael Cashman collecting his CBE at Buckingham Palace

We get an insight into your relationship with Paul who was nineteen when you met, so he was under the age of consent for gay men which was twenty one at the time. There was also an incident which you describe in the book when you were checking into a hotel as a couple, when it wasn’t legal for men to have sex together outside their homes. I think it’s important to see the real life impact of unequal legislation that was in place for a long time.

“Absolutely, and the way it remained from that slight change in 1967, historic and partially liberating though it was. The arrests went up. If you look at the statistics there wasn’t suddenly an embracing of male homosexuality. For the most part Britain decided to ignore lesbians. There was that point of liberation and then nothing really, and the interesting thing was coming out the swinging Sixties and then the changes that developed out of that sense of change during the 60s, that we got on with our lives. We were duped into believing that there were no obstacles in our lives because we had pubs, clubs, bars, discos, and saunas and they were becoming more and more on the commercial scene, and so you kind of fooled yourself into believing that being gay was OK, that you didn’t suffer discrimination. But of course as soon as your sexual orientation became known, as I say in the book, you could lose your home, your job, your family, you could lose so many other things and indeed you could lose your liberty, and that came home to me very clearly when Paul and I booked into that hotel, asking for a double bed. We were breaking the law.”

Michael Cashman as Colin Russell and Gary Hailes as Barry Clark in BBC’s Eastenders.

You were in the early years of your relationship with Paul when you took on the role of Colin Russell in Eastenders. Was the fact that there was so little positive gay and lesbian representation on screen and in the media at that time part of the draw for you in accepting the role? And of course you knew it was going to be controversial and took it anyway.

“I knew it was going to be controversial, but did I think that here was this grand crusade that I had to go on? Absolutely not. I looked at the part, I looked at the show, and what Julia Smith the producer and Tony Holland the co-creator gave me in terms of the storylines to come, and I thought ‘yeah, I’d love to do it.’ I thought the tabloids would go for me, but I wasn’t prepared for the way they did and their attack on Paul. But I really just approached it as a working actor and thought I ought to do it. The notion that it was going to perhaps lead to changing some hearts and minds came as an added bonus, because it could so easily have gone the other way. As you know from the book, initially when I was hired I was given a six month contract and they could’ve decided after that six months that the character didn’t work, or it was too controversial or it was boring, and I could have been out of the show. But it took a different course and the changes that it helped to bring came about because of artistic integrity within the show. Also as a gay man, and I was out, and they knew, Julia and Tony, because I’d worked with them before, that I would approach it by hopefully matching the integrity that they approached it with. So I was very lucky.”

Michael Cashman returned to Albert Square for two episodes of Eastenders in 2016.

And you talk about it changing hearts and minds, and it’s hard to imagine now given the way that everything is so spread out with streaming, but Eastenders was so big back then and everyone sat around the TV at the same time watching it, and often the whole family was watching together. I suppose that is what people who were homophobic saw as a threat, that gay people were being normalised. Which is I guess where Section 28 comes in as well, the fear of what they could see coming, that gay people would be accepted as part of society.

“Precisely. Yes, I think the fact, as you rightly say, that it was a national focal point; people sat down, they had their tea, they watched it. And it was the talking point the next day at work, on the bus, on the tube. ‘Did you see Eastenders last night? Did you see this? Did you follow that?’ We were going out to an average of 11 million viewers per episode. So the impact was pretty substantial, which is why the tabloids attacked it, why there were questions in parliament, why there were calls for the characters to be taken out or for the show to be axed. When we did the first gay kiss the tabloids blew several gaskets and the right-wing politicians lined up to denounce the show and to talk about the moral outrage that they felt. That was a clear indication that we were just gently getting the message out that here were these two ordinary men who happened to be gay. That was the secret missile of the show, that the characters weren’t portrayed as camp comedy stereotypes, as so often had been portrayed, or as a tragic suicidal stereotype, they were shown as two ordinary men and that was the brilliance of it.”

Michael Cashman is joined by his Eastenders co-stars Pam St Clement and
Kathryn Apanowicz at a rally to oppose Section 28.

And while you were on the show Section 28 came along. Clearly you’d rather that piece of legislation hadn’t happened at all, but looking back on it, that was the thing that fired up the activist in you and so many other people and led to the formation of Stonewall wasn’t it?

“For me it was a pivotal time. I think if I hadn’t faced the challenge of Section 28 I would never have been able to look myself in the mirror again. There was an internal conversation I had with myself that I knew I had to be on this march against the first anti-gay, anti-LGB, law in a hundred years. I knew I had to be part of that campaign. Going on that march and being one of the leaders of the campaign I think led me on the journey of where I am now. It was almost as if there was a challenge for me and I had to accept the challenge and campaign, or step back into the closet and lose my integrity, and lose my principles and lose every shred of being the person I am. So coming out and campaigning against Section 28, losing the battle and deciding, yes, we’ve lost the battle, but actually we were going to set up an organisation to make sure another Section 28 never happened again, was absolutely the right thing to do. It was also crucial in terms of my own development, not only as a political animal but as a human being. It was difficult, it caused problems in my relationship because as anyone will know when they read the book, the obsessive in me came out. I threw everything of me at activism, but I don’t regret it, it was crucial and in the book I talk about later on when I did a documentary about discrimination against lesbians and gay men for the BBC. When my dad phoned me after watching it, it was a lovely conversation which I won’t reveal here, they’ll have to read it in the book! But it was when he knew and let me know, that if he’d been gay and if he’d had all of the opportunities and the chances that I’d had, he would’ve done exactly the same. I say in the book, that was the day I became my father’s son.”

Michael Cashman

One of the interesting things with Stonewall is that when you set it up it wasn’t affiliated with a particular political party and the way that you talk about your political career in the book, there’s a lot of importance placed on cross-party politics and avoiding tribalism where possible. I think it’s something that’s particularly crucial when it comes to human rights issues and LGBTQ equality isn’t it? There’s no point in winning the argument and having success with just one party, because they might be out of office in a few years and then what happens next?

“Absolutely, and that was the view that I and others took. Although in those days a majority of us were Labour supporters, either out as such or not. I absolutely believe that LGBTQ rights, like other human rights, need to work cross-party because otherwise if they become the sole property of one party when that party is out of office so are your rights. Indeed, I think that approach to politics of widening the base of your support, the notion that compromise with others in order to achieve the right outcome is a strength not a weakness, that you bring people on board, is for me the sensible way forward. That’s especially true after fifteen years in the European Parliament where no one party has the majority, you have to work cross-party to achieve real change. That doesn’t mean that you compromise on your principles. Sometimes you have to compromise on how you achieve them, but you never compromise on your principles. And I think that was the reason, the fact that we didn’t come out as a hard left group, was why we came in for a bit of attack, a bit of flack. But it’s proven that we took the right approach. We knew we had to win the arguments within the Conservative Party as well as within elements of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. And now, here in the United Kingdom we have the largest number of elected LGBTQ members of parliament ever, so I think in this country in some respects we’ve done the right thing.”

I moved from London to New York in 2016 and one of the things that I noticed from a distance was the rise in transphobia in the UK media, and the way that transgender issues were being debated. It seemed to me that there was a correlation between the way lesbians and gay men were talked about in 80s and early 90s and the way that trans people are often spoken about in the media now.

“Absolutely, yes, I completely agree and the fact that some lesbians and gay men are portraying the trans community in the way that we were portrayed in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s is deeply shocking and reprehensible, and because what people do when they wish to misrepresent a minority, as they often did during my life time with in particular gay men as an example, they would pick a minority of a minority to represent that minority. The debate around trans issues in this country at the moment is scurrilous and it is dangerous because of the physical damage that it does and the mental health issues it causes. As we know that brick was thrown through our window all those years ago, what empowers that individual to pick up that brick and throw it through the window of a house where two people live who are gay? What empowers them is what they hear day in day out; that we’re different, that we’re a threat. That is the way they are misrepresenting—some lesbians, and gay men and bisexuals, who should know better—are misrepresenting the trans community. And if they actually believe that you protect your own rights by surrendering the rights of others, then I just ask them to take a little look back to the 1930s and remember that brilliant piece by pastor Niemöller; when ‘they came for the Jews…I did not speak out’ and when ‘they came for me…there was no one left to speak out.’ That is why we always have to stand in the shoes of those most attacked, those most misrepresented and say if I wouldn’t want it to happen to me I must not allow it to happen to somebody else.”

“And I love that fact that you moved to the States, as you mention, but I do think that there are two causes of the transphobia and one is across the Atlantic in the US and the other is here in the UK. Across the Atlantic, Trump very early on pandered to transphobia and started to attack the rights of trans people in particular in the armed services. He lit the touchpaper, as he so often does, and then stands back and watches while it explodes under somebody else. Equally, the government in the United Kingdom promised a review of the Gender Recognition Act, because it was groundbreaking, but it’s now behind other countries such as Ireland and Malta, and they’ve failed for a number of years now to bring forward the measures to reform the Gender Recognition Act. In the intervening period, it’s allowed others to fill the vacuum with myth, slander and misrepresentation.”

What are the current LGBTQ+ issues that most concern you, either in the UK or across the world?

“Well, I think there’s so much going on in the world, and we’re dealing with COVID-19 and it’s impact on all of our families, but I reflect on this: I hope out of this global crisis will come a recognition that actually the world is much smaller, that actually what does happen in Syria affects us, what does happen in Moscow, Delhi, Berlin, Bristol, affects us and therefore we need to bring about the universality of human rights, the treatment of individuals equally across the world. And if we can learn that through the local crisis of Brexit, the global crisis of COVID-19, and at the same time listen to our planet that wants itself back, then we will have gained not only for LGBTQI people, but for the families that we all belong to. And I am looking out across the Thames as I say that to you, with no traffic on it, with the sun setting just behind the city landscape knowing that somewhere else the sun is rising or will begin to rise, and that the world will go on without us, which is why we’ve got to make it better for the generations that will follow.”

Paul and Michael with their friend Elton John.

Beautifully said.

Going back to the book, another thing that I enjoyed about it was all the famous names; people who’ve been friends of yours for years like Ian McKellan, and Paul O’Grady, and Elton John and all the people the people you’ve worked with. You mentioned to me earlier that you recorded the audio version of the book yourself, so as you’re an actor do we get to hear some of your impressions of those people in the audio version?

“Absolutely! The only person I don’t impersonate is Ian McKellan and Ian said to me ‘my darling, you don’t do impersonations, you do approximations!’ But, yes in the audiobook you’ll get my version of Elizabeth Taylor, Elton, Paul O’Grady certainly, Kenneth Williams, the amazing character actor Ken Parry, who was large in life, he’s a wonderful character that shines through. So they’re all there. When I did the audio, remember it was the first time that I’d read it aloud, and I went on quite an emotional journey. Sometimes I thought a certain bit might tickle me a bit too much, that I wouldn’t be able to get though it, it might make me laugh too much, and then other bits when I’d get to them suddenly an emotional kaleidoscope would just come up and I would have my breath snatched away from me. I think we’ve produced a good audiobook, no, I know we have!”

Call My By Your Name by André Aciman

Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, artwork or piece of music that’s resonated with you over the years and why? Or you could pick something current, or both!

“There’s so much, because having gone though the social changes that I have you weave a tapestry of so many different things that you grab hold of. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince I remember reading when I was in the West End at the age of fifteen. One of the leading artists gave it to me and that story about love and belonging and running away from where love is was because you couldn’t cope with it anymore, that resonated so much. Then recently André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, is a beautifully written book, and there’s that wonderful passage where the father talks about love. I think they would be my two books and if I had to choose one of the two, it’d Call My By Your Name. Though I have to say, Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel Swimming in the Dark is something that at the moment I just read and reread. A beautiful book with a wonderful surprise. It came out the same month as my book and it’s also published by the brilliant Bloomsbury.”

By James Kleinmann

Paperback published by Bloomsbury Thursday February 18th 2021.

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. For more on Michael Cashman head to his official website and follow him on twitter @MichaelCashmanCBE.

One of Them by Michael Cashman

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