The musty air of Manchester’s Portico Library has just been pricked, incongruously, with the sharp smell of vinegar. It is wafting off the plate of fish and chips with peas that Tony Booth, father-in-law to the prime minister-in-waiting, is busy polishing off. The domed and pillared interior of this timeworn library, it should be explained, doubles as a sort of gentlemen’s club and, as a member, and a gentleman, the 65-year-old comic actor is entitled to dine here. Today’s menu is his favourite. It goes with the working-class, Old Labour, unreconstructed-and-proud-of-it image he has of himself. (The peas should be mushy, of course, but you can’t have everything).
Behind him, the walls are lined with 18th-century history books that have been darkened by soot from the gas lamps that once lit the room. Many of the volumes are held together by ribbons, their paper brittle, their leather bindings worn. A bit like old Boothie, really. For with his pallid, parchment-dry skin and his shock of white hair – in stark contrast to the black polo-shirt he wears buttoned up to the neck – the reformed hell-raiser looks like a wraith who has haunted this shadowy room for centuries.
In between forkfuls of chips, Booth explains why he, personally, would never want to be a politician. Once, when staying with the Blairs, he answered the phone, only to be harangued by an irate constituent who demanded to know who he was. The Blairs came back just in time to hear Booth explaining to the caller that he was the butler. ‘My son-in-law had a sense of humour failure about it,’ Booth recalls with a wheezy laugh. By all accounts, Labour’s po-faced spin doctors are taking a similarly dim view of Booth’s offers to help out with their campaign. Perhaps some of them are old enough to remember the 1964 General Election, when the Labour Party staged a rally at Wembley and invited Booth to offer his services. He caused a scene. George Brown announced to the rally that he’d managed to secure a seat for his brother, Ron. At this, Booth shouted: ‘Nepotism!’ Other comrades on the platform hissed at him to be quiet but he continued: ‘This party is against nepotism!’ And many in the audience took up the cry.
Sadly, thanks to the chief election strategist Peter Mandelson – the man who, according to inaccurate legend, once confused mushy peas with guacamole – Labour rallies are more stage-managed these days. But even so, it would seem a shame to gag Tony Booth. It would also be a tactical mistake, because, if deployed with care, The Tony Booth could prove to be a ‘secret weapon’, deadlier even than The Norma Major. He is, after all, a man of deep political conviction. And, though low and breathy, his voice has a grittiness and resonance to it that makes everything he says seem as if it comes from the heart – an actor’s trick, it may be, but even the appearance of genuine feeling would do much to restore credibility in the traditional Labour working-class heartlands.
Rogues, after all, don’t come much more lovable. The man could have stepped straight off the pages of an 18th-century picaresque novel. Indeed, read Labour of Love – an updated version of his memoirs which he is, rather mischievously, publishing this week, during the closing rounds of the election campaign – and you will be reminded of Fielding’s Tom Jones. The comparison may not work stylistically – the Booth sentence is an unruly beast – but in terms of the harum-scarum adventures and sexual escapades of their heroes, the two books read as one.
The sub-title of Booth’s book is ‘The amazing life of Tony’s Blair’s famous father-in-law’ and, for once, the blurb seems justified. Even before he became famous as the ‘Scouse git’, Alf Garnett’s acerbic, left-wing son-in-law in the television sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Booth was well known as a hard-drinking, bed-hopping bounder. During the Fifties and Sixties he crossed paths with everyone who was anyone: he had a brush with the infamous Richardson gang; was propositioned late at night in a back street by the Tory Foreign Secretary John Selwyn-Lloyd; and, after taking part in a CND demonstration, spent a night in a cell with John Osborne and Bertrand Russell. Inevitably, our hedonistic hero fell in with the Wild Bunch, that gang of Swinging Sixties carousers and womanisers which included Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Richard Harris.
Generally, Booth rampaged through that era like a twister, leaving behind him a trail of abandoned lovers and children (among them, the young Cherie and her sister Lyndsey, the daughters of his first wife Gale whom he left when the girls were aged seven and five respectively). ‘Life has been one long ad lib, really,’ he now reflects. ‘But I don’t suppose I’d do anything differently if I had my time again. My 18-year-old self wouldn’t take advice from me anyway.’
If you watched the episodes of Till Death Us Do Part which were recently repeated on the BBC, you would have noticed a recurring gesture Booth has: a sort of exaggerated shrug that undulates down his arms and rolls off his hands. He still does it when he wants to avoid answering a question. And now, of course, there are also other, more ageing tics and traits. When he is talking quickly, Booth punctuates his speech with one of two flourishes, either ‘Noo, noo, noo noo’ or ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ In more considered moments, he will come over all conspiratorial, leaning forward in his chair, the better to fix you with his bulging, watery eyes, and speaking in a low whisper, pausing occasionally to look over his shoulder as if to check that no one is listening.
All in all, there is something beguilingly cosy about having a chat with Tony Booth. He is at once an ancient mariner and a Baron Munchausen. Perhaps it is just that all old men become your grandfather in the end, but you do want to listen to him and you do want to believe what he says. Like all grandfathers, he refers to the War at every turn. ‘When we defended this country we got our pride back. What has happened to that spirit since then? We should be at war with poverty now…’ And at times his conservatism could be that of a crusty brigadier living in a big draughty house in Kent: he decries the Americanisms creeping into the language and says that acting is not as much fun as it used to be: ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. We fooled around but bloody hell we got it done on time! Now everything is run by accountants..’ Et cetera.
Some of the episodes Booth relates are the stuff of pure farce. He grimaces as he recalls the time he was caught in bed with Peter Finch’s girlfriend. Finch came back unexpectedly and Booth had to scramble out on to the balcony – ‘It’s 2.30 in the morning, I’m ankle-deep in snow, freezing cold and naked.’ As he describes his journey back to his own flat – down drainpipes, over spiked railings, neighbours screaming, police sirens wailing – he shifts in his seat. ‘I’m trying to seek a comfortable position,’ he grins as he arches his back and stretches out his legs. ‘That’s why I’m sprawling. Not piles.’
When it is suggested that his life story would make a good film and that the part of Tony Booth could be played by, say, Chris Evans (who, although charmless, is the wild man of his generation, a northerner and a Labour supporter), Booth shudders. ‘Chris Evans’s politics are neither here nor there. There are plenty of people in the Labour Party with whom I would not like to share the same platform. I won’t name names, but let’s just say…’ he moves closer, ‘I don’t like them.’
You assume he means modernisers. Booth, after all, was recently accused by his own union, Equity, of being a political dinosaur. ‘Put it like this,’ he says. ‘The Yuppies are turning their back on the Yuppiedom. The rats are coming back on board. We must be nearing port.’ When pressed, it emerges that Booth is not so much a dinosaur as a Luddite who doesn’t share his son-in-law’s vision of a brave new world in which we all carry laptops. ‘The worst thing that has happened to society, to all of us, has been the invention of the silicon chip,’ he rasps.
Booth’s tradional socialist values were inspired in part by the time his father was injured while working in the hold of a ship. A derrick swung and smashed his pelvis, back, one arm and one leg. For three weeks everyone assumed his father would die. Thoughtfully, the shipping company stopped his wages. They even docked him half a day’s pay for the work he missed after the accident. The only source of income the family had was from Tony’s paper round and what his mother earned charring. It is a shocking, almost Dickensian story of brutal bosses abusing downtrodden workers – but, thanks to the unions, we no longer live in such unenlightened times. Indeed, thanks to the unions, haven’t the workers actually turned the tables and abused the bosses.
Booth thumps the desk indignantly. ‘Noo, noo, noo, noo! For a thousand years, you and yours – Telegraph types – have been abusing your power in the most appalling fashion. You kept us enslaved all that time and you have the bloody nerve to say the unions abused their power for five years, maybe ten? Isn’t that a fair exchange? In the areas of great, great crimes committed by one side against the other, my God, you are so far ahead of us!’
Passion, it’s called. And it makes a refreshing change from the honeyed words that are churned out by the Mandelson PR machine. It also reminds you that old Boothie hasn’t mellowed a bit; that this was the lad who, when invited by Harold Wilson to a reception at Number 10, disgraced himself gloriously by getting drunk, making disparaging remarks about the Cabinet, and then demanding that the guest of honour, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, go and refill his champagne glass for him. The performance got a laugh from Mary Wilson but earned a hissed rebuke from Harry Secombe: ‘For God’s sake, boy, don’t make a show of the profession in Number 10’.
Perhaps it is fear that Booth might do the same again that inclines the New Labour spin doctors to still his voice. And perhaps it is an awareness of this fear that prompts Booth to say that Labour politicans should never lose their sense of humour, even if someone jokes that they have a butler. ‘As for Tony, or my son-in-law, or the leader of the Labour Party, I’m not sure how I should refer to him in front of you, he is very funny in private. He will always put you at ease and is very at ease with himself. Above all, he’s a family man and, because his kids come running into the room and raise hell when he is preparing to make a speech, this helps him keep his feet on the ground.’ Presumably, rampaging father-in-laws have a similar effect.
Booth is certainly in little danger of taking himself, or his profession, too seriously – as an actor, he once ruined a scene opposite John Wayne because he kept getting the giggles: ‘I just kept looking at the Duke and thinking, “What’s with that terrible wig?”’ But there is also a darker, almost pathological side to Booth’s sense of fun. It stems, one suspects, from the amazing good fortune that marked his early life. As an idle 18-year-old, for example, he wangled the cushiest posting ever offered to a National Serviceman )Paris, in a luxury hotel, with no one to report to and nothing to do but act as a tour guide to ‘promiscuous’ American women). From then on, he was always in the right place at the right time to land roles in the theatre, even though he never really thought he had much acting talent. And whatever life-threatening scrapes his sexual profligacy landed him in he always escaped by the skin of his teeth.
He always got away with it. And getting away with it can take its toll psychologically. An urge towards self-destruction seemed to take over, perhaps because, as Ruskolnikov discovers in Crime and Punishment, criminals secretly want to be caught. Booth became even more reckless, had three lovers on the go at the same time and drank too much (he once even moved the polite and gentle Una Stubbs, his co-star in Till Death Us Do Part, to say to him: ‘Sober, you’re a lovely fellow, but drunk you’re a severe pain in the arse.’)
In 1979, Booth was finally granted the nemesis he demanded as his right. Like a doomed character in a Greek tragedy, he staggered home from the pub one night to find his girlfriend had locked him out. With the help of a couple of equally drunk soldiers he had met that evening, he attempted to smoke her out by setting light to a 25-gallon drum of paraffin. He blew himself up and suffered burns so horrific that he spent much of that following year delirious with pain in hospital. ‘One foot swelled up to size 18, the other 15,’ he recalls. ‘The skin on my legs had little elasticity, so I could hardly bend them. To put my underpants on, I had to swing them round and round before trying to lasso one of my enormous feet!’ His hands still bear the scars and, as he demonstrates the lasso technique, they rustle like dry leaves.
The fire proved to be both a peripeteia and a catharsis. He stopped drinking, did a degree in History at Manchester University and, even though until that point he had been a Roman Catholic blissfully unhindered by guilt, tried to enter a monastery. ‘I threw myself on the mercy of Holy Mother Church,’ he says shrugging. ‘And she kicked my arse.’
A pot of tea that Booth has ordered arrives and he slips into grandfather mode again, complaining that nowadays if you take white sugar they only give you a half spoon because they assume its bad for you, that he doesn’t know what the world’s coming to, et cetera. He is now as addicted to tea as he once was to alcohol. ‘I had a lot of help stopping drinking in that I was comatose for a long time,’ he says. ‘I dried out. Now I always say to anyone with a drink problem, “Look, if I could give it up, anyone could.”’ As he lights up a cigarette he reflects that his drinking was probably caused by unhappiness, which in turn stemmed from a feeling of being unloved. ‘There was a wonderful old saying of my grandmother’s: “When poverty comes through the door, love flies out the window.” And it’s true. Poverty makes love very difficult.’
Although he has had three wives and two long-term partners, the love of Booth’s life was probably Pat Phoenix, the former Coronation Street star. This was the woman he first fell in love with as a young man and then went out with again when he was in his fifties. She was also the woman he nursed through cancer and married shortly before her death in 1986. ‘You never get over something as painful as that,’ he says. Pause. ‘But you do eventually learn not to always have it at the forefront of your mind. The brain adapts and tells you that its good to cry but better to move on. Her memory is still alive, but you can mention her name to me now and I can say, “That’s fine.” But there was a time when I couldn’t even bear to look at a photo of her.’
Perhaps it was this (rather than the callousness and greed of which he was accused at the time) that lay behind his decision to auction off his Pat Phoenix memorabilia, including photo albums, for £60,000, three years after the actress died. Then again, he probably did need the money – he’s twice been declared bankrupt. And the uncharitable might say, though he has a reputation for generosity, the profit motive lies behind his tactless decision to launch his bawdy autobiography at a time when all eyes are focused on his son-in-law.
Yet this, one suspects, is to misunderstand Booth’s nature. For despite his wealth of experience, Tony Booth is an innocent. He probably thinks he really can do something to help Tony Blair’s election campaign. And, contrary to what some have suggested, Booth would hate to think he was an embarrassment to his daughter and son-in-law. He does, after all, know what it’s like to find parents cringe-making. When he appeared in his first play he told his family they could come but only on the condition that they went straight into the theatre without talking to anyone, and then went home without coming to the stage door. He felt ashamed of himself afterwards.
Cherie Booth has probably allowed herself the odd cringe, too. It might be that her father makes the odd tacky remark (‘I don’t think my daughter’s mind is usually occupied with clothes,’ he once said when asked about her glittering career as a QC. ‘She’s too involved with her briefs!’) but she always seems prepared to forgive him (when he was in hospital she visited him every week, for instance, and she was at his side last year to comfort him when his third marriage, to an American public relations consultant, broke down). There is, doubtless, a lot to forgive. But she also has things to be grateful for. It was Booth who inspired Cherie’s early belief in socialism (when she stood as a Labour candidate for Thanet North in 1983 there were three Tories behind her on the platform: Booth, Blair and Benn). It was also her father’s contacts in the Labour Party which helped steer her husband towards a career in politics: Blair had his first glimpse of the interior of Westminster after Booth advised him to meet Tom Pendry, a Labour MP. It was an epiphanous moment for the young barrister – and it convinced him that politics, rather than the law, was his natural calling.
It is Booth, too, whom Cherie has to thank for her wilfully eccentric name. Was it chosen out of mischief one evening after too many cherry brandies had been sunk? Was it perhaps some rather sentimental reference to a romantic weekend in Paris? No, it was much more straightforward than that: Booth was on tour in Wales, with Gale, and the couple stayed with a woman who had a beautiful daughter called Cherie.
There is something else for which Cherie has cause to be thankful. She says it is comforting to be able to tell her own children that she knows how difficult it is growing up with a famous father. And, for their part, Blair’s children say they adore Booth’s company because he makes them laugh. (Their mother also makes them laugh, with the affectionate and convincing impression she does of her errant father).
Booth has seven daughters and when you ask him if he is proud of Cherie he says diplomatically, ‘Of course, I’m so proud of everything my kids do. They’re all terrific.’ For all his faults, his children seem to think the same of him. He’s not sure why everyone always forgives him in the end but he acknowledges that it may be to do with his happy-go-lucky nature and the confidence he acquired from being brought up in a predominantly female environment. ‘Having been brought up and surrounded by women for most of my life, I tend to ignore the dangers,’ he says with a sigh. ‘Much as your mother and sisters and daughters might resent you, they are not actually going to kill you for what you’ve done.’
Although Tony Booth has been forced to face reality in certain areas of his life – he will say of his wild youth, for instance, that, ‘I had far more lust than good sense’ – he has always managed to combine this with a stubborn streak of naivety, which, as with his literary alter ego Tom Jones, accounts for his heroic lack of inhibitions. Booth has enough self-awareness to recognise that there is some truth in this. ‘I never think I’m na•ve at the time but on reflection I usually realise I have been.’ Thoughtful pause. ‘In the main, women have forgiven me because they see I am na•ve, basically. And they accept that in the end.
Naivety is probably what has helped Booth survive both the high jinks and the tragedies in his life. He now drives a Fiat Tipo with a disabled sticker on it and lives alone in a cluttered terraced house in the Derbyshire village of Broadbottom. Although he has a picturesque valley to look out on to, he says he doesn’t get out much nor does he walk much because of the injuries that still afflict his legs and feet. Nowadays, he says, rather than getting depressed, he sits, thinks, watches television and writes on the computer in a room that he has converted into a study.
It is here that he plans to watch the election results on television in the early hours of 2 May. When asked how he will feel if his son-in-law becomes the youngest prime minister this century, he scribbles down his phone number: ‘Promise to call me the day after the election and I’ll tell you: You may hear “I’m sorry. The undertaker is just taking him out. The excitement was too much.”’