His road from Albert Square to the House of Lords is littered with memorable moments. But the time Michael Cashman found himself explaining to the Queen what a civil partnership is tops the lot.
Her Majesty listened attentively as the ex- EastEnders star talked her through how gay couples could now tie the knot.
“The Queen was interested and wanted to know how it has changed our lives,” he explains.
“I said to her the interesting thing was how many people over the age of 50 had suddenly had their civil partnerships; people who had lived together for a long time and hadn’t had that opportunity.
“She looked at me and said ‘Then it’s obviously a good thing, isn’t it?’”
Afterwards a courtier took him aside and said: “Goodness, I bet nobody has had that conversation with her before.”
But Cashman hadn’t told Her Majesty the half of it. Raised in poverty in the East End, he was sexually abused by a docker aged seven, became a West End star aged 12 and hit the headlines in his 30s for the first gay kiss on a British soap.
He went on to found the gay rights campaign group Stonewall, served as a Labour MEP and is now Lord Cashman.
The 69-year-old lives a few hundred yards from the housing block in Poplar, East London, where he was brought up.
From his riverside flat he can see the mud flats were he used to play with
his three brothers.
“I often look down and I see that little five-year-old with mud all over his face and I look at the life I’ve had,” he says. “If I had gone back and said to him ‘do you think that would happen to you?’ he would have replied ‘leave it out mister!’”
Michael’s father was a docker and his mother a cleaner. He describes the East End in the 1950s as being full of “boats, music, shouts and fights”. He shows me the site of the Enterprise pub where his parents used to drink. If they were lucky, his dad used to slip him and his brothers a bottle of sweet brown ale.
Opposite are some railings that hold a darker memory. When Michael was seven a docker bribed him with a shilling to follow him into a derelict area nearby and sexually assaulted him.
“I walked home crying but I just knew I couldn’t tell any- one,” he recalls, standing yards from where it happened. “It would just create trouble and, in the East End, there were two things you avoided: trouble and getting caught.”
His salvation was the school drama class where he wowed his teacher with his impression of Eartha Kitt.
A talent scout, who his parents at first refused to let in fearing he was a bailiff, secured him the lead in Oliver!
He says: “I was in the West End – as my dad said, it ‘was full of queers’ and when he said that I thought ‘yippee!’”
But the bright lights hid a seedier side to showbusiness. A silver-tongued agent called Dave “Woodie” Woods persuaded Michael’s parents to let their teenage son live with him and his wife and family.
he wife and family never existed. “I was snared into a relationship where I was groomed and taken to a boarding house and he climbed into my bed,” he says.
“I knew I was being hurt but I didn’t know I could do anything about it.”
In his autobiography, One of Them, Cashman recounts in painfully honest detail the abuse he suffered as a teenager, including being raped. But somehow he did not allow the trauma to derail his acting career. There were film parts, including acting alongside Liz Taylor in X,Y and Zee and a young David Bowie in The Virgin Soldiers.
“He knew I was gay and we flirted, but nothing more came of it,” he writes in the memoir. “He was too shy for me.”
The book is also a love story about his partner of 31 years, Paul Cottingham, who died of cancer aged just 50 in 2014.
Michael met Paul, a Butlin’s Redcoat, at a party thrown by Barbara Windsor in Scarborough.
They had just started living together when he landed his EastEnders role. Michael has no regrets that his life has been defin-ed by a single on-screen kiss – bet-ween Colin and his boyfriend Barry.
“We had no idea it was going to cause the outrage it did,” Michael, 69, recalls 33 three years later.
“There were calls for the show to be taken off. It was a different time. AIDS and HIV were seen as the gay plague.”
He became a figurehead for the campaign against Section 28 – Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 legislation against the promotion of homosexuality in schools.
This led to him founding Stonewall with his friend Ian McKellan.
His memoir is sprinkled with references to famous friends – Paul O’Grady, Sir Elton John, Dawn French and Jo Brand all pop up. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair attended his civil partnership.
Michael has now been widowed for six years and the pain of losing his soulmate has not diminished. “I am lonely for him,” he says. “I have lots of friends but each day is a battle without him.”
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