THERE is this moment in the middle of the interview with Michael Barrymore that feels like a flash of absolute clarity, as if up to now I've been watching him on a semi-darkened stage, and then suddenly a switch is flicked and the footlights come on.
It happens when he stands up and turns away from me, using the wall as an imaginary mirror to mime adjusting his clothes. He has never been the kind of man to do this, he says, to look in mirrors. Instead, he always does this: and he turns towards me indicating his clothes. Does that look all right? Other people are Barrymore's mirrors. Self-esteem does not come from assessing his own reflection. Other people tell him what he looks like. "I've done that all my life," he admits. "I see myself through other people's eyes."
What do you see when you look at Michael Barrymore? A comic master who was once at the very pinnacle of Britain's light-entertainment ladder? A disgraced entertainer who lost everything when a stranger, Stuart Lubbock, died in the swimming pool of his home while Barrymore smoked a joint inside? A gay man who dumped his wife? A boozer, a loser, a winner or a sinner, a survivor, an addict or - as one more rabid newspaper called him - a killer? He'll take all your views and absorb them, because how we, the public, see Barrymore means everything to him. He once told an audience at the end of his show that he wished he could take them all home with him, and he meant it, every word. We, his audience, are Michael Barrymore's reality.
He was known for brilliant volatility on stage, but he can be passive off it. He's appearing in Scrooge in Aberdeen when we meet at his hotel, and I'm so absorbed in reading my notes that I don't see him arrive. Then suddenly I become aware of this long, 6ft 3in presence, standing waiting. Not saying hello, just watching me and waiting for me to notice him. I jump then, so hard that my foot kicks the coffee table in front of me, and my papers spill, and Barrymore smiles quietly and asks if he gave me a fright. Then he gives me a hug because we've met before.
First time round, I said I wasn't interested in the events of that notorious party. We'd heard that story endlessly and, by the end, most of us realised how much we'd been manipulated by the tabloid telling of it. The idea that Barrymore was a killer was frankly ridiculous. All you had to do was read the evidence instead of the headlines. Evidence from Stuart Nairn, the nurse who tended Lubbock, confirmed the "horrific anal injuries" reported by the pathologist (who last year resigned as a Home Office pathologist after a disciplinary hearing involving other cases) had not been present when the body was admitted to hospital. Nairn reports taking 14 rectal temperatures when they were fighting to save Lubbock. By the last, there was blood on the probe. The injuries were said to be four hours old. Lubbock's body had been in hospital eight hours. The only thing Barrymore was charged with was possession of cannabis. An attempted private prosecution of Barrymore last year by Stuart's father, Terry, was dismissed immediately. (It took the two men five years to meet personally. Barrymore thought the meeting should be private; Terry thought The Sun should be in attendance.) When the police investigation into the death was reopened last month, the implication in the media was that Barrymore was back under the spotlight. But he and his lawyers had been campaigning for that reinvestigation. Barrymore says he wants the truth, for himself and for Terry Lubbock. Now Lubbock says he will launch a protest at the Edinburgh premire of Scrooge. But he had said he'd do that at the other towns the show has toured to, and he didn't turn up.
Stuart Lubbock's death was a tragedy. But Barrymore was a victim of his own excess just as Lubbock was. Lubbock died and Barrymore lived and it was as if the very act of living somehow conferred all the responsibility on to him, while dying negated it. But fame brings no special moral insight, no extra moral authority. So what I wanted to know in that first interview was who Barrymore was, why his life had got to the stage where he took strangers home from the pub. Another audience, perhaps? His life had been out of control for years before Lubbock's death. He was an alcoholic. He had relationship problems, and announced he was gay before splitting with his wife Cheryl, who was also his manager. He was a mess.
We spoke then about the reasons for that. Michael Parker from Bermondsey, the boy whose violent, alcoholic father made him fear conflict. He loved his mother, but she was always out working after his father left, trying to keep her family together. His morals were "self-taught", he says, "and that's dangerous". In that first interview, Barrymore concluded he was a changed man. But for a while it looked as if he wasn't going to be allowed to change in Britain and he went to live in New Zealand. An appearance on Celebrity Big Brother last year brought him home and now Scrooge is his first live test of public acceptance. I'm fascinated to meet him again, to see if the transformation has become permanent. This time, I want to wipe the condensation off the mirror and see if the reflection is stronger, clearer than before.
CHERYL BARRYMORE is dead now. She died in April 2005 from lung cancer. She adored Michael but ruled him with a rod of iron. She made him, he admits. If I'd interviewed him then, I wouldn't have interviewed Michael Barrymore; I'd have interviewed Michael and Cheryl Barrymore. "She was a huge part of my life. She created a lot of what people saw." She controlled everything he did, everything he was. Cheryl even laid out his clothes for him. An outfit to travel to work. An outfit to change into for rehearsal. An outfit for the show. An outfit to receive visitors after the show. An outfit to travel home in. Once, he put on the clothes she'd left on a hanger for him and she scolded him. Those were Thursday's clothes. Put Tuesday's on. And the most remarkable part of the story is that he did.
Barrymore grew into the reflection Cheryl created for him. But his emotions were all churning around inside, never being expressed, and eventually they began to fester in there. The poison was killing him. The backlash against the control was unpredictable behaviour, alcohol binges, homosexual flings. He left Cheryl when a doctor told him that if he didn't become who he wanted to be, he would soon be dead. Ironically, it was Cheryl who died.
Their divorce was acrimonious. After Lubbock died, Cheryl said Michael could swim, when he claimed - and still does - that he can't. Barrymore seemed uncertain how to answer when I asked about Cheryl back then. Now, he seems to have things in perspective. The phone call telling him she was dead came in the early hours of the morning. Barrymore's partner, Shaun, answered. "He said, 'Cheryl's dead,'" Barrymore recalls sombrely. "I didn't know she was ill. I didn't know anything about it. She knew she was dying, but I didn't. And I just stared into an empty space."
Cheryl was a story in herself. "She was stick-thin, ate virtually nothing. Drank champagne and brandy and smoked cigarettes - that was Cheryl. But that's how she functioned from the day I met her - although it was Spumante then because we couldn't afford champagne. That was her character. Business, business, business. Cigarette, cigarette, cigarette. Work, work, work. Cigarette, cigarette. Bit of food and a lettuce leaf. Cigarette. Michael Barrymore, Michael Barrymore, Michael Barrymore. That's what she was like. But she was very funny. Even in the blackest moments she had incredible humour."
When the marriage ended Barrymore wanted them to stay together professionally, but Cheryl wouldn't hear of it. If she couldn't have all of him she wanted none of him. She demanded - and got - a huge settlement, which Barrymore says she earned. But later his agent told him Cheryl had asked if Michael needed money. Whatever had happened, there was a bond that was hard to break. Barrymore loved her, didn't he? "Oh, I did love her. I loved her to death. But I took away her husband, her child, her lover, her career... a huge amount. She had invested too much in one person, that was her mistake, though she didn't think it a mistake. She thought that was the way love was. The danger of that - which she never saw and nor did I - was that you destroy them simply by removing yourself. You destroy their whole being. She existed through me."
Did he feel guilty? "Yeah. When I realised how much I had removed from her. But that's why I said at the time, 'Cheryl, can't we work our way through this?' She would never let me finish. I said, 'Just listen...' and she'd say, 'You're not gay.' 'Well, accept I am, but we should stay together. It works.' But she couldn't deal with not having me entirely. I don't mean that she wanted me dead, but she would rather have mourned me. Even if it had been another woman, nothing to do with it being a man."
Cheryl always said his homosexuality was a phase. Some of his friends said that too. But Barrymore had doubts about his sexuality very early on. Nonetheless, his description of Cheryl is confusing. When he describes meeting her, he talks about "great sex". A gay man might have sex with a woman, but can they have great sex together? Is he bisexual? His answer seems a bit oblique - maybe if he simply says yes it would put more of a question mark over leaving Cheryl - but he does say he gets on fantastically well with women and has always chosen to work with women when he could. They have always "got him" much quicker than men.
That morning in New Zealand when he heard Cheryl had died, he wanted to get on a plane and come home. But then he was told he was not welcome at her funeral. "I thought, 'Okay, I'll respect that - if that's what she said.'" His voice leaves you in no doubt that he finds it hard to believe. So does Maurice, his producer, who was close friends with them both. "Maurice knows more about me and Cheryl than anybody. He said, 'It just doesn't add up that she would have said she didn't want you there. Every time I went round all she ever talked about was you. She loved you until the day she died. She never stopped. All that stuff when she said you could swim was to break you down, so she could then walk in and go, "I'll pick you up." That's what she was doing.' Well, I didn't realise that."
Maurice couldn't believe that Cheryl had left him nothing, but Barrymore doesn't want any money. He has a reputation for generosity and does not appear to be driven by money. But he does want a package Cheryl left for him, containing a letter and his original wedding ring. It has never arrived. "I want the letter. I don't know what's in it. And I'd like the ring - 1976, that ring was bought."
What is interesting about talking to Barrymore now is that you sense his desire for emotional honesty. He believes emotional repression nearly destroyed him, so it's important to him to acknowledge the truth of what he feels. He admits, when he doesn't have to, that when he wrote his autobiography he was angry with Cheryl and it showed in the first draft. Later, he took all that anger out and wrote very little about her. All that was left was the love.
He has two big regrets in life - that he and Cheryl didn't remain friends when they split, and that they didn't have children. He wanted them; Cheryl didn't - she had her child in Barrymore. It's ironic, really - that decision perhaps cost her the husband she adored; when you ask Barrymore if children would have changed his life story, if he could have 'come out' in the same way, there is silence. Then he breathes out heavily at the thought and says, "Oh, Jesus." Lots of previously married men live with gay partners and still have contact with their children. But many married gay men live double lives, and he suspects he'd have been one of them. "Probably I'd have just shied away and thought, 'I've got to carry on for the sake of the children.'"
STUART LUBBOCK'S death changed Barrymore's life and Barrymore seems to retain the same strange cocktail of gratitude and guilt that an organ transplant recipient feels: glad to be alive, sorry that someone died. "The tragedy is obvious. But having come through it, I'm not sure if I would be alive today if it hadn't happened. Why would I not have carried on drinking? Why would I not have carried on with my lifestyle? Nobody was stopping me."
The task is to rebuild a secure life from the rubble of the old one. He takes things a day at a time, which is easier to say than to achieve. "How long ago did we meet?" he asks. Three years. "It's taken that long at least. But including all the shit, the highs and lows, I wouldn't change one bit. Obviously, I wouldn't want someone to die. Obviously, I wouldn't want to lose my mum or my sister." (His sister died just a few weeks before he began in Scrooge - simply went to sleep and never woke up.) But through all the tests of the last few years, all the losses, he has not relapsed. If he did, Stuart Lubbock's death really would become meaningless.
When things were at their worst, when he was locked in his own home with paparazzi helicopters flying overhead, he used to sit on his bed and stare at the wall and sometimes he thought he might be better off dead too. "Then I thought, 'Just put yourself in the shower, put your clothes on, and put yourself in the day. That's all you have to do.'" He is a survivor, but he also knows his weaknesses. He knows he is drawn to extremity. "If I see insanity in the street, I will walk towards it," he admits.
Is it significant that his partner is now his manager - just as Cheryl was? Maybe he's drawn to the same type, he agrees. People are. So does Shaun lay out his clothes too? He hesitates. "Yeah. He'll go mad at me for saying that. He'll go, 'I'm not Cheryl! I'm not Cheryl! But you can't go out like that.'" In that respect, you might think Barrymore hasn't changed so very much. But there are other signs that he has. Last time, he surrounded himself with people in the interview, like a barrier. This time, he agrees to meet alone. On his own, Barrymore is strangely shy and thoughtful, and at times seems as vulnerable as a child. He used to say he didn't like being alone. Can he handle it now? He wants to say yes, but honesty makes him admit it's the one thing he hasn't quite conquered.
He can seem almost lugubrious offstage. But perhaps that's healthy. The manic routines some criticised him for on Big Brother are not in evidence today. His breakthrough in suppressing the performer and finding the real person came when he recognised for himself that he was a damaged man. The process of repair is on-going, but two stories indicate an increasingly robust sense of self. The first is when he says a journalist turned up a week ago and cross-examined him about Lubbock, manipulating the facts. Barrymore put up with it for an hour, but eventually he told the journalist he was out of order and asked him to leave. He gets quite worked up telling that story. "I felt I had achieved a moment in my life. I used to be pushed on to the ropes and would allow myself to stay there and be bashed until I was knocked out."
More importantly, there's that story about telling the audience he wanted to take them home. Three years ago, he said that too. But now he has added insight. "The audience applauded because it suited them as well. But that was actually quite a sad statement to make. I was on stage for two hours - what was I to do with the other 22? This is where I feel happiest and I do... I did... I do... but now I am happy for the other 22 as well."
His good friend the actress Zoe Lucker helped him learn his lines for Scrooge. When they were working one day, he said, "Zoe, I feel really happy." He could feel it physically in his body, the way he sat, the way he thought. As a child he had wanted to be an actor. (That or a priest. "It was another platform, another stage.") Being an entertainer was an accident. He has recently turned down some television offers and will be just as happy if his future is in more serious drama. But he admits he wants success again. I think he wants to be loved again.
And the audience do seem to love him still. He is suffering badly from throat problems, but they cheer him warmly in Aberdeen and, on the way out, I hear a couple talking. "Great production," says the man, and the woman agrees and says, "It's just a pity he's had to go through everything he has." When it was announced he would play Scrooge, the obvious parallels were drawn: the man who achieves redemption through suffering. It seems a clich until I hear him sing at the end of the show. I doubt even Barrymore would claim to be a great singer. It doesn't matter because he brings other things to the role. But seeing his total passion in that final song sends shivers down my spine. "It's not too late, I'll make amends," he sings. "I'll tell the world... I'll begin again." Later, I ask him who sang that song, Scrooge or Michael Barrymore? "That was Michael Barrymore," he says, recognising himself, for himself, at last.
• Scrooge opens at the Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000) on January 29