A tale of two daughters

At first glance, the family likeness is hard to spot. One is tall, almost willowy, immaculately well-groomed and self-assured. The other is plumper, prefers casual, comfortable clothes and can be rather shy. But with their deep-set eyes and jet-black hair, each woman bears an extraordinary resemblance to their father.

Mary Parkinson’s eyes are the precise colour of her father’s, a piercing blue; her half-sister, Flora Keays, shares his high cheekbones and firm chin. They have never met, yet they are both daughters of Lord Parkinson, former chairman of the Tory party and one of the most eminent politicians of the Thatcher government. And their lives, one of whom he has showered with affection, the other he has virtually ignored, could not be more different. Flora - the offspring of the married Lord Parkinson and his former secretary, Sara Keays, whose scandalous affair rocked the Thatcher government - has enjoyed few advantages from having such an esteemed father. Until her 18th birthday, on the last day of 2001, she was forced to live in the shadows, a victim of a wide-ranging gagging order which forbade anyone, including her mother, from talking about her.

The injunction, which prevented Flora Keays appearing in the public domain, was the same procedure that protected child-killer Mary Bell, on her release from prison. In Flora’s case, however, the result was that she could not appear on school photographs, nor could she take part in school shows. Her schools could also not publish news of any of her hard-won achievements on noticeboards or in school magazines.

Hers has been a life in which the odds are stacked very much against her. Childhood surgery to remove a brain tumour has left her with serious social and learning difficulties. She also suffers from a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome which means she feels rejection more keenly than her peers. Brought up by her loving and devoted mother, she has nevertheless suffered arguably the cruellest blow of all - the rejection of a father whose presence she can never escape.

Yet in a poignant Channel 4 documentary, to be shown tonight, she emerges as a lively and courageous young woman, determined to battle against the cards she has been unfairly dealt. It shows her delighting in pastimes she has been told she would never master - gymnastics, basketball, ballet, rock-climbing, ice-skating and horse-riding. She is also learning to drive.

"People are always saying things will be difficult for me. They say, Flora can’t do gymnastics, that will be too hard," she says, after a perfect somersault. "I want to show that people with my sort of problems can do all these things."

By contrast, Mary, the eldest child of Cecil and Ann Parkinson, has had all the advantages of a mother and father who both loved her from birth. As the daughter of a millionaire, she never wanted for anything. Her life was the same as those of her younger sisters, Emma and Joanna - good schools, holidays abroad, friends of the family in high places, should she need them. Her childhood memories include idyllic family holidays in Cornwall, where she swam and played golf. She excelled at sports, playing lacrosse, tennis and hockey, and her parents bought her a horse when she was a teenager. Winter holidays were spent skiing. But her problems began at an early age. She suffered from anorexia at 14, while studying for her O-Levels. At university she discovered drugs and alcohol and quickly became addicted. She tried everything, from ecstasy and speed to cocaine, and nearly died three times as a result of her addiction to heroin.

For 11 years, the eldest child of Lord Parkinson was in and out of treatment centres as her parents tried everything to help her, footing bills of 2,500 for clinic treatments. But instead of welcoming such gestures, she became devious and manipulative and would run up huge bills on her father’s gold American Express card to feed her habit. She became a familiar figure to the police, who once picked her up for prostitution in Brighton.

In 1990, at the age of 30, she once bizzarely tried to climb out of a window when the police arrested her for drink-driving. Her parents could only watch in horror as she spiralled further and further into the black void of her own addiction.

The Parkinsons’ energies were poured into their eldest child, but she did not seem to care and attempted suicide several times. While her father was a minister, he would visit her in 22 clinics in all. Her heartbroken mother has said that she believed her daughter would die. She said: "Once you’ve been through this, nothing can ever touch you the same way again."

Mary once said that her problems stemmed from the pressure of being Cecil Parkinson’s daughter. "I was the eldest daughter and I was very bright," she said. "I wanted to be successful and I wanted to be the best in his eyes, as any daughter does."

She kicked her drug addiction once, at the age of 21. Her mother helped her by setting up a charity, Action on Addiction, to give her something to do. But after the initial recovery period, and a brief period working with the charity, she was back on drugs.

"There was a lot of pressure on me," she said, although she later conceded that her upbringing was the same as that for both her sisters, who were both fine. "I was portrayed in the press as being this wondrous person who was spending all her life saving other desperate drug addicts. I believed all that nonsense and I felt I had to be an angel."

For the next four years, she was once more an addict, finally kicking the habit in 1990.

Mary and Flora’s lives are poles apart, yet both have suffered from being Lord Parkinson’s daughter. Each has carried a secret which their father would rather the world didn’t know about: one, being the innocent offspring of an illicit affair, the other, with an 11-year drug addiction, another sort of victim who has dragged her father and family into the depths of despair and threatened to destroy them.

But the similarities stop there. Mary’s problems came about of her own free will. And when she did decide finally to kick her habit, her father was there to help.

Today, she has a new life, with a career as a television presenter for Granada television. After a brief dalliance as a fitness instructor, she has presented Eat Drink and Be Healthy for Granada Breeze channel and has also presented a football programme. She lives her life quietly, in a modest terraced house in an unkempt street in Clapham, far away from the trappings of the life of luxury she had as a child. She says has not touched drugs or alcohol since October 1990 but will never forget the long hard struggle to come off drugs.

"I realised that I’d had a pretty wretched time and that, if I was going to be happy, it was down to me. For example, I’m not great in really stressful jobs, so its suits me to be self-employed."

She says that she owes a great debt to her family. In the end, she says, it was her parents’ brand of "tough love" that made her see sense. They threw her out of the family home in 1987, the same year she was fined 125 for cocaine posession.

Flora, who has struggled every day to be where she is now, also has the love of her family behind her. At the age of four and a half, she had a tumour removed in a five-hour operation that involved removing the whole right frontal lobe of her brain. The extent of her recovery is a tribute to both her and her mother. Yet throughout her recovery, her father never once asked how his daughter was. Flora’s mother has had to fight through the courts for adequate maintenance for her daughter.

As a handicapped child, Flora already feels isolated and rejected, but was made to feel these things more acutely because of the injunction her father placed upon her. At the age of 12, when her grandfather - the main father-figure in her life - died, she began to ask questions about her father, and would constantly ask "Does he love me, mummy?"

It was a question that her mother found difficult to answer. "I decided to tell her that lots of children never saw their fathers - but that didn’t mean that their fathers didn’t love them," her mother says. "I didn’t want her to feel deprived."

In the documentary which charts her remarkable progress, there is a heartbreaking moment when Flora reveals the depth of the hurt she feels. She says: "I would like to meet my Daddy. I haven’t had a chance to see him yet. If he were part of our lives I would see him every day. His name is Cecil Parkinson."

Later, she says: "I would like to see him and talk to him. I would like to go to the cinema with him and have some fun."

She also reveals that she wants to meet her half-sisters, Mary, Emma and Joanna.

Lord Parkinson has said publicly that it was better if he never saw Flora. He has never tried to contact her.

In a recent interview, Mary revealed her admiration for her father’s former mistress for the way she has brought up Flora. "I think Sara Keays has done a brilliant job," she said. "It’s clearly been quite a struggle to get her daughter to this stage." She would say nothing of her half-sibling. But perhaps she would do well to watch her. If Flora had been around when Mary was a child, perhaps her life would have turned out quite differently.

Flora’s Story, Channel 4, tonight, 9pm