Nicola Barry

Mel Smith

Mel Smith: My Last Interview

"Snow in the cottage"

Mel Smith with Griff Rhys Jones

Mel Smith has one of those unforgettable faces. Best known as a founder member of Not the Nine 0’ Clock News and as comedy partner to Griff Rhys Jones, the multi-talented Mel has turned his hand to almost all aspects of showbiz. He has been, variously, comedian, film and theatre director as well as actor. I spoke to him in 2009 when he directed Peter Straker in a wonderful cabaret called, Early Long Island Iced Tea, at The Pleasance.

He told me how, in 1981, he and Griff Rhys Jones had founded TalkBack Productions, a company which has produced many of the most significant British TVcomedy shows of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train. In 2000, they sold the company to Thames TV for £62million.

Here is the interview:

Like his great heroes Tony Hancock or Eric Morecambe, Mel has the perfect face for comedy; the flattish features, those deadpan eyes and the irresistible droopy mouth. In fact, before he lost a lot of weight, Mel’s face bore a close resemblance to a collapsed sponge cake.

“I am afraid I have had this face a long time now,” he says, smirking. “And, it has stood me in good stead, thank you very much.” But he has changed. His face is thinner, skin smoother. It is all natural, he insists, laughing out loud at the suggestion he might have had “work done”. Sitting in the Pleasance courtyard, puffing on a cigar, he says, as a toddler, he enjoyed putting on plays for his family. Since the age of six, he has been directing masterpieces. He says: “I was fairly bright as a child. My primary school teacher told my parents, Ken and Vera, I would probably end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. God knows how she knew.”


He did go and loved his time at Oxford although he says he did not do much work. “Unfortunately, drama was not a study option back then,” he muses, “so I read experimental psychology but did not spend much time learning. “I spent most of my time doing plays and going to the races.” He met Griff Rhys Jones early on. They are still friends and Mel watches his friend’s many TV series when he finds the time. Mel says: “The funny thing is that Griff is actually a very good presenter. Yet, we spent years doing spoof presenter skits; looking at the camera and pretending to be straight. “After that, when you start doing it for real, you can find yourself slipping into satirical mode. Not Griff. He is good. “Strangely enough, Griff was President of the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as I presided over the Oxford equivalent. We got on well.” Mel used to come up to the Edinburgh Festival in his student days with the Oxford Theatre Group. He did the odd revue and wrote a few shows for The Traverse. “The Fringe has changed,” Mel says. “Back then you got a piece of paper telling you what shows were on. Now it reads more like a novel. There is just so much. “I mean, you walk past a greengrocer’s shop and there are 12 posters all for comedy shows in the window and you think, “How can that be?”

He doesn’t think the recession has adversely affected the Festival. “Comedy tends to prosper in hard times,” he says. Most actors would give their right arm to have started out like Mel. He did not leave Oxford with a degree but a job. “At university, I did a production of The Tempest,” he says, “and people from The Royal Court came to see it and offered me a job as an assistant director with them.” Just 20, he accepted. “My parents were very good about it. They trusted me to make the right decision.”

He then worked at the Bristol Old Vic and Sheffield Crucible. After five years of being immersed in theatre, he began to have second thoughts. He resigned from his job, telling his father he would take over the betting business, only to get a call the next morning inviting him to join a new satirical sketch show, called Not the Nine o’ Clock News; his first big break in television, in 1980. The series featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture, as well as parody songs, comedy sketches, re-edited videos and spoof television formats. It also featured Griff Rhys Jones, Pamela Stephenson, now Mrs Billy Connolly and Rowan Atkinson.

After its demise, Mel continued to work with Griff Rhys Jones for their sketch series Alas Smith and Jones. The highlights were the ‘head-to-head’ conversations between brassy Mel and a very bemused Jones.  The pair were reunited in 2005 for a revival of their previous TV series, in, “the Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook”.

“It was great fun,” he adds, “and we are firmly committed to doing more together. You don’t throw that sort of chemistry away. Of course, I’ll have to pretend I like Restoration.” In August 2006, Mel returned to the stage, at the Festival, in Allegiance – Irish journalist and author Mary Kenny’s play about Churchill’s encounter with the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins in 1921. The play created a lot of controversy, with Mel proposing to flout the Scottish ban on smoking in public places.

After gaining a lot of free publicity, the scene was adapted. “Allegiance was the reason I got back on my hind legs,” Mel says. “I have never really pushed myself as an actor, but I can act.” That same year, he starred opposite Belinda Lang in a new comedy, An Hour and a Half Late, by French playwright Gérald Sibleyras, which Mel adapted. He then directed a West End revival of Charley’s Aunt, starring Stephen Tompkinson. His family background belies a successful showbiz career.


Born and brought up in West London, Mel’s father, a miner-turned-grocer-turned-bookmaker, opened the first betting office in Chiswick. His wife of 25 years, Pam, is a former model. The couple have homes in St John’s Wood, Oxfordshire and Barbados. “I met her through a mutual friend,” he says. He does not have children, but Pam has a grown-up son. He likes reading and horse racing and owns several race horses. He had successes with films such as The Tall Guy, in 1989, a quirky and successful comedy starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum, then Radioland Murders, in 1994, and High Heels and Low Lifes in 2001, a gangster comedy featuring Minnie Driver and Michael Gambon. His biggest success, however, was directing his Not the Nine o’ Clock News colleague, Rowan Atkinson, in Bean -The Ultimate Disaster Movie. “That film made the best part of 300 million bucks,” he says. Then there was his strange departure into musicals, when he took to the West End stage in the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway import, Hairspray. He knows more about musicals than people realise. As a young director at the Sheffield Crucible, Mel staged My Fair Lady, which he remembers principally because he “Turned down Elaine Paige for the part.” He still enjoys musicals; one reason why he is directing Peter Straker in Early Long Island Iced Tea. Last year the two worked together on Jacques Brel. Born in Jamaica, Straker is a unique and versatile performer. In 1968 he starred as Hud in the original London production of the seminal musical Hair.

Our conversation is suddenly over and Mel is on his feet, going back to supervise Peter’s performance. Then he is rushing off to catch a train back to London.

“My work here is done,” he says grandly, stubbing out his half smoked cigar and turning on his heel with a wide grin.

I can just imagine him saying that now.


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Fear of Bats

My fear of bats (a rant)

article on fear of bats, image of bat

Bat out of hell (Photo credit: Lee Carson)

No wonder we use the words bats and batty to describe lunacy of various kinds. For years we have lived in a graveyard, next to a church where, of an evening, at exactly the same time, bats gather around the belfry. Because these horrid creatures are protected under European conservation laws (God knows why) there is nothing you can do to eliminate them. Bats have more rights than humans, it would seem. I have spent several hours of my life waving my hands and arms in front of me like a maniac; trying to protect myself – never mind the bats. I hate them, with a passion.

Please don’t judge me. If you have never had a bat circling your bedroom at what seems like 150MPH, you will not appreciate my loathing. The worst time was when I was alone in my bedroom one night in the heart of the English countryside, when I heard a rustling noise from the corner of the room. It sounded like someone trying to eat sweets furtively at the cinema. The rustling got louder and louder. In the darkest recesses of my mind, I imagined that The Thing had started chomping its way through the wooden floorboards of that old, cold cottage and was coming to get me. My heart was thumping. I tried to conjure up harmless, Beatrix Potter type images of vermin in pretty pink gingham bonnets, wearing matching aprons and brewing cups of tea over a warm stove. But fear won the day. Bravely, I switched on the bedside light and, in an instant, my heart almost stopped. Out of the darkness swooped a winged creature from hell – an open-mouthed, hairy beast with pointed teeth, ears sticking out and horrid little clutching hands, all enclosed between large, flapping wings. Yes, you guessed it – the species we insist on protecting – the bat. Apparently, bats face extinction if we fail to give them adequate protection.

If only…

I have to admit I just wanted the winged creature out of my bedroom, alive or dead. First, it charged up and down the room as if executing some weird tribal dance. I managed to make it out of bed and rush from the room.  I then explained to my host that there was a bat in my bedroom. When we returned to search, the wretched creature had curled up into a ball and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually, when we discovered the bat, it began to screech the place down in alarm.

That almost finished me off. I don’t know who was more afraid – the ugly old bat or the creature hiding behind my chest of drawers. Boom, boom. Within the hour, the bat was released, alive and well.


Bats are dangerous, mainly because they can transmit rabies. So, if you are unfortunate enough to come into contact with them, you need a rabies injection afterwards. The bad news is that docs don’t give this jab in your stomach any more. You actually have to pull down your pants and bend over for this treatment.

After it, in other countries, they smack you with a large bill.

We live in a part of the town that seems more like the countryside, with all the joys that entails. There is, however, a downside: every wild animal in existence lives close by. There are hundreds of grey squirrels with huge bodies, arms like Popeye’s and vast, clodhopping paws which look more like hands. They eat all the food we put out for the birds, they grow fat and cheeky beyond belief. It’s bad enough when you go out at midnight to throw away a piece of rubbish and something large and hairy leaps out of next door’s wheelie bin. It’s like someone leaping out of a cake when you least expect it. Every time it happens, I nearly die of fright. The last straw came one evening when I arrived home to find a squirrel the size of a well-fed Labrador, sitting on one of the large wheelie bins, having what looked like a fish supper. It was sitting up, as they do, wrapper between its legs, clutching an entire fish in its hands, guzzling away to its heart’s content. Most alarming of all, it didn’t budge one inch when I approached.

The bats are just as confident and love flying straight at you, out of the darkness; hundreds of them flitting through the treetops at twilight like some strange school of waterless flying fish. OK, so bats are an endangered species, but it cannot be right. Why not gas them – I mean sedate them, take them to some deserted spot, miles from civilisation, and release them into freedom. And before all you batty bat lovers accuse me of cruelty, think again. Most of us are afraid of something. How would you feel, if, for example, 1,000 spiders or snakes, protected by some idiotic and arbitrary rule, suddenly invaded your space?

 Article focus: fear of bats
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Piper Alpha

Piper Alpha

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of ...

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who endured the agony of Piper Alpha, time has not turned out to be a great healer. It is 25 years since the massive oil rig exploded into the North Sea, 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen and the scars are still visible. It was just before 10pm on July 6, 1988, when the primary pump in the processing area failed and the men in the control room started the back-up, not realising it was under maintenance. Gas escaped from the hole left by an absent valve and the back-up pump exploded. Twenty minutes later, heat from the fire ruptured the gas line, causing a major explosion. Several more followed.
The men had to make a terrifying choice, between remaining on the burning Piper Alpha oil platform or jumping six-storeys into the North Sea. Those who jumped and survived paid a very high price. Forced to wait for the rescue boats and helicopters, they managed to stay alive by treading water on the sea’s boiling surface. They survived by keeping their heads under the freezing water one minute, and above, in the smoke and flames, the next. For those still trapped on the platform, smoke and flames blocked all routes to the lifeboats. Many ran back to the accommodation area, believing it safe because it was a fair distance from the blaze. They escaped the heat and flames but not the choking smoke. Starved of oxygen, they ended up on the floor, holding wet rags over their mouths and faces, unaware that the accommodation block was slowly sliding into the sea.
A total of 167 men died. There were 60 survivors. For many of the latter, recollections of the day the sea caught fire have had ongoing repercussions. Apart from burns, the most serious injuries were psychological. Survivors were traumatised. For example, a survivor might be happily walking down the street, a car would backfire and he’d find himself curled up into a ball in a shop doorway. Many saw their dead friends floating past them, on fire. Afterwards, they would lie down at night to sleep and the same video would keep replaying in their heads; galling re-enactments of what they had experienced.
The rescue workers suffered as well. The young men on the trawlers were traumatised beyond belief. Support vessels like the Silver Pit, an old converted trawler normally bobbed around the rig, checking everything was alright, with nothing much happening. Suddenly, they had to fish 30 to 40 burning bodies out of the sea; a highly dangerous task since the platform was on fire and parts were falling off into the water. Some were awarded the George Medal for their bravery. Research carried out a decade after the tragedy revealed that more than 70 per cent of the survivors interviewed said they felt very guilty about having lived when others had perished. Some of these people went on to gamble with their lives, indulging in high-risk activity, subconsciously willing themselves dead.
Sadly, many of the dead were found in the galley, waiting for helicopters which were unable to land because of the fire and thick smoke. Eventually, about 100 terrified men gathered there. There was a further explosion, the rupture of the pipeline between Piper Alpha and the Frigg gas field. The nearby rescue boat disappeared in a fireball, killing two of the crew and six men who had already been recovered from the sea.
Occidental Petroleum, the operator of the platform, paid out £110 million to survivors and the families of victims. Lord Cullen’s Inquiry made 106 recommendations which have revolutionised the oil industry in relation to safety. Piper Alpha once stood proud, towering 100 feet above the roughest water in the North Sea.
The fires took a whole month to put out. Soon, there was nothing left, just a blackened wreck, most of it melted away into the sea, leaving nothing but lifelong scars in the souls of those who survived.


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Stephen Lawrence

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Racism lives long after Stephen Lawrence

No one knows the pain of bereavement better than Doreen Lawrence, who is having to battle claims that the Metropolitan Police tried to smear her family’s reputation. She endured the racist murder of her son Stephen – and murder is a million times more painful than any other bereavement. All the boy did was try to get home after a night out – oh, and have black skin. I forgot that bit. If you are standing waiting for a bus, you don’t expect to be knifed by a complete stranger. By all accounts, Stephen Lawrence was a charming, intelligent young man going home to see his parents, when he was attacked with a knife. He fell to the ground then managed to stagger to his feet, his clothes and hair soaked with blood from his wounds. Moments later, he fell down and died.
That was April 22, 1993. A number of highly unpleasant young men were charged with Stephen’s murder but the Crown Prosecution Service in England claimed there was insufficient evidence. For Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s brother, Stuart, and sister, Georgina, much of the past two decades have gone past like a bad dream, one from which they never seem able to awaken.
As I said, being black was Stephen’s only ‘sin’. Black death. No convictions. End of story. So, why didn’t the Lawrences just give up? Because the senseless murder of the son they adored hurt them beyond belief, because they are brave people who vowed they would seek justice for Stephen. Neville and Doreen Lawrence have spent all these years fighting back, overwhelmed again and again by a combination of Stephen’s brutal loss and the rampant disease of official indifference.
Isn’t it ironic how politically correct we have become since Stephen’s death? So quick to object to various words people use when they describe minority groups.
Half-a-century ago, Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Pertinent then, it is even more pertinent now, especially here in Britain where racism is an everyday story, whether it be name-calling, extremes of physical assault or worse.
Remember King’s immortal words: “I have a dream: that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths self-evident that all men were created equal’.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today”.
Doreen and Neville Lawrence had a dream as well. They dreamed their sons would live a long and happy life, enjoy good careers, marry and give them grandchildren. The fact that their dream turned into the worst of nightmares is an indictment on us all. Imagine if the victims had been white. It would be unheard of if no one went to jail after murdering two white boys. Just think of the fuss we make in this country whenever white children go missing or die a horrible death. Think Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, think April Jones. It does not happen very often, but, when it does, all hell lets loose. Once convicted, murderers of children go to prison and everybody from the governor down hates their guts. They killed a child. They did the unforgivable and they will be punished – by all of us. Either the child is found alive amid great national rejoicing or the evil perpetrator is caught as quickly as possible – mainly in order to still the inevitable public uproar – unless the child happens to be black. Then, suddenly, nothing is quite the same on the criminal justice front, is it?
The Lawrences have been hurt beyond our comprehension, because they lost a child they adored, because they have had to fight for justice on behalf of their boy. Their lives have been turned upside down and inside out by one single act of evil. Nothing will ever be the same again. Abandoned by every person they thought would help them, the family must feel destroyed by the latest revelations about the police operation to smear their reputation.
Racism in the UK is alive and well. And it is not just about a violent minority. It is about prejudices and assumptions which are ingrained. If urgent action is not taken by the criminal justice system, we will continue to see black people die violent deaths, followed by no convictions. Shame does not even come close.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry had profound significance for race relations in Britain. It struck at the heart of all that was rotten within the police as well as within society. Or so we thought at the time. But the rotten stench never really went away. It hid its head in shame for a while, before, slowly but surely, coming up for air and stirring up the poison – all over again.











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Lying husbands

Lying husbands advised to stop fibbing

When Mr & Mrs Joe Public divorce, there is, by and large, a fair financial settlement between the two parties, which, apart from anything else, reduces any subsequent legal bills. However, the rules we play by are being bypassed by the super rich. Take, for example, the case of oil tycoon, Michael Prest who has had to pay his ex-wife, Yasmin, a massive £17.5million – money he tried to conceal in various companies. A judge at the Supreme Court, in London, described Prest as “deceitful, obstructive and wholly unreliable.” The ex-Mrs Prest has warned lying husbands to beware and always behave “honestly and fairly”.

Yeah, right. That’s going to happen. Remember the saying: ‘All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to remain silent”? What amazes me most, however, is the way we all profess to be so shocked about somebody lying, especially if that person is an erring husband or a politician. Human beings lie all the time. Politicians lie even more. We are a nation of fibbers; people to whom lying has become second nature. The advertising industry is the worst offender. Most adverts whitewash our lives, giving us a sanitised version of what we are really like. I mean would we want to see an obese, toothless choir singing the praises of a top cola? Would we want to see a plain, frumpy couple, breakfasting on black coffee and aspirin instead of golden flakes in the California sun? I used to think truth was the be all and end all, until I discovered advertising. Honest.

Most lies are self-serving, protecting the person who utters them from conflict, disapproval or shame, although we also tell little white lies to protect the feelings of others. The truth can cause a lot of trouble. Sometimes you might want the truth, even if it is hurtful. Did your husband really go to the cinema with a male colleague? Was your best friend Sharon really out of town on your birthday, or did she forget like she has every other year? But do we always need to hear the truth? What answer do we really want to the question: ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ Supposing our partner replied: ‘It looks absolutely enormous’ or ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you, your bum looks massive in everything’ would we thank them? More likely we’d descend into a terminal sulk. Should we tell the truth about how much money we really spent; how much chocolate we eat and whether we have given up smoking completely? According to research, women are more effective liars than men. We lie to placate people or to make them feel better, for example: ‘Honestly, you look much more handsome fat, bald, ugly’. The truth can hurt. Lies do not. Lies are not so clear cut. They are multicoloured: white are the ones you tell to avoid hurting people’s feelings and black are the more serious and there are many shades in between. There are good liars as well as bad. A really good fibber makes his porkies sound convincing while bad ones make it so obvious they’re telling lies that they might as well have told the truth in the first place. Amateurs should never try telling lies face-to-face, not with e-mail and text messages to do the dirty deed for you. In political circles, not answering a straight question with a straight answer has been turned into an art form in this country. It is called spin and spin, basically, is shorthand for telling lies. Why would a politician tell the truth when an outright lie or piece of obfuscation will do instead? Other than watching a person’s nose grow as they speak, there are various ways of telling if someone is lying. Saying you want to know every little detail will force a fibber into a tangled web of deceit and you can then enjoy watching them try to worm their way out of it. A liar will become nervous, feel guilty, or just grimace with the strain of inventing the lie as they go along. If they start twitching or trembling when they don’t normally, that’s a pretty good yardstick.

Sadly, if anything, we have discarded the idea of truth as a social good and replaced it with a very banal form of honesty. Look no further than the popularity of so-called reality TV where truth is, of necessity, distorted by the presence of viewers. Of course, programmes such as Big Brother claim they are showing us the truth but, we all know, the minute a camera is present, people start behaving differently. The truth is that Big Brother and its ilk are nothing but an elaborately constructed lie. Sad, isn’t it? Honesty has to be the best policy, especially within marriage. So when my husband tells me I am beautiful and that he only drinks three pints a week, I believe him. Now, where did I put that large pinch of salt?

Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson in the headlines for the wrong reasons

The statements about domestic violence following the abhorrent pictures of Nigella Lawson arguing with her husband Charles Saatchi have been downright ridiculous; all about how unusual it is for successful, middle-class women to suffer abuse. How utterly absurd. We have known for years that domestic violence is no respecter of class. One newspaper reported today that we had always assumed “domestic violence was the grubby problem of the inarticulate and poorly educated”.

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What poppycock. The fact is we are still – even after all these years of the life-saving organisation Women’s Aid – refusing to accept that violence is perpetrated by the most respectable people, invariably male. The real problem is they tend to get off Scot-free. If these guys were to attack someone in the street, punch and kick them, grab them by the neck and throttle them, society would go to great lengths to ensure they were properly punished. Look no further than burglar-shooter Tony Martin for proof of that. The theory is that women who are assaulted somehow ask for it – by being irritating and nagging. Violence against women is widespread and takes many forms. It can be mental, physical, sexual or emotional, or all four. Violence does not always take the form of blows. Emotional abuse is just as much of an issue. A word can terrify. So can a look. Domestic violence has a distinct pattern. The abuser only needs an excuse to let off steam and he’ll find one, no matter what. He may come home, bang a few doors; object to something his wife has said or done. That will be enough to set off alarm bells for her. She will know the triggers and learn how to cope with them. If she doesn’t, she could die.

Her family and friends mean well. They all care about her, of course, but they just don’t understand. They keep asking the dumb question people always ask women who have been battered: why don’t you leave him? The answer? Because most relationships are hard to walk out of; because a truly abusive man never lets his victim out of his sight; because a mother doesn’t want to take the children away from their father and disrupt their lives and schooling; because she still loves her man when he’s not being violent; because her home is the only home she’s got and she doesn’t want to be homeless; because she has no job to go to and no prospect of getting one; because she hurts all over, not just the bruises on her body but those on her mind as well; because starting all over again is so very tough; because years of physical and mental abuse have taken their toll.

And, believe it or not, running away may be hard but staying takes even more courage. Sometimes the solution is not clear cut. A man who is occasionally abusive, under the pressures of drugs, drink, adultery, financial distress, may be a good father and breadwinner. Would leaving him really be the answer? I would say yes, but life is not that simple. Some women put up with beatings year in, year out, until, one day, they finally snap and kill the man who has beaten them. What do we do then? We shut them up in prison just to see if we can draw a little bit more blood. Shocking adverts do not seem to work. Remember the woman in the original domestic violence adverts, who stared out at us from billboards and TV screens, with her face bruised and bloodied? It wasn’t subtle enough. Not all abused women look that clichéd. The harsh reality is that very few men are ever convicted of domestic violence. The reasons are complex. They concern women’s fear of repercussions but they also have to do with society’s attitudes. We look the other way when we see black eyes in the street, preferring to believe women’s stories about having walked into a door or fallen downstairs.

We need to change the behaviour of violent men. Until they take responsibility for their behaviour, women will continue to suffer. First of all perhaps we should do something about the scary, silent statistics:  two women are killed every week in the UK by a partner or ex-partner; in 90% of incidents, children are in the next room. One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence at some time in her life. Too many victims. Too much official indifference. Shame on us all.







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Father’s Day

Louis de Bernières

Louis de Bernières (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Father’s Day

I was sad to read that the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres, say society has become biased against fathers. His letter in the Sunday Telegraph claims that Father’s Day is, for far too many men, a day of “sorrow, frustration and anger”. The reason, according to the author, is because family courts treat fathers as “nothing but sperm donors and bankers”.

Broken marriages are painful at the best of times. When children are involved, however, the trauma is magnified. Being a divorced father is hard: the equivalent of being cast out; lost in a maze of bureaucratic demands. Many divorced men have the additional burden of a second family as well, which is tough considering a large number are, technically, still breadwinner to the first. However, I do object to the way Louis de Bernieres casts the mother as the perpetual baddy. She becomes the wicked witch who makes it difficult for her ex to have access to the children, compounded by the courts who, nine times out of ten, give custody to the mother and, inevitably, the father is forced out of the family home yet he desperately wants to keep in touch with his children. But women have always done the dirty work. They have to carry children, go through the agony of childbirth as well as all the indignities which follow. There are dads a-plenty who are, always have been, little more than weekend parents. Work comes first, family second. They dip into their kids’ lives when it suits them and, when they divorce, nothing much changes. Some lose contact altogether. The truth is that a large number of absent fathers deserve all the flak they get. They desert the sinking ship. They don’t care what happens to their ex-wife and children. Unfortunately, these bad dads, the absent, don’t-give-a-damn fathers, have made life very difficult for the good ones who are doing the best they can. Consequently, we now have two extremes: the estranged father, who doesn’t have a job, who lives in perpetual fear of running out of money. And the one who does have a job, who is working a 15-hour day and has absolutely no life outside of that. The saddest thing is this: his first family only wants his money. They definitely do not want him. OK, I know. There are thousands of ex wives who make life unbearably difficult for their former spouse; who keep children away from him and turn them against him. All he gets is a list of complaints about how little he is contributing to the household.

Fathers have always been excluded. There was a time when children were seen as the exclusive domain of women; of mothers, more precisely. Fathers existed primarily as figures of authority; brought in at crucial moments to define boundaries – as in: ‘Just you wait until your father gets home.’ Otherwise they were out breadwinning, coming home to a hot meal, slippers and a pipe. In fact, a father’s status has changed radically and for the good. Men are allowed paternity leave – even if it is only for a couple of weeks; an acknowledgement at least that, when a couple has a baby, it marks a major transition in their relationship. A child is a huge commitment, for 18 years at least, if not longer. Already, the woman has to give up everything she has worked for in terms of a career. Yes, she can return to her job but her days as a high-flier are invariably numbered. Children come at a cost for both sexes. The way relationships work has to change. Some fathers want more time at home but women need to learn to accept men in what is traditionally known as the “female domain” – in other words, let them do all the jobs which are dirty, smelly and involve physical hard work. Too many women keep telling men they are “in the way” when they try to make themselves useful. What hope is there then for the new dad who prefers changing nappies to running a business?

Nor is it true that a couple make better parents. Many families flourish with a lone parent (one good parent is better than two bad). Children may appreciate having a man around but he doesn’t have to be their father. A sobering thought on Father’s Day, a celebration, which, in time, may well become redundant.

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