To some, Michael Cashman will always be EastEnders Colin, the soap opera’s first gay character. To others, he’s the former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who resigned from the Labour party after announcing he would vote for the Liberal Democrats in the May 2019 European elections, furious over Labour’s Brexit policy.
What a treat to see Cashman interviewed by his close friend and fellow actor, Ian McKellen, with whom he co-founded Stonewall. There’s an evident warmth between the pair, who are also next door neighbours, and McKellen did a brilliant job of getting Cashman to talk about his life and multi-faceted career.
We were at the British Library for the launch of Cashman’s memoir, ‘One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square’, which he describes as a “celebration of life and loss”. I’m always fascinated by people’s beginnings in life and loved hearing about Cashman’s childhood in Limehouse, which he spent “playing on barges with my brothers”. Today, he has returned to his roots and lives in Narrow Street – “where I was conceived and born”, he grinned, adding that, to this day, when he looks across the river at Canary Wharf he doesn’t see the HSBC and Barclays office towers, but Lou Clench’s corner-shop.
Despite a love of reading, Cashman failed his 11+ (google it, Millennials) and was sent to his local secondary modern which was “Like walking into a warzone, where they had an arsenal to deal with you.” Bear in mind that Cashman had “known I was queer from the age of seven” and you’ll have an inkling of the hostility he faced. Gifted at impersonations, he made friends with his female fellow students, who encouraged him to join the school drama club – and a love of acting was born.
Success was quick in coming. Having performed in his school’s end-of-year play, Cashman was startled to discover a strange man hammering on the door of the family home: “We didn’t answer, because we thought he was a debt collector.” In fact, it was a talent scout wanting the 12-year-old Michael to audition for a part in the West End production of ‘Oliver!’ “My dad looked him up and down – and asked: “How much will it cost?”…followed by “I don’t want him going into that showbiz: it’s full of queers!”
Those hurdles notwithstanding, Cashman got the lead part – and a star was born. Yet, what should have been a blissfully happy time in his life turned into a nightmare when a director/manager persuaded his parents that Michael should go and live with him, his wife and children. “There were no wife and kids”, Cashman reflected, sadly – adding that his parents had no idea that this man was a predator: “It was a different world back then.”
Cashman attended stage school from the age of 13 – leaving two years later “qualified solely to act” and going straight into a tour of Peter Pan, followed by a number of films and TV series.
And then came EastEnders, which burst onto British TV screens in 1985 and gripped the nation. Cashman had no expectation of being asked to audition, having fallen out with the show’s producer, the legendary Julia Childs, ten years previously, when she sacked him from Angels. Yet, here was Childs talking to him about ‘Colin’ and his boyfriend, ‘Barry’, who would initially be underage. Until now, EastEnders’ production team had only considered straight actors for the role of Colin: “At the time, being gay was considered scurrilous, because of all the fear around HIV and AIDS. Their view was that a straight actor would be left in peace because they were playing a role.”
As you know, the producers had a change of heart and Cashman got the part. He had no idea what he was letting himself in for, however. Before the first episode in which he appeared aired, The Sun ran an article entitled ‘EastBenders’, in which the newspaper expressed its outrage over the soap’s new character, publishing some deeply homophobic cartoons. Worse was to follow, when the media outed Cashman and his then-boyfriend Paul, whose parents had no idea he was gay.
You’d think we were talking about Victorian times, wouldn’t you, rather than the 1980s? But it was the 1980s which saw the implementation of Section 28: a shameful moment in British legal history whose ramifications remain with us today. It was Section 28 which led Cashman and McKellen to found Stonewall, aided by influential personalities including Elton John and his then-manager, John Read.
Cashman believes Section 28 to have been “The straw that broke the camel’s back” in the fight against homophobia: “We lost the battle to scrap it, so we decided to fight on to win the war.” AIDS was another catalyst, with both gay and straight people appalled by the treatment of those afflicted by the disease.
Sadly, although attitudes have changed greatly in this country over recent decades, problems continue in the LGBT community not so very far from here, Poland and Hungary being good examples. Wearing his political hat, Cashman cited Article 7 of the Treaty of Rome, which gives EU countries the right to take actions against a fellow EU country and, if necessary, implement sanctions against them. Now that the UK is no longer an EU member, he believes we must continue pressuring our government to keep up the pressure on the Polish and Hungarian governments.
We shouldn’t get complacent here, either. The recent demonstrations outside the Birmingham schools which had the temerity to teach LGBT and equality lessons are a salient reminder that there is still much work to be done. “The LGBT community was described as a threat to children”, Cashman marvelled, “and a school teacher was forced to explain why she had purchased books explaining LGBT issues.”
All of this goes to show that “Our enemies never go away” – and Cashman remains concerned about the “defamation and depiction of trans men and women” – and not just by heterosexuals. “There are a number of lesbians and gay men who pretend that the trans community has nothing to do with them. I’m an atheist, but I defend people’s rights to hold religious beliefs. People have to stand together, otherwise we haven’t achieved equality.”
There’s no doubt that staying true to his beliefs has hurt Cashman both personally and politically. Within 12 hours of him announcing that he would be voting Liberal Democrat in the EU elections, he was told that his Labour party membership was terminated and that he wouldn’t be able to re-apply for membership for five years (he had to remind the Party that, actually, he’d already resigned). Clearly stung, Cashman told us that, nonetheless, he has no intention of joining any other party.
A life peer, Cashman continues to enjoy life in the House of Lords, where he shares an office with Glenys Kinnock and her husband, the former Labour party leader, Neil. Cashman loves the House of Lords for the same reason that he loved the European parliament: “No single party has a majority and you have to work cross-party and build up networks.” On that note, the Conservative peer Lord Lexden is one of Cashman’s “best political friends”.
Politics, family and career all loom large in Michael Cashman’s memoir, but underpinning the whole book is his relationship with his husband, Paul Cottingham, who died in 2014. Cashman was introduced to his partner of 31 years by Barbara Windsor: “There was a 13 year age gap between us and I couldn’t believe that anyone that stunning, and so nice, could love me. I tried to provoke him, to get him to push me away, many times. But Paul had amazing staying power.”
Whilst writing this memoir, Cashman told us, he pictured his five-year-old self and thought: “What a life you’ve had”. No matter what happens to you in life, he mused, if you own it all, then through the dark bits you can be loved – and have a bloody good time.