Prisoners and staff at HMP Thameside were honoured today by a visit to the library from Michael Cashman, actor, activist, campaigner, former Member of the European Parliament, CBE and current member of the House of Lords. In fact, his full title is Baron Cashman of Limehouse in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
The subtitle of his autobiography is ‘From Albert Square to Parliament Square’ which hints that the author has been on something of a journey. Attendees listened rapt to his description of what it was like growing up in the poverty and bleakness of post-war London’s east-end, an area which has now been transformed and gentrified but back then was a strongly working class part of London, where, among other indicators of high levels of deprivation, school shoes were commonly stuffed with cardboard to prevent the rain soaking through the holes.
An early break got him a part as a child actor in ‘Oliver’ on the west end stage and went on to be a turning point in his life. His gift for mimicry and his theatrical roots were on full display in the Thameside library as he held the audience spellbound with tales of life as an actor in East-Enders, and mimicked his fellow House of Lords working peers and their thoroughly establishment speech and attitudes, occasionally jumping up and gesticulating to add zest to his anecdotes.
He described some aspects of his early activism such as when he took part in founding the charity Stonewall to campaign for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. This was in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS had emerged as a killer of young gay men and was being described as the gay plague by the tabloid newspapers, who whipped up homophobic frenzy in a manner that can scarcely be believed in these more enlightened times. It was in this decade that he got a role in the BBC’s ‘East-enders’, one of the most enduringly popular soaps on TV. He played a gay character – but ordinary rather than camp, so the fact that his character, Colin, was gay was a revelation that emerged rather than something known from the start and this attracted horrific tabloid abuse. But the BBC stuck to its guns and kept Colin in the show and Michael made small-screen history for the first gay kiss on British television, seen by an audience of 17 million. In fact, as he recounted, it was little more than a chaste peck on the forehead of his boyfriend (the full proper lip to lip kiss coming later!), despite the tabloids venting their fury (on supposed behalf of their readers).
Michael amused his audience greatly with his meticulously accurate impersonation of June Brown’s character, Dot Cotton, her walk and speech. He even came back to do a couple of episodes of the show as Colin after June died, there being a parallel screen funeral for June’s Dot, one of the show’s oldest and longest-serving characters.
Other impersonations followed – a brilliant Churchill for example – and he had the audience in stitches describing the funeral of his dear friend, the late lamented Paul O’Grady, attended by Julian Clary and other famous celebrities, and full of mishaps and moments of farce amidst the tragedy, all recounted with hilarious impressions and inimitable comic timing.
Many other subjects were covered, ranging from the humanity of Shakespeare (his plays often showing the inhumanity of mistreating people who were in some way different from the majority), the work done by peers in the House of Lords, ID cards, the role of the British in creating the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, whether we should reform the honours system to remove the word Empire and substitute Excellence (Michael himself is a Commander of the British Empire or CBE for short), the wonderful Irish nun Michael knew as a result of his charity and volunteering work, cutting up his Visa card in Parliament in protest at its sponsoring of the Winter Olympics in Sochi following Putin’s introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation – just to list a few of the varied and always interesting topics that Michael spoke about with passion, eloquence and humour. Quite a journey indeed!
Blog by Maggie Gallagher, PRG volunteer for HMP Thameside