Michael Cashman CBE is a British politician and life peer. Michael Cashman has lived many lives, all of them remarkable: as an actor of stage and screen; as a campaigner for gay rights; as an MEP and as a life peer. Michael is best known for his role as Colin Russell in Eastenders. He is the co-founder of the Stonewall Group and was the UK’s first ever special envoy on LGBT issues. He was elected as an MEP in 1999, a position he filled for fifteen years. He has been awarded the Stonewall Politician of the Year, a Pink News Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Diversity Awards. He was made a CBE in 2013, and was raised to the peerage the following year. He lives in the East End of London. This dynamic figure in Britain recently wrote his remarkable memoir titled One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square.
Born in the post-war East End of London, young Michael’s life is changed when he is spotted in a school play, cast in Oliver! and is transported to the West End. Acting on stage and screen into adulthood, he finds his most defining role as Colin in Eastenders, making television history as one half of the first gay kiss ever broadcast on a British soap. Then a chance encounter at a Butlin’s resort leads Michael to the great love of his life: Paul Cottingham, who would become his husband and partner of 31 years.
We follow Michael as he founds and chairs Stonewall with Ian McKellen, fighting tirelessly for civil liberties all over the world before entering the world of politics. His adventures and misadventures lead him and Paul as far and wide as high tea in LA with David Hockney to flirting with Joan Collins, to flying the rainbow flag over the Albert Hall with Elton John.
One of Them contains as many multitudes as its author: glorious nostalgia, wicked showbiz gossip, a stirring history of a civil rights movement, a sorrowfully clear-eyed exposition of Britain’s standing in Europe, and an unforgettable love story. Told with warmth, wit and humanity, it is an account of a life lived both left-of-field and firmly embedded in the heart of all that makes Britain liberal and good.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a man on a journey that I never new I begun in this area sixty nine years ago. I am of an age that I thought it was opposition. And so, I have had the most amazing life and I describe myself as someone who is amazed by what I have done, amazed I have survived and amazed by my thirty one with the most amazing man in the world, Paul.
How does it feel for a a working class gay man and son of a docker from East London could hold a title as Baron of Limehouse?
It is unbelievable. I pinch myself every day. I know how lucky I am. I know people who have worked a lot harder and have done a lot more than me. I never dreamt it would happen, not even when I went into politics. I left 15 years in the European Parliament and I didn’t think it would happen. And of course, there is a part of you in your mind that thinks it is a great privilege, but what matters more is not what I have got, but what I do with it. Being in the Lords gives you amazing independence, even if your own political party says “We don’t want you to do that”, you have absolute independence and that gives me the opportunity to raise issues that would not otherwise be raised, to be persistent about the continuation of equality, about getting rid of all those convictions that gay men and lesbians and bisexuals had because of the past, extending rights of women as we did with Northern Ireland, making sure that gay people have the right to have equal marriage and extending it beyond, and also, thinking about what our country will be like after we leave the European Union. It is the opportunity that it gives me that it is the most important. And if I don’t use it, I waste it.
How do think that UK will change after leaving the EU?
There is always the potential for change and the potential for negative change. People think the rights we have now have only just existed, but no. Equality existed in other generations, and was taken away. I remember in 1988 when the conservative party used the first anti-lesbian and anti-gay law in the UK. This happened because they found a political opportunity, as HIV was presented as a plague, something that you can catch. I AM ALWAYS AWARE believed that our rights is something that has to be defended and I think this country changed after the EU referendum result. A kind of darkness came about. The castigation of the strangers saying that people should not be here and that they did not belong is alien to me and to what I believe. I fear that this might continue, because we don’t have the best press in the world nor the most tolerant newspaper editors. I fear about how public opinion can be negatively affected and can affect all our rights.
How was living through the Margaret Thatcher Section 28 and also the HIV years?
Living through these years was terrifying, on one hand. The way it was depicted was that if you sat next to a gay man you could catch AIDS. When my first non-stereotypical gay character Colin appeared, there were questions in Parliament as to whether a gay character can appear in a family show. There was a growing intolerance. And you have to bear in ming that Eastenders was quite popular back then, we had around 11 million viewers per episode. The anti-LGBT law that came in made me realise that I knew I had to be on the march against it and on that campaign. There was a sense that we were ready to fight and we were ready to win. I actually think that if we won the battle to win the Section 28, we might have all relaxed. But, we lost it. We lost the battle, but we will not lose the war for equality. We will continue. And that’s when we setup and found Stonewall and when we begun with others to fight for equality.
You served as Labour MP for the West Midlands for 15 years, worked in the European Parliament, acted as the Labour Party’s special envoy for LGBT+ issues worldwide and you were appointed to the House of Lords in 2014. Now you are offering your support to the Liberal Democrats. What is the role of politics in your life and how would you describe your personal journey as a politician?
The pivotal thing about offering support to the Liberal Democrats was the reason I resigned after providing my support to the Labour party. I resigned over the antisemitism and over Europe. And I said I would support voting for the Liberal Democrats because they were consistent on the issue of Europe and had the only positive position about this.
Politics agitate me to get up when I see an injustice, when I see someone suffered regarding equality, being silent, marginalised. So, on the one hand it think we have to fight again, but on the other hand i remind myself how lucky I am to have a position where I can use what I got to promote the principle of equality and justice. And, equally, about Europe. I am a passionate pro European. Politics affect my life in a positive way. The fact that I am on my own now, means that my life is lonelier and you end up living for your work and you see less of your friends. But, it’s a source of comfort.
I would describe my personal journey a miracle. The fact that I didn’t complete my education, I was discovered at school while doing an impersonation, I was in Oliver at the age of 12 and ended up having a career in theatre working with big stars like Elizabeth Taylor, and then Eastenders, Stonewall, European politics, the House of Lords, chair of the Labour party, it has been absolutely incredible. I look back and I think how has this little kid made it? And I still haven’t got the answer.
What does activism mean to you? You have devoted a big part of your life campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights and equality.
When I played the gay character in Eastenders, I was out to my family and my friends, but not to the general public. Given the hysteria around AIDS and HIV there would be a lot attention on me and my private life and that would cause a great deal of pain to Paul, my life partner who sadly dies five years ago, who was outed by the press. And so, the activism really came with the decision to go to Eastenders, and when the march against Section 28 happened, I knew that if I didn’t go I would be able to look at myself again in the mirror. The character I played and the anti-gay law propelled me into politics. People like me and my background, without proper education and without having been to university were not going into politics. When we campaign so strongly against Section 28 and we lost, I was aware that there was a lot of support towards what we were doing and i said to Ian that we had to form an organisation to make sure that another anti-LGBT law does not happen again. And we had to make sure this organisation had equal numbers of women and men, lesbians and gay men. And I always remind myself that we would not have done anything if so many people hadn’t stood up to fight for equality. Without these people this journey would not have been historic.
You were playing Colin Russel in Eastenders, the first gay resident of Albert Square and you became very known for giving the first kiss in British soap opera history. How do you feel about this?
Proud. The fact that the man I kissed I didn’t fancy has nothing to do with this. And interestingly when we did that kiss, which was a peck in the forehead, we had not idea of the fury and the tabloid frenzy it would create about the “sex scene”. But, it was a wonderful moment and I will never forger a letter from a woman that said that her youngest son asked her why Colin was kissing Barry, and she told him “As mummy loves daddy, Colin loves Barry”.
We received a lot of hate, but BBC was still supportive. Behind the scenes, though, there as a lot of pressure for the three years that I was a part of Eastenders. It was important that I went to leave and to go on to the next thing. Ans most of the cast were 100% supportive. There were people who were worried about associating their career with LGBT issues. Sad. Some of them have changed their opinion now. I do’t know about everyone.
Did you enjoy being an actor?
I loved being an actor. You get an opportunity to be so many different people, to indulge your imagination and to find out about yourself. This is the most rewarding thing, that you deal with emotions that perhaps you burry for years, issues that you haven’t faced and also, you have the ability to imagine living and walking in somebody else’s shoes. This is something that I try to carry with me in politics.
You give me the impression that you put a lot of passion on what you do.
Without passion, you cannot move anything forward. I am not interested in the academic arguments, I am interested in what makes an issue personal to someone. Passion for me is everything. And this is what brought Paul, the love of my life crazy!
I have no need to love again in my life. If that happens I will be lucky, but I have no need. When we met he was nineteen, he was younger than me, I was twenty three. We had some issues that I describe in the book, and almost lost one another, but in the end, it is love that changes us, or it is absence. Paul died five years ago, but I don’t get this sense of loss. You lose someone physically, but if you were loved and loved then that continues with you. Love only exists in the present tense. Once loved you retain that love. So, I miss him every single day, he is my first word in the morning and my last word at night.
I have battled with depression, because of his loss. But I have to remind myself I have thirty one years and some people don’t even have thirty one months.
Talk to me about your memoir that is being published by Bloomsbury Books. What do we expect to find in your auto-biography?
The book you hold right now in your hands is a very different book to the one that I started. I wanted to write down about my life after Paul’s suggestion, so I started writing down about my life. But, when he died, I started writing a very different book, a very brutally honest book about what happened to me, about the abuse of my early years that went on for years, the great fortune I had, the great sadness and the great luck I had to meet him. Also, about the problems we had, the way we had to develop our relationship, the stress and the challenges we faced when I became famous and he wasn’t, the dealing with the cancer also. I wrote this book because I wanted to stay true to him. I want to say to people that regardless what happens to you on life , you can become yourself. You can become you, you can be loved and you can live like anybody else. It is a call to liberation and to being honest about yourself.
In my book i describe my childhood, the years where homosexuality was completely illegal. I remember being in a relationship where I was raped by an heterosexual man, and me and partner could not do anything about it. We could not go to the police, because we knew that our relationship was illegal and that no one would believe two queers over an heterosexual man. The book is about a young man’s journey through life, through homosexuality and through to the liberation of equality, including the incredible people that I meant in my life and also, the first love of my life that I met when I was sixteen and I chased, even though he was older. But, it was was love. And nobody dare tell me that my love is not as valid as nobody else’s.
It was difficult to write about personal things at first place, but as an actor you learn to control your emotions. It was like working on a performance when I was writing my book.
Do you feel proud in general?
When I collected my book from Bloomsbury and I came home, I started to cry and sobbed because I remembered me as a six year old on the same streets where I never believed that all this would happen to me nor that I would have the life that I had. I am not embarrassed about that, because I am deeply proud.
You have received many awards. Which ones matter the most to you?
The only thing I want to keep deep inside my heart is the love that I experienced with Paul. In terms of awards, it was my father who I had a very difficult relationship with, phoning me one morning after a show that did a documentary about me and had aired he night before. So, he phoned me, which he rarely did, and started chatting and then said “I want to tell you. I love you. I love you”. And i think I was about thirty eight years old, and my father had never said that to me anymore. That is the award that I carry in my heart. I think it was the day that he realised that if he had been gay and if he had the opportunities that I had, he would have done exactly the same.
How did you manage to overcome depression? Where did you find this strength?
For me it was realising that only rests with us to change our lives. There are morning when I say to myself that I am lucky I got brothers and good friends and push myself to have a good day. The way I get through depression is to know that things will get better if I want them to be. The power only rests within us.
What ate your plans and your dreams for the future?
I have had all my dreams. My overall dream is that around the world, regardless of who you are you are treated equally. I would like hatred and discrimination to disappear and appreciate the value of others, apart from ours.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues there’s always someone who can listen or help. The LGBT+ Switchboard can be contacted on 0300 330 0630 between 10am and 10pm each day. They also have advice online at switchboard.lgbt. Mental health charity Mind also offer support and information online at mind.org.uk, or can be contacted on their helpline between 9am and 6pm by calling 0300 123 3393. Follow Lord Michael Cashman on Twitter at @mcashmancbe.
‘With this memoir Michael Cashman can add “writer” to a CV that already includes “actor”, “politician” and “campaigner”. Apart from its important contribution to British social history, this is a book to be savoured for its own sake as a wonderful piece of descriptive writing and a rollicking good read.’
‘This book, unlike any other I’ve read, is a true portrait of a brave actor/politician/Lord. Michael Cashman shares his most private feelings in a memoir to cherish. His contribution to the fight for LGBT+ rights in UK and Europe is at last on record. His honesty about his own sexual experiences as boy, adult and gay husband puts other biographies to shame’
‘Michael Cashman describes his journey from a cruel Dickensian childhood to the dignity of the House of Lords with brutal honesty. I was shocked, amused, and deeply moved by this life of a brave, good, man’’
‘Michael Cashman’s beautifully crafted memoir left me in tears and grateful that he had the courage to lay out his almost unimaginable life with such impressive honesty … Above all, however, this is the tenderest of love stories, a proud testament to a decades-long queer romance. There are so many reasons to love this book’’
‘Butlin’s, child abuse, West End theatre, Abba, sex, drugs, prejudice, travellers’ tales, EastEnders, activism and bravery, gay kissing, gay nightlife, gay pride, tabloid skulduggery, more enjoyable gossip than you could shake a rainbow flag at and a cast of characters that takes in Mo Mowlam, Barbara Windsor, Elton John, David Hockney, Tony & Cherie Blair, Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie. Threaded through the politics are marvellous anecdotes aplenty and at the core of the book is a love story: that of Cashman’s 31-year relationship with Paul Cottingham. In short, it is the memoir that has it all.’
The Bookseller, ‘Non-Fiction Book of the Month’