From Foster Kid to the Full Monty
PUBLISHED: 14:59 25 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:28 20 February 2013
Paul Barber suffered as an orphaned, mixed-race child, but became one of the country's favourite actors. Now living in Essex, he tells Pat Parker his moving story...
ACTOR Paul Barber is best known as Denzil in Only Fools and Horses, steel-worker turned stripper in The Full Monty, and, most recently, Young Nick in the BBC series, The Invisibles.
It's an impressive CV, but, had it not been for a chance audition as a teenager, his life could have been very different. 'If it hadn't been for that lucky break, I have a feeling I'd have ended up on the streets, maybe going from job to job in Liverpool - or even jail,' says the 57-year-old, who moved to Holland on Sea five years ago to escape the hassle of life in London.
Paul was orphaned at the age of seven, and thereafter suffered in a series of institutions and foster homes. He has written movingly about his experiences in a book, Foster Kid, which has just been published in paperback and audio book versions.
He first started writing the story of his childhood more than 20 years ago. 'I was sitting on a beach on holiday, and I just thought I'd start writing. By the end of the holiday, I'd completed three quarters of an exercise book. It's all my own work,' he tells me. 'I wanted to say how I really felt. I just wish I could remember the happier times. I loved my childhood, that's the whole irony of it. It was just the institutions I was brought up in which were the problem - dealing with them and trying to remain a child.'
Paul was the youngest of five children. His father, a merchant seaman from Sierra Leone, died of TB a day before his second birthday. His mother raised the family in a one-room flat in Liverpool's Toxteth, before she too died of TB when Paul was seven.
The fleeting memories of life before his mum died are happy ones. But when she was taken ill the children were sent to a convent. One day their mother came to visit them. Paul's heart leapt with joy. She promised to visit again the following Sunday, and Paul can remember excitedly waiting at the gates for her to come. But she never did. 'I never saw her again.'
Shortly afterwards, the children were told their mother was dead. 'From that moment onwards, there was no affection. It was like, "Well, your mum's dead now, get on with it". Suddenly the behaviour of the nuns towards us changed. We had no one to protect us. That's when I started to feel isolated in the care system.'
The children were later sent to a foster home and his various unhappy experiences are well documented in his book. At 16, Paul was thrown out of the care system and expected to fend for himself. He went from one dead-end job to another, and even managed to get himself sent to Risley Remand Centre for two weeks after trying to steal jewellery from a local club with his foster brother, Ben. Paul was fascinated by an electronic beam which clicked every time he put his arm through it. It was a burglar alarm, and the police were waiting for them when they finally emerged on the rooftop.
Paul and his foster brother emerged from Risley determined to mend their ways. Ben later went on to run care homes in Birmingham. Paul joined an acapella band with his mates. One day, he went along to an audition for a musical with a friend, just to keep him company. To his surprise, Paul was asked to audition too. He passed, although his mate failed, and ended up in a touring production of the ground-breaking hippie musical, Hair.
He'd had no idea he had a talent for acting, but took to it naturally. 'Suddenly I was entertaining people, making people laugh, and getting applause. And I was getting paid for it! It was another world.'
After performing Hair in the West End, he landed a leading role in Jesus Christ Superstar, and then in the TV series Gangsters. The foster kid with no job and no prospects, was becoming a star.
Of course, it was playing Denzil in Only Fools and Horses which endeared him to millions. He became a regular part of the team in the mid-80s after being 'haunted' by Delboy in the Christmas special, To Hull and Back. 'It was great. We were like one big family. We were a brilliant team, and John Sullivan was such a great writer. We still text each other jokes!'
Having performed naked in Hair, getting his kit off for The Full Monty didn't bother Paul. He vividly remembers the final striptease scene, filmed before a real Sheffield audience. The actors had rehearsed, stripping until they had only a hat to cover their modesty.
'We performed the routine three or four times until we got to the hat bit, and then stopped. The audience knew what to expect by then. But for the last performance, the director brought us a bottle of brandy and glasses on a tray, and said, "Now, lads, when you get to that point, this time throw your hat in the air, count to ten, and get off-stage". The brandy bottle was empty by the time we got out there. I counted to ten and walked off, and turned round to see the rest of them still there counting. Some were in no rush to get off. The audience went wild, and that's just the reaction the director wanted.'
Paul is still in close touch with his brothers and sister, as well as his foster brother, who now lives in Ilford. It was Ben who found him his home in Holland on Sea, overlooking the seafront. 'I'm a lot more relaxed here, less stressed. I love being near the sea,' says Paul.
But he lives alone. 'I suppose it's because I'm still catching up on my childhood. I have tried relationships, but I prefer my own freedom, my own space.'
Perhaps, despite his success, his life as a foster kid still casts a shadow.
Get the book
Foster Kid by Paul Barber is published by Sphere, £12.99 hardback, £7.99 paperback.