By Jeremy Miles
On stage he’s a swaggering ebullient presence but tragic comedian Freddie Starr looked haunted and sad as he sat in a tiny dressing room and described how he gouged at his arms with a needle and then poured acid on them to burn away tattoos bearing the name of his violent alcoholic father.
The shocking admission came just weeks after 64-year-old Starr - known to the public for his madcap on-stage antics- had revealed for the first time that his father had battered him so viciously when he was growing up that he suffered two broken legs.
As a child he also lost the power of speech for two years and had to undergo specialist therapy. He would reach adulthood suffering from panic attacks for which he was prescribed tranquillisers. He spent years in the grip of a terrible addiction to his prescribed medication.
Today, after several broken marriages, he seems resigned and weary but a man struggling to make some kind of uneasy truce with his demons. There’s a new wife Donna and an 11-month-old daughter Ebony. Starr tells me that he’s happy but he seems a troubled soul.
Invited into his dressing room at Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre for an interview, I had found the comic wearing a short sleeved football shirt that revealed extensive rough scarring on both forearms with traces of tattoo ink still just visible.
As he prepared for the first of four summer appearances in Bournemouth, he seemed almost relieved when I finally asked the inevitable question. Had he removed the tattoos himself?
Without hesitation he told me about a night many years ago in another theatre dressing room. The night he decided that the tattoos which he’d had done - "because you always want your dad to love you" - evoked too many painful memories.
"I cut my arm with a needle and then put sulphuric acid on it," he told me in a flat monotone. "It all bubbled up. I went to the hospital and they put some powder on it and gave me some gauze to put over it, and that was that."
He says he has no regrets about that pain-racked evening 25 or 30 years ago in Paignton, Devon, when he set about ridding himself of the name of the man who beat him as a child.
Even though he still won’t utter his father’s name and didn’t even acknowledge it in his 2001 autobiography Unwrapped, he insists that he never hated him.
"I was the only one who cried when he died," he told me. "He only ever hit me when he’d been drinking."
Starr himself has never drunk. Sipping a coke and ice, he explained why.
"My father, brother, sister and my mother were all alcoholics. When I was a kid they used to go to the pub and leave me outside with a bottle of lemonade. To this day I never go in pubs, they make me claustrophobic. I just can’t handle it."
Despite this, he says, he’s always hearing tales of Freddie Starr three sheets to the wind…"stories about me drunk out of my skull. People love to make things up about me but its garbage. I don’t take any notice."
He claims he doesn’t read the papers either though he says people soon tell him what he’s supposedly been up to. Even the famous Sun headline Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster reached him secondhand.
"Someone said ‘Hey Fred you’re in the papers today. You ate a hamster.’ I said "Oh did I’ and that was it."
"It was rubbish but people won’t let you forget. They shout ‘hamster, hamster’ at me all the time."
Just for the record Freddie didn’t eat anyone’s hamster. The whole thing was made up by the publicist Max Clifford.
However he insists that stories that he accidentally drank the ashes of the late comedian Dick Emery are absolutely true. It happened, he says, when he was visiting Emery’s former girlfriend, the showgirl Fay Hillier. He offered to make them both a cup of coffee not realising that Fay kept some of Dick’s ashes in an old Nescafe jar in the kitchen.
"I spooned it into a couple cups, poured on the boiling water and put some milk in it. When I told Fay where I’d got the coffee from she said ‘Oh no, you’re drinking Dick.’ It tasted horrible."
Implausible as all this might seem, such tales are part of Freddie Starr’s own personal mythology. Or to put it his way "I do my own publicity. I love people thinking I’m mad. It’s part of what I have created for myself. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be talking to me now."
He is dismissive of critics who describe his sometimes-manic on-stage behaviour as ‘outrageous’ "It’s not outrageous," he tells me. It’s just something that someone’s never done before."
This he maintains is the only reason he is seen as a comic genius. "Things just suddenly come into my head. It’s not clever, it’s not planned, it’s just what I do."
After an astonishing 55 years in the business – he started performing as a child in the clubs when he was just nine-years-old – Starr still hates a lot of the falseness that surround the entertainment industry.
"I’ve never liked the glitz of showbusiness. I think they’re spoiled prats, some of them." he says.
Some believe that Starr’s career is all washed up and certainly playing to a couple of hundred people at the end of Bournemouth Pier is a long way from his years of success as a high-flying TV variety turn who could routinely pack huge theatres for long summer seasons.
He looks around his minuscule dressing room and shrugs at the knowledge that he’s going to perform in a battered old theatre that’s two thirds empty. "It doesn’t matter," he says. "I’m a realist."
He’s quick to point out that the money isn’t important, that he’s invested wisely: "I’m quite a well off guy. I don’t have to work anymore." He pauses before adding "… but it’s the only thing I know."
Starr has even defied doctor’s orders to appear in a variety of summer shows including his four Sunday evening stints on Bournemouth Pier
Limping heavily, he is still trying to recover from what should have been a routine operation to remove damaged cartilage from his right knee earlier this year. An infection landed him back in hospital and after further treatment he has been ordered to rest and advised to cancel all engagements until November.