The Oldie is deeply sad to report the death of our star columnist Wilfred De'Ath on February 19th, aged 82. Here is William Cook's interview with him on his 80th birthday
Where will Wilfred De’Ath be celebrating his eightieth birthday on 28th July? In a posh hotel, a seedy night shelter or at Her Majesty’s Pleasure? Don’t bother asking him. He hasn’t got a clue. When I met him in Bournemouth, to toast his 300th appearance in The Oldie in this month’s issue, he’d checked out of his hotel and had no idea where he was headed.
‘The secret of old age is to live in the present,’ he told me.
I asked him if he’d ever been tempted to lead a normal life.
‘What’s a normal life?’ he replied. ‘I don’t want to live a normal life.’
As anyone who reads his column knows, Wilfred’s daily life is defiantly abnormal. When he’s not out on the street or sleeping in French foyers, he has a habit of staying in smart hotels and leaving without paying – a trick that’s landed him in jail.
‘I’m not ashamed of having been to prison,’ he said. ‘Nor do I feel any particular remorse.’
I wondered if he’d do a runner today, and get us both arrested. He assured me he’d paid his bill but, as we walked into town for a spot of lunch (his last square meal until God Knows When), I still felt slightly anxious each time a police car drove past.
For an octogenarian of no fixed abode, he looks extremely dapper. His greying beard is neatly trimmed, his shoes are polished. He wears a big felt hat which obscures his eyes, making him look rather shifty, but this is his only sartorial eccentricity. In his tweed jacket and corduroy trousers, he might almost look respectable – were it not for his toothless grin and his wild gaze. His itinerant lifestyle has kept him hale and hearty. He marches across busy roads with reckless contempt for traffic.
If he’d always been a ne’er-do-well, Wilfred’s tales of woe would be amusing, but what makes his hard-luck stories so fascinating is that he used to be a man of means.
The youngest producer at the BBC (aged just 23), he was a brilliant broadcaster – his 1971 profile of Daphne du Maurier is a televisual masterpiece. He used to be the blond Melvyn Bragg – now he’s the picture in Melvyn’s attic.
So where did it all go wrong? How did he end up living such an erratic life?
‘I’m narcissistic,’ he says. ‘I decided quite early on in the game that the most interesting thing in the world was me.’
His father was a British travel broker of Huguenot descent, who went to Bremen on business and brought a German bride back to Blighty. Wilfred was born in Elstree in 1937.
‘My father was an English gentleman – a really nice man, but rather reticent. My mother was a very strong character – rather neurotic, and never assimilated into British life.’
When his fatherland and motherland went to war, his mother was ostracised by her neighbours, and Wilfred felt like a cuckoo in the nest.
‘It was the beginning of my alienation from British society and the British
class system,’ he says. ‘A psychiatrist once said to me, “It’s a wonder you’re not a total schizophrenic, being brought up by two completely different parents, of different nationalities, in wartime!” ’
His mother was no Nazi, but her loyalties (and Wilfred’s) were divided. They listened to Lord Haw-Haw on the radio instead of Churchill. His grandmother was killed when the RAF bombed Bremen. Remarkably, his parents maintained a happy marriage.
‘I get the nice side of my character from my father, and the neurotic, narcissistic side from my mother.’
Brought up bilingual, he was an only child until he was eight (when a sister arrived), which increased his sense of isolation. His Aryan good looks didn’t help. At primary school, he was called the Little Hun, by the pupils and the teachers. He won a scholarship to the local grammar school but was sure he’d failed and had ‘a kind a nervous breakdown’. It was a sign of things to come (‘I’ve had various nervous breakdowns in my life’). His parents
took him to a Harley Street psychiatrist who told them there was nothing wrong with him.
At grammar school, he excelled at acting and wanted to go to drama school, but his headmaster told him to try for Oxford. He won a place at Oriel to read theology (‘I had a vague idea of being an Anglican priest’). He remains a natural actor, with a flair for mimicry.
‘I can play very sincere, very nice,’ he tells me.
I wonder, is he playing sincere and nice with me?
Before he went up to Oxford, he had to do his National Service. He was sent to Germany, of all places, as a medical orderly – he didn’t want to bear arms. Having been told by his mother that, if he masturbated, he’d go to hell, the Army was a rude awakening.
‘I’d had a very sheltered upbringing – my mother was incredibly puritanical. I’d never heard the word “fuck” until my first night in the Army – I didn’t know what the word meant.’
His fluent German came in handy (‘Translator would be a polite way of putting it – pimp would be more down to earth’), but he found these sexual shenanigans unappealing. He remained a virgin until he went to Oxford (where he made up for lost time).
At Oxford he was part of a golden generation: Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Paul Foot, Patrick Garland, John Wells and Auberon Waugh, plus Richard Ingrams (who became his editor at Private Eye and recruited him to The Oldie) and his televisual alter-ego, Melvyn Bragg.
‘All my friends became famous.’
He switched from theology to English, and threw himself into student drama and journalism.
‘For the first time, I felt free,’ he remembers, wistfully. ‘I was happy, for the first time in my life.’
He edited Cherwell and produced Caryl Churchill’s first play. He graduated with an ‘Actor’s Third’ and all the credentials for a media career.
The Sixties was Wilfred’s decade – he landed a dream job at the BBC, became a producer and presenter, hobnobbed with John Lennon and Mick Jagger and shared an office with Melvyn Bragg. He married his secretary, who bore him two talented, attractive children: a son called Charles, who became an actor, and a daughter called Emma, who is now a senior BBC executive (and the kindest and cleverest person I know).
Wilfred left the BBC because he couldn’t stand the meetings – but then the rot set in. He wasn’t short of freelance work, but he ended up spending more and more time abroad. In his absence, his wife fell in love with her Open University tutor.
‘I didn’t cherish my wife as I should have done – women want to be cherished,’ he says. ‘I didn’t realise how much I loved her until I left her. You don’t, do you?’
He now has little contact with his children, or the other members of his family.
‘They all disapprove of me – they think I’ve been too bohemian,’ he says. ‘My father disapproved of me, in the end. He cut me out of his will.’
After Wilfred left his marital home
in Hampstead, his life went to pieces. ‘That was the turning point,’ he says. ‘Life has never been the same since.’ He was sued by some old colleagues from the BBC (he’d called them intellectual pygmies) and his career unravelled.
‘Everything happened at once.’
He lived rough in France and had several spells in prison. ‘Obviously, there have been some hairy moments,’ he says, but every mishap is material for his column.
This column has sustained him, transforming a sordid tragedy into a comic odyssey, a Rabelaisian picaresque. His conduct is indefensible but he makes no attempt to defend it, and that’s what makes him so readable. His writing reminds us that not all of us grow old gracefully – that, at eighty, as much as eighteen, there is a world elsewhere.
‘Where else would I be living if I’d gone on the straight and narrow? A semi in Muswell Hill? It never even crosses my mind. I just don’t want to live that way of life.’
Readers either love or loathe him, and no issue of The Oldie is complete without an irate letter demanding his dismissal. I’d hate to see him fired, but I entirely understand those readers (like my mum) who can’t stand him. He doesn’t just pilfer from the well-to-do. He’s even fleeced religious institutions. He sold salacious stories about the clergy to Private Eye.
‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ he concedes. ‘I was desperate for money.’
Yet, despite his many faults, it’s impossible to dislike him. ‘I don’t think I’m a bad person. I think the thing is, really, I don’t believe in the rule of law.’
Religion is another matter. He’s raided collection boxes when he’s short of cash (‘I’m the opposite of devout,’ he confesses, cheerfully) but, in spite of these transgressions, his faith seems sincere.
‘I do have a Catholic conscience, but it’s not to do with material things.’ Raised as Anglican, he was Archbishop Ramsey’s press officer before converting to Catholicism.
‘I do consult Our Blessed Lady when I’m going to do something that I know some people would disapprove of. She says, “Go ahead, if you want to stay in that hotel and not pay the bill.” ’
He says he pays his bills nowadays, but he still consults the Virgin Mary.
‘She’s never, ever let me down.’
He had a nasty scare a few years ago when he was arrested during Operation Yewtree – that round-up of suspected paedophiles in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. Ironically, Wilfred was arrested as a result of a TV interview he gave about Savile – he was Savile’s producer for a while. A woman saw the programme and identified him as the man who’d molested her in a cinema when she was fourteen. It eventually turned out to be a case of mistaken identity and the police dropped the charges, but it was no fun while it lasted. His passport was confiscated, cutting him off from his beloved France. He regrets his failure to report Savile all those years ago, when his criminality was already widely known.
‘Somebody had to go and grass him up, but none of us had the courage to do so, including myself. I was frightened of losing my job.’ He was also frightened of Savile. ‘He was a horrible bastard. There was something extremely threatening about him.’
Does he have any other regrets?
‘I’m not a big regretter,’ he says. ‘I would have preferred that my marriage didn’t break up. I had a nice wife. I wasn’t really a good provider.’
He regrets unconsummated passions more than unpaid hotel bills.
‘You don’t think about the women you’ve had – you think about the women you could have had but you blew it, or you chickened out.’
Is there anyone he’d like to say sorry to?
‘Only my former wife. I put her through it, before she put me through it. It was my fault.’
Will he still be tramping from town to town when he’s ninety, like a geriatric Jack Kerouac? Why not? He talks as if the end is nigh, but he’s in fine fettle for a man of eighty. He doesn’t smoke, he hardly drinks and he detests drugs. Apart from shoplifting and fare dodging (all in the past, apparently), he has hardly any vices. He recently gave up television, to give himself more time to read – and write.
The main purpose of his column is entertainment, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Britain’s prisons and hostels are full of forgotten people. Who else will tell their stories, apart from Wilfred De’Ath? Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living. Wilfred has examined his life unflinchingly – and, though it’s not a pretty picture, his self-portrait is full of humour, and even some enlightenment.
‘I try not to sound too bitter,’ he says. ‘I try to see the funny side.’
Rest in peace, you old rogue.