Charlie Lawson: I was a bad dad, I broke my little girl’s heart
The Ulster star’s searingly honest interview with Stephen Nolan will be shown on BBC1 tonight. Ivan Little gets a preview of the revelations
Coronation Street's most infamous bad boy Jim McDonald has always been a hellraiser and Charlie Lawson, who plays the hard-drinking hard-man on screen, admits he's been no angel himself but when their two personas collide in the real world the Enniskillen-born actor needs the patience of a saint.
Sharing a table with Lawson a week ago at an awards dinner in Belfast was an eye-opener, with him showing remarkable restraint as dozens of people mistakenly called him by his Corrie name, parroted his alter ego's catchphrases, so they did, or besieged him for autographs and selfies.
But with a shrug of his broad shoulders Lawson said the attention came with the territory of soaps, especially as he'd just completed yet another comeback on the most famous street in the world - a rover's return, you might call it, for his fiery and feisty ex-soldier and handy-with-his-fists telly creation.
But a new BBC documentary makes it clear that what happened to McDonald during his tempestuous 25 years on - and off - the cobbled street was almost Mills and Boon compared to the dark twists and turns of Lawson's life.
And in a searingly honest interview with Stephen Nolan in the latest programme in the Story of a Lifetime series Lawson (55) pulls as few punches as his telly character and tells how:
- He was a bully at Campbell College in Belfast
- He could easily have taken up guns in his youth
- He "probably" hated Catholics
- His unionist father lived under constant death threats
- He was beaten up by his alcoholic second wife who died as she tried to ring him in a desperate cry for help
- He was a "crap" father to the daughter he left behind after his first marriage break-up
And that's even before he admits to having once regularly downed a bottle and a half of whiskey a day as well as having had repeated boozing sessions with fellow Corrie cast members.
But that's not the way Lawson's life was supposed to pan out as he grew up in Fermanagh in a middle class upbringing which saw him sent as a boarder to Campbell in keeping with family tradition.
Lawson's father was a business executive, golfer and a prominent unionist. But on a return visit to Campbell for the documentary, Charlie admits to Nolan that he was a troublesome pupil who responded to being bullied in the time-honoured fashion of picking on someone else.
The boy is identified only on the programme as Roddy and Lawson says he would love to meet him and say sorry to him.
He says: "We made his life thoroughly unpleasant for him, so much so that he left. I'd like to shake his hand and ask for his forgiveness."
Lawson reveals that his father, a veteran of the war in Burma, was a hero to him but there were times that he didn't like his politics - 'middle-class unionist snobbery which I couldn't stand".
Charlie says: "I always felt if there was going to be a peace process, the sooner we talked to the bloody people, republicans and loyalists, of a working class nature then the sooner it was going to happen."
At Campbell, Lawson went to pubs in working class areas of Dundonald and encountered people and values that he hadn't known before.
He says: "I found their politics far more cohesive and far more interesting. I could understand it."
In response to a question about whether or not he would call himself a loyalist, Lawson says: "If that means that I'm loyal to the six counties of Northern Ireland and to the crown, if that makes me a loyalist, then I'm a loyalist."
Lawson also empathises with the frustrations of loyalists in modern-day Northern Ireland. "I understand why the Protestant people in every enclave feel that they're hanging on by a thread because people at Westminster don't give a flying f*** about them."
Lawson says he was 20 before he met a Catholic after he'd gone to drama school in London to pursue his love of theatre which had blossomed at Campbell.
And one of his first Catholic friends was fellow Fermanagh actor Adrian Dunbar.
Charlie says: "He arrived at my flat in the Isle of Dogs to be confronted with Ulster flags and pictures of the Queen and all sorts of carry-on."
Dunbar and drama school combined to change Lawson. "They taught me to become a bit more of a human being because you can't hate people and be an actor. It doesn't work. It doesn't gel."
Which begged the question - did he really hate people back home? "I was nearly a Nazi," says Lawson.
But did he hate Catholics? He replies: "I didn't know any but that's the way you were brought up. I can't remember whether I hated them but I probably did. And I was probably hated the same way."
He talks of how in his formative years in Belfast he viewed Catholics as the opposition "who wanted rid of me and they were blowing the s**** out of the city".
Lawson says he could have become embroiled in the violence all around him if he hadn't had the opportunity to get out. "That's the way my brain was working," he adds. "If I'd grown up on the Newtownards Road and I was skint and my parents were skint and I was unemployed, if there were people shooting at me then I would have shot back.
"My father was threatened for years. So it's not a big step from that to say I'll f*****g shoot back."
However England transformed Lawson and his acting jobs caused him to re-evaluate his thinking about Ulster especially after Diary of a Hunger Strike, a play written by Peter Sheridan.
Up until then, Lawson's attitude to Bobby Sands and his colleagues had been uncompromising. "I remember in those years thinking that if that's what they want, let them starve.
"But once, as research, I'd started to read into this republican, committed IRA and Marxism you began to understand a working class attitude to who we were."
Lawson, who says he's "desperately" proud to be from Northern Ireland adds: "If you're Northern Irish, you're Northern Irish. You can't get away from it. If you try, you'd be an idiot."
By 1989, however, it wasn't just Lawson's philosophies that were changing.
Nothing for him would ever be the same again after he stepped into Jim McDonald's shoes.
The BBC cameras accompany Charlie as he strolls back down the Street and he recalls how he enjoyed "the finer and naughtier things in life".
"There was a period of time when we all on this set drank a lot," he says, and he scoffs at newspaper headlines which talked of how he "battled" a drink problem.
"I've never battled anything," he says. "I've enjoyed myself immensely."
But on the question of whether or not he had a fully blown drink problem he says that in hindsight he probably did, sinking a bottle and a half of whiskey every day." I loved it. I had a great time but it got the better of me. So I stopped it. Not to put too fine a point on it, I couldn't have a bowel movement without a drink. My insides were starting to slow down and not be able to cope."
However, he was rocked by the decision of Corrie producers to write McDonald out of the series and although Charlie did get theatre, television and movie roles, in the bleaker downtimes he had to sign on.
"Anybody that has been a success and has to sign on will tell you it's a humiliating process," he admits. "You know that every Tom, Dick and Harry is saying 'look at him now' and occasionally there'd be some knob-head who would say so and you'd have to put them square. Normally I just told them to f*** off."
Charlie concedes it was a difficult time. "I never really liked beans, but you know beans it was."
Charlie's personal life was almost as troubled as Jim McDonald's.
He says he was unhappy in his first marriage so he left his family for "the love of his life" whom he later married.
Charlie says people are entitled to the view that he was a "selfish b*****d" but he rues the fact that he was "a crap dad" because he saw so little of his daughter Laura who was only seven at the time.
The actor who only sees his daughter now every couple of years says: "I broke her bloody heart."
His own heart was to break, too. His new love, Lesley Bond, was addicted to prescription drugs and became a chronic and violent alcoholic, according to Charlie.
"The situation got so bad that I had to leave," he says. "She was clinically very ill. It was becoming dangerous. I hadn't been to sleep for months because I was tortured. She would be barricaded downstairs. She would drink all through the day and then wake up at night and that would be it. There'd be police and all sorts of carry on. I was in a state of complete and utter devastation."
Charlie, whose Corrie character was a wife-beater, says Lesley was beating him and he responded by shaking her "several times". "I'd never hit her or anything like that but I'd come close."
After two broken marriages he met his current partner, Debbie Stanley, and she tells Nolan that Lawson was desolate after his separation from Lesley, who would telephone him repeatedly and abuse her as well.
Lesley was later found dead and Lawson says: "They thought she'd been murdered. She'd been very drunk and had fallen and split the back of her skull open."
He had to identify her body. "It was life-changing. I went down and there she was, the poor wee thing. She was just a pitiful sight," he says, adding that he had to go with police to Lesley's flat where they found empty bottles everywhere.
Wiping uncharacteristic tears from his eyes, Charlie also talks of how he found Lesley's phone and realised that the last number she dialled was his.
"When she was dying she was trying to ring me. But she couldn't get through because I was on the phone. Poor wee thing had a terrible end which is awful really because if there's a heaven she deserves to be there because she didn't belong here. She was too mixed up."
He says he still has sleepless nights over whether or not he could have done more to help Lesley.
But he has few other major regrets about where his life is now. He runs a farm shop in Cheshire with Debbie and will often be spotted cooking burgers on a barbecue outside the premises, with passers-by taking pictures.
Debbie says cruel people sometimes make disparaging remarks about what he's doing now but she sums her partner up as kind, honest and loyal. "He's just a wonderful person. I love him very much. And he's extremely good in bed ..."
His best Corrie moments ...
Big Jim McDonald is back, wreaking havoc in Coronation Street, so he is. The hard man ex-soldier from Belfast, brought to life by Charlie Lawson, made his first appearance in the soap in October 1989, was a regular until 2000, and has made numerous guest appearances since then, including a return in August this year. So, what are Jim’s most memorable moments in his 25 years on the Street:
- His tempestuous on-off marriage with Liz McDonald, mother of his twin sons, Steve and Andy. The pair are the Burton and Taylor of the Street, with more break-ups and reunions than Fleetwood Mac. The relationship is plagued by affairs, heavy drinking on Jim’s part and physical abuse, and the pair eventually agreed to divorce. But they reconciled and married while Jim was in prison for manslaughter, only to break up again later
- Those trademark Belfast sayings. His sentences are peppered with phrases like ‘So it is’, ‘So they are’ and ‘What about ya?’. He also has a habit of calling people by their full names, such as ‘What’s the craic, Elizabeth?’, when addressing his ex-wife
- His prison sentence. When his son Steve is badly beaten by drug dealer Jez Quigley, Jim beats Jez in return. Jez dies in hospital from a ruptured spleen after trying to suffocate Steve with a pillow while they are both in hospital. Jim gives himself up to the police and is remanded in prison to await trial. He is sentenced to eight years imprisonment for manslaughter
- His bad boy image. The hard-drinking, tough-talking Jim came back to the Street after being released early from prison for good behaviour. On his return, Jim seemed to have changed for the better but his jealousy over Liz’s upcoming wedding to a musician called Vernon got the better of him and he beat Vernon up. In this recent storyline, he’s back in jail, after a bank robbery goes wrong. Known as ‘The Landlord’ for his illegal sale of booze, he has fellow inmate and alcoholic Peter Barlow beaten up after he reveals to sister Tracy that Jim had supplied him with drink
Story of a Lifetime, tonight, BBC1NI, 10.35pm