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The former Doctor Who actor on his mental breakdown, his love and fear of his father... and worry that one day he may be struck by dementia which has claimed the lives of several relatives

As his emotional memoir is published, Christopher Eccleston tells Laurence White he has inherited many of the strengths and weaknesses of his father but is angered by the class divisions in UK society which stops people like his parents fulfilling their potential

Christopher Eccleston. Photo: Johnny Ring
Christopher Eccleston. Photo: Johnny Ring
Christopher as the Doctor with Billie Piper in Doctor Who
Christopher and with his father Ronnie
A childhood picture of Christopher with his father
Christopher in the TV drama Hillsborough
Christopher with Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig in Our Friends In The North

By Laurence White

It was, celebrated actor Christopher Eccleston admits, a bizarre sight. There he was at 1am on a winter's night literally running for his life through the streets of London carrying an overnight bag. His destination was a psychiatric hospital. For Christopher was having a mental breakdown, convinced that he was either going to die or take his own life.

Revealing this dark episode for the first time in his memoir I Love The Bones Of You (My father and the making of me) he admits that he feels ambiguous about going public.

He tells me: "Some people might say 'pull yourself together Chris' but I sincerely hope that someone will read this part of my life.

"Hopefully some 12-year-old boy who has issues with his body or an eating disorder will take some comfort from it. I never read a book like that when I was growing up, so if I can help that boy avoid a breakdown then f*** what anyone else says.

"I am open to criticism that I am cashing in but I know what my intentions are."

Christopher says he suffered from dysmorphia and anorexia for years. It began in childhood and continued throughout his life.

Yet, astonishingly, finding himself so broke when he was out of work for three years after graduating from drama school, he posed for life studies at the famous Slade School of Art. Even more dramatically he admits he used to steal pints of milk from the door steps of shops because he couldn't afford to eat.

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"Posing naked was possibly me trying to heal myself of my dysmorphia. There was a kind of bravery about that. Coming from my working class background that was very bohemian. I was putting my body up for analysis and when someone would say that I had put on weight from the last sitting I would go back to my flat and starve myself until the next sitting. I think it was maybe an appeal for help."

The trigger for his breakdown was the ending of his marriage and his concern that he might never see his children Albert and Esme.

His initial treatment in hospital did not help and eventually he was admitted to the famous Priory Clinic where he stayed for 70 days on heavy medication. "I want to make it clear that I am not selling my suffering, but I am selling my recovery."

His book is a homage to his father Ronnie, who worked as a stacker-truck driver in a factory in Salford. The title of the book comes from a phrase his dad said to him when he was in the early stages of dementia and his inhibitions were lowered.

Christopher, perhaps best known for his reinvention of Doctor Who but who also starred in some of television's grittiest dramas including what he called his greatest role as a father who lost two daughters in the Hillsborough tragedy, draws parallels with his father who he admits he feared and loved in equal measures as a child.

"The fear disappeared in my late teens. We collided in the years when I was six to 11. That was the time he had a nervous breakdown. He had got promoted in work and then wore a suit - but he felt he lost touch with his shopfloor workmates and was never one of the suits. At one point he punched a fellow worker and then spent several weeks at home just sitting around.

"Self-sabotage is maybe an element of my character which I got from my father. I remember a couple of blokes who had worked with him stopping me in the street and telling me how he used to stand up for his fellow workers and was forever getting himself in trouble by telling the suits to f*** off. He couldn't resist challenging them."

Like his father Christopher is a very driven man and anger is never far below the surface. Class issues still rankle with him even as a successful 55-year-old actor.

He puts it all down to his working class upbringing in Salford - though he moved to Little Hulton at a very young age. He says his mother and father, like their parents before them and his older twin brothers, failed to fulfil their potential because of class.

In his memoir he admits he is obsessed with class because of its affect on his family. "I thought my father and mother and my two brothers were extraordinary people. Each of them had areas of brilliance.

"For example, one of my brothers should have gone to art school just as I, who was eight years younger, went to drama school. But he did not really recognise his talent. He would say he could draw a bit even though I told him he could do anything he wanted."

Christopher says that throughout his life communication with his father was often unspoken. "He was a very well-read man and very articulate but yet had a taciturn attitude. He was that way because deep down he was precisely the opposite of that - he had so much vulnerability and tenderness but he covered it up because it was not the done thing in the society he grew up in."

He adds bitterly: "He was intended for the factory or cannon fodder in the army. You cannot run around quoting poetry in a factory because you would be mocked and considered weak.

Christopher accepts that perhaps he overstates the class divide in his book but then adds: "The anger I feel is at the treatment of my mother and father and people of that generation. They went into the workplace at 14 - that was designed to keep them stupid and that generation all accepted it.

"I was born in 1964 and later when I reflected on the experiences of my mum and dad I rejected the way they had been treated. I could see them metaphorically tug the forelock to someone they regarded as a better and that angered me as a young man. Now I believe we had gone backwards with Cameron and Johnson being Prime Ministers. The Bullingdon Club rules again. There is a lot to be angry about."

It is that background anger and angst which makes Christopher a fan of writers such as Peter Flannery, Jimmy McGovern and Russell T Davies and directors like Danny Boyd who hold the underside of British society up to the light.

In his book Christopher says that their realistic dramas are a weapon for him to fight back again class distinction and discrimination. But he is not slow to challenge such issues even on set.

"I recognise that trait in me. Social networking and all that sort of thing is not for me. I do a job of work and that leads to another job. I am trying to preserve that way of life like my mum and dad."

As memoirs go I Love The Bones Of You must rank as one of the most candid. As well as sometimes scathing self criticism - he recalls how a fan came up to him once told him that he loved him in the Hollywood film Gone in 60 Seconds but not for the quality of his performance - 'you were so bad it's good'.

In an industry noted for its narcissism and self-belief there are few household names who would let such a review see the light of day. He puts his standing another way -some actors he admits are touched by genius like footballer George Best, once of his beloved Manchester United. Others, like himself, worked very hard like Kevin Keegan to become accomplished.

The section of the book dealing with his father's dementia and death are moving but never maudlin. He recalls how he and his brother used to take Ronnie to see Manchester United play. On their last visit to the stadium it was obvious Ronnie was in another place and they left at half-time. He describes visits to the care home where Ronnie eventually had to go but it became a more and more one-sided conversation as the condition tightened its grip.

It is a condition which Christopher admits haunts him to a degree.

"Three of my dad's siblings and his mother and father had dementia. My dad and his father were like pressure cookers and I have that same quality.

"I have a fear of dementia but it is not a constant worry.

"I have stayed fit and last year did 119 performances of Macbeth. I am hoping that sort of creative output will save me."

He recalls how his mother and father would never watch the soaps, even Coronation Street which was set in an area similar to the one they grew up in. They regarded it as poking fun at their class.

Christopher also describes the move towards soaps and reality shows on television, pointing out that they are relatively cheap to put on. "Drama is expensive but I would love to see something tracing the Windrush generation who were so badly treated by this country.

"Sadly so much television is just about economics and is determined by executives who have a formula in mind.

"When I was at drama school I was taught that writers were the most important people in drama. Apart from Game of Thrones, the greatest phenomenon in television in the last 20 years was Sopranos and that was a writer's vision. We need to tell stories to each other."

So what is his solution? "I am to set up a production company with some friends and we will have the writer at the centre of it."

Maybe that will help mellow him.

I Love The Bones Of You (My father and the making of me), by Christopher Eccleston, published by Simon & Schuster UK, price £20

Late uncle an ex-Belfast Telegraph news chief

Christopher has a very direct connection with this newspaper. His uncle Paul Eccleston was head of news at the Belfast Telegraph in the 1990s. He died earlier this year at the age of 67.

Christopher says: "He was an absolute hero to me. The obituary in the Belfast Telegraph was wonderful and very important to his family. It was a delicate time in Northern Ireland when he was there [in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement] but I think he developed a great affinity for the place.

"Although they were brothers my dad was like a second dad to Paul because there was 25 years between them.

"Paul used to come round to our house at times and he would go out for a pint with my older brothers.

"He was the only one in his family to go to university. Among other newspapers Paul worked for the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, both well-known right wing newspapers. Paul and I tended to avoid talking politics."

It was Paul's final wish that his ashes should be scattered on Lough Melvin in Fermanagh and his wife Kelly and Christopher's mum carried out that task a couple of months ago while other friends played a squeeze box and a violin.

Their final words were "Paul Eccleston sleeps with the fishes," a phrase Paul had insisted on.

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