The news of Tony Booth’s death at 85 was met with sadness yesterday. But you can say one thing for the actor and veteran Labour activist: his timing was exquisite.
The Labour conference was moving towards its carefully scripted climax when news came through yesterday of the demise of Cherie Blair’s father.
In the years when Tony Blair was its leader and prime minister, Labour’s annual gathering was often upstaged by the vaudeville act of the former Till Death Us Do Part star — and he played up to the role with the bravura of the born showman.
While others might have treated the marriage of a daughter into the upper reaches of the political establishment as a cause for discretion, Booth instead chose to swagger into the limelight.
Tony Booth (pictured left) with his second wife Pat Pheonix and his daughter Cherie, along with future Prime Minister Tony Blair
His chaotic private life — eight daughters from five different partners and a willingness to confess all with a lip-smacking glee — was matched only by a political incorrectness he raised to a fine art.
A life-long Labour party member — having joined at the age of 15 — he must have been delighted to help propel his son-in-law towards Westminster.
He once recalled a lunch for Blair at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho with another Labour MP, during which the future prime minister was persuaded to stand for office.
Asked what might have happened to Blair had he not urged him on this course, Booth replied: ‘He would have become a barrister.’
Yet he frequently scorned his son-in-law’s administration, witheringly labelling the peers Blair sent to the House of Lords as ‘Tony’s cronies’, while dismissing Gordon Brown as the ‘scrooge of Downing Street’. He also criticised the Blairs for choosing to send their eldest son to a selective and grant-maintained school.
And the barbs kept coming. In 1999, he railed against ‘androids’ at Labour’s Millbank HQ, and later accused Labour of ‘ruthlessly’ squashing the pay demands of striking firefighters and then of being ‘prepared to throw away billions’ on the Iraq war rather than spending the money on pensioners.
With third wife Nancy, there was a shared passion for socialism and the politics of the Left, and she was convinced Tony’s ‘crumpeteering’ days were over. But the marriage didn’t last
And it wasn’t just Blair’s Labour Party he had an opinion on. The monarchy was especially singled out: ‘arrogant, greedy, disreputable and stupid’, he called the Royal Family.
In what was to be one of his last interviews, he railed about mass immigration, warning that for Britain to continue to accommodate 200,000 people a year risked ‘civil disruption’.
Just how this son of a Liverpool merchant seaman regarded his own life, no one can be sure.
He produced three memoirs crackling with satisfaction at his achievements, but tinged with regret and a touch of guilt. They were also rude, crude and wonderfully indiscreet.
Always canny for the main chance, he reissued one volume about his bawdy bed-hopping, hard-drinking days just as Blair was preparing for the election that would sweep him to power in 1997.
Curious timing, you might think.
Yet for all his foibles, most of his four wives and three long-term partners were surprisingly flattering. Gale, Cherie’s long-suffering mother who died last year, tactfully described her philandering former husband as ‘a great character, you either like him or hate him’.
Booth is pictured with first wife Gail (right) and fourth wife Stephanie at the Labour Party conference in 2006
Pat Phoenix, meanwhile, the Coronation Street siren who nursed him back to health after he suffered severe burns, before he nursed her when she had terminal cancer, thought he was ‘wonderful’. And his fourth and final wife Stephanie Buckley, 23 years his junior, described him as ‘a sweetie pie’. (Though at the time his third wife Nancy, who, for a while, lived only half a mile away with their daughter Jo, said she didn’t talk to him at all.)
As for Booth himself, in irrepressible style, he insisted ‘there are no skeletons in my cupboard — they’re out there waving to everyone’.
Yet this, it turned out, was not entirely true. Five years into Tony Blair’s premiership, the Mail revealed that Cherie had a secret sister, Lucy, who had emigrated to Australia a decade earlier.
Cherie Blair and Tony Booth celebrate after she was sworn in as a QC
Lucy was the result of a brief liaison between her father, then at the height of his fame as ‘randy Scouse git’ Mike Rawlins in the long-running Sixties BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part, and pretty radio sales girl Ann Gannon.
Booth — who played the son-in-law of Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett in the hit show — was then 35 and Ann 23.
At the same time he was already embarking on a 14-year relationship with another beauty, model Susie Smith, which produced two children: Lauren, who became a journalist, broadcaster and latterly Muslim convert, and Emma.
It was a classic example of Booth’s ‘crumpeteering’, as the former Labour prime minister’s father-in-law described the serial promiscuity of his younger days.
Those were the years when he was carousing from bar to boudoir, a man with such a drink problem that it diminished his sense of responsibility.
His lifestyle in those days was closer to the high-jinks in the Confessions Of . . . series of sex comedies he made in the Seventies with Robin Askwith, which saw the duo chancing their arm with a string of pliant women.
Whether the screen role of priapic Liverpudlian skirt-chaser was what he had in mind when he started acting cannot be known, but he certainly put in the years, working his way around the regions in repertory theatre.
He and his first wife Gale met as young actors, with her later describing their courtship as ‘pure Romeo and Juliet . . . we were absolutely in love’.
They married in 1954, and when their daughter Cherie came along the same year, she was looked after by Tony’s Irish-born mother in Liverpool while the couple appeared in rep around the country.
Mr Booth achieved fame playing ‘randy Scouse git’ Mike Rawlins in the BBC series Till Death Us Do Part, during the 1960s. Pictured, on set opposite Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett
Gale gave up acting when a second daughter Lyndsey was born two years later. By now, Booth was in the West End in No Time For Sergeants, and on the verge of his acting breakthrough.
But he left Gale when Cherie was just eight years old. He had begun an affair with U.S. actress Julie Allan, later a Hollywood producer, and with her he fathered two more daughters, Jenia and Bronwen, though they never married.
‘Tony was just fun,’ Boston-born Miss Allan recalled in 2002. ‘We had a little house in Putney and he was a lovely father, but my problems with him began when he started drinking heavily.’
Eventually she left him and took the children to New York. Fondly recalling him, she added: ‘There’s a richness there, an intelligence, a caring and a great sense of humour. I just think he’s somebody one shouldn’t be married to.’
Booth quickly moved on to Susie Smith, with whom he stayed for 14 years. It was a volatile relationship, and while living with her and their two children in a flat in Hampstead, North-West London, Booth experienced the defining moment of being burned half to death.
Tony Booth enjoyed a successful career on the small screen. Left, the actor during the height of his fame in the late 1960s and right, in 2006
Locked out of his home after a drinking session with two soldiers, he set fire to some oil rags to attract Susie’s attention.
But in his drunkenness he set alight a drum of paraffin. He suffered 42 per cent burns and required 26 operations.
For Booth, the worst part of the fire was the injuries to his manhood. ‘He was badly burned like an over-cooked chicken,’ Susie Smith recalled later, ‘and the doctors told me he might never make love again as he had suffered damage to his private parts — a painful shock for someone mad on sex.
‘I waited until Valentine’s Day to try to turn Tony on. He was in a room on his own [in the hospital], which gave us privacy, and was desperate to prove his manhood, but I had to be careful because his legs were in a dreadful state.’
But Booth and Susie split up in 1979, and the next year he took up with Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix, with whom he’d had a brief affair 25 years earlier when they acted together. By the Seventies she was at the height of her fame as the soap’s Elsie Tanner.
Left, Mr Booth former wife Pat Phoenix in 1983 and right, with fourth wife Stephanie Buckley in 2010
Miss Phoenix was seven years his senior, and it was the start of the most emotional passage of his life. He moved into her Peak District cottage near Manchester and she helped him back to full health.
Then, in 1986 when she was dying of lung cancer, he supported her. She became the second Mrs Booth when she was in her hospital bed, just a week before she died.
Eleven months later, he was dating Nancy Jaeger, who became his third wife in 1988. They seemed an unlikely match, the dishevelled some-time actor and the feminist daughter of a Canadian diplomat. But she later candidly admitted: ‘He was 6ft tall, nicely built, good-looking with a considerable presence and a certain boyish charm.
‘Frankly, I’d fancied him 20 years earlier when he was on the telly, and it was nice meeting the real McCoy at last.’
With Nancy, there was a shared passion for socialism and the politics of the Left, and she was convinced Tony’s ‘crumpeteering’ days were over. But the marriage didn’t last. So what went wrong?
‘He turned out to a typical northern man, a bit of a chauvinist who just wanted a wife who would stay at home and look after him, and that wasn’t me,’ said Nancy who ran a PR company in Cheshire.
Mr Booth with actor Robin Askwith on the set of Confessions of a Pop Performer in 1975
After divorce number three, Booth married Stephanie, who’d also had a chequered marital past. Booth was her fifth husband. Their marriage was happy and content, and when Booth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004, Steph was said to be ‘marvellous’ with him. With such a highly unconventional approach to marriage, let alone fatherhood, it was perhaps inevitable that tensions would simmer between Tony Booth and some of his children.
Matters reportedly came to a head when Cherie organised a party to mark her father’s 80th birthday at the Blairs’ grand £5.75 m Buckinghamshire mansion. It was meant to be a chance for Booth to have all eight of his daughters in the same room for the first time. But a family rift opened up over the planning, and amid the fall-out two of them — said to have been Lauren and Lucy — were taken off the guest list.
While Lucy’s absence was seen by some close to the family as a surprise, but Lauren’s was more predictable.
She and her father suffered a very public rift, with Booth even admitting to the Mail with cruel candour in 2010 that he no longer loved his daughter. Ironically enough, they had not spoken for years after falling out over her outspoken criticism of Tony Blair. For her part, Lauren said Booth was a neglectful father.
All of which means that whoever is organising the seating plan for the funeral of this extraordinary, charismatic rogue is going to have quite a job on their hands.
Left, Mr Booth attending his grandson Euan Blair’s wedding with his wife Steph in 2013. Right, the actor with his daughter Cherie at the Labour conference in 2006