I really was suicidal… but now I’m back
In a remarkably frank interview, comic and birdwatcher extraordinaire, Bill Oddie reveals to Rachel Johnson how his world fell apart – and how his family helped save his life…
The nation’s most famous birdwatcher opens the door of his playhouse high on a hill in Hampstead – an Aladdin’s cave of drum kits, African masks, vintage magazines and fairy lights – and shuffles through in his slippers to a kitchen kitted out like a 1950s diner.
He grabs two mugs from a dresser crowded with plastic Minnie and Mickey Mouses, but as he makes tea, I already know that this is not going to be your usual barmy-ish interview with a fun-sized eccentric, who urged us to Do,Do, Do The Funky Gibbon, and presented a children’s TV show called The Saturday Banana.Even though my subject is a muchloved and cuddly Cambridge-educated beardie, Bill Oddie’s life, at times, has been anything but comic.
For a start, I’ve read his memoir, One Flew Into The Cuckoo’s Egg (there’s a big clue in the title). But even though his book has already cracked open this self-declared national treasure like, well, an egg, to reveal plenty of dark surprises within, I have no idea quite how revealing this chat is going to be.
It’s hard to know where to start, but perhaps it begins one tragic afternoon in 1947 – Oddie is 70 – when he walked into his house to find it empty. The kitchen was spattered with blood. His mother, of whom he was terrified, had attacked his father and was sectioned in a mental asylum.
He never really saw her again. When he tries to remember his childhood, he says simply, ‘home life is missing’.
But that’s not even the half of it. In the 1970s, there was a comedy act, The Goodies; in the 1980s, he met his wife Laura Beaumont, a writer for children’s TV, and in the 1990s, he became a hugely popular wildlife presenter. But then things fell apart, and all the stress, panic, and suppressed anger of 60 years erupted.
I’m here, in theory, to talk about bird food – he’s made a range for Haith’s. But when we sit down, in the sort of boy’s playroom overlooking a small garden filled with gnomes, with our mugs of tea and a packet of M&S Newfangled Scrambled Eggs sweets, he’s got much else on his mind. For an hour-and-a-half, he speaks openly about some really rather ‘personal’ topics, from his clinical depression and his undiagnosed bipolar disorder to his unhappiness at being eased out by the BBC in 2009, after eight years as the biggest star on ‘welly telly’.
‘That autumn of 2008 I felt great, but looking back, I was manic,’ he says of the year his memoir came out. ‘I was pretty much motoring.’
But then it all went wrong. He explains that he was doing a Springwatch shoot on Brownsea Island in Dorset, when there was an incident. There were some complaints, either from a member of the public or the crew – he swears he does not know 'to this day' – that led to him being investigated by the BBC, and then, quietly, frozen out.
It all seemed so mysterious that he rang his producer after a few weeks and asked her what was going on, as no one had returned his calls.
'It's as if you've been told not to talk to me,' he said to her. 'We have,' she admitted.
'In January, I was called in, and was told, "We won't be asking you to do Springwatch next year". So that was the big shock. No one explained why. The only thing I was aware of on-air [the show was live and the BBC was nervous following the Jonathan Ross scandal] was when I had a mild tiff with Bill Turnbull on the BBC Breakfast programme when he asked some question about squirrels. But the cans [headphones] weren't working and he got very impatient with me.
'After I was told I wouldn't be asked back, I started slipping into a depression that got worse and worse. Some of the papers got hold of that, tracked down what hospital I was in, but now, of course, the BBC was splendidly off the hook. They could issue a statement saying they were terribly sorry Mr Oddie wasn't well and that they wished me the best. This, of course, was the reason Mr Oddie wasn't doing Springwatch. But it wasn't.
'I don't blame them. Even though, ironically, the programme was originally going to be called Springwatch With Bill Oddie. And my agent said, too, "You are ill, that's why you're not doing it", but I knew that wasn't the case. But I was in no fit state. I was in and out of hospital – 2009 was the lost year, literally... it was the year my consultant used the word "bipolar". I knew people who were classic bipolar. They'd do the full fruitcake bit, put their houses on the internet to invest in some failed business. That's quite easy to diagnose, as is full-blown depression. I didn't know there were different versions of bipolar.' Oddie describes himself as 'bipolar 2'.
He was admitted to the private North London clinic that treated Amy Winehouse, but says, 'Towards the end of 2009, Laura and I decided that the private hospital route was not getting us anywhere except poor. Nothing was changing. It was like being medicated in a hotel.’
And then, with extraordinary honesty, he says, in a low voice, something he hasn’t admitted before. ‘I was verging on the… I really was suicidal. I took too many sleeping pills, twice. I can only say the feeling wasn’t, “I want to kill myself”, it was, “I want to go to sleep and just blank out”. But I did take risks, a couple of times.’
I ask if he had become unconscious and whether Laura – who walks into the room and says a cheery ‘hello’ in the middle of all this – had found him. ‘Yes,’ he says, almost inaudibly. ‘It was horrible for her. Laura and my daughters were worried. Incredibly worried.’
So, 15 minutes after I’ve walked into his house, Bill Oddie is revealing he’s tried to commit suicide, twice. But having read his book, I’m not entirely surprised. His aunt Margery, who died two years ago, once said that his grandmother, Emily, who lived with them, ‘had a lot to answer for’. As Bill explains, even though his mother was there, Emily ‘always wanted to be the woman of the house’. Indeed, Emily was in the house when his mother’s first miscarriage occurred. A year later, she gave birth to a daughter, Margaret Jean, who died after only a few days.
After Bill did the Who Do You Think You Are? programme, which traces family origins, he received letters from neighbours about Emily. They revealed that she refused to call the midwife when his mother was in labour with the baby girl. The letters also suggested that his mother had been prevented from going to her crying baby, and from calling for medical help.
‘Continuing to live in the same house with a person who was instrumental in the death of your child. Imagine the resentment. Imagine the guilt. Imagine what it might do to your sanity. Mum didn’t have a chance,’ he wrote.
And nor, of course, did her only son. Oddie is refreshingly open about his bipolar disorder: he campaigns for Bipolar UK, and Mind, the mental health charity. He even allows that ‘the milder form of it, one might argue, was the best of me for a very long time’.
He’s now balanced on lithium ‘a mood stabiliser’. ‘I was willing to try anything,’ he says. ‘I was put on lithium and within a couple of weeks I was better and my family had the pleasure – I hope [he laughs for the first time] – of being able to ring one another just before Christmas and my daughter saying, “He’s back!”’
He has very little contact with the BBC now, but he keeps returning to being cut loose from Springwatch. ‘I’ve lost my family twice,’ he says. I try to cheer him up, I tell him about the millions he has entertained with his Goodies shows, his songs (they include The Knitting Song in which he raps knitting patterns while perched on a giant ball of wool), his three daughters and three grandchildren. He laughs for the second and last time, and we both cheer up.
‘I’m trying, I’m trying!’ he says gruffly, and makes proper eye contact, so I know he means it.
As I leave, I think that Bill’s life, in the end, has been defined by the searing double rejection he has suffered: first being abandoned by his mother, and then by Auntie. And how all the rest, the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows, the bird food… is for the birds.
Tips for the Birds
1. Bird feeders, bird tables and food directly on the ground attract the ground-feeding robins, blackbirds, dunnocks and thrushes.
2. Don't stop feeding the birds in summer as June and July are amongst the busiest months in the birdfeeding
3. If you're putting up a nest box, make sure it's not south facing as chicks can literally bake in the summer sun.
4. Clean, fresh water should ideally always be made available.
5. Live foods are helpful during the breeding season.
For further details:
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931