Eric Cullen had the most wholly good and attractive character of anyone I ever met. His was a life of wild extremes, in which the comedy which he loved was all tangled up with the most appalling tragedy; but of the two it was comedy which was the more fundamental.
Thanks to the uncle who made him the prey of sadistic paedophiles, Eric spent much of his life veering from grinding misery to mind-wrenching anguish and terror: but that was just something imposed from the outside - something somebody else did to him. Of his own self he was bold, filled with spirit and humour, and as naturally buoyant as a cork. He wanted only to make people laugh - though his fate was to make them weep.
Eric's co-star Elaine C Smith (a.k.a. Mary Doll from Rab C Nesbitt) called him "a curious mixture of intelligence, fragility, insecurity and a massive ego", and that's a good place to start.
Eric was refined, cultured and normally acutely sensitive to and considerate of other people's feelings, and generally about as unlike Wee Burney as he could get and still be a working-class Lowland Scot. Nevertheless he could be difficult to work with because he was such a scene-stealer. His friend and colleague Charles Kearney reported that Eric apologized profusely and guiltily for having spent all day hogging the limelight - but he still did it.
The abuse and general humiliation he'd suffered left him craving audience approval to shore up his battered self-esteem. Eric said himself that as a teenager "I began to desperately want to make people laugh, I wanted to be the comic because that detracted from the abuse that was happening to me." Even as an adult and a star he still needed the laughter to counteract the abuse which, indeed, was still ongoing: and despite everything that had been and was still being done to him he still managed to be vain and boisterous, with a realistically high opinion of his own talents as a performer.
Trevor Bayliss, the inventor of the clockwork radio and himself a victim of childhood rape, said in an article in The Mail on Sunday's Night & Day section for 29th August 1999 that "My way of dealing with what happened was to become an extrovert and a show-off. The attacks made me feel worthless, a complete nothing, and I needed to hide my feelings of insecurity by putting on a front. ...putting on a bold, arrogant front meant I was prepared for everything... People say I've got a huge ego, and they're right. I am arrogant. Possibly, after the abuse I suffered, it's just my way of saying that I'm worth something after all."
Nevertheless, in order to respond to abuse in that way you probably have to have a tendency towards egotism to start off with. Eric had what I considered to be rather a low taste in big flashy cars - his chance to feel tall, I suppose, and had he not died his next Christmas present from me would have been a session learning to drive a tank. He told me that the reason he chose that enormous hey-lookit-me-Ma-I'm-a-KGB-agent black Merc of his was that when he was at school some other boys had jeered at him, saying that he would never be able to drive because he was too small - so he had to sail past them in this huge expensive car "being very egotistical; and I am very egotistical". Idly, I asked him "Do you think you have a Napoleon complex on account of being so short, or does it just come naturally?" and he sort-of tittered and said "I think it comes naturally".
Unfailingly kind, he did not apply that powerful ego of his in a way which would harm anyone else. Instead, it expressed itself as great staying power - a stubborn determination to be himself.
At school he was regarded as "a goer": and when he got the stage bug he blithely invited himself onto a drama-course at the college where his father was groundsman, even though the other students were all years older than himself. He also must have grown up knowing that he was brighter than almost anybody he came into contact with.
He had immense force of character, and as far as his immediate adopted family went he had had a very loving and supportive childhood. His mother said after his death that she was proud of him every day of his life - and he clearly knew this when he was alive. Although he was unhappy about being so small, he was brought up to believe that he could do and be anything he wanted. He would later say - remarkably, for a boy who grew up in a roughish Scots industrial town - that no one in his life had ever struck him until one of his abusers did so.
Eric's small size was a two-edged sword. His boyish appearance helped him get the starring rôle of Wee Burney which was to make him a household name in Scotland: yet the fact that he still looked like a child when he was a grown man meant he was still being abused by paedophiles in his late twenties. If he'd grown normally they would have left him alone once he was fully adult: but they would also have started on him when he was about seven. It was probably only the fact that when he was seven he looked about three which protected him.
His adoptive family was also double-edged, since it included both an ideal immediate family and the uncle who ruined his life. But the gang who abused him didn't only prey on relatives. In any family or home, he would still have been as he was - a blonde, blue-eyed boy, attractive, vulnerable and dangerously noticeable - and anywhere on the east side of Glasgow he would still have been at risk of being abused by the same gang.
His adoptive parents and sisters were certainly an unmixed blessing: his situation would have been far worse if he had been abused without having grown up in the stable, supportive environment they made for him.
As things were, he was already a teenager when the nightmare abuse began, and had had thirteen good, loving years in which to develop his personality and his self-confidence. On the one hand the fifteen years of deliberate sexual degradation which he then suffered shredded his self-esteem, and left him thinking that he was dirty and disgusting, and that making people laugh was the only thing he could do and the only value he had. On the other hand he had started off from this very strong, stable psychological base, so even after his pride had been flayed off him in bloody strips, he kept this iron knowledge that even if being a clown was all he could do, at least he did it brilliantly.
Judging from what he said about it later, the abuse he suffered was deliberately made as traumatic and degrading as possible - he was treated, he said, "like meat". These were people who wouldn't have been interested in a boy who was gay and interested in them: Eric's terror and revulsion were part of the buzz for them, and they went out of their way to hurt and humiliate him.
In his mid teens he became very disturbed and, as he put it, "riotous", drinking heavily and "taking the mickey" out of teachers, clowning maniacally because laughter was an antidote to humiliation. Indeed, at that age he must have been quite like Wee Burney in some ways - though without Burney's destructive unkindness. He ended up spending four years in remedial education: but in his late teens he made a conscious decision that he wasn't going to let his uncle's sordid cronies prevent him from making a go of his life.
While still being horrifically abused he forged ahead like the Staffordshire Bull Terrier which he physically resembled, and gained Highers, then a degree (Social Sciences specializing in Psychology), not one but two successful careers (teaching and acting) with options on two more (minister and psychologist) - and an enthusiastically heterosexual sex-life. All his life he was vain of the letters "BA" to his name, which he had won against such heavy odds.
Eric loved being a star - feeling that he was loved, that his new-found popularity would protect him from abuse (it didn't) and that people who stared at him in the street now saw him as a weel-kent face rather than as some sort of freak. Acting was very important to him psychologically: but the one thing that baffled me in Eric's psyche was how he could perform some of Wee Burney's scripts without flinching: joking about perversion, about abuse, about being taken away from his family because of abuse and put in a bleak, loveless children's home - the great fear his uncle had used to cow him into silence. He was even carried struggling from the stage to play at being raped with a wooden boat, screaming in mock pain off-stage, and then came back for a curtain-call pretending the thing was still inside him, every night of the live show.
I wondered whether he needed this opportunity nearly to speak about the horrors he was keeping bottled up inside. Or perhaps it was that every time Wee Burney defied whoever was currently slapping him around - fought back, swore, threatened violence, shredded them with his caustic wit - Eric was symbolically doing the same to his own oppressors. Maybe the clue lay in Wee Burney's remark that "I'm allowed to be lippy. I'm disturbed" - or maybe he just relished the chance to play someone so unlike himself, to get away from being the self he despised.
Conversely, he might have been so numbed by years of gross sexual violence that these nasty little bits of art-imitating-life didn't generate even a flicker on the emotional Richter Scale. Or he'd been exposed to so much coarseness that his own sense of humour had been coarsened (though when I knew him he seemed almost painfully ree-feened).
Or maybe he did mind but submitted to it the way he submitted to the abuse, having been trained to think he had no right to object to anything sexual. Or he was just such a damned trouper that his own personal feelings didn't get a look-in when there was work to be done. I asked him about it in a letter - but he died before I got an answer.
Possibly he did flinch, in the end. He dropped out of Rab C Nesbittin his late twenties, just before the last episode of Series #3 - an episode which joked explicitly and at length about homosexual rape in prison, albeit the prospective victim was Rab rather than Burney. Under great stress due to continuing violence and blackmail by his abusers and the traumatic failure of his reunion with his birth-mother, Eric was already ill with clinical depression: possibly this all too hideously appropriate script was the last straw.
Once the press had got hold of the wrong end of the stick about the tapes etc. which his abusers dumped on him, and started screaming about "Wee Pervy", he was dropped from his other show, Wemyss Bay 902101. He never worked again. He did actually receive offers of parts once the court-case was out of the way, but was too ill to take them up.
Acting was very important to him - "Being on stage is one of the few things that makes me well", he said: something that helped him to cope with the stress of the abuse; to feel like a whole person with rights and not just the piece of reactive meat his abusers treated him as. It was particularly tragic that he should lose this lifeline just when he most needed it.
Shortly after this sad end to his stage career Eric had a major breakdown: which was hardly surprizing.
That year - 1993, the year Eric played Wee Burney for the last time, the year he turned twenty-eight - shock had piled on shock like hammer-blows.
First had come his long-awaited reunion with his birth-mother: a huge emotional high, immediately followed by absolute devastation and a bitter parting, when his own mother sold the story of their reunion to the tabloids - knowing that he particularly wanted to keep it private.
A month or two after that he was raped and threatened with worse, to force him to obey his abusers, and then compromized by being made to comit a minor offence, in order to strengthen their hold over him: broken under torture and forced to do violence to his own nature to escape further punishment.
A week or two after that they ordered him to let them store extreme child-pornography in his house - material the mere thought of which scared and sickened him. Eric's idea of an erotic film was a three-handkerchief romantic "weepie". Far from being a user of child pornography (as many tabloids assumed), he found such material even more repulsive than most people would - having first-hand experience of what it felt like to be made to perform for such images.
That in itself probably made it harder for him to go to the police when his abusers dumped tapes etc. at his house. Like an arachnophobe with a tarantula in the house, he'd have been too rigid with fear and revulsion even to think about what was in the next room, let alone do anything practical about it. [This is a standard human-type behaviour: it's what makes people put off going to the doctor when they find a lump - hoping that if they don't think about it it won't be true.]
Six weeks later the police turned up on his doorstep, and within a few hours the whole world came crashing down about his ears - the whole world (as represented by the popular press) ganged up to pillory him as publicly as possible.
A few weeks later he learned he was to be charged with indecent exposure - because he had been over the age of consent when his abusers forced him to pose for a "vulgar" photograph along with younger boys.
As a result of a combination of all these shocks; the stress of having his intensely private and mortally embarrassing suffering made so very public; and his panic at finding himself attacked by the full force of the tabloid press and called a pervert and a paedophile by people who knew nothing about the true facts; Eric spent weeks as an inpatient on the psychiatric ward at Hairmyres Hospital. In an interview for the BBC's Moment of Truth programme Eric's friend journalist (now MSP) Dorothy Grace Elder said that during this period "When I first met Eric, two months down the road, after the raid, he was as traumatized as anyone I've ever met in life: he was paper-white; ashen; weeping in a corner; foetal position - this was not acting: nobody could keep that up for months, for months, for years." The tabloids, however, found his "Wee Burn-out" a huge joke.
Eric set himself high standards and did his best to live up to them - in appearance as well as behaviour. His style was usually jeans-and T-shirt casual, but even as a desperately traumatized inpatient on a psychiatric ward, he maintained his standards and managed to be always band-box clean and neat.
[Three years later, once more at Hairmyres, his last act in life would be to ask a nurse to fetch him a razor, so he could look respectable for his visitors. This was a serious consideration: although his head-hair was fairish his facial hair was dark ginger-brown, and very fast-growing; so that within a few hours of shaving he would start to develop a horrible little Errol Flynn-type bootlace moustache.]
There was no relief from the stress. In one particularly traumatic event, while helping police to identify one of his attackers, he had had to watch hours of film of other boys being abused as he'd been. As a result of the breakdown and this being made to watch scenes of abuse, for the rest of his life Eric suffered from acute Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome - panic attacks, nightmares, and bouts of near-catatonic collapse and of beating his head against the wall until he bled.
Worst of all were overwhelmingly vivid flashbacks of being sexually assaulted, replaying all the horrors as if they were happening again, now. This killed his libido and left him afraid of being touched; so that for a long time afterwards he thought of himself as sexless.
He was also claustrophobic, as a result of his abusers' habit of shutting him into a lavatory cubicle to be gang-raped while cheering spectators waited for their turn. His friends the McFarlans reported that one time while Eric was staying with them they came home after a Burns Supper to find him trapped in his room by a faulty lock, "... sitting curled up in a ball in the corner in a foetal position, tears streaming down his face, hyperventilating. It had taken him back to when he'd been shut in a small room as a child and abused." This made his later imprisonment particularly cruel.
For 2½ years he was too ill to work or to communicate with anyone but a handful of close friends, and following a second breakdown he had to be watched 24-hours-a-day for several months, to prevent him from killing himself. It was just at this time, when he was so desperately ill, that he was being pursued the most relentlessly by the press, and being bullied by the police and Crown Prosecution Service to make him plead guilty to things he insisted he hadn't done (and for which there was no evidence).
In some ways being raped had been easier to cope with. The abuse was hideous, and he screamed and wept with pain and begged for mercy - but in between these spasms of grotesque violence he put it out of his mind and got on with his life. His situation was, sadly, not that unusual - other than the fact that it was happening to a bloke. Battered wives live like this all the time: putting a brave face on it and getting on with life in between bouts of violence and terror behind closed doors (although they at least are not normally prosecuted for having been too cowed to go to the police). Also, Eric did at least know that his abusers behaved the way they did because they were criminals and freakish inadequates - Francis Currens being floridly demented and his uncle Jack Williams being, as they say in Scotland, as thick as shite (and twice as ugly).
Now the normal world - the state itself, and the popular press and its readers - were telling him that his abusers were right: that he was bad and dirty and deserved to be punished. And the persecution by the tabloids was relentless: from the time the story first broke until his death he was given no respite from it. Now, there were never any calm interludes in which he could get on with his life. He had no relief from the intrusive coverage of his private misery, and most of it lies - he lived in a mad hall of mirrors, in which everything he had ever said or done was reflected back distorted into something else.
Nevertheless, when he wasn't in the throes of a florid breakdown he looked a lot more relaxed than he had done in the last two series of Rab C Nesbitt. When he was playing Wee Burney, the mouth laughed but the eyes screamed.
Once the police-raid put an end to the abuse he looked sad and scared, sometimes hysterical and terrified: but he no longer had that expression of desperate, pressure-cooker strain.
His resilience and willpower were remarkable. Although he could be dithery and indecisive, once he'd actually made up his mind to do something he just got on and did it.
This was not always a Good Thing - e.g. once he'd made up his mind to plead guilty he did so, regardless of advice to the contrary from his friends. [Despite the disastrous consequences, however, this may still have been the least bad option open to him.]
During the time that he was most ill with depression he lived with his friends the McFarlans, who had to watch him round the clock to prevent him from killing himself: but as soon as his mood began to improve he decided he was fed up with being a psychological invalid and it was time to get back to his own house and normal life (or what passed for it in his case). He then promptly bounded off on a solo trip to India to spend some time just reading and boiling his brains on a beach, not worrying about his problems - but, typically, he couldn't really enjoy it because the poverty of the local people upset him too much.
At his lowest ebb, the night he was sent down to the cells, he looked back at his life and could see only "an endless series of punishments". Nevertheless, although at the time of his death he still suffered bouts of frantic unhappiness and of beating his head against the wall, he had on the whole made an impressive recovery. Despite continuing persecution by the press he was mostly cheerful, full of plans for the future, sitting up and taking an interest in women again, about to start work on an Honours degree in Forensic Psychology, and determined to tackle his abusers head on and metaphorically nail them to the wall.
He was living proof of the modern psychological theory that a person's emotional "temperature", their level of optimism and pessimism, is innate. According to this theory, a born pessimist may be cheered for a while by some particularly wonderful piece of good fortune, but once the excitement wears off they'll find something to be gloomy about; whereas a born optimist can suffer the most dreadful horrors and still get their bounce back within a couple of years.
When Eric was particularly fraught and depressed, he said that the memory of abuse had left him afraid to be touched: but the rest of the time he was, despite everything, rather a tactile person - someone who liked to express emotion with a big hug. It seemed as if intense suffering had stripped off some protective layer and left him more emotionally exposed than most people: but what was revealed was basically quite light-hearted and frisky, when he wasn't being crucified by hideous memories or his dread of imprisonment.
Unfortunately he was being crucified by memory for a large proportion of the time: and he could never be as light-hearted as nature made him, because even at his happiest he still had that raw, bruised feeling - the hurt and the anxiety.
Through all the terrible things which happened in his life, Eric kept a great capacity for enjoying whatever pleasant things came his way. At the worst times his misery was, as his friend Bill McFarlan put it, "inconsolable": but much of the time his mood was as changeable as the Scottish weather, so that even when he was drowning in depression he could often be lifted out of it by something amusing.
Eric was utterly terrified of prison: when he came to the Court of Appeal he was so deathly white that even the beds of his fingernails were bleached - something only normally seen in medical patients who have been given massive doses of adrenaline. He fully believed that if the judge sent him back to prison he would be going to his death - and given the state of his heart that was probably true. Yet his measure of how bad his mental state had been in Barlinnie was that he had only laughed out loud once, while reading a Spike Milligan book.
He both laughed and wept freely - one could hardly say "easily", for he had such overwhelming reasons to weep, and his laughter was such a triumph in the face of suffering. He had an indomitable sense of humour - not just the joke-cracking kind, but a witty take on everything in life. I called him the Cheshire Cat, because even if everything else was taken from him that ear to ear grin would survive.
His whole attitude and conversation were shot through with laughter. Even he couldn't laugh at some of the horrors which had happened to him, but he took himself as lightly as he took most things.
Given that his self-esteem had taken such a battering, there was probably an undertow of real self-hatred to his self-mockery: but if so it was well hidden. He was genuinely entertained by his own foibles, as well as by other people's.
A strong sense of humour is one of the best things a person can have to preserve their mental health. Eric's helped to keep him sane through all the dreadful things that happened to him - and though his nerves may have been shattered he was eminently sane. He wouldn't let a little thing like fifteen years of rape and torture bias his rational judgement: when a bisexual friend of mine was concerned that Eric, with his history, would find his sexuality creepy or threatening, Eric's response was "Tell him not to be so silly" (and that was vintage Eric in being kind, sensible and maybe just the teensiest bit patronizing).
Although he knew he was "a comedy genius" (his words!) his abusers had shredded his self-esteem so badly that he convinced himself that making people laugh was all he could do - that he wasn't even a "real actor". In fact he was not only a superb comic and a genuinely talented actor: he also had a clear and vivid prose-style, was a poet and a passable tenor, and had the makings of a brilliant clinical psychologist.
What he wasn't good at was anything mechanical or manual (also spelling). A friend of mine called him "handless" - the opposite of a "handy man". When the tabloids suggested that he might be linked to a porn ring on the Internet (using an elderly single-function Amstrad word-processor and no modem: one might as well try to drive to the moon on a tractor) he replied bemusedly that he couldn't even operate the dishwasher... As a teenager he had hero-worshipped a local wood-carver; admiring the ability to create with the hands, which he himself lacked.
His mechanical ineptitude saved his life at least once. At his lowest ebb he did seriously try to kill himself, but made a hash of it: he reported that he had tried to gas himself with car exhaust, but had only succeeded in making himself throw up.
He told me once that he lived on ready-made meals he could heat in the microwave. On a subsequent occasion when I 'phoned him he was cooking lunch, so I said "Bunging something in the microwave?" and he exclaimed "No!" in mock offence, and then muttered "Boil-in-the-bag". And yet when he was left to look after the McFarlan children for a few days he was able to cook very well. He could do a lot of things he thought he couldn't - he really could have been and done anything he wanted (except maybe a sculptor - or a basketball player).
Above all he was marvelous with people. If he had lived to take his Honours in Forensic Psychology, and had become a counselor for other victims of abuse as he was contemplating, he would have done it superbly. He was intensely sympathetic and supportive to others in a lively, unsticky way, very emotionally open himself and with a talent for encouraging communication in others and bringing out the best in them.
If he had become a counselor, however, it would have been a great strain on him, for he could never have remained uninvolved. He agonized over anyone who was suffering, even if he'd never met or had contact with them.
He had great sympathy and understanding - intense awareness of other people as feeling individuals. That included being aware of children as people in their own right, people whose wishes and opinions counted - something many adults find difficult. The tabloid press would no doubt regard his empathy with children as sinister: but there are people who really like and get on with children without having sexual designs on them.
An extensive police investigation found no child with any complaint against Eric whatsoever, even though he had worked with children all his adult life, including a spell as a primary school teacher. On the contrary, he was a huge hit with children wherever he went. The children of his friend Dorothy Grace Elder even begged to be allowed to go to prison with him and protect him, because he was their hero and their darling.
The mother of one of his pupils told me that her daughter had been a very small child, and very nervous on her first day at school. Eric saw her hesitating outside, looking scared, so he came over to her and said "I'm little too: let's go in together" - and for the rest of his life, even when he was a big name star, even when he was being hounded to his grave by the tabloids, whenever he saw this girl they would compare heights and joke about how she had outgrown him.
[He always had that emotionally open and perhaps just a wee bit "luvvy" ability to say the warm, expressive thing. He was planning to come and visit me, so I warned him that I was living in a semi-derelict property which I was doing up in situ, and that staying with me would be like camping out in a warehouse. He replied "You don't come to see the place; you come to see the person" - twice, with some force. This was a typically lovely thing to say - which he immediately spoilt by adding "Anyway, it can't be that bad". I said "It can, you know".]
He got on exceptionally well with children, and enjoyed their company, not because he had any evil designs on them but because he felt safer with them than with adults - and because they were a perfect audience for his talent for playing the fool, and fed his desperate need for laughter and approval.
If his liking for children's company contained any element of neurosis due to the abuse he'd suffered, it wasn't the neurosis of sexual deviancy (bearing in mind that one of the top experts in Britain on the psychiatry of sex offenders and their victims treated Eric for nineteen months, and has stated publicly that he showed no trace of any sexual perversion whatsoever). Rather, it was that his own childhood had been brutally ripped away from him at thirteen, and getting a share in someone else's childhood was a substitute for the years he'd missed.
Although Eric was in most respects very mature - much more so than most thirty-year-old human males - his abusers had deliberately treated him as a child even when he was a grown man, and had conditioned him to believe that he was helpless. Probably as a consequence, he had a few oddly childish behaviour patterns when depressed: e.g. hiding under the bedcovers and refusing to come out. But he had great understanding of his own emotions - what he felt and why and how to handle it.
He was determined to testify against his abusers in court, but it took immense courage to do so. Even just giving evidence to the police or to interviewers was hideously difficult, and mortally embarrassing - he hated even naming some of the things which had been done to him, and took refuge in polite euphemism.
Worse, it could trigger violent flashbacks of rape and torture which threatened his sanity. On one such occasion he took an overdose of sleeping pills, in a desperate attempt to knock himself out and get away from the memories, and ended up in hospital.
Testifying in court, in public, with his abuser(s) in the same room would have been ten times worse, and he knew it. Part of his reason for going back to university to do Forensic Psychology was that he reckoned if he had essays to write and exams to study for it would give him something else to think about while giving evidence, and prevent him from cracking up again.
He received terrifying threats from his abusers in an attempt to scare him off, and his high-profile campaign attracted fresh attacks from the press - but he just took a few more anti-depressants and kept on going. He was very upset when the Daily Star called him "a professional victim" who should just keep quiet about having been abused: but his understanding of his own emotions at least meant that he knew he was showing immense courage - and had the sense to be proud of it. One week before he died, he told The Big Issue "If I die tomorrow, I want to be remembered not for being a professional victim, but for standing up against my abusers."
He was not only understanding of other people's feelings but also tolerant of them - including their feelings towards himself. He was immensely relaxing company; someone you could say anything to, someone you could tease a bit knowing he would play along with the joke. He was the exact reverse of the sort of person with whom you always have to think about what you say because they are constantly on the look-out for things to be offended by (though he did bristle if he thought you were suggesting he couldn't do something because he was too small).
When Eric wound up in hospital, after taken an overdose of sleeping pills in an attempt to drown out violent flashbacks of rape and torture, some of his friends were furiously angry with him. His attitude to this was typically sensible: he neither resented their anger nor became unduly depressed by it, but just accepted the fact that they loved him and he had given them an awful fright, so it was natural that they would be mad with him.
[He gave himself an awful fright too, but he considered it to have been quite useful - since, ironically, it made him realize he wanted to live after all.]
He said himself that because his uncle had said "I love you" while raping him, for a long time he had had difficulties with love as a concept, until his close friendship with the McFarlan family helped him to accept that he could both love and be loved. Yet his behaviour had always been loving and warm, even if he didn't consciously think of it as "love", and he had a great ability to inspire love in others - and not only love but devotion.
When he was so ill that he had to be watched round the clock to keep him from killing himself, his friends the McFarlans invited him to live with them, and also helped him financially. In partnership with journalist Dorothy Grace Elder and Betty Maxwell Carter, a policewoman turned investigator who (like myself) had known nothing of Eric before the court-case, but who afterwards became a close friend, they worked tirelessly to help prepare Eric's appeal against sentence - and to uncover the evidence against his abusers which the police had said did not exist.
I myself devoted every free moment for over a year to cheering him up and boosting his battered self-esteem. For one reason or another this led to the break-up of most of my pre-existing friendships: but it didn't seem to matter, because Eric was such fun, so sweet and good-humoured and so vividly full of life and spirit, that just talking to him was like being slightly drunk on something wonderful.
He wasn't an object of charity: he earned and deserved the love which he inspired. He had an immense talent for friendship. Following his death the tabloid press would describe him as "a lonely figure" etc. because that went with their portrayal of him as a weird pervert - but in fact he was a cheerfully gregarious man who had more close, intimate friendships on the go than anyone else I've ever met, and was so much in demand you practically had to book a fortnight in advance to speak to him.
He had a particular ability really to see people, regardless of whatever else was going on: all people, young or old, rich or poor, famous or obscure. This vivid awareness of and attachment to others was one of the anchors which kept him from drowning in his own depression.
He ran into Caroline1McFarlan, then only a distant acquaintance, quite by chance, at a time when he was desperately ill with depression: swamped by his own misery. When she asked politely how he was coping, most people in his position would have made polite noises in return and beaten a retreat. But he saw her vividly as a real person, not just as part of the backdrop to his own misery. He trusted her immediately and opened up his heart to her - which was probably the best decision he ever made.
He said himself that had it not been for the support he got from the McFarlans he would have killed himself, for at that time he had lost the will to live. In the event they only extended his life by three years, but it wasn't wasted effort. If he hadn't had the emotional wisdom to take up the lifeline Caroline1was offering him, Eric would have died by his own hand in a daze of horror and despair. As it was he died of natural causes, in a hopeful frame of mind; knowing himself to be greatly loved and feeling like a whole person, with a right to be proud of his own determination to fight back.
Similarly, when he met me he had just come from his successful appeal against sentence, and was entirely stunned. I passed him in the corridor and said "Congratulations", expecting that he would just say "Thanks" and walk on; and most people in his position would have done. But being Eric he really saw me, stopped for a proper conversation, kissed me, asked me to write to him - and won himself another devoted friend, not because he was pitiable but because he was outstandingly likeable.
He doted on the McFarlans and on his adoptive parents, and was immensely grateful to all the friends who helped him in his desperate trouble: but his gift for friendship was a mature unsentimental one. He wasn't blind to failings in the people he loved: but he accepted them with amused affection.
He also passed on the love and support which he received. Through all his own troubles he still found time to look after a friend called Tom who was going through a messy divorce. When the McFarlans fell in love with Eric's long-haired Chihuahua Becky (she of the three legs), Eric helped choose a similar Chi for them. He had absolutely no intention of getting a second dog himself - but then he saw this rescue case who'd been a brood-bitch on a puppy farm and "she'd never had any love, so I had to have her" - he had to bring Holly home and repair her life.
When he took the overdose of sleeping pills, his main concern wasn't for his own pain which had driven him to do it, but for the distress he had caused to his family and friends.
He spoke about "my pain" as if it was a separate, solid entity - but he had a very Edwardian, stiff-upper-lip attitude to it: distrusting self-pity; trying to deal with his own problems; not askng for help; not wanting to be a burden to others etc..
I have a letter from him in which he characteristically referred to "... my pain (I'm not moaning about it)" - though he had more reason to moan than most people could begin to imagine.
His mannerisms were also rather Edwardian: his favourite exclamations were "Oh gosh", "Oh, Jings!" and "Ah, that's sweet!", and though I personally swear like a trooper I was quite shocked when he used the word "bloody", because it seemed so unlike him. He was consciously determined to keep up his standards of behaviour under any and all circumstances: to be polite, clean, respectable.
He was disappointed in himself for having taken the overdose, feeling he had slipped below the standard of sensible behaviour which he had set for himself. He actually said to me once that he supposed he ought to be thankful for his lot in life - I told him it was the biggest load of rubbish I'd ever heard.
When I told him that he was no longer at the top of my "worry list" because the pole-position had been taken by a friend with liver-cancer, he exclaimed "Oh, that's much worse than me!" I replied "It's not worse, just more urgent. Your problems are terrible, but at the same time there's nothing wrong with you that won't keep for a fortnight" (actually there was, but we didn't know it). He was very taken with that: he liked his friends to be supportive but not to get too sentimental about it. No normal man likes to be an object of pity all the time - and though grossly abnormal things had been done to him, in most respects Eric was a very normal man.
Being under terrible stress because of his memories of abuse and the ongoing persecution by the press, and being naturally rather hyperactive anyway (he talked at machine-gun speed and with great intensity), he was almost permanently keyed up. He was unable to empty his mind even for a moment - constantly distracted by sickening memories and by his anger and anxiety over the lies being told about him, and the failure of the police to act against his abusers. I remember one time losing the thread of our conversation, and saying to him "Sorry - my mind just went blank". He replied "I wish mine could!" with real longing.
He was often afraid to sleep - afraid of the dark and the nightmares of abuse. [On the grounds that most actors are superstitious I gave him a chunk of genuine "cold iron" - i.e. iron which has been picked off the ground as purish metal, without having to be smelted - i.e. a small meteor - and told him it would protect him from evil influences at night. He said it helped.] Yet although he suffered terrible symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, in a way he was quite practical, even blasé about it.
When I told him that my first reaction, on hearing how in his desperation he would often beat his head against the wall until he bled, had not been "How tragic" but "How West Coast" ("heid-banging" being a stereotypically Glaswegian behaviour) he was enchanted. When I further told him about a friend who also used to beat his head on the wall due to psychiatric problems, and whose university flatmates got him a big foam cushion with "Tension-Reliever Mark 1" written on it in felt-pen, so he could heid-bang without hurting himself, Eric declared cheerfully that that was what he needed (I bought him one, but he didn't live to use it). He seemed to regard crippling panic attacks as a minor irritation, at least while he wasn't actually having one.
With hindsight I suppose about one in five of those "panic attacks" of his was a mini heart-attack, but it was just as well he didn't know how ill he was. He was probably too far gone for any treament except a transplant, which he wouldn't have lived to have: and he would have been scared, and bitterly resentful at the unfairness of it. As things were, he wouldn't have been frightened when he died. He was too full of post-operative morphine to feel much pain - and if he had time to realize that his heart-beat had gone wrong he must just have thought "Here we go - another panic attack".
He seemed to have a horror of serious disease, and founded a charity to raise money for child leukaemia victims, in honour of his brother David who had died before his own birth. His parents had the tragedy of losing three children: they had a son and two daughters by the biological method, but lost one girl in infancy, and the boy died of leukaemia at five years. They also adopted a son and daughter: but their adored adopted son has now also died young. [Eric also had an American half-sister on his biological father's side, with whom he was on good terms.]
Eric adored his adoptive family in return. The Daily Record (in particular) played the politics-of-envy card and portrayed him as living a life of sybaritic luxury among his "showbiz chums", out of touch with decent ordinary folk like its readers. In fact he lived in an unremarkable little house, on a thoroughly unremarkable modern housing estate which, whilst quite nice in itself, is next door to one of the bits of Hamilton where the residents are kept awake at night by the sound of teenagers dancing round the flames of burning cars. But that was where he wanted to be - because it was round the corner from his parents, among the ordinary Lanarkshire people he'd grown up with.
The rough Glaswegian accent he used for Wee Burney was just acting. Offstage he had a light, husky but very clear voice with the softer Motherwell accent, combining mostly BBC grammar with a broad Scots vocabulary. He had sophisticated tastes - hated football and was into classical ballet, worthy biographies and gin - but he was also a local boy who liked a drink and a laugh down the pub. As someone once said of Boris Yeltsin, his hobby was getting drunk and falling over (also photography and long-haired Chihuahuas in Eric's case; though possibly not in Yeltsin's): except that being a Lanarkshire lad he called it "getting merrily stocious".
Many victims of extreme sexual abuse end up as heroin addicts or similar, in an attempt to drown out the pain. Eric was far too respectable to go in for illegal substances: but from his mid teens onwards he wavered on the edge of alcoholism, and sometimes tipped over it. He was also a heavy smoker. This was a response to the immense stress he was under: but he was as gentle and amiable drunk as he was sober, and the fact that he was using gin and nicotine as impromptu anti-depressants didn't stop him getting a lot of enjoyment out of them.
[Medically they probably cancelled each other out. Smoking is bad for the heart - alcohol good for it, whatever other harm it may do. Anecdotally, doctors say alcoholics die with clean arteries: if Eric could be a borderline alcoholic for half his life and still die of atherosclerosis at thirty-one, his inherited heart-disease must have been overwhelming.]
When I told him about Thomas Hardy's Ale (a Dorset ale which at the time was the second strongest beer in the world), and that I had seen a great big Cornish biker walking at about 20° from the vertical after just two third-of-a-pint bottles, he immediately wanted to try it and see if he could out-drink a biker. When he invited me to come and get "merrily stocious" with him a colleague told me I mustn't actually get drunk in his presence as "It's not ladylike and men don't like that". I said to him "You don't want me to be 'ladylike', do you?" and he replied "Certainly not!" in a rather prim tone (I said "If you did you'd be disappointed").
Eric may have felt the need to prove himself sexually - his psychiatrist Dr Prem Misra says that at times "He felt he wasn't a proper man" - but even if there was an element of neurosis to Eric's lively interest in women he still managed to get a lot of fun out of that too - and a lot of genuine emotional warmth. All his voluntary sexual relationships were with women - as were most of his close friendships. He wasn't just someone who fancied women, but a man who really loved women; who wanted to be with women socially.
Men who genuinely like women a lot tend to like a lot of women - so he probably wouldn't have proved to be the faithful kind. If so, it's an amiable failing. Eric was not without his faults: but they were all pretty amiable, especially considering the vicious horrors which had been inflicted on him. Indeed, what with him being so kind, supportive, sensitive etc., if he hadn't had a few faults he would have been positively sickeningly sweet. The fact that he was also at times catty, sarcastic, pig-headed, rowdy and a smug, scene-stealing little git just added variety to the view.
He was often maddeningly vague (partly due to the large quantities of anti-depressants he was taking). He had a habit of omitting to tell people important bits of information: not because he was being secretive but because he'd forgotten that he hadn't told them already. This sometimes made conversation confusing.
He was exceptionally mild and gentle: and under the circumstances that was almost a fault in itself, since it made him easy prey for his abusers. It seemed somehow typical of Eric that, living under constant threat of violence, in circumstances in which a big fierce guard-dog would have been a really sensible idea, he should have ended up not with a Doberman but with a three-legged female Chihuahua.
However, there was nothing weak about him. Like a Staffordshire Bull Terrier he was "the last to start a fight and the last to finish it" - it took a great deal to make him angry, but once roused his anger had great staying-power. That meant on the one hand that he was prepared to dig in and do whatever it took to get his abusers convicted and safely away from other children: on the other, that he could suffer bouts of destructive "raging" in which he e.g. threw out all documents relating to his birth-mother because she had sold the story of their reunion to the Daily Record against his express wishes.
He also had a hard practical streak - a lot of sound commonsense. Even his decision to plead guilty wasn't as foolish as it might seem. Had things gone the way almost everyone - including the prosecution - expected, he would have been released with a token fine and would then immediately have given a press conference explaining his reasons for pleading guilty to things he swore he hadn't done. The headlines the next day would all have been "'I lied in court' sez Wee Burney" - because that would have been so much more interesting than "Star fined for minor offences".
It was only the sheriff's totally unexpected decision to jail him which prevented him from speaking out, and left the public thinking there was no doubt about his guilt (ever practical, he was far less polite about the Scottish Prison Service after his appeal, when he knew he wouldn't be going back to jail, than he had been before it).
Even so, his decision to plead guilty was still probably the right one. He'd been told that if he refused to plead guilty to all charges the case wouldn't come to court for another year. In that case the strain of having a trial hanging over his head would probably have killed him even sooner: he would have died still in that state of frozen terror, and never had any normal life at all. Even if he had lived through the trial he would certainly have died very soon after, and not had time to take any action against his abusers.
As it was, he had 10½ months in which he was neither being raped nor under threat of prison: and in that time he made a remarkable recovery; and also nagged the police into taking action against his uncle, who was jailed as a direct result.
Although Eric tried to steer clear of self-pity, he complained bitterly about the unfairness of the way he'd been treated, not only by his abusers but by the press and the police. But then that wasn't really self-pity - it was a general attitude, a general anger at the cruelty of the world. He cared deeply that the world should be fair to everyone who was suffering - not just to himself.
He himself tried always to behave ethically, to Do the Right Thing, and the callous, self-serving behaviour of some other people appalled him. His abusers didn't only terrify and revolt him - they offended his moral sense. He once said that they would "make Satan vomit"; so it was particularly distressing for him to have people think that he himself might be a paedophile.
He both thought and spoke in that kind of broad, grand, theological terminology. His life up to the court-case was "16 years of hell", prison "indescribable hell" - not in the glib, throwaway way those expressions are often used, but as literally as someone who had planned to become a Christian minister could mean them.
He saw the sordid subculture of his abusers, and his own suffering and depression, as a great darkness from which he was struggling to escape. "Since I was first raped at 13, I have been searching for the light"; acting had helped him to "escape from the darkness"; at the Court of Appeal "The darkness has been lifted and the three judges have shown me some light". I asked him once what he made of me - this strange woman coming from nowhere to support him - and he replied flatly "I think of you as a real light". And when he died, his parents chose to have him cremated - because he had lived in the darkness so long, and they wanted him to go out in a blaze of light.
In his teens and early twenties he had been heavily involved with his local church. This was probably in part because he needed emotional support to help him survive the abuse he was suffering; but he was also sincerely religious. This was despite the fact that his uncle was a church elder (in a small Protestant spin-off sect) who had taken him to sing "Goodness and mercy all my days//Shall surely follow me" just before raping him for the first time; so that he could never afterwards hear the 23rd psalm without weeping. But Eric, with his usual sound sense, didn't let one creeping hypocrite put him off honest churchmen: any more than he let years of homosexual abuse prejudice him against decent gays of the consenting-adults-only type.
Before Eric's adult stage career took off he had been expected to become a Church of Scotland minister himself, when he was a little older and more experienced. Even when he became a big-name TV star instead, he still kept an interest and involvement in church organizations - including the Boys' Brigade.
The tabloids no doubt assumed he used the BB as an aid to perversion, but in fact this constant church-work and general business was a means of escaping from it - surrounding himself with people and activity so his abusers couldn't corner him on his own. He was quoted as saying that he was "... involved in anything to keep me away from that scene" and from the men he called "gangsters".
Although he had intended to become a Protestant minister Eric despised sectarianism - and could say the words "Orange Lodge" as if he was picking them up with forceps. Like the Church of Scotland itself he was quite ecumenical, and e.g. found the fact that I'm a pagan interesting rather than shocking. At the end of his life he had moved away from the formal, church-going sort of religion - self-described as "a lapsed Prod: can you be a lapsed Prod?" - but he retained his interest in spiritual matters.
His abusers wrecked his life and gave him a lot of neuroses, but because of his huge strength of character they couldn't dent his fundamental nature: they couldn't even make him be impolite. No amount of cruelty could change his deep sympathy for others or his determination to behave well, and his buoyant humour, warmth and robust good sense bubbled up constantly through all adversity. His tormentors would doubtless have liked to turn him into something like themselves, and had certainly taught him to believe that he was dirty and disgusting: but in fact he had a kind of untouched freshness, and his own sexuality was cheerful and affectionate.
His refusal to be corrupted or soured was of a piece with his determination not to let his abusers prevent him from getting an education, a career and a sex-life. He was a real trouper: not just professionally (he once went on stage with broken ribs rather than let the audience down) but in his whole approach to life. I suppose his determination that "The show must go on" was part of what got him into such trouble in the first place - because it prevented others from realizing the horrors that were happening to him in the background; always soldiering on as if everything was fine, and never asking for help.
He could feel trapped behind his own calm, efficient front. "At a time when I only wanted to sit down and cry (day I got out of hospital after overdose) [the McFarlans'] house was surrounded by the media and the only way to get rid of them was to say something. I had to do a stupid picture of me sitting in bed drinking tea for the Sun, showing everyone I was OK. When all I really wanted to do was jump from a cliff shouting 'I'm not OK'".
[I pointed out that it was, at least, a very nice picture, and a nice article. The Sun at one point had confused the issue with careless sub-editing which made it sound - falsely - as if Eric was gay, but other than that it behaved impeccably. While not particularly taking sides over his guilt or innocence of the charges against him, it took the reasonable view that either way those charges were very minor, while the good he was doing by challenging his abusers was very great.]
Nevertheless his iron professionalism enabled him to do things which would have reduced most people in his position to a gibbering wreck. He could talk about the most sordid and horrible experiences in a calm, steady voice, whether testifying to the police or to an interviewer - and then go home and spend days in a state of shuddering collapse, but at least he got the thing done.
If he'd lived to testify against his abusers in court, he would have tried to do so with the same steady competence. At one time he did think about saving himself from further pain by giving up his campaign against his abusers: fearing that the police wouldn't act on his evidence anyway and he was putting himself through the stress of describing all this hideous, humiliating stuff to no purpose; and knowing that if they did act on his testimony he would have to go over the whole thing again in court, which he dreaded. But he didn't give up: because he also knew that the job of saving other children from his abusers had landed in his lap: that cup wouldn't pass, so basically he just had to be a trouper and get on with it.
As an adult he was cheerfully practical about his physical appearance. As a child he had been acutely distressed by his dwarfism, and had feared that God was punishing him for being dirty and bad as his abusers told him he was. Yet as he got older, typically, he made the best of his small stature, adopted it as a sort of mascot and milked it for whatever humour he could find in it.
He approached his whole life in that spirit: it might have been bitterly unfair and full of suffering, but he made the best of it - and still managed to get a lot of laughs out of it. At his funeral, a friend sang the Gloria Gaynor song I Am What I Am, which Eric had felt expressed his own feelings about his life and other people's attitudes towards him - "It's my world that I want to have a little pride in... I am what I am, I don't want praise, I don't want pity". [Even the fact that he, a straight man who had been called a "gay pervert" by the tabloids, should have loved a song which has become a gay anthem had a bizarre jokiness to it - but the "closet" Eric knew he had to open was the much grimmer and more embarrassing one of the abuse-victim.]
Eric Cullen suffered many years of the most extreme cruelty and abject, systematic humiliation, and his mental suffering was also raw and horrible: yet he was the most tremendous fun to be with. His indomitable humour and his warm interest in others may have been partly defence mechanisms, used to distract himself from how utterly wretched he felt; but that doesn't invalidate them as character traits. Out of all the possible defence mechanisms he could have adopted, he chose humour and empathy because they were the ones that best suited his nature.
The last ever photograph...