There’s nothing like researching your own life to uncover long-hidden secrets.
When Suggs was putting together his first one-man show six years ago, he found out rather more than he might have wanted about his father, Mac. A keen amateur photographer and jazz fan, he worked for a photographic developer’s. But he was also a drug addict.
“My mum told me she’d come home and find him with needles sticking out of his hands,” says Suggs, 57. “Heroin was his drug of choice, a one-way street that takes you further and further away from real life. In the end, it did for the marriage.”
The squeamish should look away now. When Mac took to injecting his eyeballs with paraffin, he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and put in an asylum in south London. He died in 1975, the year his son morphed into Suggs.
“The first show was all about how I got from being Graham McPherson working in a butcher’s in Chapel Market, north London to becoming the front man of Madness.” Its success has now spawned a second, follow-up slab of life according to Suggs entitled A Life in the Realm of Madness.
The new show was triggered by a defining moment. “I recently discovered I had a sister living in Ireland. I kind of knew my mother had had a daughter she’d put up for adoption as a baby. But I had no recollection of her and it was something we never spoke about.
“Then, completely out of the blue, Mum got a message on Facebook saying: ‘I think you might be my mother.’ It turned out this woman – her name is Julie – had seen a repeat of my This Is Your Life on which my mother was introduced by her maiden name, Edith Gower.
“Julie recognised the name and spotted the physical resemblance. Then she got in touch. This was about five years ago and I’ll never forget it. Mum flew to Dublin to meet Julie and, when she came back, she was different.
“Her shoulders had dropped. It was as if she’d carried a tension inside her every day of her life since she’d been forced to part with her daughter. An innate sadness had instantly disappeared. And it all happened just in time.” Suggs’s mother passed away in April aged 79.
It’s been quite a year. In July, his younger daughter, Viva, gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl called Buster and Birdie. “Talk about the circle of life. They’re living with us at the moment. They’re great but bloody hard work.”
Suggs married his wife, Anne – known professionally as Bette Bright, singer with the band, Deaf School – when he was only 21. “I think I was probably looking for a bit of structure in my life. But I married for love – and we’re still together.” They also have an elder daughter, Scarlet, who married in the summer.
Early success with Madness was balanced by a rock steady home life, something for which he’ll always be grateful. “Fame doesn’t really interest me,” he says. But it does, of course, open some pretty impressive doors.
“A couple of weeks before the Diamond Jubilee, I’d said something disparaging on the radio about Brian May’s hair. It triggered a tsunami of angry tweets from Queen trolls.
“A few days later, Anne said to me that I’d been sent a letter from the Queen. I said: ‘What? They’ve got their lawyers on me, have they?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘not Queen. It’s from THE Queen.’
“Well, of course I didn’t believe her. But it turned out to be an invitation for Madness to perform at the Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace.”
There was a bit of a problem on the day. Both Elton John and Paul McCartney insisted on using their own pianos and having them tuned on the spot. “By the time it was our turn to perform, there was no room left. Then some bright spark shouted out: ‘Why don’t you put them on the roof?’
“So that’s exactly what happened. But, as someone pointed out, the first man to play on the roof of Buckingham Palace was, yes, Brian May so that brought me down to earth with a bit of a bump.
“I suffer from vertigo but I just about managed to hold it all together. And I couldn’t believe the reaction. Next day, we sold out every single ticket on our upcoming tour.”
In the line-up afterwards, Suggs was introduced to Her Majesty. “I asked her if she was into football. ‘No, not especially,’ she said. So I said: ‘Well, can I have your Cup Final tickets then?’
“She didn’t miss a beat. ‘That’s a Tommy Cooper joke,’ she said. And she was right. She’s sharp as a tack. Whatever you may say about the rest of them, we’re so lucky to have her.”
He represented his country again when Madness performed Our House at the Olympic closing ceremony a couple of months later. “So there I was on the back of a truck somewhere in the East End.
“On the truck in front were The Who. On the right were some spotty Herberts called One Direction. On the left, the Pet Shop Boys were riding bicycles with traffic cones on their head. And behind us, the Spice Girls were doing vocal warm-ups until Pete Townshend called out: ‘Someone throw them a f***ing fish!’
“Then our truck pulls off and we’re in a stadium with 70,000 people and two billion watching worldwide. The bass, the brass, the strings of Our House strike up – and then it’s my turn. And I forget the first line of the song. Fortunately, the crowd were singing the words so I pointed the microphone at them. Bizarre.”
And so to rock royalty. “My producer, Clive Langer, was working on David Bowie’s soundtrack for the film, Absolute Beginners. I went for an audition for the lead role but I tripped over and broke my toe so that was the end of that. “
Four months later, on a skiing holiday with Clive, an invitation came through from Bowie for them to join him in his house in the mountains surrounding Gstaad. “It takes a couple of days but we got there and I’m expecting dwarves with cocaine on their heads, snake charmers, dancing girls.
“As we pull up, there’s Bowie himself waving us into his garage. We’d forgotten our cases were on the roof so they all got knocked to the ground as Clive drove through the garage doors. What followed was the unedifying spectacle of one of the coolest men on earth scrabbling around picking up my smalls.
“We were then ushered inside for a packet of crisps and a glass of wine. He was on the straight and narrow. But what a charming, modest man and a huge, huge talent. We won’t see his like again.”
After the one-man show finishes, there’s a UK tour with Madness before Christmas. Then next year is the band’s 40th anniversary so there’ll be lots happening. “Who’d have thought it would go on this long? I know how lucky I’ve been.
“Not long ago, I was sitting outside a pub by Mornington Crescent tube station. I’d just picked up my mum’s ashes from the funeral directors; they were in a carrier bag on the table beside me. I ordered Mum a glass of Prosecco and I had a pint.
“Then I spotted one of my contemporaries who’d obviously fallen on hard times, having an argument across the road. So I went to lend him a bit of support and, when I looked back, there was some druggie polishing off the Prosecco, about to sink my pint and with my mum’s ashes under his arm.
“When I shouted at him and told him what was in the carrier bag, even he was a bit ashamed. It made me realise, though, that there but for the grace of God go I. I wasn’t that druggie or the one having a row about a tenner. I never stop being grateful for what I’ve got.”
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Brand New Show
SUGGS WHAT A KING CNUT A Life in the Realm of Madness…
Due to huge popular demand, after his first tour-de-force, smash hit, sell out tour, ‘My Life Story’, Suggs is treading the boards again with a brand new show.
If the first show was about how on Earth he got there, Suggs: What a King Cnut is about the surprises that awaited him when he did.
Vertigo on the roof of Buckingham Palace, nearly blowing the closing ceremony of the Olympics , the embarrassing stuff that happened at Glastonbury.
Things have gone a smidge surreal since the Madness frontman was a twelve year old in shorts on the tough streets of North London.
Constantly expecting that inevitable tap on the shoulder to hear ‘what are you doing here, Sunshine?’ how has he got this far? In this business you can be washed up at any minute. How has he managed to get away with it for so long?
Fame is a tightrope and Suggs has fallen off many times.
With help from Deano his trusty pianist, he tells his story in words and music with the help of some Madness classics and a couple more what he wrote all on himself.