Andrew Marr on life after his stroke: “I don’t do tears. I come from Dundee”

The veteran BBC journalist has made a documentary about his recovery - Andrew Marr: My Brain and Me

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The extent of Andrew Marr’s physical impairment comes as a shock. His limp is pronounced and he “can’t really walk” without the brace attached to his paralysed left ankle. His left arm is flaccid, the fingers barely able to grip. 

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In a new, authored documentary – which shows Marr seeking new treatments after his physical recovery reached a plateau – we see him lurching through hospital wards, dropping things, calling for the camera to be shut off when he can’t accomplish physiotherapy exercises. This is the real-life Marr, the one I meet in the flat he rents to paint pictures in near his north London home, far removed from the poised and posed figure he cuts in his eponymous Sunday politics show, where the only sign of the stroke is the way he sometimes cradles his left arm. 

“One of the things I said early on was that I didn’t want to become a poster boy for stroke recovery,” says Marr, 57. “I don’t really like talking about these things, or certainly being filmed. I didn’t enjoy watching the film. But when you are in public life, and something bad but very common happens to you – 1.4 million people are surviving strokes at the moment – then you have a kind of obligation to share your experience, particularly if it’s positive, and is going to encourage other people.”

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With Dr Ed Tobinick in Florida

In this context, “positive” is a relative term, but Marr is a glass-half-full person, who wryly responds to director Liz Allen’s attempts to stir him to high emotion with the words: “I don’t do tears. I come from Dundee.”

The stroke was almost certainly brought on by overdoing things. Marr’s wife, the political columnist Jackie Ashley, with whom he has three grown-up children, says in the film that four years ago her husband was “a workaholic, but immensely fit”. In the two years up to January 2013 he wrote a book and travelled the world for a documentary, while also hosting The Andrew Marr Show, and Radio 4’s Start the Week.

He’d given up running due to ageing knees but was an enthusiastic swimmer, cyclist and skier, and on the night before the stroke he tried to row 5km in 20 minutes on his rowing machine. He felt strange, thought it was a migraine, cooked dinner, watched a film with Jackie, went to bed, and woke up on the floor with his arm and leg failing and his face fallen. “I tore the carotid artery and that blocked the blood supply to the bit of the brain that happens to control motor function on the left side of the body,” he says. He was rushed to Charing Cross Hospital where the necessary treatment to remove the blockage caused a further, more severe bleed on the brain. He almost died twice. 

“I was out of it, I don’t remember anything about it,” he says. “They [the doctors] became very worried and brought Jackie and the children in and said, ‘We’re really sorry, he’s not going to make it.’ Later on, they said, ‘We are pretty clear he is not going to make it.’ The third time they said, ‘Good news and bad news: we think he might well make it but if he does he will basically be unable to speak and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.’ So that wasn’t a very attractive option for them [the family].” Fortunately, he woke up several days later, disoriented, unable to feed himself or go to the loo without help, feeling “not normal, but not too bad”.
 

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Interviewing Theresa May on The Andrew Marr Show

Initially he was in denial about how disabled – his term – he was, and talked about a trip to Russia with Jackie, but over the months of tests, physiotherapy and strength training (“because I’m a bloke”), it gradually sank in. “I was never suicidal,” he says. “I was upset. Everyone I think who goes through this has periods of depression. What I have to emphasise is: it’s not the great big existential questions; it’s that yet again it takes 35 minutes to get dressed; yet again you drop the toast on the floor; yet again you find you can’t walk from A to B properly. It’s the small things that accumulate and make life a bit crappier than it otherwise would be.”

We run through the ways his life has changed. He can’t do up his top button or shoelaces, and has had to forsake “proper shoes” for drawstring-laced trainers, because of the brace. He can’t yomp around Richmond Park any more, which is why he and Jackie sold their “very large – well, biggish” house in East Sheen for a smaller one in Primrose Hill, enabling him to walk to Broadcasting House or to Westminster (and hang out with new neighbours like Alan Bennett, Joan Bakewell and Baroness Kennedy).

Cooking is “frankly dangerous as well as difficult, chopping things one handed with a sharp knife”. In restaurants, he has to have things like steak or pheasant cut up for him. He can’t swim, ski or cycle now. He has a new Mercedes automatic to get about in, following a disastrous experiment riding a tricycle. “They are less stable than you imagine,” he says. “I have to have my left foot tied onto the pedal, and if you are tied to a tricycle when it goes over there’s nothing you can do about it. I have on one occasion been rescued by the police, lying prone on my tricycle by the side of the road.”


If he’d found he couldn’t paint, he says, that would have been “one ‘couldn’t’ too many”, although he’s switched from “classic Sunday painter” landscapes to abstracts. And he can, of course, still work. Staff at Charing Cross rigged up an autocue so he could practise speaking, and he returned to his Sunday show nine months after the stroke. He can’t type, but writes using Dragon Dictate voice-recognition software, which is “quite slow and you have to be very meticulous and very careful”.

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Painting in Marrakech

Physiotherapy and strength training enabled him to get rid of his stick and walk fairly competently early on. But six months ago he hit his plateau and discerned no further improvement in his condition. The documentary sees him investigate treatments that might help. Functional Electrical Stimulation doesn’t work for him, “though it works for others”; stem-cell injections delivered directly into the brain “are going to be the big thing” but Marr found them “too invasive”.

Finally, in Florida in December, he pays thousands of pounds for two injections of etanercept, an anti-inflammatory treatment that is administered by a former dermatologist. Marr says, “A lot of people said to me: ‘It’s not been passed by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], not had double-blind trials, you’ve been fooled, what an idiot’.” But even his “drily sceptical” phsyiotherapist conceded that there was improved movement in his arm and fingers, and movement where there previously was none in his ankle. He now hopes he can dispose of his leg brace in a year, “and perhaps even cycle again”.

Jackie supported his decision to try the treatment. How has his stroke affected their relationship? “It’s probably made it better and warmer actually,” he says. “I was very lucky with Jackie because she had grown up from when she was a young girl with a father [Labour politician and peer Jack Ashley, who died in 2012] who was deaf. You might think she has had the worst luck of all, having looked after her father, and then this happens to me. But she has been very good about shepherding me through the process.”

In the film, Jackie says that once she learnt Marr would survive, it “wouldn’t matter” that he was disabled. But I wonder if Marr would have been so stoic and optimistic if his speech or paralysis had been worse? If he hadn’t been able to work, he concedes, it might have cast him down more: he is, he says, “not as much of a Spitfire pilot” as Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who is paralysed from the waist down and in chronic pain since he was shot by criminal al-Qaeda sympathisers in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

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ITV competitor Robert Peston interviewing George Osborne

The biggest thing the stroke gave Marr was “a sense of mortality. I was very aware that I could have been dead at 53. In a way it’s like being shot into old age earlier than usual. You are physically frailer than you would normally be in your mid-50s, you have less energy and therefore the available amount of time matters more to you. Paradoxically – as everyone says the stroke was caused by me working too hard – I sort of want to cram a lot of things in.”

He has a book about painting coming out and is getting “antsy” at not having written a major opus for a while, along the lines of his histories of modern Britain. (He has “decided to spare the world a third novel” after the critical reception of the first two.) He has only filmed documentaries within the UK rather than abroad since the stroke, and was therefore one of the few pundits who saw the “leave” vote coming in the EU referendum. He’s chairing the Forward Prizes for poetry this year – in Me and My Brain he refuses to read some verse he wrote in hospital, not because it offers a dark window on his soul, but because it is “doggerel”. And he still has his regular radio and TV gigs.

He is frank about concealing the effects of the stroke on The Andrew Marr Show. “You don’t want people to think, ‘Ooh, how is his left hand doing?’ You want them to be thinking about the questions I am asking and more importantly, the answers I am or am not getting.”

He would have loved to have covered the US election directly, but suggests his lack of expertise in American politics rather than his disability was the reason the BBC didn’t send him. Anyway, it is a thrilling, if alarming time to be a political journalist.

Marr believes Donald Trump’s election, and Brexit, grew out of a distrust of elites: bankers and economists, politicians, but also the media. In the era of alternative facts, Marr thinks “the only thing we [the BBC] can do is to be incredibly old-fashioned, sober, calm, non-declamatory – don’t go for people, just be insistent about what is true and what is not true in a calm way.” 

Marr is often criticised for being a “soft” interviewer, especially in a Sunday market now crowded with his old colleague Robert Peston on ITV, new kid Sophy Ridge on Sky, and the rottweilerish Andrew Neil. “I would say people who think that don’t really understand the nature of interviewing and how it works,” he says smoothly. “I would say, look at the sheer number of news stories that come out of my show: it’s vastly more than anybody else’s. I think my job is to get the person in the studio to say the most interesting thing that he or she can say on the big subjects on that day. I think you get that by being polite.”

After which, politely but firmly, he tells me he has to go: he’s seeing a gallerist about his first exhibition of paintings, to be mounted in Liverpool, with the proceeds going to charity. We say goodbye on the doorstep and I watch him head off up the road, limping but purposeful.

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Andrew Marr: My Brain and Me is on BBC2 tonight 9pm