If you were filming a drama about the tangled nature of relationships, you could do worse than make one of Larry Lamb’s life. The actor, best known for Gavin & Stacey and Eastenders, has been married three times and is on his fifth serious relationship; he has four children, born to three mothers. His eldest is 44 – father and daughter have only met once, when she was a baby – and his youngest is 10. His most famous child is the former BBC 6 Music presenter George Lamb, 33.
When you read that list of bald statistics, one doesn’t get a fair measure of the man. He didn’t aim for a family set-up as messy as that; significantly, his own childhood was a deeply unhappy and disadvantaged one.
The son of fish-and-chip shop owners, Larry grew up in one of the poorest parts of north London, in almost perpetual fear of his father. Ronnie Lamb dominated and bullied the family – often leaving the young Larry to stand between his warring parents, “begging them not to fight”.
Eventually, when Larry was just nine years old, his mother scooped up his baby sister and left him and his brother marooned with their “nasty, poisonous” dad.
This week Lamb, 65, appears as Tommy in ITV1’s Love and Marriage. It’s a thoughtful six-part drama that begins playfully but soon emerges as a nuanced examination of monogamy and its pros and cons. Alison Steadman (who was Lamb’s screen wife in Gavin & Stacey) is Pauline, a retired lollipop lady who chucks her sterile marriage and moves into a spare room in her sister’s house. Rowan (Celia Imrie) is nothing like her sibling: for a start, she’s having an affair with a married man – Tommy. The question seems to be: which is a better recipe for happiness – protecting a steady, conventional life at all costs, or acting on impulse and striking out on your own?
With that in mind, was Lamb’s own mother’s decision to leave the right one?
Lamb doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. Without any shadow of a doubt.” Then comes a half-laugh. “I’m not sure if it was the best decision for me. But she was faced with an impossible situation. There was nothing much else she could do. She had a new baby, she was living with a guy who was not the easiest and so she found somebody [a new partner] who wasn’t scared of him. And she moved on. What was she to do?”
For a while, Lamb had no contact at all with his mother. Later, he reveals in his autobiography, pertinently titled Mummy’s Boy, she’d meet him at a local bus stop and they’d go for a walk around Woolworth’s before she slipped off again. “But I didn’t know where she lived.”
He must have wondered back then why, when she absconded, his mother didn’t take him and his brother with her?
If he did think that, he says, he doesn’t know anything about it now.
“There are areas of my life that are a complete blank. I do not remember, for example, the actual day I said goodbye to my mum. All I can remember is walking home from school and realising this was the beginning of a whole new part of my life.”
The most powerful section of his book is the part where he recalls an extraordinary, expletive-strewn showdown he had with his father a few years before Ronnie’s death. Larry laid into the man who had damaged him so much during childhood, telling him: “You’re a nasty, poisonous, bullying s*** and I’ve waited 40 years to tell you.” It proved to be the last time the two men spoke.
Little surprise that Larry stayed away from his father’s funeral. What did he do that day, instead of watching his dad’s coffin being lowered into the ground? “Don’t know.” Suddenly, Lamb’s tone changes.
Up until now he’s been remarkably open, sipping his peppermint tea in a smart members’ club above London’s famous Ivy restaurant. The tale he tells – so painful, so out of the ordinary – has been delivered in calm, almost detached tones. Now, he gets cold feet. He tells me that if I write about his late father I must make it abundantly clear that he now feels no resentment towards him. I must point out that the very process of writing his autobiography enabled him to forgive his father totally.
I sense it’s only with this forgiveness that Lamb has found peace. The rest of our chat is interesting, but feels like a coda to what he has just said. There are several fascinating moments. He talks about the time his grandfather won a fortune, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds, on an Irish sweepstake in the 1930s. It would have been enough to buy houses for each of his children, but he frittered it away. (“He bought my nan and my auntie a new dress each, all the boys a pullover each and the rest went to Worthington’s.”)
There’s the story of how he was briefly involved with the setting up of a new health club that was to be called “Attila and Athena’s Health Spa” until Lamb suggested the name “Holmes Place”. The gym went on to become a successful chain and was sold in 2003 for £210 million – although Lamb did not earn a penny.
Two tales of lost Lamb fortunes. But there’s a third one, too – less bizarre, but probably more painful. In 1995, Lamb was cast to star in Peak Practice after Kevin Whately left the series. He was signed up for three years, on a £1 million contract. He filmed four episodes and posed for publicity shots, only to fall victim to a management shake-up at Carlton Television that led to the series being rewritten – and all scenes featuring Lamb reshot. He says he was left feeling “humiliated, so down, so rock bottom, you feel like there is no redemption possible”.
He received a £250,000 payment as compensation, but says that at the time, “All that money didn’t really serve to soothe the pain.” Now, however, he can see it in perspective. It’s “another thread in the tapestry of life”.
And, looking at Lamb today, he does seem at ease with himself. That, he says, is down to the women – all of them – with whom he’s shared his life.
“The reason I’ve had three marriages is because I’ve been on a quest to put my life right. I started off with a distinct disadvantage in terms of my emotional set-up, but each one of those relation- ships has fed into what I am today.
“We’re all trying to turn ourselves into more complete individuals – isn’t that the idea? It’s been 50-odd years since the boy I used to be was basically cast adrift. And the people in my life, the women in particular, have been my building blocks. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Every single one has been an extraordinary human being.” That’s love and marriage.
Love and Marriage, Wednesday 9:00pm, ITV1