Comedian's clinic stay draws British media

May 22, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

His name is Michael P., and he's an alcoholic.

He's also Michael Barrymore, a popular British television game-show host and comedian, who checked into the Rev. Joseph C. Martin's Ashley, a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center near Havre de Grace, a few weeks ago.

It's a stay that set off a British invasion of sorts, as London media representatives arrived, and police responded to several calls that reporters and photographers were trying to get onto the private property.

The weeklong cat-and-mouse game ended Friday when the stand-up comic held a news conference at the facility, where a month of treatment costs $13,000.

"He was no longer a patient," said Leonard Dahl, executive director of Ashley. "He held it as a private citizen."

Earlier in the week, because of the center's confidentiality policy, Mr. Dahl would neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Barrymore was at Ashley.

Mr. Barrymore, who grew up in London and whose name was then Michael Parker, may not be a household name in the United States, but he is well-known in his home country.

"He's a big name in Britain," said Tony Burton, a veteran reporter with the Daily Mail, who had been keeping watch for the star from a side street near Roye-Williams Elementary School since Monday.

"He's very witty," said Jim Gallagher of London's Today tabloid, who joined his colleague. "He's known for his repartee."

"People in Britain like show-biz stories," Mr. Gallagher said.

Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Burton were among the dozen or so British reporters who descended on Harford County in search of a "world exclusive" interview about Mr. Barrymore's alcohol and drug addictions appeared in London's Daily Mirror tabloid Monday with the headline, "My Drink and Drugs Hell."

The race was then on for more information about the 42-year-old lanky comedian, who has been compared to Johnny Carson.

London's Sun tabloid didn't waste any time, following up with an article Tuesday captioned, "Drunk Priest Saves Comic Mike."

The "drunk priest" refers to Ashley's founder, Father Martin, a Roman Catholic priest and himself a recovering alcoholic. The priest from Baltimore is 68 and has been sober for more than 35 years.

Father Martin appeared at the news conference with Mr. Barrymore and his wife, Cheryl.

"It's a great place," the white-haired priest told the audience of mostly British media. He also gently chided them about incorrect information that had been printed in some of their articles.

"The truth is infinitely more interesting than fiction," he said.

He also wanted to clear up one point about himself. "I am not a Benedictine monk. I'm a Sulpician priest."

Then in keeping with his well-known sense of humor, the ruddy-complexioned Father Martin couldn't resist adding, "At least you could have said I was a retired archbishop from Antarctica."

Ashley, which focuses on Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program, has treated nearly 6,000 patients and has been rated as one of the top treatment centers in the country by Forbes magazine.

It is set on 43 acres above the upper Chesapeake Bay on the old Oakington Farms estate once owned by the late U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings.

"You should see it when the sun is out," said Father Martin, as overcast skies cast a pallor over the bay and grounds Friday.

That's exactly what the British reporters tried to do last week. But their efforts were thwarted by Ashley workers, who set up orange traffic cones in front of the driveway, and Harford Sheriff's Office deputies and Aberdeen police, who were called in during the week.

Deputy 1st Class DeWayne Curry, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said deputies had answered several calls at the Ashley center, as the British reporters tried to enter the nonprofit facility.

They were still responding to calls up to Thursday. No arrests were made.

"They were basically getting disorderly and rowdy trying to get in," Mr. Curry said.

Mr. Burton of the Daily Mail challenged the accusation. "We've been very cordial," he said.

"That's outrageous," Mr. Gallagher said about Mr. Curry's statements. "Do they think we're going to crawl through the woods? We're not going to get shot for this."

However, Ashley security guards talked about attempts to get on the grounds through the nearby country club and even by boat.

Reports that the Coast Guard had been called to patrol the area were denied last week by a Coast Guard spokesman.

The reporters and photographers then were forced to keep their Barrymore watch from afar. The reason for their vigil was that Mr. Barrymore's 30-day treatment was almost complete, and he would be leaving.

"We're just hoping he might come out and talk," Mr. Gallagher said on Tuesday.

Their perseverance paid off Friday, as the media representatives finally were permitted -- and welcomed -- to drive down the mile-long driveway in a 10-car caravan to a meeting room.

Mr. Barrymore appeared calm and thoughtful in front of television cameras and reporters.

"I came here a month ago looking for something, and I found me," he said.

He and his wife, who often held hands during the news conference, were leaving Friday for Florida to continue his recovery, he said. He is due back in London next month.

LTC "It's a harrowing experience [not being sober]," he said. "You just think you're going crazy."

Father Martin closed the 45-minute meeting, by surveying the media and saying, "Drink is an occupational hazard among writers.

L "If any of you need to be here, call that number behind me."

That's 1-800-799-HOPE.

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