After a drink fuelled breakdown and a jail sentence for repeated harassment; the DJ Andy Kershaw says that he is a new man who’s ready to rock’n’roll again
By James Silver
Squinting into the bright West London sunshine, Andy Kershaw lights the first of a flurry of cigarettes. “I’ve never felt so mentally and physically fit in my life,” claims the former Radio 3 presenter, his familiar Rochdale accent booming. “Since I’ve given up the booze, the weight’s poured off me. I found a pair of 28in jeans in the back of the wardrobe. It’s the first time they’ve fitted me for 20 years. I’m still smoking like a steel-worker though.”
This morning marks an important milestone for Kershaw. Three years ago this month, he moved to the Isle of Man to start a new life with his partner of 17 years, Juliette Banner, and their children, Sonny, 11, and Dolly, 10. However, their dream soured instantly when Banner – formerly a North London restaurateur – “found out about an infidelity” via an old text message on Kershaw’s phone. Over the ensuing months, the DJ’s personal life and career unravelled spectacularly – and very publicly – as he sank into a red wine and beer-fuelled breakdown, which saw him lose contact with his children and spend 44 days in jail for repeatedly harassing his ex-partner.
Today, however, having signed a contract to write an autobiography, Kershaw, who’s 49, says that he is well on the road to recovery and wants BBC bosses to know that he’s fit enough to return to work. He’s also just recorded a soul-bearing interview with John Humphrys for Radio 4’s On the Ropes, which was supposed to be broadcast today, but was pulled from the schedules at the last minute. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that he seems wired and jittery as he prowls the carpark outside a recording studio, smoke billowing from his nostrils.
The outdoor life on his adopted home, the Isle of Man, clearly agrees with him. He looks tanned and lean – a far cry from the “miserable and pathetic figure” that he was branded by a court official little more than a year ago. Kershaw’s self-described “years of turmoil” have clearly taken their toll. At his lowest ebb he was “drinking [himself] to oblivion, just to get to sleep” and although he stopped drinking last autumn – after help from a support group, at the urging of the island’s authorities – his face is heavily lined and there are dark rings of exhaustion around his eyes. He finds it hard to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. Barely contained energy crackles from him, as he tries to keep his answers measured. Occasionally an ugly temper flares too.
“No, I didn’t have any concern about doing it at all,” he snaps, when asked whether he’d been anxious about being grilled by the Today presenter. “John Humphrys has this rottweiler reputation, but only politicians with something to hide need be fearful of him.”
Does he expect to be back on air soon? “I’ve no idea. It’s an aspect of my life over which I have no control. I’ve no idea if my job’s still open. I haven’t had a formal offer.” Amid the tabloid soap-opera of recent months, it has become all too easy to forget that Kershaw is a distinctive talent, who championed world music long before it was fashionable, winning a hatful of Sony gold awards in the process. He has served the corporation for more than 20 years, working in both TV and across BBC radio networks. As a result, friends suggest that the DJ was disappointed at the way BBC managers treated him when he suffered his breakdown – particularly when set against their handling of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand over the furore surrounding their prank phone-call to the actor Andrew Sachs.
Moreover, Kershaw has previously pointed out that unlike fellow-jock Johnnie Walker – who was suspended in 1999 from Radio 2 after allegations that he took cocaine appeared in the News of the World, yet remained on the corporation payroll while he was off air – he has not received wages from the BBC since the summer of 2007. Cash, he says, is very tight. “I’ve learnt the true value of money. But you learn to survive. You cope.”
Does he feel betrayed by the BBC? Kershaw gathers his thoughts, anxious not to offend his former employers. “Jonathan Ross has certainly been rehabilitated as soon as was thought possible,” he replies carefully. “I’ll leave you and your readers to draw your own conclusions about Jonathan Ross and Johnnie Walker and their rehabilitation. All I would say is that I would love to do my programmes again and I’ve never done anything – and certainly not on air – to bring the BBC into disrepute or disgrace.” He won’t say any more, but the frustration in his voice is clear. “What happened to me was a personal tragedy, the destruction of my family life, the denial of any contact with my kids for more than a year and the end of a 17-year relationship,” he says. “I still have two pieces of the jigsaw of my life to put back into place. One is to have a normal relationship with my children. The other is that I’d love to get back on air to do some storming radio programmes for the BBC.”
Kershaw’s spiral into despair and alcoholism began in April 2006, when he and Banner moved into a seafront property on the Isle of Man, in search of a healthier life for their family. According to the DJ, he was buying the removal men a drink in the pub, when his world turned upside down – after borrowing his mobile phone, Banner discovered an old text message referring to “a leg-over in the Reading area”. The discovery that Kershaw had been unfaithful – what he has described as “a fling at the Womad Festival with a journalist” – ended their relationship. “It was the almost instant disintegration of our Isle of Man dream,” Kershaw says ruefully. The couple finally split up six months later, with Banner moving out with the kids.
“It was entirely my fault. My family life then fell apart and I tried to cope with it by drinking myself to sleep every night. In the short term, it was very effective – an instant and efficient way of coping with anxiety, reaching oblivion. But in the long term it does much more damage. It wrecks your judgment and racks up your anxiety levels. And you can’t start to claw your way back until you recognise that.” Indeed, so impaired was Kershaw’s judgment that he began to pester his former partner with drunken phone calls and demands to see the kids. The following summer, as the situation deteriorated further, Banner was granted a restraining order preventing him from contacting her, thereby making it far harder for Kershaw to spend time with his children.
Enraged, he was arrested a number of times for breaching the order and, in January 2008, he was sentenced to three months in jail. The court heard that Banner had described the DJ as “menacing and provocative” as he approached her and her new partner, Jim Imrie, a prison officer,carrying a garden fork. Kershaw claimed that he did nothing more than innocently cross paths with Banner after digging for lugworms on Peel beach but, passing sentence, the High Bailiff in the Manx capital, Douglas, told the DJ: “You seem hell-bent on destroying yourself” and said his life was “turning into a Greek tragedy”.
Kershaw served 44 days in what he describes as Dickensian conditions in a prison awash with heroin and vermin. Yet on release, his “threatening” behaviour continued and he was re-arrested three days later. One text message he reportedly sent Banner at the time bragged: “I’m the hardest man on the island.” The High Bailiff recommended that Kershaw leave the Isle of Man and spend time recovering in the company of his mother and his sister Liz. But shortly afterwards he breached the order yet again, by giving Banner “a rocket” over the phone, after discovering that letters he had written for his children had not been given to them.
After an arrest warrant was issued, Kershaw moved around the UK, staying with friends. He finally returned voluntarily to the island in December, where he was handed a suspended sentence and “supervision order”, which included anger-management classes.
“All this for breaking a restraining order that does not apply to my kids, only to my ex-partner and her current boyfriend,” he sighs. Has he ever been violent or abusive towards Banner or anyone else? “I’ve never done anything to harm anybody,” he says. “I’ve never laid a finger on anybody. You can probably count the number of rows we’ve had on one hand. There’s certainly never been any physical abuse of my children or my ex-partner. I’ve never tried to horsewhip her new boyfriend. So on what grounds is this denial of access to my children based? No one seems to be asking but me.” Kershaw reveals that he recently saw his ten-year-old daughter, Dolly, for the first time in many months, when he turned up at her school one afternoon, unannounced. When asked if the visit was prearranged with her mother, he is momentarily furious. “Look, understand, there is no restraining order that applies to me and my children! If I’d prearranged something I’d necessarily have had to have broken the law again. That’s the mad, invidious position I find myself in. So I just went to her school and she was thrilled to bits to see me. Since then I saw her at a supervised one-hour session at a children’s charitable organisation in Douglas. The charity told me Dolly had ‘a lovely time’ and that it ‘flew by’. Next week, she wants to spend two hours with me.”
He is now going through “the proper legal channels” to seek regular access to his children and attempting to stop Banner and her partner from taking them to Scotland. “I’m having to bring an action of my own, through the Family Courts in the Isle of Man to regain what is rightfully mine,” he says. “It does appear to be an inversion of justice. The criminal analogy would be that I’m going to court to prove my innocence against the presumption of guilt. I call it the Woman’s Hour position. In these situations, the man must always be in the wrong, the woman in the right. But I didn’t run away from home and abandon my children. That they’ve got an absentee father isn’t my decision.”
Musing on the latter point, he fumbles for a notepad in his bag. On it are scrawled words – themes that he wants to get across in the interview. “There’s no point in stewing in this, wallowing in self-pity,” he says. “I’ve had a fantastic life and it’s not over yet. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since last autumn, and I’ve no intention of doing so. I rediscovered my enthusiasm, my energy, my curiosity… I feel about 28 years old. At this rate I’ll be a teenager again soon.” He flashes a brittle smile. “I’m ready to rock ‘n’roll again.”
This article was first published in The (London) Times on the 28th April 2009.