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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
The making of me
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Paul Barber as Denzil in Only Fools and Horses
Barber is probably best known as Denzil in Only Fools and Horses
As the children's care system faces a revamp, actor Paul Barber recalls what was it like in the 1950s and reflects on how he put his difficult start in life behind him.

An orphaned childhood spent with three families and in four care homes, and at half a dozen schools, would be hard enough.

But being the only black face in a white classroom, in 1950s suburban Liverpool, made it all the more alienating.

Nearly 50 years later, that face is very familiar to the British public, thanks to performances in two of the most successful comedies of recent times, Only Fools and Horses and The Full Monty.

When I first went into foster care I imagined it being like Janet and John
All that's changed is the name - the confused boy Patrick Barber is now seasoned actor Paul Barber, 56, who has documented his brutal and traumatic upbringing in a new book, Foster Kid.

Its publication comes soon after a government White Paper proposed ways to improve the lives and opportunities of children in care, such as not changing schools for youngsters in the final years of education and allowing them to stay in care until 18.

Barber had no choice in 1967 but to leave the system aged 16. His introduction to it came unexpectedly nine years earlier when his mother, a single parent, was taken into hospital with TB and subsequently died.

Her five children were suddenly removed from the multicultural community in Toxteth where they felt at home, and thrust into the white, suburban world of fostering and care homes.

Young Paul Barber
Barber has no bitterness about his upbringing

For Barber, trying to blend in was impossible when school friends innocently asked questions about being an orphan and being a black boy with a white family - questions that required a child to talk about grown-up issues.

"When I first went into foster care I imagined it being like Janet and John, with lovely pictures of Janet and John outside their house with mum and dad and the dog alongside and the sun shining above the house," he says. "I believed I was going to go into a house like that."

Instead, it was a "boarding house from hell", where Barber and his natural brother - separated from the rest of the family and still coming to terms with their mother's death - were beaten, stripped naked and locked up. They eventually ran away.

But there was no-one in Toxteth able to take them in, so they were put in a care home and the cycle of home to foster family, and school to school, began.

Stigma

Although he believes his carers were usually well-intentioned, his experience from his first foster mother, who has since passed away, made him fearful of all the others. And the constant disruption imposed on him compounded the resentment.

Paul Barber in 1991
Barber draws on his painful childhood for some acting parts

A few years ago, Barber investigated the care system for a BBC documentary and he thinks that a key improvement would be to include children in the conversations that determine where they live.

"Don't do what happened to me in the 50s. I've been in children's homes where I've just made some friends, living there for a year, and then suddenly I'm pulled up to the warden's office and there are two strangers there and the warden says 'You're going to live with these people in two days' time, say 'Ta-ra' to your friends."

He believes that stigma is one of the main barriers to social mobility. He was denied extra-curricular sporting opportunities at school because being in care made him unsuitable in the eyes of staff.

So Barber has since visited care homes to motivate young people and tell them to believe in themselves and try to achieve their ambitions.

Suddenly and for the first time, someone was taking an interest in me

His leg-up came from an unexpected source. After leaving the care system, returning to Toxteth and getting in trouble with the police, one of his friends asked him to accompany him to an audition for the musical Hair at the Empire.

After his friend unsuccessfully displayed his talents, Barber was beckoned on to the stage to have a go at singing Yesterday by The Beatles.

"The director turned his eyes on me and said would you like to have a go and as when I did it I could see his eyes light up.

"Suddenly and for the first time, someone was taking an interest in me, the way I was singing and moving and dancing on stage. And I thought 'My God, someone likes me and they want me to be in this musical!'"

They asked him to another audition in Manchester and informed him in the post that he had a part.

At last, Barber had found his new family.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Triumph over adversity - you survived it, Paul.
Janice, London

I was really interested to read what Patrick Barber had to say as this is the first I knew of him being in foster care. I work for a children's charity as part of social services and am well aware of the impact being in foster/residential care can have on a young person. Credit where credit is due to Paul Barber for coming through such a terrible experience and be the success you are today. I will be buying your book!
Alexa, Liverpool

I've always enjoyed Paul's work as an actor and now feel even more respect for him after learning of his unfortunate past. All credit to him for reaching for the stars and getting there. Further proof (as if any was required) that you can't keep a good man down.... especially if he's a Scouse (regardless of race, colour, creed etc)
Pete, Bowmanville, Canada

When I was young in 70s London single parent families, children in care, Asians and Black families were all put into a category which was best not spoken about, but everyone understood with unspoken nods and euphemisms. Strangely, if your father was in prison the teachers and dinner ladies all fawned over you... otherwise no chance for the soccer team, sometimes not allowed out at break (being a problem child), and snide comments about you to other staff within your hearing. Hopefully we have began to move on away from such ignorance thanks to the leadership of people like this. Thank you.
Anon, London UK (now Japan)

How brave Paul is, and what an appalling life he and his siblings lived. Well done to you. The care system has changed since then. I am sure that abuse still goes on, but, as a fostering family, I can say that there are a great many more good foster carers than bad. We treat our foster children the same as we do our own, they are part of our family. Currently the children we have are dual heritage and we are white. Social services and ourselves work hard to provide them with a clear heritage pathway and actively include their culture into our everyday lives. Things have moved on, happily for us and our children.
Anon for the purposes of this comment, Northampton

My parents are foster carers and the three children that they look after are seen and treated as part of our family. I do appreciate cases where the care system does not work but there are plenty of cases where it does. The UK offers a care system and I'm not an expert or about to say that it is perfect however its not all bad. I think its a shame that cases like Paul's get heard and accepted as the norm when in fact its not always a negative experience.
Nicola, Hertfordshire

Paul's story shows that poverty and feelings of alienation cannot be used as an excuse for turning to crime, or worse. But then, back in the 50s, we were a tougher breed, we didn't look for scapegoats to blame our failures on; we got on with what life threw at us and struggled to make a better life. Paul is an example of this, he picked himself up, made the effort to better his chances in life and became a success. A good role model for youngsters today!
Susan, Leicestershire

This story has further strengthened my resolve to go ahead with fostering as planned. I want to be an alternative the first foster parent, I want to be someone who cares and who can stick with a child through thick and thin, just as I will for my own kids. We're at the beginning of what feels like a long road but hopefully I can provide a happier story for someone else one day.
J W, Sheffield, UK

I can fully sympathise with Paul and am really pleased that he has shared his experiences. I was brought up in the fifties in the East End of London and spent my first twelve years in care - eight of them in a Catholic institution where the regime was extremely strict. The nuns handed out beatings and other punishments such as denying meals or being locked in the cellar for any minor misdemeanours. It takes years to get over these experiences and gain any self-esteem and realise that you are not a "worthless guttersnipe" as the nuns used to call us children. I still cannot walk past nuns without feeling the need to cross the road to get away from them, such was the effect they had on me. I'm now very happily married and have enjoyed a good and fruitful life but I have banished religion from my life, finding that my conscience tells me right from wrong.
Anon, Oxford

I spent most of my life in care being ridiculed about my accent and the other children used to call me King Jaffi Joffa of zamunda from coming to America because of my weight. I am happy now tho cos I am a successful car dealer now and I regularly donate gifts and money to children's charities.
Lloyd Munjoma, Stockport

My ex-partner was in care between the ages of 12 and 16 and I have no doubt that his experiences have affected him badly. He was not too badly treated or harmed but I think the upheaval and the general system during the 80s and 90s did not serve him well at all.
Anon, Caerphilly

Very touching...Paul, I am myself very weak at heart and I really admire what you have lived through. When I look at myself after reading this story, I feel so much more privileged. And yes, I must say that it takes hell lot of courage to speak about such experiences, because every time you do, it makes you re-live the whole thing. Thanks for being so courageous Paul, your story will undoubtedly change numerous lives
Sirisha, India

What a great true life experience, Paul should be congratulated for sharing this and using his experiences to help others. Governments and public bodies need to listen to children and take there views into account more. Adults don't always know best!
David, Ware

Having been the black lad subjected to the care system and being put with white foster carers, I can relate to everything mentioned in this article. I'm still affected by some of the things I experienced. The good thing to come out of it is my refusal to use (or allow anyone else to use) physical punishment against my own children and my commitment to ensuring they have a better childhood than I had.
Jez Daniels, Portsmouth UK

I am glad that he is now happy after a traumatic start.
Ann Hill, Leeds

It is sadly very rare in the UK, but none the less inspiring to read the life experience of a fellow graduate of the appalling British care system. I grew up in the 80s in residential care and got dumped out at 16. I managed to eventually get into university and build a successful career abroad. In my view, most British people expect people from care backgrounds to be silent about their experiences . In other countries , if you have done well and you have come from a children's home people respect you and treat you as an equal human being. In the UK they do not-you are stigmatised and made to feel second class. In this context I really respect Patrick Barber and hope he -and others-continue to articulate the experience of growing up in care.
Anon, London

I myself was adopted as a baby and throughout my teens and early adulthood it had an everlasting effect on me. I think it has made me stronger now. Growing up, in particular at school, I had problems because of my elderly adoptive parents and not knowing where I came from. I went to counselling but a lot of conversation went on without me there, between my mum and the powers that be, which affected me even more. I think that now I have my own son, I so much want him to have what I didn't have and am determined that he will have. My mum was taken to court by my senior school. I kept away from school because I was bullied and because of my own emotional problems. This was totally wrong as she couldn't physically pick me up and take me there. My mum did an amazing job bringing my brother (who's also adopted) and myself up. To this day, children are not listened to enough because adults think that they know what is best. Children are a lot more in to what is happening than we like to think. I've watched Paul Barber in many things and he is so likeable and such a success story. All the best to him.
Philippa Groves, Chesterfield, UK






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