‘My father said he’d blow my brains out’: Richard E Grant tells of grief and trauma

The actor, whose wife died last year, talks to Desert Island Discs about his relationship with his parents growing up in Africa

Five days after marking the anniversary of his wedding to his late wife, a grieving Richard E Grant will talk candidly about surviving an upsetting childhood in Eswatini (then called Swaziland) before finding sanctuary in his 38-year marriage.

The Oscar-nominated film star, who appears as the guest on Desert Island Discs on Sunday morning, met his wife – the renowned dialect expert Joan Washington – when, as an aspiring young actor, he hired her as a voice coach. Grant details the shock of Washington’s diagnosis with lung cancer in 2020 and tells how they prioritised time together in the months before her death in September last year.

He also recommends keeping a diary to cope with turbulent times. An accidental childhood encounter with his mother and her lover, followed by an incident in which his father chased him with a gun, are among early emotional trials he had to recover from, he says. But he found keeping a note of his emotions was helpful during the breakup of his parents’ marriage.

“I inadvertently witnessed my mother bonking my father’s best friend on the front seat of a car late one evening,” the 65-year-old actor says. “We were coming back from a cricket match and I was obviously asleep on the back seat and then woke up to the rhythmic movements of the car, which is something that you can well imagine! I tried God and got no response. I obviously couldn’t tell my father or my mother or my friends, so to try to understand what had happened I started keeping a diary. And it’s continued to be something I’ve done every day to make sense of the world that I live in.”

When Grant’s father started drinking heavily after the divorce, the teenager tried to intervene by “naively” pouring a dozen bottles of whisky down the sink. “I was on the 11th bottle and felt something very cold on the back of my head and it was a gun,” says Grant. “I ducked and ran into the garden and then he chased me and flicked on the garden lights … He found me and then got hold of me and said, ‘I’m going to blow your brains out,’ and I said, ‘Go ahead and do it! Just let’s get this over and done with.’ He missed, because he was so drunk, and then I ran away from home for a couple of weeks.”

Grant also gives an account of his long estrangement from his mother, before a late reconciliation.

The actor, who made his name playing the title character in the hit 1987 film Withnail and I, selects two discs for his island stay from his comprehensive Barbra Streisand collection. Grant also confesses that he keeps a sculpture of the singer’s head in his back garden.

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