Richard Todd

This article on Richard Todd’s ‘haunting double tragedy’ appeared in ‘The Daily Mail’ on Tuesday, April 25th 2006. For me this was an incredibly revealing account by Wendy Leigh, of a man who I have greatly admired. But after reading this piece, I am sure you will, like me, be left totally in awe, of this true gentleman’s courage in the face of extreme adversity.

"Veteran actor Richard Todd is 86, [2006] but looks at least ten years younger. Handsome, blue-eyed and with the erect posture of a former military man, his manners are impeccable and his charm reminiscent of his days as a Fifties matinee idol.

The star of the Dam Busters and The Longest Day, who after two marriages ended in divorce, lives alone in a small Lincolnshire village, seems to have the quintessential elderly Englishman’s existence; living out one’s golden years in peace and happiness.

But this tranquility masks a deep sorrow that surfaces when Todd reflects on the two great tragedies of his life: the suicides of two of his four children. Suddenly the actor’s sonorous voice falters and his eyes fill with tears.

For a parent to lose one child is a tragedy. To lose two is devastating beyond words. And for both to die by their own hand must be unbearable. Yet Todd has faced both calamities with characteristic stoicism, staying true to his family motto: ‘It is necessary to live.’

As he puts it in his first interview since the second suicide: ‘It is rather like something that happens to men in war. You don’t consciously set out to do something gallant. You just do it because that is what you are there for. It is your country. And you just get on with it.’

Seven months ago Peter, Todd’s eldest son from his first marriage, shot himself in the head. He killed himself in the same way as his half-brother, Seumas, had done eight years earlier.

Peter’s mother, the actress Catherine Grant-Bogle, died nine years ago, so it fell to Todd’s second wife Virginia Mailer-Seumas’s mother-to tell Todd that a second son had taken his life.

‘I came home to find Virginia’s car outside my house.’ Todd says. ‘I saw her coming towards me and said: “What a nice surprise.” Then I saw look on her face and …’ Todd stops in mid-sentence. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘I can’t go on.’

Then regaining his composure, he continues: ‘Obviously, I knew Peter all his life and he knew more about my way of life than anybody else in existence. He was a devoted son. We shared so much together. I miss him. The word ‘terribly’ hangs in the air but Todd, with typical understatement, leaves it unsaid. Nor does he discuss the circumstances of Peter’s suicide.

But the facts are that his son’s body was found slumped in his car at 7.35 am on September 21, last year [2005], in a car park by the village hall in East Malling, Kent, where he lived with his wife, Jill.

According to reports, she had planned to leave her 53-year old husband, a racing car company executive. Peter, who used his father’s full surname of Palethorpe-Todd, left her a suicide note: ‘I’m so sorry but I cannot face life alone without you.’

His wife accepted there were problems in the marriage, but said that her husband had been badly affected by Seumas’s death: ‘He was extremely angry that Seumas did what he did,’ she told an inquest. ‘But because Peter wasn’t a chap to talk about things that inwardly affected him, it took its toll.’

She also said Peter’s drink problem had worsened since Seumas’s death.

Peter took a gun from a cupboard in their home. Jill, a director in an events management company, described her husband as ‘controlling’ and ‘obsessive.’ She said that on the night he shot himself, Peter knew that ‘time was running out’ for their marriage.

‘The following morning, I saw his bed had not been slept in and his car had gone. I phoned a family friend and she was the one who mentioned about the gun in the cupboard. When I saw it was gone, I phoned the police.’

A verdict of suicide was recorded.

Todd, who has another son, Andrew, and a daughter, Fiona, did not attend his son’s inquest. ‘Peter lived in Kent. Seumas and Andrew lived in Lincolnshire and they weren’t particularly close to Peter. But Peter had apparently said before he died that if anything happened to him he wanted to be buried with his brother.

So now Peter and Seumas are buried in the same churchyard just a few miles from Todd’s home. ‘There’s a space there for me, too. It’s my retirement home,’ says Todd. ‘I go down once or twice every week and have a chat to my boys.

‘The fact that Seumas committed suicide made it easier for me to cope with Peter’s suicide because I was more prepared. I leapt into action straight away. Funeral arrangements and all that sort of thing. Which I didn’t have the heart to do when Seumas died.’

I ask if the tragedies have challenged his faith in God. He insists not and says: ‘I am not going around saying: “Why me? Why me?” Saying “Why me?” doesn’t help.’

Has he ever been close to committing suicide himself? He looks at me uncomprehending. I pose the question again. ‘No. Not once.’ He says.

‘What helps me is accepting it, getting on with things. I try to think of the good times. If I get stuck in a morass of mourning, I switch off and think of something else. You have to. You can’t let yourself go on wallowing. You can’t let yourself do that.’

Eight years before Peter’s untimely death-on December 7 1997- Todd walked into his home, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and saw Virginia, sitting with her back to him, shaking and moaning.

His son Andrew, ashen-faced, was speaking into the phone. ‘No, I’m afraid it’s definitely suicide,’ Todd heard him say. The actor ran to Seumas’s bedroom and found the 20-year-old lying on his bed, the butt of his 12-bore shotgun between his feet. ‘My heart stopped. He was lying on his back across his bed. This could not be my boy, my lovely Seumas, he could not really be dead.’ Todd said.

Seumas left a suicide note saying that he ‘could not cope.’

At first, Todd thought Seumas, a first-year student of politics at Nothumbria University, was suffering from financial worries. But he had only a small overdraft and was supported by loving, well-off parents.

Then an inquest into another student’s suicide suggested a link between depression and an anti-acne drug that Seumas had also taken.
‘I am convinced of it,’ Todd says. ‘There have been too many other cases for it to have been a one-off accident.

‘In 1996, my son came back from travelling for two years and he was tremendously depressed. In Australia he’d had chicken pox. He was panic-stricken because of the risk of facial scarring. And the illness probably also contributed to his melancholy.

‘He was very good looking and didn’t like having spots. The acne was very disheartening. The poor little chap didn’t stand a chance. It was an illness and it did not arise out of any unhappiness with us.

‘It reached crisis point because he was in his first year at university and the stress was too much. Young chaps don’t talk to each other about their depression, do they?

I first met Todd three-and-a-half years after Seumas’s suicide in Brighton, where he was appearing in ‘An Ideal Husband.’

At first, he avoided talking about his son but when he finally did, although his voice trembled slightly, he remained composed. He confided that he had been tempted to try to contact Seumas through a medium, but was afraid that if he did, Seumas would say: ‘Look, I am sorry I killed myself. I wish I could come back.’

Tears welling in his eyes, Todd recalled Seumas’s memorial and Andrew’s poignant words: ‘Thank you Seumas for being such a brave and great brother and friend to me. I know I didn’t deserve your love, and I will always miss you terribly.’

Todd said that he had changed since Seumas’s death: ‘I am more caring. I certainly make sure that my children know that I care about them, that I am around and know how they are getting on. I see Andrew every other weekend and am always on the phone with Peter and Fiona.’

He was putting on a brave face and trying to be optimistic, but I remember thinking that day in Brighton that it would be surprising if he lived to see his 80th birthday. Little did we know then that Peter’s suicide lay ahead.

Now, months after Peter’s death, Todd and I are having tea at his Victorian cottage. One wall is covered with photographs of his children, including Peter and Seumas; youthful, handsome, glittering with promise.

‘I changed my will today,’ Todd says flatly. ‘I had to because Peter was my executor but now he is dead.’

Later, at a nearby restaurant, we talk again about his sons. I suggest that being an actor may have helped him survive his double tragedy.

‘I’m sure it has. Because no matter what I feel at any one time, good or bad, I’m used to being other personalities. I switch from being unhappy to being reasonably happy. By switching identities, I just became somebody else.’

Todd became an actor against all odds. His mother wanted him to become a diplomat. Todd was born in Dublin into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family that included a judge and an Army officer; his father who served in India.

His mother, a beauty with violet blue eyes and an accomplished horsewoman, committed suicide when Todd was only 19, and already at drama school in London.

‘Her death didn’t affect me terribly badly at all.’ He says. ‘I wasn’t devastated. We had been close but just before she died, we disagreed. She didn’t want me to go on the stage. There were various differences and I lost affection for her. I began to find her a bit tiresome. I felt no guilt at all.’

When war came, Todd trained at Sandhurst and served in the Parachute Regiment. He became one of the first British officers to land in France in advance of the main D-Day landings, and later fought bravely in the Battle of the Bulge.

‘It was probably the best time in my life,’ he said. ‘I had no worries, no responsibilities. My parents were dead, I wasn’t married, I had no children. I didn’t have to worry about where we were going to live. We were all prepared to die for our country.

After the war, Todd became a film actor, winning an Oscar nomination for his second film, ‘The Hasty Heart,’ co-starring Ronald Reagan, and was Britain’s highest-paid film star during the Fifties.

In 1949, he married Catherine and they had Peter and Fiona. He starred in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ in 1950 with Marlene Dietrich.

‘She was awfully nice and taken with me,’ he says, a trifle immodestly. He met Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood while he was making ‘A Man Called Peter,’ about a Scottish pastor.

‘She wasn’t in the film, but I found her in the corner (on set) by herself, listening and crying because she was so moved by the sermons in the script.’

In a career spanning 40 films, he also met Elizabeth (‘nice thighs’) Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. He blushes and says nothing when asked if he was romantically involved with either star, and is the last acor in the universe who would ever kiss and tell.

The great love of his life is Virginia, a glamorous former model, whom he married in 1970, the year his marriage to Catherine was dissolved.

They had Andrew and Seumas but their marriage, too, ended in 1992 when Virginia divorced him, partly because she was tired of him being away working so much. Today [2006] , Virginia, 64, lives 20 miles from Todd’s village, Little Humby.

‘Virginia and I are perfectly happy,’ he says, ‘we are the best of friends. We see each other a lot, spend a lot of time together but we each have space.’

Asked if he would marry again, he says that, if he did, it would be to Virginia, adding: ‘She probably feels the same.’ Then jokingly, he says: ’I’ll wait till I’m a bit older to ask her, though. I’m a bit young.’

Even now-five years since [2006] his last appearance, in ‘An Ideal Husband,’ and two years since his last television appearance, in ‘Holby City’-Todd still receives more than 40 fan letters a week.

He works for Age Concern, supports the Royal British Legion and speaks at charity functions and military commemorations all over the country, raising huge sums for charity.

On those occasions, his appearance is invariably heralded by the rousing sounds of ‘The Dam Busters March’, the theme music of the film in which he played heroic Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

Vigorous, with a full diary and countless interests including the English countryside where, for many years, he farmed 320 acres in Oxfordshire, Todd drives himself everywhere, shops at Marks & Spencer and is catered to by an adoring personal assistant and a multitude of friends.

He clearly enjoys giving advice to the elderly he meets at Age Concern. ‘I tell them to make the most of it. I’d be nobody without some form of interest to keep me going.'

Todd needs two knee transplants but has been told he is too old to have them. He has had open-heart surgery three times, including a quadruple bypass, and, as a result, is a great fan of the NHS.

‘I’m lucky that with all the disabilities I’ve got, I’m still able to look after myself,’ he says.

Since Peter’s suicide, countless newspapers have requested an interview. He has rejected them all. He did not want payment for this interview, asking only that a donation be made to the British Legion.

As we prepare to leave the restaurant, an elderly man comes over to Todd and-almost reverentially- asks: 'May I shake your hand?’ Todd acquiesces, neither proud nor pleased, just accepting.
Just before we part, I ask him for his definition of Britain and Britishness. ‘To me, it means fairness, good sense, decency, kindness, politeness.’

Todd, at 86 [2006], the father of two sons who killed themselves, exemplifies all those virtues and more: self-discipline, dignity, and courage in the face of unthinkable tragedy.”

Wendy Leigh ‘Daily Mail’ Tuesday April 25th 2006


Clement Glen said...

Richard Todd

jentay61 said...

this gentleman is one, if not the one, of the most underated personalities in Britain. I fail to understand why, given some of the specimens to whom honours have been given recently, Mr Todd is not a knight of the realm yet. His contribution to both film and theatre in this county, as well as his military contribution, is unsung and deserves greater recognition.

Clement Glen said...

Thanks for getting in touch oldisgood. I enjoyed reading your blog and I love your attitude towards age stereotyping.

I couldn't agree more about this country's lack of recognition of Richard Todd.

It is a sad reflection of the state of our nation.

Anonymous said...

This is something many of us have been saying for some years now. Richard Todd was a World War 2 hero, our first major international film star, a stalwart of the theatre for decades and a dairy farmer of some repute as well as a family man and a writer as any of us who read his moving articles in the Sunday Times at the time of the death of his son about 10 years ago would agree. Also he was a personal friend of President Reagan for many years who happened to be very pro-British following his trip to Englnd to make The Hasty Heart with Richard Todd. It was John Major who made him an OBE in the early 90s.

Bartee said...

I agree ,,, Richard Todd was Hot and I wish I were born when he was alive.. hellooooo love those lips .. I could have gotten really involved with this gentleman He will be missed ...

Bartee said...

Move over Virginia ,,, it todd and myself .... he is a hottie ... to bad he was born before me ,,, wrong place .. wrong time .. thats life I guess ,,,