Portillo’s film captured society’s ambivalent attitudes towards the ultimate form of self-harm.
At 9pm tonight BBC2 screened a documentary entitled ‘Death of a School Friend’. This was former MP Michael Portillo’s fitting tribute to his onetime Harrow classmate, Gary Findon. Gary took his own life the weekend before his 16th birthday.
Michael was approached by Gary’s mother, Jeanette, in 2000. Years of attempting to come to terms with the family’s loss had finally prompted her to contact people who’d been close to her son, in order to appreciate how much he’d touched his friends during his tragically brief life. Michael fermented the idea to create a film dedicated to Gary’s memory.
He would pay tribute to the sensitive artist he remembered, attempt to understand what drove him to swallow a lethal concoction of sleeping tablets and beer one summer night in 1969, and to gauge the reactions of his parents, Jeanette and Ronnie, and his little brother Andrew.
Other classmates included Clive Anderson, and the late TV comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins. Latterly Michael arranged a get-together with Gary’s parents. The resulting conversations were therapeutic to Jeanette and Ronnie who, by their own admission, had previously found it extremely difficult to come to terms with their loss.
Forty years ago depression may have been as all-pervasive as it is today, but it was scarcely a blip on society’s radar. Gary overdosed one Saturday, died on the Sunday, and his funeral followed within two days. The family were left with an unimaginable void in a world where counselling and helplines were non-existent.
The tragedy was that Gary, although outwardly an aspiring musician like his father, devoted to his girlfriend and a bright scholar, left clues alluding to his mental turmoil. Love letters revealed emotional extremes. A Harrow classics teacher recalled discovering Russian graffiti on the blackboard proclaiming ‘I want to die’, in Gary’s handwriting; only to dismiss it as pre-exam nerves.
Portillo’s film captured society’s ambivalent attitudes towards the ultimate form of self-harm. As Perkins admitted, citing his equally traumatic experience of cot death, it was often the case that you couldn’t bring yourself to share the one thing you most desperately wanted to. Andrew found that his grief-stricken parents never truly bonded with himself.
The film was cut with childhood cine footage and monochrome snaps of Gary as a carefree, grinning child. Most poignantly of all, the final scenes showed Andrew – now an established flautist – and Gary’s former piano tutor, interpreting sheet music that Gary had penned, and which had been stuffed away in a wardrobe since his suicide.
In conclusion, there were contact details after the credits. It is some consolation that families undergoing similar traumas to the Findons at least have a far more organised advice network available today. Forty years ago young Gary must have felt truly alone. His suicide note asked his parents not to be sad. Obviously that was impossible to fulfil.