AUGUST 21, 1999

By Michael Crawford

Michael Crawford is one of our best-loved stars but remarkably little is known about the real man. Now in a candid new book, he reveals the real identity of his father and how, when it came to women, he was just like TV's Frank Spencer.

My childhood was dominated by women - I was surrounded by them from an early age. But as I grew up, I couldn't have been more inexperienced or hopeless with them - I didn't lose my virginity until I was 21.

My mother was Doris Agnes Mary Pike, a lively slip of a girl. Happily sheltered within her close-knit Roman Catholic family, she had grown up on the tiny Isle of Sheppey, off the Kentish east coast.

She was innately elegant, yet a little madcap. I can still picture her coming through the kitchen door and, for no reason, suddenly putting on a Norman Wisdom walk: still hear the ridiculous impersonations she did.

She loved to make us laugh. The humour was sometimes unexpected from someone so pretty. At 18 she'd been crowned Miss Sheerness in the local beauty pageant and, with her cloud of blonde hair and wide, blue eyes, she was something of a minor celebrity on the island.

When she was 20, she met the love of her life - young Arthur Dumbell-Smith - a tall, good-looking Spitfire pilot known as Smudge.

They were married just months after their first meeting, but their idyll lasted only a year. Smudge's plane was shot down in the summer of 1940 and he died a few days later of multiple burns.

During my childhood, I always clung to the image of Smudge as a heroic father figure but the truth is that he wasn't my father at all. And it's only now, in writing this book, that I've managed to piece together some of the details of what really happened.

Naturally, after Smudge's death, everyone was deeply concerned for my mother. She was only 22 and sick with loneliness and grief. As time passed, she learned how to cope and then, almost inevitably, she met someone else.

He, too was a young pilot officer. She was introduced to him at a party. They went out several times and then, fatefully, spent one brief night together. But the relationship was not to be, and they never saw each other again - until she discovered she was pregnant by him.

Unsure of her future, she decided to travel to his base in Cambridge to find him. She did get to see him - but just for a moment. He was walking through the lobby of a hotel on the arm of another woman and, without speaking a word, Mum caught the next train home.

In those distant days, of course, an unmarried mother in the family was seen as a terrible scandal.

So, after much heart-wrenching, my grandmother, Edith Pike, known to us all as Nan, packed my mother off to stay with her sister in Wiltshire, where she could have the baby away from the island gossips.

Getting the news back to the family on Sheppey was a tricky business - a standard telegram sent to the little Sheerness post office was bound to start loose tongues clacking - so Nan had composed a coded message to be sent when the baby arrived.

If it was a girl, the telegram would read that a parcel had arrived safely. If it was a boy, it would read: "Parcel arrived safely - tied with string." And thus my birth was announced. Afterwards we went back to live with Nan, the Pike family's strong cornerstone, a committed Catholic who instilled religion in all of us. Born in Ireland in 1885, she died almost 100 years later, holding my hand. I thought she was absolutely marvelous and I am shameless in the way I love her still.

Eventually, my mother married again: to Lionel Dennis Ingram, known as Den, a sergeant in the Army. At the age of three I was given a new name, Michael Ingram.

Soon after the marriage, Den left the Army to go into the grocery business in Bexleyheath, Kent. It meant we had to live above a shop and far away from everything I'd known. But every weekend and holiday we would go back to see Nan and it was there that my happiest childhood memories were played out.

Shortly after we moved, Den's parents, Ethel and 'Pop', came to live with us. I liked Pop but Ethel had limited tolerance for children, so we just avoided each other. For my mother, however, it was yet another cross to bear. Ethel expected my mother to wait on her constantly and she never got rest. Almost inevitably it placed a strain on her already tense marriage. Den was never a bad man, but he was a complicated and volatile one, with a legendary temper.

When I heard his fist hit the table, I know it was trouble. I was five or six years old and I used to sit by my bedroom door in the dark, listening and holding my breath in an effort to concentrate and make sense of what was happening.

Filtered through the walls of my room in a jumble of angry, mostly unintelligible words came the sound of late night arguments between Mum and Den. I was frightened. I didn't understand what was happening.

One night I couldn't stand it any longer. I burst into the front room where Den was screaming at my Mum. Beads of perspiration were breaking out on his reddening forehead. And then he hit her.

"Don't you hit my Mum!" I screamed, tears running down my face. With that, he hit me hard around my head, sending me flying across the floor.

I'd never been hit as hard as that in my life. His hand felt like a steel bar as it landed. Mum came rushing to my side. My ear was stinging madly and it felt wet. There was blood dripping on the carpet.

Although my childish attempts to shield Mum were laughably ineffectual, I just couldn't stand by when Den hit her. But, sadly, the divisions between them grew deeper over the years and the arguments became part of our everyday lives.

Growing up, I was hyperactive, with a tiny attention span. All the promise of life lay outside in the world beyond the classroom.

However, it wasn't until I was nine and I started attending the London Choir School that my problems really began. It was an extremely well-respected school and was responsible for supplying choirs to places such as St. Paul's Cathedral and the Brompton Oratory. It was also a very hard school. The head was called Father Ingram. Unluckily for me, we shared the same name and the school bullies, suspecting he was a relative, would use me as a human punching bag. They were always there, every morning, waiting outside the school gates to steal my pocket money.

It affected me so badly that I became terrified of the dark and couldn't sleep at night unless the light was left on.

Eventually, when I was about ten, we moved to the London suburb of Herne Hill, giving me the chance to leave the nightmare of choir school behind. Instead, I was sent to the fee paying Oakfield School.

Shortly after we moved, there were stories in the press that Father Ingram had engaged in improper behaviour with some pupils. I think because I was one of the youngest I was shielded from most of it, but there was one incident that should have given me a clue as to what the gossip was all about.

On our way back from singing at St. Paul's Cathedral one day, a few of the boys started kissing each other. My curiosity piqued, I asked my neighbour if, when he had a moment, I might try it too.

Without so much as a by-your-leave, he obligingly pulled himself away from Tibitz Minor and sloppily kissed me full on the lips. I was promptly sick over his shoes, which gave me a fairly clear indication that it wasn't something I wanted to try again.

Much later, it emerged that Father Ingram wasn't a clergyman at all, and I believe he was sentenced to a ten-year term.

At Oakfield, I started to come into my own. The fees were more than we could really afford but Mum and Den scrimped and saved, giving up many small pleasures to keep me there. It was there that I met the best teacher I ever had, a Yorkshireman called Harold Passey. I had more ruler wallops on the hands from him than from any of the others, but it was Mr. Passey who first saw that I could act.

He gave me the chance to prove it in our school production of Benjamin Britten's Let's Make An Opera. It was such a success that we put on a proper performance, on a real stage, and sold tickets to the public. It was a sell-out.

I was hooked. My mother and Den were less sure. It was Mrs. Gray, our next-door neighbour, who finally helped convince them I could really do it.

Mrs. Gray noticed in her daily paper that the English Opera Group was looking for boy sopranos to play in a production of Britten's Turn Of The Screw and urged my mother to let me have a go.

So I joined hundreds of other children for auditions and they whittled us down to just four. But the pure terror of stage fright overtook me on the last audition and my voice left me completely.

However, they remembered me and I was called back to audition for a production of Let's Make An Opera, which starred Trevor Anthony.

I had to audition at Britten's home in Regent's Park, and I got the part, I was 12 and he was by far the poshest person I'd ever met.

I was paid ��8 per week. Fantastic. In the show with me was a girl called June, for whom I developed my first real case of puppy love.

The extent of our relationship was in seeing how long we could kiss. We were sometimes stuck together, like guppies, for 20 minutes at a stretch. I was almost inconceivably innocent in those days.

By the time I was 14, I was working steadily, and at 15 I was allowed to leave school. It was during the Opera tour that I was advised to change my name (to avoid confusion with a television newsman called Ingram).

One afternoon I saw a large biscuit lorry with an enormous sign along the side reading 'Crawford's Biscuits Are Best'.

I don't know why, but the name jumped out at me. 'Michael Crawford'. I liked the sound of it.

Herne Hill was a strict, upper working-class area light years away from the exotic world I was joining. Mum may have wondered what I was up to, but it wasn't something she'd dream of discussing with me. Nobody talked about sex in those days.

She, and later my lovely, maternal agent, Adza, tried to protect me from such things, and I could never find a way to tell them I didn't want to be protected.

Of course, there were a few things they didn't know about, like those summer afternoons on Sheppey when a group of seven or eight of us sat in the fields after scrumping for apples. My friend John Wood and his girlfriend Betty would kiss and the rest of us, in between bites of Golden Delicious, were sometimes allowed to touch the breast of a particularly friendly redhead called Hazel, who was blessed with the firmest, most sumptuous bosoms on the island. Just touch, mind you, that's all you were allowed. We never even kissed her.

And then, when I was 15, my red letter day arrived. I had a fight with, God forgive me, the pig tailed Girl Guide who lived down the road. She was a robust girl with a weight advantage of about 35lbs. We'd been playing explorers at the end of our garden and it suddenly turned into a wrestling match.

When she saw no other chance of victory, she grabbed my private parts through my shorts and gave them a violent squeeze.

To my astonishment, I became immediately erect and experienced an incredible craving for this enormous girl who seemed intent on annihilating me.

I kissed her so hard I must have almost eaten her alive. As we thrashed around in the bushes, my whole being went into spasm and, as the feeling went from absolute ecstasy to unbelievable shame, I tore myself away from this delectable Girl Guide.

I'd had my first orgasm and, in the process, destroyed my mother's prized lilac bush. All the same, I remained pretty innocent about life and women and, as heavily "mothered" as I was, opportunities to explore further never seemed to arise.

It was to be a full six years before I finally lost my virginity. She was an attractive actress: an 'older' woman of about 28.

I was 21 and doing a show in Bristol. After our first night, the company gathered in one of the actors' hotel rooms for a few beers and, as everyone was saying their goodbyes, this woman accompanied me down the corridor and said: 'Would you like me to come in for a little while?'

I began stuttering about an 'early start tomorrow' but luckily she came in anyway. We sat down by the fire and she started to take my clothes off. All I could think was that IT was going to happen.

Frankly, I was so overwhelmed that I was absolutely no help to her. I didn't know whether I should try and remove her clothes or not. In fact, I thought she might hit me if I touched her.

Instead, very kindly, she told me what to do, whispering in my ear, and I'd never felt anything so wonderful before as this woman so close to me. I was so pathetic. Afterwards, she asked my age but I wouldn't tell her, I didn't want her to know I was 21 and terribly inexperienced. I waited around for her the next day, having developed an insatiable yen for a complete re-enactment of the night before, but she wanted nothing more to do with me.

I stayed madly in love, and thought about her for months afterwards. But, alas, I was never to see her again.

It was to be quite some time before I had another sexual experience, but it was as fraught as the first.

She was a schoolteacher who would come and visit me back stage. Mostly we'd walk and talk, and I would drop her off with a goodnight kiss.

Then, one night, we went walking down by the river. We hugged and kissed and, before I knew it, my trousers were unexpectedly around my ankles - what had seemed very uncertain had turned out to be very certain indeed.

On the drive home I began to experience the most horrendous itching. I had caught something horrible - my private parts were covered in spots. A quick visit to the doctor revealed the worst: In my haste, I'd made love on a bed of stinging nettles.

Shortly afterwards I met a beautiful girl: a model called Virginia who sometimes wore woolly black stockings. Not the sexiest of garments, I grant you, but they were dazzling on her because she had the most beautiful body.

Unfortunately, whenever I contemplated launching myself on top of that beautiful body my Catholic upbringing came back to haunt me and I couldn't help seeing my priest wagging a finger at me.

In the end, I decided that God wouldn't judge me too harshly if I slipped every now and then. I slipped, all right, but I'm not complaining in the least and there's no doubt in my mind that Virginia in her woolly tights was my sexual Waterloo.

During my 21st year I was given a part in Neil Simon's comedy Come Blow Your Horn in the West End with Bob Monkhouse, Nyree Dawn Porter and Libby Morris. The first night was a huge success.

From that point on, I knew that it was comedy for me, Mum and Den and Nan were all there and the critical response was fabulous.

The party afterwards lasted well into the small hours and Bob Monkhouse and his wife put me up for the night.

When I crept home early the next morning, I found a long, brown envelope my mother had left on my pillow. She had written a few words in pencil on it: 'My wonderful, wonderful son.' That's all it said, but it was like an award for me; something I still treasure. I still have it, wrapped in tissue, kept in a dark place so it doesn't fade.

I'm glad she had that opening night and that she was there with me to share in the success. It was the last thing I was able to give her; she died within a year.

I've often been accused of being susceptible to superstition.

Perhaps I am, but I believe everyone has experienced a sixth sense - or feelings that can't be explained away in the normal course of events - and I accord it a healthy respect. One night during the run of Come Blow Your Horn, I'd been out with some friends at the Earl's Court flat of an old friend of mine.

She was a country girl from a very good family. I'd known her a few years and she knew my family. We'd entertained ourselves by messing about with a ouija board trying to get a lead on the name of the next Derby winner. Later in the evening, for absolutely no reason, the ouija pointer went completely out of control and my friend became hysterical, crying uncontrollably.

Eventually, I managed to quieten her down, though she still refused to say what was the matter. Months later she revealed that she had suddenly seen my mother ill and dying. That evening, as my car turned into the end of our road, I saw another car outside our house. It was strange for that time. Inside the house, everything was in a terrible state. My mother was upstairs in her room with our family doctor. I could hear her crying in pain. Den and I sat downstairs feeling helpless. Finally the doctor came down and said she had to go to hospital immediately. She was taken to Dulwich Hospital, where she was diagnosed as having had a gallstone attack.

It was a terrible shock. I had never thought of Mum as being vulnerable before and she had never had a day of illness that I could recall. But now she lay in hospital, helpless, covered in intravenous drips and tubes. It was an agony to watch. After several days it was obvious she wasn't responding to treatment.

One night at the theatre I sought out Bob Monkhouse for counsel. He unhesitatingly recommended we get a second opinion. Like many ordinary people, my family was intimidated by the medical profession and too timid to ask questions.

The next morning I tried to convince Mum to get a second opinion, but she refused, worried about offending our family doctor by questioning his judgement.

For the first time in my life I ignored her wishes: Bob's advice had seemed so eminently sensible. I suppose I acquired my first bit of worldly wisdom at that moment - but it came a week too late.

I was able to find a specialist who advised that Mum be transferred immediately to another hospital to undergo emergency surgery. Without waiting another hour I had her removed to St. George's in Hyde Park.

I remember holding her hand in the ambulance as she glimpsed a view of Buckingham Palace on that beautiful March morning.

The doctor told us she had acute pancreatitis which should have been operated on days before. Afterwards I wept outside the ward.

It was a long, hard operation: when we saw her again she was heavily sedated and drifting in and out of consciousness, although she knew Den and I were with her.

But she didn't improve and a decision was made to operate again, this time to close an opening in the pancreas through which poisons were leaking into her body.

That night, when I left her to do my show, I couldn't touch her because she was housed in an oxygen lung tent and I could only kiss her goodbye on the chilly plastic that separated us. The next morning, at some black hour before dawn, the sudden ringing of the phone ripped through the silence of our house. I heard Den answer and muffled conversation. When he came into my room, I knew what he had to tell me; his tear marked face said it all.

She had just turned forty-four. I've never felt such overwhelming loneliness or hurt before or since, like a black cold pain in the middle of my gut, I wept until my face throbbed with it and then I was suddenly engulfed in the most soul-destroying rage.

I beat my fists against the wardrobe door, wanting to smash it apart. I couldn't bear the injustice of my mother's death, or conceive that a good God would let such a thing happen. And I could weep at this moment for all the things I never knew - and will never know - about her, and for the thousand and one questions I want to ask her now that I am older than she was when I last saw her.

Den and I began a new life together, along with his parents, who were still living with us. In his way, he'd always done his best for me and I owe him a debt for the years of sacrifice he made for a boy who wasn't his son. But I was always very conscious that he was my stepfather.

With my mother gone, we were like two strangers living in the same house. The strain pushed us to the limit, until, one day, it exploded and we fought, dredging up old hurts, both real and imagined.

Den had only ever known one way to answer me - with the back of his hand. Again, it was as strong as a piece of iron when he swung his arm through the air and knocked me to the floor. From that moment, the last threads of family that bound us were broken.

I waited until Den left the house for work that night to pack up what I owned. Then, at the age of 21 I left Herne Hill for good with no plan except to start a new life.

Next week I'll be telling you of the adventures I encountered - and how I met the love of my life only to lose her through my own weakness.

Extracted from Parcel Arrived Safely: Tied With String, by Michael Crawford

Excerpt Typed by: Lilian Barbuti - Thanks Lilian!