The Making of Me

By Tom Geoghegan
6 July 2007 / BBC News

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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