Christopher Eccleston and Big Issue vendor Clive shared stories and troubles with The Big Issue and each other. Photo: The Big Issue
Clive is a Big Issue vendor in Devon who recently discovered a love of writing and acting. With a stage and screen career spanning more than 30 years, via Hollywood the Royal National Theatre and Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston is one of the greatest actors in the UK and a Big Issue Ambassador.
When we brought the pair together over Zoom they discovered that, despite their contrasting experiences, their lives overlap in unlikely but revealing ways. Could a collaboration be on the cards?
Scene one: From the factory to the street
Christopher Eccleston: What would you like to talk about today? Are you happy to talk about what initially led to you being homeless?
Clive: I’m happy to talk about anything you like. When I was 16 or 17 I went into factories. You start off as the lad making the tea and eventually, by the time I was 26, I started my own factory. It was doing all right for about three years and then in 1991 there was a recession across the UK. I did everything I did to survive and eventually went bankrupt. That was a massive hit.
One company owed me £28,000 for work when they went bankrupt. I did everything I could to survive but it was a downward spiral. Sometimes I was working three days without stopping, trying to work my way out of it. But I couldn’t. Eventually I went bankrupt and the business went under. I ended up on the streets in 1993. I had a mental breakdown at the same time and I became a street alcoholic. It was only five years ago that I got off the streets.
CE: That’s interesting, because you were very successful…
C: Reasonably, not very.
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CE: But you ran a business. I think the received wisdom about people who sell The Big Issue is that they’ve never had a successful life. But I discovered that when I had a severe clinical depression and I was hospitalised… I nearly lost everything. There was one night I thought I was going to die. I was running down Euston Road with a suitcase. Now, if anybody had seen me they’d have gone, oh, there’s Doctor Who. But I feel I was steps away from homelessness. My point is, I don’t think people understand how quickly it can happen. Particularly in times of recession.
C: It’s like when Covid struck last year. One minute I’m in heaven – I’ve got a nice little pitch outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. Me and my little dog are happy. I’ve become friends with everybody who works in the theatre. I was living the dream life for a Big Issue vendor. Then, all of a sudden, within the space of seven days, it evaporated. I saw the theatre close in a weird, horrible way where it just went black. All the lights went off. It was like going past a derelict building within two days. By Friday, social distancing was introduced and my life completely evaporated overnight. It was very similar to bankruptcy – you’re working hard, doing everything you can, then you are standing there and you’ve got nothing.
Scene two: Street life
CE: How long were you were on the streets before you started selling The Big Issue?
C: About 10 years. There’s no great story about it. I saw people doing it and we were exactly the same. I just used to do scrap metal. So every time you’d see a builder’s skip, I was in there head first, getting all the copper and the wire out.
CE: Feet sticking out of the skip?
C: Exactly. And that’s how I was eating as well, living off a couple of pounds a day. As long as I’ve got my beer, I can always dive in a skip behind the Co-op to get a few bits to eat.
CE: So it was beer money, really?
C: Yeah. Because when you’re on the streets, you’ve got to have something that makes you social. There’s no tea-drinking homeless to join so you’ve got to fit into one of those camps on the streets.
CE: I don’t think the public understand that some of the alcoholism and addiction comes from a need to be in a community. That’s a brilliant thing to say. So instead of meeting up for a cup of tea, you’d meet up and share or fight over a can of beer?
C: It’s a funny thing. Especially in summertime, there’s a cycle. We would meet up in the morning – we’ve managed to get a couple of quid together, we’re sitting there with a can of beer. It’s 9am and it’s a lovely sunny day. But when it gets to about one o’clock, I say, lads, see you later. Because at three o’clock they all start fighting.
CE: People walk past and go, oh, they’re just a bunch of pissheads…
C: I will tell you a little story about benches. I left Brighton. It has become a graveyard to me – all my mates there are dead. I started going to London in 2001. I see a group on benches and edge my way in, get matey with one of them. It started getting dark and I was speaking about things I’ve done in my life. I said one word wrong. All of a sudden, they started attacking me. You always get a kicking when you arrive in any city. It is a tester. But the next day, I’m straight back on that bench sitting right next to the woman and blokes that had beaten me up. Then you become friends. That’s part of life on the streets. It’s an unusual way of doing things.
CE: Is this the stuff you’re going to write about?
C: If I get the opportunity to put a script together I could. But I’m focusing at the moment on writing humour. Maybe when I can handle that serious mood I will write it.
CE: I get it. To be honest, though, Clive, whether we like it or not there’s humour in it too. I almost laughed when you said: “Whenever you go to a new city, you get a kicking.” There is a black, tragicomic humour in it. You go to a new city, you get a kicking – it’s like a handshake. If you were in Paris it would be a kiss on the cheeks. A good pasting then you can sit down with us.
Scene three: Street Theatre
CE: Can you remember your first hour of selling The Big Issue? How did you feel?
C: I felt like a fish out of water. Because I had to stand in one place and communicate nicely to people. And I hadn’t communicated nicely to people for 10 years. It was quite daunting. I was outside HMV in Covent Garden in London.
CE: You’re interested in theatre – was there an element of performance to it?
C: Oh, for sure. You don’t know that in your first hour but living on the street is performance all day long. If I’m sitting on the pavement and I want to can of beer, I’m like: “oi guvnor, help us out, mate!” Or if you’re in an area where begging is illegal you get a little drum, knock out a tune and a smile. Before you know it, you’ve got a couple of quid in your pocket and that day is happy again.
CE: So it’s no surprise you ended up with a pitch outside of theatre and are now writing for the theatre.
C: I came to be the Big Issue vendor outside the theatre when I was given a ticket by The Big Issue office. I was working three miles outside the city centre but things got difficult in that area and there were two or three thugs that had decided to pick on me. I had psychosis from the alcohol and from the life I’d been leading. I went into a hostel for about two weeks and Sue from The Big Issue office gave me a ticket to a show in the Drum Theatre inside the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. It was called In My Dreams I’m Dreaming. So I’ve got this ticket, my dog is safe in the hostel, I’m really psychotic, I’m in a bad place. The lady gave me my ticket and I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to react.” The performance could have triggered me badly. I sat right by the door… and I started watching…and I realised the play was stronger than my psychosis. So I knew getting on stage was the way to beat my psychosis. I left the theatre happier than I had felt in years.
CE: Thank you for telling me that. You’ve brought up something. When I broke down, I was working on the first series of The A Word. I was playing a character called Maurice, who was comic and bluff, spending 10 hours a day being him. Then I would go back to my hotel room and wouldn’t sleep. I found out afterwards that I’d been infight or flight for a couple of years and could no longer fight or fly– my brain chemistry was telling me I was about to die. I wasn’t necessarily going to take my own life. I don’t know whether it would be called psychosis, I was just convinced that I was about to die all night. But when 7am came, I would go to work and there would be Maurice’s costume. And I swear to you, Clive, I put it on and I was fine. Because it was stronger than what was happening to me at night. I’m saying this because of what you’ve just said, which was so extraordinary. I wasn’t having to be me. I was being somebody else. So I understand that was a massive moment in your life.
C: It changed my life completely.
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CE: Theatre changes us. You said you didn’t have the confidence to speak to the actors afterwards.
C: Those emotions I felt that night were so strong there was no way I could talk to anybody. But the next day, I bought the Plymouth Herald and the middle pages were about the play. I realised all the actors had mental health issues, alcohol abuse, were former addicts or had been in long-term care. I thought, they’re my people. Within days I was The Big Issue vendor outside that theatre.
CE: I’m not just saying this, your story’s unbelievable. And your strength of character is unbelievable. Because to be in a theatre, psychotic…Listening to it, I’m going, how was this man so strong to know he was in psychosis, but to say, I’ll make sure my dog’s OK and go to this theatre? It’s like it was meant to be. That if you could get into that theatre, it would be a pivot in your life. It’s the strength of character to know you’re psychotic but put yourself into a darkened theatre. Wow.
Scene four: An actor’s life
CE: I’ve asked about the first time you sold The Big Issue. Can you describe how you felt the first time you performed? Were you free of alcohol?
C: Oh yes. You can’t do anything onstage drunk or even tipsy.
CE: I know. I’ve tried, Clive! It doesn’t work.
C: Learning my script was really hard. Because I had one of the biggest parts in it.
CE: What technique did you use?
C: Repetition. I would just say it again and again, then walk into the bathroom and say it there, then the kitchen, in front of a mirror, or standing in the field with my dog. It took me two weeks to get the first act.
CE: Clive, you know, all this creativity that’s exploded in you since The Big Issue and since giving up drink – can you locate that, looking back? Was it always there?
C: I was a lot of trouble as a kid.
CE: Ha – so was Anthony Hopkins.
C: Oh, he’s just a dream. He’s my idol in the acting world.
CE: He is my idol! I worked with him recently and we’d had some exchanges about mental health. Watching him on stage is amazing. It’s like watching a street person. You feel like at any moment, he might just smash the entire theatre up and walk off stage. Which he did when he was at the National playing Macbeth. He went, fuck this, walked off stage, got on a bus and fucked off. He is 30 or 40 years sober. His story’s amazing.
C: That’s something I’ve learned about actors. They really have a depth of life to them. My storytelling has come from being a Big Issue vendor. Because the way to earn money as a Big Issue vendor is to entice somebody in and tell them a little story. Then you get a bit better telling stories and can be a bit more inventive. If it’s a little old lady, you can be this type of Big Issue vendor; if it’s a middle-class lady with a green coat, I’m a different person. I’m a lot of different persons.
CE: If you put the tabard on, it’s like a costume, and the magazine is like a prop – there is a difference between Clive The Big Issue seller and Clive who goes home at night. There’s a parallel with me and you. When I’m out running, people are like, oh, Doctor Who! I’m always friendly but I can’t ever be that person. The whole point is getting away from who I am by playing these different people.
C: I’ve sold you a few times. I’ve had you on my front cover! And I hold the record for Big Issues sold in one week in Plymouth. I sold 393 in one week because it was Jodie Whittaker, the new female Doctor Who. It was such a new thing, so I’d say, you’ve got to support her, this is the first female Doctor…
CE: A bit of emotional blackmail. Nice one.
Scene five: To be continued…
CE: Can we can we stay in touch, Clive?
C: I’d love to. And if in the future, you think ‘Oh, Clive might be good to audition for that part’, give me a call.
CE: What might be more interesting is if we perform together. What if I came down and we did something in Plymouth? What if we got on stage together to heighten awareness about The Big Issue and mental health? I’m an ambassador for The Big Issue. You’re an even bigger ambassador for The Big Issue, Clive. We could write something from this conversation and put it on stage. So instead of me giving you work, Clive, you’ve got to give me work!
C: Hahaha. I’m looking forward to it.
Clive is selling The Big Issue outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth