Michael Crawford speaks of his love for the Sick Children's Trust's Acorn House at Addenbrooke's
Best known as Frank Spencer Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and as the Phantom of the Opera, the actor and singer also does a great deal for charity.
Founded in 1982, the Sick Children’s Trust, of which Mr Crawford is president, provides free, high-quality ‘home from home’ accommodation – as well as emotional and practical support – to families with sick children in hospital throughout the UK.
Acorn House at Addenbrooke’s offers this welcome and much-needed service in the Cambridge area, having opened in 2000.
It was subsequently extended in 2006 and is one of 10 such ‘homes from home’ in the country. Acorn House has 15 family bedrooms, nine bathrooms, kitchen, communal dining area, shared living room, playroom, quiet room, laundry facilities and children’s garden, and to put a family up for the night costs £30.
Every year the mayor of Cambridge chooses a charity and lets it use the Guildhall for a fundraising evening – and this year it was the Sick Children’s Trust, which is what brought the star to the city on Wednesday, August 15.
“They [the Sick Children’s Trust] started in ’82 and I became involved within six months of it starting,” says Michael, 76, dressed in a blue shirt and black trousers and every bit as affable as one would imagine, sitting on a sofa in Acorn House around seven hours before Irish soprano Margaret Keys got An Audience with Michael Crawford under way. “Then, in 1987, I became president.”
He adds: “Dr Jon Pritchard, who was at Great Ormond Street Hospital, started it and I met him originally in Manchester while we were doing Billy [the musical based on the novel and play, Billy Liar] – that’s when I became aware of it.”
Michael first became interested in the concept after working in America and seeing the McDonald’s Houses, which provide support for the families of sick children over there.
“We didn’t have that over here,” he explains, “so that’s why he [Dr Jon Pritchard] started it – because of his own child – and it’s grown from there. Now we have 10 houses around England, and I think the idea of it all is that it is known to assist the recovery of children, when the families stay together.”
Michael, who remembers coming to Cambridge to officially open Acorn House – he’s also performed quite a few times at the Cambridge Arts Theatre – believes these buildings are vital and that it is unacceptable to have a family member sleeping in a chair next to a bed.
He says the houses are at “90 per cent capacity most of the time,” noting: “That’s really sad, but it shows how necessary they are.”
He continues: “All the money that’s given is voluntary contribution – none of it comes from government or local councils. I don’t know where they find the staff, but they find staff who are always just lovely people – kind, understanding, medically proficient, obviously, and the houses are always spotless and well-kept.
“It’s somewhere where you’re always in reach of the wards, where the child is having the treatment, and the family can spend the whole day with the child and then come back here at night.”
Michael’s strong desire to keep families together comes from quite a traumatic childhood memory. “It started with the most simple story, that when I was nine I had my tonsils out,” he recalls.
“It was in Dartford in Kent. We lived in Bexleyheath at the time, which is about 40 minutes away, and my mother was late coming to pick me up after the operation the next morning.
“The sheets were all covered in blood and I was covered in blood – it wasn’t quite as effcient as it is now! I was sitting in this bed and was crying my eyes out because I thought I wasn’t going to see her again.
“I was the last one being picked up out of the six kids and I’ve never forgotten that. That was the spark – something as simple as that.”
The actor, who spoke at An Audience with Michael Crawford at the Guildhall in the evening of Wenesday, August 15, is eternally grateful to his most beloved comedy character for helping him with his charity work.
“God bless me, thank goodness I had Some Mothers...,” he says. “It made me very much able to communicate with youngsters – and their parents because our show, I think, was a communicator between a family.
“You could still watch it now and the whole family could watch it together. A modern youngster of six or seven could watch it and they’d understand it.”
On how he developed the hapless Frank Spencer, Michael says: “I got it from a few of my aunties. I grew up with women, mainly, because it was the end of the war – so all the men were away. I was born in ’42 and I remember those really early years.
“I had about five aunts. My father was unknown and that wasn’t too popular in those days, so I was taken away to my aunt’s and I lived there for the first three years of my life, surrounded by these loving aunts.
“I’d hear them saying things and you always talk to a child in a babyish way, but there were all these sayings, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to the cathedral tomorrow’ – ‘Oh nice!’ they’d say.
“And if you were going to meet the Pope – ‘Oh nice!’ I thought that was such a lovely expression – it’s so simplistic so we put that in.”