Richard Bacon on battling scandal, addiction and nine days in a coma
June 18, 2020. Series 1. Episode 3
If this podcast is about analysing crisis in all its forms then Richard Bacon, one of Britain’s brightest TV presenters and producers, is a guest who has survived more than anybody’s fair share. A career shattering scandal, addiction and mental health issues and a sudden illness that left him in a coma and fighting for life. In this episode Richard talks about what he has learnt from his dramas – self-inflicted and otherwise – with disarming frankness, brutal self-analysis and plenty of humour.
Richard’s Crisis Cures:
1. Avoid alcohol: ‘I think if I’m going through a dark day the thing is to not drink because that can very quickly bring out anger.’
2. Vinyl music: ‘I often play sixties bands, whether it’s The Who or The Kinks or The Beatles or The Stones… nothing makes me happier than putting on a piece of vinyl, I just love everything about it.’
3. Babington House: ‘I got married there and it still retains its kind of magic quality…it’s hard not to go there and do anything other than feel much better.’
The ADHD Foundation: https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk
ICR Everyman appeal: https://www.icr.ac.uk/support-us/appeals-campaigns/everyman-appeal
Richard Bacon is a man on a mission. Already an established entertainment and news presenter in both Britain and the US, he recently signed a deal with NBCUniversal to devise and produce new show formats. All this a testament to his energy and optimism.
But transatlantic success can also be traced directly back to a decision made in the white heat of a crisis in 1998. Caught taking cocaine by the News of the World (under a previous editor!) whilst he was presenter of the BBC’s flagship kids show Blue Peter – Richard could have taken the view that fame and TV were not for him.
Instead, aged just 23 he decided to ‘own’ his crisis and march headlong into, not away, from the drama. The bold innocence of youth, perhaps.
But it also took courage, focus and determined self-belief – three critical crisis management skills. But success has been a tough road for Richard in part because of ADHD. A condition that he believes has contributed to his dependencies. As he puts it: “I’m a run towards, not a run-away addict. I’m not running away from anything.”
Richard’s restless curiosity, and the support of his wife Rebecca, have been his saviours professionally and personally.
A willingness to engage with his own strengths and weaknesses and to confront the truths of them is another crisis lesson worth noting.
A big believer in the power of therapy (and, fortunately, podcasts), he says the simple, but not always easy, act of talking about your problems takes you a long way towards being able to fix them.
Music: Allies by Some Velvet Morning
Host – Andy Coulson
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.07 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? A new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:03.13 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but our guests will talk about their experiences honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:30.03 Andy Coulson:
Our guest today is Richard Bacon, one of the sharpest minds in broadcasting. From Blue Peter in his early twenties to creator and exec producer of a new prime time game show in America and with a truly eclectic mix of radio and TV roles in between covering entertainment, current affairs and much more. Richard’s career here and in the US reflects a talent to be curious and energised by pretty much everything he encounters. But it hasn’t been a straightforward journey.
00:01:57.18 Andy Coulson:
In this podcast we’re looking at crisis in all its forms, including high profile professional unravellings, mental health and addiction issues and near death experiences. On that basis this could be the only conversation we need to have because has endured and survived them all. Richard, thanks for joining us today. We’re going to talk of course about the downsides of crisis and how to navigate the dark days but let’s start with the positives because crisis is one side of a coin for you, the other side is that energy, drive, that curiosity that served you very well. Do you see it that way?
00:02:33.06 Richard Bacon:
Definitely I see myself as curious, in more ways than one, and I’m just thinking through your very nice intro, I definitely have a lot of energy and I also definitely am willing to take risks but they’re not always very good risks. You know, they’re not calculated risks, they’re just risks and I think if you are that sort of person then sometimes things will go wrong and you’ll get in trouble.
00:03:03.21 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. Blue Peter – you’ve been…
00:03:07.21 Richard Bacon:
Oh! Got there already have we, god!
00:03:11.06 Andy Coulson:
Let’s get it out the way. We’re got to get over the thorny issue of The News of the World as well. You’ve been a presenter…
00:03:17.14 Richard Bacon:
Were you there when I was… were you at News of the World when I was… you weren’t were you?
00:03:20.08 Andy Coulson:
I was not. I was not, I am very relieved to say.
00:03:23.19 Richard Bacon:
I tell you what part you played in my story which was, I was only on Blue Peter for twenty months but you were editor of the Bizarre column in The Sun. You had… I kind of forgot about this, but I already had a reputation for going out, you know, drinking a lot and I was only twenty-one and you… I went to loads of parties and you ran an item about the Blue Peter breathalyser. Do you remember they had a Blue Peter totaliser?
00:03:46.14 Andy Coulson:
00:03:46.22 Richard Bacon:
Which kids would send in milk bottle tops and that kind of thing to raise money for a serious cause? You ran the Blue Peter totaliser [breathalyser] and it had beer bottle tops and it was about how many times I’d been out partying. So in many ways, Andy, you saw it coming.
00:04:01.20 Andy Coulson:
I tried to, I tried to warn you.
00:04:03.00 Richard Bacon:
You should have intervened! Or was that it?
00:04:04.24 Andy Coulson:
I tried to warn you!
00:04:08.09 Richard Bacon:
Only joking Blue Peter totaliser, sorry.
00:04:10.13 Andy Coulson:
Indeed, you’d been a presenter for eighteen months or so when you were caught taking cocaine by The News of the World.
00:04:14.09 Richard Bacon:
00:04:18.08 Andy Coulson:
A scandal erupts, front pages for a few days and you lose your job, having to hand back your Blue Peter badge, I understand. A really tough experience for someone, for anyone, in their early twenties. But more years have passed than the number of months you spent in the job. And yet, you still feel the need, I understand, even in America, to tell anyone who might be looking to work with you about it. Why is that?
00:04:49.18 Richard Bacon:
Because in America, I mean I’m talking to you from Los Angeles and in America they find it funny, I suppose. I mean, one, it comes up as soon as you Google it.
00:05:06.21 Andy Coulson:
So you feel you want to get there first?
00:05:10.09 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, it’s partly about getting there first, isn’t it? And I think anyone who has had a very big, dominant scandal in their life, then it will always be there in some form so it’s partly about you own it by making a joke about it. It’s always a good way to own something is to use humour. In some ways you can use it to your advantage in a meeting. It’s kind of a story that is quite shocking, it’s long enough ago for it not to matter but if I don’t mention it then they will Google me and it will seem strange that I didn’t mention it.
00:05:52.09 Richard Bacon:
I’m speaking to you in a room in my house and there’s one of those Amazon Alexas next to me and the other day my kids said, ‘Oh Alexa who’s Richard Bacon?’ And it comes up straight away it says, ‘Richard Bacon is an English Radio and television presenter, he was fired from Blue Peter in 1998 for taking…’ and I jumped in and I went, ‘Alexa stop! Stop!’ And then they went ‘What are you saying stop for? What did you get fired for?’ And I went, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And then they asked again. And so it’s right there at the surface all the time even though it’s twenty-one years ago. So my answer is that when you have something like, that that you are well-known for, and it’s dominant then it’s important to own it.
00:06:37.10 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. I mean, other than just now, for which apologies, when was the last time that someone actually raised it with you?
00:06:44.19 Richard Bacon:
Echo? It’s not on, I was going to get it to do it now. Yeah, no, I’ve got an announcement this week, I’ve signed an overall deal with NBC.
00:06:57.02 Andy Coulson:
00:06:58.11 Richard Bacon:
Thanks, and that’s being announced in the next two days I think, because I have a couple of productions with them and I have another one with ABC. But you know, they said, CAA who are my agents here, Hollywood agents, said, ‘Oh can you write us a bio, a resume as they call it, for the NBC Universal press release.’ So I just put it in there because I thought I can’t [not], I’ve got to put it in there.
00:07:24.23 Andy Coulson:
How interesting. Because on one level that’s kind of bonkers right? I mean, obviously I totally get it but for someone listening to this, I think most people listening to this would think to themselves, my god, it was so long ago and hardly the greatest transgression in life. And there you are, more than twenty years later, wanting to put it into a press release for an announcement that is nothing but yet another properly significant step forward in your life.
00:07:55.24 Richard Bacon:
I mean, let me have a look, I’ve got the bio, I’ll send them. I mean, I doubt NBC will actually put it in the press release it’s just that I thought I’d front it up.
00:08:03.01 Andy Coulson:
No, but that you chose to do it is interesting. No, look, you bounced back…
00:08:07.10 Richard Bacon:
This is how I phrased it, “He…” obviously I’m talking about myself in the third person, “He spent his formative years in the 1990s on the world’s longest running children’s television show, Blue Peter. He was famously the first presenter ever to be fired, going overnight from being a successful children’s television presenter that nobody had heard of, to an unsuccessful children’s television presenter that everybody had heard of.” It’s not a bad joke, it’s not a bad way of doing it.
00:08:39.04 Andy Coulson:
It’s not a bad joke at all. You bounced back though, pretty quickly, didn’t you? The Big Breakfast, Top of the Pops, other TV and radio jobs. That scandal would have sunk a lot of people but even at that age you clearly had resilience. So where did that come from?
00:08:57.12 Richard Bacon:
Well I was always quite proud of the way that I dealt with that scandal psychologically. I remember it was just strange being in the eye of the storm, you know, as you have been. I had just turned twenty-two, I think, when it happened. And as you said at the beginning it was a big story it was on the front pages for a few days. And when you’re in the eye of the storm you don’t know where the eye is going to sort of settle. You don’t know when it’s going to calm down and you don’t really know where. It’s like there’s a hurricane and all the furniture is spinning around and you just don’t know what’s next and what’s around the corner. but I remember being pleased with how I coped with it. And I don’t know where that comes from, I couldn’t really tell you but I didn’t let it crush me.
00:09:51.12 Andy Coulson:
Mum and dad? I mean, you had a terrific childhood.
00:09:54.11 Richard Bacon:
Well my mum, yeah, it definitely comes from my mum and dad. I actually took my mum to therapy recently and just to like cut to the chase of what therapy’s all about, I just took… You know they’re always like, you know that Freud quote about ‘if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother’…
00:10:14.01 Andy Coulson:
Did you tell your therapist that you were bringing your mother to…?
00:10:18.18 Richard Bacon:
Well because I live in LA so of course I have a therapist. And we were talking one day towards the beginning of last year and of course she asked me about my mum. And I said, ‘Well she’s in LA next week’. And I’m very glad she was like, ‘Yes please’ she was really excited. And it’s so interesting because when you do something like that you end up listening to your parent in a way that you don’t normally. Obviously you know your mum and dad’s back story and the beats of it but you rarely listen to them, for an hour, talk about their childhood and certainly not in the company of an expert who knows how to steer the conversation. And so I learned, I heard a lot about my mum’s own resilience. She’s also spent a lot of her life as a big drinker but she went through a really difficult childhood with an abusive father and she went through it in so much detail, it was really shocking. And actually when she was five years old she nearly died, she caught fire.
00:11:23.21 Andy Coulson:
00:11:25.07 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, she caught fire, she was in front of a fire when she was five. She grew up in a pub in Nottinghamshire. It was an electric fire and the flames enveloped her and her sister got a bowl of lettuce and water from the kitchen and threw it on her face. It’s the only reason her face was protected. The rest of her body is still covered in scars. And I remember her, she was talking about, she said she was in the ambulance with her dad who was actually not a very nice guy. She said, ‘I can remember saying to him, dad, am I going to die, am I going to die?’ And then I started crying because I thought about, wow, my daughter’s five.
00:11:58.01 Richard Bacon:
So it’s a profound experience but actually yes, to come back to your question, my mum has more resilience than I do and has been through a lot. So it probably does come from your parents. And when I went through that scandal which is, frankly, nothing like as bad as what my mum went through when she was five, still only lost a job and been in the newspaper… but I remember ‘oh, right, I can deal with it’ I just realised I could deal with it and that allowed me to move on.
00:12:27.19 Andy Coulson:
The sort of, the incredibly wise decision, it seems to me from this distance, is that you decided not to be bitter. in your early twenties, how did you get to that place? How did you dodge the bitterness bullet?
00:12:46.03 Richard Bacon:
I consciously thought that I’m not going to be bitter about it. It was a decision rather than an instinctive, emotional reaction.
00:12:53.13 Andy Coulson:
Informed by advice or something you were able to get there yourself?
00:12:55.12 Richard Bacon:
No, I got there myself. I just thought the wise thing would be to not be bitter and then if you’re not bitter about it you don’t get dragged down. And you see people who are bitter about things from their past. I mean, I can think of a couple of famous TV hosts that I’m really good friends with. One in particular who was fired in a big scandal, I’m not going to say who because it’s not fair, but he’s definitely bitter about it and struggles to talk about it now. And I’ve spent hours and hours and hours with him and he’s just not very good at opening up about it or talking about it or making jokes about it, even though he’s a funny man. And so that’s what you don’t want.
00:13:41.16 Andy Coulson:
He does not put it into his press releases?
00:13:47.16 Richard Bacon:
He’s not had a press release for a while, Andy, but no, I don’t suppose he would. But I think again, you come back to what we’ve just talked about which is owning it, making jokes about it, that also stops you being bitter about it. If you don’t talk about it properly, I mean, that’s true of many things in life isn’t it? Of problems that you go through, it can be a relationship problem, it can be a mistake that you’ve made, it can be a scandal you’re caught up in. It can be an accident you have. If you don’t talk about it then we know there’s plenty of evidence that that is psychologically unhealthy. So I talked about it, made jokes about it, was open about it and that helped me not be bitter. But I consciously, as I said earlier, decided not to be bitter.
00:14:37.14 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. How did what happened…
00:14:42.06 Richard Bacon:
Are you bitter about what happened to you?
00:14:43.22 Andy Coulson:
No, and that’s why I asked the question because I think it’s, if it’s not the key, it’s certainly a key element. Because I’ve had plenty of bitter days and I’ve always felt worse after.
00:14:57.22 Richard Bacon:
00:14:58.08 Andy Coulson:
Bitterness for me always sent me backwards not forwards.
00:15:01.02 Richard Bacon:
So how did you banish the bitterness when you felt it on a bitter day?
00:15:06.09 Andy Coulson:
Well, you know, mine was fairly long-running and similar to your situation in that you had people camped, journalists camped out your door and you’re high profile. I don’t think I was really in a position to get angry about any of that at all, certainly not bitter, I was a national newspaper editor, for crying out loud. So I was able to get perspective pretty quickly really. And a lot of the stuff that would be difficult for most people to deal with was a bit easier for me because I’d been a journalist and because of the jobs I’d done, I was able to get my head round it pretty quickly. So a lot of that stuff that causes bitterness I was able to very quickly get over.
00:15:50.02 Richard Bacon:
But you ended up with a particularly harsh punishment that, I assume, you think was too harsh and the consequences for your family were enormous. I mean, the consequences for my mum and dad were pretty big but that’s the thing isn’t it? I think it was worse for my dad than for me.
00:16:11.12 Andy Coulson:
You said, I think, that your dad was properly affected by it, as you’d expect any father to be, right?
00:16:20.02 Richard Bacon:
00:16:21.01 Andy Coulson:
We underestimate how much this stuff affects our parents, obviously.
00:16:28.17 Richard Bacon:
Well he’s a lawyer and so I’d broken the law publicly and it’s very difficult for him. And you know, he cried in the shower, and he turned the shower on so that my mum wouldn’t hear him cry. That was the first time she’d heard him cry and probably hasn’t heard it since. So it was very significant for them. And certainly I felt quite a lot of shame when my mum told me that story, which wasn’t until a couple of years later. In a way that was the worst I ever felt about it, when she told me that story a long time afterwards, because I hadn’t really thought about those consequences.
00:17:10.18 Andy Coulson:
How do you think it sort of impacted you in the years after? Because, as I mentioned, you got back on your feet pretty quickly, you were back on TV.
00:17:22.13 Richard Bacon:
00:17:23.16 Andy Coulson:
How did it sort of manifest itself do you think in the say, next five years or so?
00:17:31.18 Richard Bacon:
I got thrown off Blue Peter and then I went to work on this show called The Big Breakfast where you just had to come up with ideas all the time. You weren’t just a host for hire. And it really taught me that I love ideas. Then I went to work at XFM where I just filled my shows there with ideas. And then I diverted, essentially, into news and current affairs at Five Live for quite a long time and I really enjoyed working there. And I did a bit of kind of current affairs type hosting here in America but what I’ve come back to, and I’m hosting a couple of these gameshows I’ve created, but what I’ve really circled back to in my life now is coming up with ideas and writing ideas. You know the NBC overall deal is about writing ideas. And it was being on The Big Breakfast that taught me and showed me that that’s what I like to do. And that was early on that show.
00:18:21.16 Andy Coulson:
With Ed, of course.
00:18:24.15 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, with Ed of course, Ed Forsdick was the exec producer who you were really good friends with. I remember… did I meet you at his fortieth? I think I did, didn’t I?
00:18:36.08 Andy Coulson:
We did, yeah.
00:18:37.12 Richard Bacon:
Do you remember his fortieth?
00:18:38.14 Andy Coulson:
I do remember his fortieth, yeah.
00:18:41.19 Richard Bacon:
He literally threw me out. I mean literally because I was the last to leave and he said, ‘You’ve got to go’ and threw me out the door.
00:18:46.10 Andy Coulson:
We should explain that Ed was the producer there and a brilliant bloke. You know, enormously talented TV producer who sadly died far too young. And there, losing a friend like that and he was a good friend of yours. Perspective there, right?
00:19:05.08 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, definitely and he had various types of cancer, I think, and he had no idea and he just dropped dead. And I don’t know how old he was, certainly went to his fortieth, so he can’t have been more than forty-four or something.
00:19:18.07 Andy Coulson:
00:19:18.15 Richard Bacon:
…certainly not long after that. But he was a very creative guy, Oxbridge guy. Shows like The Big Breakfast had these really clever people who ended up working in really shallow television. And it was just that brilliant fusing of clever people inside a cartoon world. And he also taught me that I like creating ideas. So the route that I’ve taken, even to what I’m doing now, all this time later, is sort of a consequence of getting thrown off Blue Peter.
00:19:49.23 Andy Coulson:
You’ve described yourself as an addict but you’ve stayed away from rehab.
00:19:54.20 Richard Bacon:
00:19:56.09 Andy Coulson:
I get the impression that you consider the, not management, but the understanding of whatever issues you have, whatever issues anyone has, is a sort of ongoing process. That there isn’t somewhere where you can go to get it fixed. If it’s part of your life it’s part of your life and you should be interested in it and fully immersed in it. Is that your view? Because you’re pro-therapy but you’re not personally, you’re not against rehab but you’re not personally pro-rehab, is that right?
00:20:30.04 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, I’ve not been. Yeah, I mean, I go through periods of thinking I should drink or not drink and periods of just giving up altogether and periods of just really enjoying it. It’s quite hard not to drink during lockdown. Like, it’d be quite hard not to drink at the moment when there’s really nowhere to go and not that much to do. Yes, it’s a type of addiction, it’s not a dependency. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and think well I need to have an alcoholic drink. It’s just that I like it and I drink too quickly and people who drink too quickly can be a problem. And so I’ve had periods of AA and not AA and drinking and not drinking. I guess rehab in the end I guess I haven’t fully made a decision to stop forever and without really committing to that there’s not much point in going there.
00:21:36.20 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. You’ve described yourself as a sort of run-towards addict rather than a run-away addict.
00:21:43.11 Richard Bacon:
00:21:45.19 Andy Coulson:
Which I think is a very powerful way of putting it. that you’re at your most vulnerable when things are great.
00:21:52.09 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, that’s definitely true. It’s still the case that if there’s some good news then I’ll be like, I really want a drink and really enjoy myself. And again, I’ve actually been into a really good period lately of selling things and stuff happening, so there’s been quite a bit of that. But it’s very much I don’t… I remember someone saying to me once, ‘What is it? Will you go and have a big night?’ Or whatever, I don’t really have big nights anymore but when I did that someone would say… I remember someone saying to me, ‘What are you running away from?’ And I said, ‘I’m not running away from anything.’ And I brought this point up with my therapist and we discussed this. No, I’m not running away, I’m running towards.
00:22:37.12 Richard Bacon:
And there’s definitely an assumption that if you’re dealing with someone or you know someone who likes a drink, drinks quickly or has been in trouble in the past or whatever, that they’re ‘What is this trauma? What is this childhood trauma that you’re running away from? What are the problems in your life and in your marriage and in your work? Are you in debt?’ And they go, ‘No, no, none of those things. I’m trying to go even faster.’ And it is that…
00:23:06.01 Andy Coulson:
That’s what it is, that’s how you would characterise it?
00:23:08.20 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, definitely, definitely yeah.
00:23:10.03 Andy Coulson:
Wanting to go faster?
00:23:13.23 Richard Bacon:
I’m at my most vulnerable when things are at their best.
00:23:16.08 Andy Coulson:
So 2018 was a challenging year to put it mildly for you. Early in 2018 you’re diagnosed with ADHD which would be a difficult thing for anyone to get their head around. You’re told, this is from what I have read, you’re told that you sit down with the doctor and he tells you that in fact you’re dangerous and credits Rebecca’s, your wife, with having saved your life by managing what neither of you knew then, was a disorder. Having explained that there are deep positives about your nature and your character, how did you, so quickly, get your head around, understand that dangerous bit? That chaotic bit?
00:24:21.02 Richard Bacon:
It was, well, it was partly how it was explained to me but it was also, as you said at the very beginning, I’m curious. And so in discovering a bit about this I became curious about it. So I was keen to learn what it meant. And that was, it was again, my LA therapist said, ‘You’ve clearly got ADHD’, my therapist had got ADHD and he was like ‘You should go and have a proper diagnosis’. So I went to Orange County and to the Amen Clinic which is an ADHD clinic and you go through this long checklist and they scan your brain and various things happen.
00:24:58.11 Richard Bacon:
And there are many different types of ADHD. What was so interesting was you can see it as a physical manifestation that I had a brain scan and you have lower blood flow to the front of the brain, to the pre-frontal cortex and a lot of ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are stimulants. It’s why a lot of people with ADHD, it turns out, take cocaine. See, that was something I learned as well was that my past use of that drug may have been related to that. It’s hard to say categorically that that’s what it’s about…
00:25:37.15 Andy Coulson:
But you’re trying to sort of subconsciously rewire.
00:25:40.03 Richard Bacon:
Sort of what the stimulant does is it essentially speeds up the blood flow at the front of the brain that has in a sense slowed down. And when you look at the brain scan that bit on the brain is a darker patch than it is on other people. So that was fascinating but it wasn’t, definitely not made up ADHD. You know, my mum was a bit sceptical about it. It was like, ‘Oh everyone’s got that these days’ I think was her response. As in, it think she thinks parents use it as an excuse if their kid’s not very good in class. I think my mum just thinks that’s what parents say, ‘Oh my kid’s got ADHD’ without really considering that it’s…
00:26:21.15 Andy Coulson:
So no mum, its… let me show you the scan…
00:26:23.11 Richard Bacon:
No, it’s a real thing, it’s a real thing and some of those parents, a lot of those parents would say that we’re telling the truth, that they’ll be onto something. And I did some interviews about ADHD at the time. And every few days on Twitter now I’ll get someone else who’ll say to me that they’ve been diagnosed or their kid’s been diagnosed as a consequence of me talking about it, which I like. I’ll engage in a conversation with them about it but it’s… Yeah, he said to me that you are dangerous, you’re lucky to be alive and then I did nearly die straight after that anyway. And then he said yes, he pointed to Rebecca and he said, and you might have heard the interview more recently than me, Andy, I can’t remember the exact quote now it was something like…
00:27:04.19 Andy Coulson:
No, he said that she’d saved your life.
00:27:07.10 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, there you go. Yeah, ‘this woman has saved your life’.
00:27:10.20 Andy Coulson:
That you were lucky to have got to forty-two. Because life was so chaotic.
00:27:19.00 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, and Rebecca definitely doesn’t have ADHD and is very steady. And there’s an element of me that will always be chaotic but I think without her there… I think he was trying to say, without her, without that influence to counter balance you to a degree then you would probably be dead. And I think that’s true.
00:27:50.13 Andy Coulson:
So you’re dealing with this, you’re working this out, both you and Rebecca and then you fly back to the UK in July. So just a few months later. You feel a bit rough on the plane, struggling to breathe. You leave the plane in a wheelchair but rather than going to hospital you go home. You get worse and then you’re in an Uber on your way to Lewisham Hospital.
00:28:14.01 Richard Bacon:
00:28:14.15 Andy Coulson:
Tell us what happened then.
00:28:18.13 Richard Bacon:
Well I went to the front desk and I said that I was short of breath. And they took it very seriously because it is, as we know from the Covid era that is a very serious condition. I didn’t know it was a very serious. I didn’t really understand, I just thought I was short of breath and it’d all go away. And they rushed me through. I remember them saying, ‘We haven’t got our full complement of doctors here today’ and I remember saying, ‘Well that must be down to…’ I think I said, ‘Oh typical NHS underfunding’. And they said, ‘No, one of our doctors is Dr Alex and he’s on Love Island so he’s not available today’ I was like god, I already don’t like the show.
00:28:55.23 Richard Bacon:
And they did a chest X-ray and then they saw that both my lungs were filling up with an infection, very dramatically, that I’d somehow caught in Los Angeles, it was never clear what it was. And they had to induce me into a coma. And the gap between them saying that I needed to be in the coma and actually being in the coma was only four minutes and then you know they said, ‘Call who you need to call’ so I called the Chief Exec of Fortnum & Mason, to say I couldn’t make a dinner in their boardroom. I called Nick Jones of Soho House to tell him to give my tickets away for the House Festival. I still wasn’t taking it that seriously. And then…
00:29:37.02 Andy Coulson:
Rebecca’s with you?
00:29:38.16 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, she’s with me. And then I called my mum and dad. And she called her sister and then she started crying and then it felt very dramatic and then they put me in a coma and Rebecca rubbed my feet and said, ‘Don’t walk towards the white light’. And then I went in and then I nearly died. I mean, they told me afterwards, Vic, the lead consultant, to whom I recently gave an award, said, ‘Oh no, we expected you to die.’ My blood oxygen went below sixty and if you go below sixty, if you go below seventy you’re in trouble. And if you go below sixty then you get brain damage or die. And so I went to fifty-eight, so no one’s ruling out the brain damage bit.
00:30:22.10 Richard Bacon:
And I turned blue and I remember him saying, they were wall standing around me on the trolley and I’m on life support and asleep and he said, ‘You’re about to die, you went to fifty-eight and you’re blue’ and I looked at another doctor. And he said, ‘I was about to say to her, get the crash equipment, but I didn’t need to say it, I just looked at her and she put her hand on the trolley which had the crash equipment on it and she just slid it next to your body. So we got the crash equipment ready to jolt you but it was not a question of that was really going to save you, you were going to die.’
00:31:01.07 Andy Coulson:
Was Rebecca there?
00:31:03.03 Richard Bacon:
Well she was in a waiting room, she was at Lewisham Hospital and they were making it clear to her that it was very dangerous. And then somehow I got out of it and I don’t know how close to death I was but the impression I get is seconds really because I had turned blue, I’d gone below sixty and they’d got the crash equipment next to me and powered it up ready to use it for… in other words for cardiac arrest. So as I’ve described it to you is exactly how Vic described it to me when I went back to the hospital to visit him some time later. So I think, I assume that I was seconds away from dying really. I don’t think sliding the crash equipment next to you, you’ve gone into fifty-eight blood oxygen and turned blue is like, oh this is a few minutes away.
00:31:52.13 Richard Bacon:
I was in the coma for nine days and I came round and it was the worst experience of my life. They’d put so many different types of drugs into me that I was hallucinating, I thought a nurse tried to kill me. They put me back in a second coma, it was awful. I remember being in an Itsu in Chelsea and this guy came in and he’s a minister of the… I think it’s called the Chelsea and Brompton Church or he’s minister of that church. And he came up to me and he went, ‘Oh, I led a number of prayers for you during…’ cos it was in the newspapers that I was in a coma. And he was very sweet guy and I started talking to him. I’m not a religious person but it was fantastic talking to him. And he explained to me, he said, ‘You will have, after three months, this tail will whip round and smack you in the face.’ And he said that and I explored that more with other people after he said it and quite a lot of people said the same thing. But it never came, it never happened.
00:32:51.14 Andy Coulson:
Do you think it won’t come?
00:32:52.00 Richard Bacon:
And I’m sure he’s…
00:32:53.06 Andy Coulson:
Because that tail can be a long tail.
00:32:57.04 Richard Bacon:
Did you have that?
00:32:58.03 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, to a degree, to a degree. Mine was sort of five years start to finish. So yeah it can revisit you when you least expect it. Let’s put it that way. But you, you know, I think…
00:33:12.19 Richard Bacon:
Still less than two years ago so I don’t… I mean…
00:33:16.00 Andy Coulson:
But you’re, both in terms of this challenge but you know the other challenges in your life, your strategy seems to be, and that’s what this podcast is all about, right? It’s trying to work out what are the strategies to deal with crisis in all its forms. Your strategy, it seems to me, is to fully immerse yourself, right? It’s to fully understand, that’s the journalist in you, is ask every question, know every detail, sort of properly submerge yourself in it. And that is your device for managing through. Is that accurate?
00:33:53.03 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, it’s to talk about it a lot is what I would say I do. I’m trying to remember something, there was a therapist in London I saw after the coma and Rebecca came as well. What did she say? I know what she said, she said that because I was already making jokes about it and talking about it like almost immediately. And she said ‘What you’re doing is you’re almost talking…’ By turning it into a story, whether that’s a story as a journalist in me because I’ve done a lot of current affairs in my life and also the presenter in me who likes to just tell an anecdote. She said, ‘You’re almost kind of putting it over there so that you are in some ways dissociating with it by turning it into an anecdote which you feel this compulsion to keep telling you are almost like it’s happened to someone else.’ So you’re almost talking about it in the, as if it… not as if it didn’t happen but it’s moving it away and controlling it.
00:35:12.22 Andy Coulson:
And her analysis of that was that was an unhealthy thing to do? Or that that was…?
00:35:17.18 Richard Bacon:
No, she said it was…
00:35:18.20 Andy Coulson:
That was a good device?
00:35:20.05 Richard Bacon:
It was both, she said. She said it’s good and bad and that it has upsides and downsides. And that’s going to obviously depend… it’s going to be specific person to person, incident to incident. But no, it wasn’t… you might think it’s all bad but no, that’s not what she said. It is a coping mechanism to turn something into a story, that means that you’re almost looking down upon it instead of it being inside you. And also if you’re the sort of person that likes telling stories then it suits you to do that. I think Rebecca was very confused by how much I was talking about it when I came out the coma. And we went back to her mum’s house in Blackheath. That’s why I was in Lewisham because her mum lives in Blackheath, and… are you from round there or did I imagine that?
00:36:09.01 Andy Coulson:
No, I did live in… not anymore but I used to live in south east London, yeah, not far from there at all, Forest Hill.
00:36:13.16 Richard Bacon:
Oh right, that’s it. Yeah, I came to your house there didn’t I?
00:36:16.05 Andy Coulson:
00:36:17.03 Richard Bacon:
You did a great fish on the barbecue. Remember that?
00:36:19.17 Andy Coulson:
00:36:22.17 Richard Bacon:
00:36:23.01 Andy Coulson:
The only time I’ve done a great fish on a barbecue, I can tell you.
00:36:25.14 Richard Bacon:
It was complicated, you had loads of stuff on, it was very complex the way you did it but it was beautiful. I remember to this day. And I went back to Blackheath and on about day two Radio Four came round to interview me. And I think Rebecca, that still annoys her to this day. She was like, ‘Why would you get an interviewer round to talk to Radio Four?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’d been in quite a lot of newspapers.’ When we left Lewisham there was photographers there taking photos and stuff. And so I said, ‘Well I just want to own this.’ Like Blue Peter isn’t it? I said, ‘I want to own the story, so I’ll own it.’ I think in the end it probably wasn’t a very good interview because I was mentally all over the shop but I definitely, definitely wanted to tell the story.
00:37:06.11 Andy Coulson:
That was part of the process for you, yeah.
00:37:08.10 Richard Bacon:
Part of the process and it’s not just about broadcasting it, telling it to people, I enjoy telling it to people. But it was definitely about psychologically the coping mechanism of you move it over there by turning it into an anecdote.
00:37:22.05 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, in some ways of course, the person to answer the key question on your very close brush with death is Rebecca herself, because she was living when you were in a coma, she was living every second of it, right? Worrying about Arthur and Ivy and the rest of your family. I mean, she was there living, breathing every single moment of it. How does she reflect on it now from this distance?
00:37:53.06 Richard Bacon:
Well it was definitely worse for her in the way that the Blue Peter thing was worse for my dad. It was worse for her because I was asleep and she was living through it minute to minute going back to her mum’s in Blackheath thinking the phone might go in the middle of the night to say that I’d died. But you know, Rebecca’s really robust and dealt with it. And we had therapy together, she had therapy separately and she’s tough, Rebecca, she too tough in lots of ways. I mean, she’s like, I can’t really… she’s just strong. You know, you can’t run rings around her, you can’t play psychological tricks on her.
00:38:42.13 Richard Bacon:
There’s an innate toughness in her. I don’t know where that comes from in her but it was awful for her but she’s very much back to normal and as far as I can tell, and I think as far as she can tell, she didn’t get that whip either. And it’d be a good question to say to her, I was half hoping she’d walk past this bedroom but she hasn’t done, you know, what’s the longer lasting impact for you? Because she would have an answer but I honestly don’t know what that answer is. But she dealt with it brilliantly.
00:39:19.16 Andy Coulson:
I should also point out at this point that your crisis credentials extend to sort of Nostradamus like predictions. Because of course, over a year ago you were campaigning against the lack of intensive care beds in the UK which is something that has found itself in the news, if I can put it that way.
00:39:35.04 Richard Bacon:
I know, yeah that’s true. And it was that came, that was a consequence of my time at Lewisham. I tell you what else I have is that I’m an optimist in many ways. And I think being an optimist is a bit of a pain because my dad’s an optimist and in very sort of trivial ways. You know, he’ll set off too late for everything but assume that it’ll be fine and that he’ll get there on time. And that extends through financial management and all sorts of things in our family where it’s like, ‘oh you know, it’ll be fine’.
00:40:06.03 Richard Bacon:
And being an optimist isn’t as good as it, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be really. And you could do with more pessimism in your life than I’ve got. But the optimism in me also means that when I go through something bad I’ll see the kind of positive in it. And so meeting those people at Lewisham was fantastic, getting to know them, getting to understand ICU. Having them explain to me the lack of intensive care beds which I then gave some interviews about, I went on Good Morning Britain and I spoke about it. It gave me an insight into that world. And because I’m curious, as you said at the start of this interview, when they tell me about this stuff I’m immediately like oh that’s interesting. And then I’m very happy to go and talk about it.
00:40:49.11 Richard Bacon:
But there is underfunding in intensive care beds, as we’ve now discovered, and there will be more pandemics and there’ll be more massive crises and I do hope that one of the legacies of this is that we have to be much more prepared than we think we need to be for when these things hit. You can’t have just enough beds. You can’t go on average there’s twenty-five people in ICU on a normal night, so let’s have thirty-five, that’s not enough. And then we’ll cut some of them back. The capacity has to be so much more than that for when things go really wrong and things will go really wrong again.
00:41:35.01 Andy Coulson:
We’re talking as lockdown begins to ease for how long of course we’ll see. How have you coped? I’m interested in how someone who’s had so much chaos in their life reacts when crisis becomes everyone’s life.
00:41:53.13 Richard Bacon:
That’s a good phrase and a good question. I have FOMO. So the good thing about lockdown is it takes away your FOMO because there’s nothing you’re missing out on, there’s nothing there. Like, what’s happening? It is quiet out. I didn’t go to that dinner party, oh there’s a Soho House opening I didn’t get to. There’s nothing happening. So it’s a reduction of FOMO to see everyone in crisis is… how do I feel about it? I just feel on a personal level very sad for a lot of people. A lot of my friends are restauranteurs and I don’t know how they’re going to get through this and I don’t know even if they have to reopen with tables two metres apart, I don’t know how businesses on tight margins are going to survive. So I just don’t know. My answer is just one of, I hope, empathy. But it’s weird lockdown, isn’t it? Because you have days that you really enjoy and you know the news is terrible. You know the death rate, you know you have friends whose businesses are struggling but you will still have a day of this complete calm where you’ve got closer to your family, spent more time looking into the eyes of your kids than normal.
00:43:06.03 Andy Coulson:
Yes, time you probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
00:43:09.04 Richard Bacon:
Yeah, yeah, it’s a funny one emotionally isn’t it?
00:43:11.10 Andy Coulson:
00:43:11.23 Richard Bacon:
You know you can have a great day and then feel a bit guilty about it.
00:43:14.09 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
00:43:16.07 Richard Bacon:
It’s a very, very strange experience.
00:43:17.16 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, well my kids, as you know, are a bit older than yours and I’ve been gifted another two and a half months of having dinner with them every night that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. You know, my oldest is off at uni, my middle son’s about to. So that’s a huge prize, right?
00:43:33.18 Richard Bacon:
It’s a huge prize, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that actually because my kids are only six and eight so we live with them all the time.
00:43:40.15 Andy Coulson:
Look, we’ve taken up enough of your time, thanks so much. I’ve just got one more question for you, if I may? So we’re asking every guest to give us their crisis cures. Three things, can’t be another person, but three things that they kind of lean on or that they, it could be a particular book or it might be somewhere you go or something you do. The only rule is that it can’t be another person.
00:44:06.24 Richard Bacon:
Well if it’s a dark day I wouldn’t drink because as we discussed earlier I run towards fun and I’m celebratory. And that’s obviously quite useful and I think if you’re going through a dark day the thing is to not drink because that can very quickly bring out anger.
00:44:28.16 Andy Coulson:
Is there a book or a piece of music or a…?
00:44:33.06 Richard Bacon:
Well music-wise I have a thing that really truly makes me happy especially on a darker day if I’m feeling down, is I have a 1979 Marantz amp and 1975 floor speakers and a turntable and I play vinyl and it’s just the thing that… it’s the best thing that I’ve ever bought in a lot of ways. And I play a vast range of things on there. But I often play ‘60s bands whether it’s The Who or The Kinks or The Beatles or The Stones. And I play Fleetwood Mac a lot. And I play more recent music too but nothing makes me happier than putting on a piece of vinyl. I just love everything about it. I love the way it feels, the way it sounds a bit crackly, I love watching it turn. I love the fact you’re hearing the album in the right order. You know, a Spotify playlist, that’s not how the band intended you to hear their song. You hear it in the right order. You hear a Beatles song the way it sounded then, in its correct order. I even like turning the fucking thing over, you know. And so that makes me…
00:45:42.09 Andy Coulson:
As a place, I’m guessing that, because I know that you’re as big a fan of Soho House as I am, that there’s a particular Soho House, a hotel, a place that kind of when times have been tough, has helped you through?
00:46:03.05 Richard Bacon:
I mean, well of the Soho Houses, Babington would definitely be one. I mean, I got married at Babington and it still retains its magic quality to it that it’s hard not to go there and do anything other than feel much better.
00:46:19.15 Andy Coulson:
Good, Richard, thanks so much.
00:46:21.19 Richard Bacon:
Okay, great, thanks Andy.
00:46:23.01 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for your time, thanks for being so frank with us, incredibly kind of useful conversation on the subject of crisis. So thanks very much.
00:46:32.19 Richard Bacon:
Great, no, I really enjoyed it, I like talking about it for the reasons that we’ve already discussed: that all these things are, you know, I think it’s healthy if you can talk about, you know, enjoy talking about them then you should. So I think it’s a good thing and I think I don’t know whether talking about it is useful to other people but it’s certainly useful to me. So it was great, thank you.
00:46:59.12 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback. You’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
00:47:22.00 End of transcription