THE SECRET OF STAYIN ALIVE

By Victoria Mary Clarke - June 13, 2004 - Sunday Independent

On the hottest day of the year so far I find myself sploshing, seal-like, in a rock star's swimming-pool, deep in the heart of the English countryside. And as I float on my back and gaze up at the ancient leafy trees above me, I wonder if this is the meaning of life, at last. After I've eaten a chicken tikka sandwich, I happen upon my host in the Great Hall. We haven't been officially introduced, but already we are informal. Me, half naked in my swimsuit. Him entirely relaxed about it. He suggests I enjoy myself a while longer, as the photographer isn't here yet. I agree.

The rock star isn't Ozzy Osbourne, but he is a living legend. As one of the Bee Gees, Robin Gibb helped to provide the soundtrack to my own pre-pubescent fantasies of boys and discos. Night Fever, More than a Woman, Jive Talkin', Massachusetts. To be responsible for one such gem would have been commendable, but all of them? Worthy of medals.

If Queen Elizabeth knew what she was doing she would have knighted all the Bee Gees. Long before the insipid boybands of today were churning out covers, these boys from Manchester were crafting clever, gorgeous pop songs and singing them in close harmony, with falsetto voices.

As a reward, Robin now has this 13th-century English country house, complete with ghosts and armour and medieval tapestries; he also has a home in Miami, and a CBE, and he probably has spare change to burn. But he's had far more than his fair share of tragedy too. Last year, he lost his beloved twin Maurice, who was the best-looking Bee Gee. Maurice died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack during an operation for a twisted intestine. His death devastated Robin, who admitted to being "pole-axed" by it. In 1988, another brother, Andy, died. Andy was 30 at the time, and had been enormously successful as a solo artist. He suffered a heart attack also. It was suggested that his had been brought on by cocaine abuse. To lose one sibling is hard. To lose two must be torture.

Robin has kindly agreed to give me an interview today, it will be his first since the death of Maurice. He and his Irish wife Dwina, who hails from Tyrone, will be coming to Ireland to launch Classic Stage Ireland at the Helix in Dublin on Friday. Dwina is a playwright, poet and artist and a friend of Andy Hinds, who is the artistic director of Classic Stage, and who will be directing Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well for the launch.

Whether all is indeed well or not, Robin is a private man, not much given to talking about himself. But the couple are clearly dedicated to promoting the arts, even if it means allowing me to swim in their pool. And they will endure talking to me.

The photographer arrives. He wants to do a picture of me and Robin in the pool, floating on lilos. Will Robin go for that? Probably not, we suspect. We wait. Robin and Dwina come out of the house. He looks kind of shifty, in a black jacket and jeans, even though it's scorching hot. He's very skinny. He seems awkward. They pose with the dogs, a pair of enormous Irish wolfhounds called Paddy and Kerry. But the dogs won't do as they are told, won't stay still. They never do, Robin assures us, but Dwina does her best with biscuits and eventually we get a result. Everyone relaxes. We do more photos, on a giant carved wooden chair in the garden, made by gypsies. But they insist that the chair has to be wiped first, in case it's dirty. These are clearly not country people. There are no muddy wellies or dirty trousers in this house.

The photographer leaves, reluctantly. We adjourn to the medieval Great Hall, with its massive marble fireplace and a statue of the Buddha, and we sit in an enclosed pew, on sheepskin rugs. It's chilly even on a hot day. I am nervous. I need to break the ice. I suggest they show me their original portrait of Anne Boleyn, which I have read about. I joke that I'm here to scout the place out for art thieves. They don't think that's funny. Robin says get the interview over first.

I ask about the Classic Stage Ireland event. They both respond warmly. "We produce some of the most artistic people in the world," Robin says. "And we need to encourage it and invest in it. Help the younger people who are coming up. Because when you are starting out, it's hard in any art form, but particularly for actors."

Robin and Dwina are passionate about theatre, and particularly about Shakespeare. Shakespeare came from near here, they point out. Robin talks about the beauty and magnificence of writing in verse. And of speaking in verse, particularly when Stephen Rea is doing it. Stephen Rea is magnificent, I agree.

"It's just a small bunch of islands," Robin says, meaning the UK and Ireland. "And when you are with artistic people, there is really no country to separate us."

Robin and Dwina met 20 years ago. Dwina is an artist, and Robin saw one of her drawings at the home of the actress Sarah Miles. He fell in love with it and asked Dwina to do a series of drawings for him. "I thought it was pretty erotic," he admits.

"And I came to the house with more drawings, but the drawings got more and more detailed and took forever to finish," she says, laughing. "In fact, they never did get finished!"

They are both Capricorns, born on the same day, December 22. This, they both reckon, makes it easy to be together.

"They say that opposites attract," Robin says. "But I don't think it's true. I think we want people who are like us."

The fact that they are both artistic also helps, Robin says. "If someone isn't artistic, they don't understand the artistic temperament. Luckily, we do understand each other."

Robin clearly has a passion for Ireland. They admit that they have been shopping for property over here lately.

"Writers and bards have been coming out of Ireland since ancient times," Dwina says. She started the Yeats Club, which published the Celtic Dawn magazine and is a patroness of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Her Jaguar has a number plate that reads "DRUID", and she has fairy circles in her garden. I ask if she can do magic and she giggles, but later she reads my tarot cards, most intriguingly. She has written books of poetry herself, and was bowled over when she met Seamus Heaney.

"This was before he won the Nobel prize, years ago," she says. "I was so nervous, meeting him! He had been working all day and I asked him if he would like a cup of coffee. So I went downstairs and made a doily for his tray, but there was no tray, so I had to use a tin lid!"

BUT if Yeats were alive today he would be a rock star, not a poet, I say. "Yes he would," Robin says. "If Charles Dickens were alive, he would be a scriptwriter. Poetry and lyrics aren't that different, but poetry has a more difficult time getting an audience. There was a time, especially 100 years ago, when it was the popular thing!"


Shakespeare is still popular, Dwina points out. "And many of the scenes from the classics ape some of the scenes which go on in our own lives even today." I agree.

"You have had more than your fair share of tragedy," I say. Robin nods. When the Bee Gees started, everyone was political. Their first hit was called New York Mining Disaster 1941. These days, he reckons, kids are more apathetic.

"Young people don't care about politics. They only care about their own immediate lives. In the Sixties, we were encouraged to believe that we had a part to play not only in electing the politicians, but also in governing the country. Music reflected that."

Robin has two children by his first wife, Molly: Spencer and Melissa, both musicians. Robin and Dwina have a 21-year-old son, Robin John. Are any of them political, I ask.

"None at all," Robin replies immediately.

"Robin John is extremely interested in history," Dwina points out. "He's reading The Autobiography of Henry VIII. He doesn't have a plan as yet. He dropped out of university but he's interested in educating himself." Is it difficult for them, being the children of somebody famous, I wonder, mentioning Julian Lennon and a few others who have tried but never achieved their father's success.

"I think it's difficult to have a father who is successful at the thing that you want to do," Robin says. "The son will wonder if he is competing with his dad. Or if his dad will think he is trying to compete. Will I have my own identity? Should I change my name? And does Dad think I'm good enough? I wouldn't like to be in that position myself, the child of somebody famous." Especially not Ozzy Osbourne, I say. I confess that I was wondering if his house would be anything like Ozzy's. They laugh.

"Yeah, it's not like that round here. But I know for a fact that show is scripted, it's not as spontaneous as you think."

"It's such an invasion of privacy," Dwina says.

"But it's an organised invasion."

To organise it yourself seems strange, I say. Would you do it?

"No!" Dwina says immediately.

"Not really." Robin is less adamant.

Do you think you have a life that would warrant it, I ask.

"Oh, absolutely! Ha ha ha. "He was never an extrovert, Dwina says.

"No, I'm more of a thinker. Maurice was an extrovert, he loved to party."

This is the first time he's mentioned his brother, except for an awkward moment earlier, when he suddenly stopped the interview and announced that he was getting a cup of tea. I waited. Dwina followed him, made tea and biscuits for me, and eventually brought him back. Upon his return, I asked him if there was anything he wasn't comfortable with. He said that something I said had reminded him of Maurice and that he still got emotional about it occasionally.

Maurice looked the part of the rock star, I say.

"Yes, and he wasn't shy, he connected very immediately with people. I have to get to know people before I can open up."

"It takes about 10 years," Dwina says.

"It took you 10 years to get to know me?"

"It does take a long time to get to know you. That's more typical for a Capricorn."

"But we weren't identical twins. So of course we were different."

Did he get more attention, I ask.

"No, I don't think he did. We kept each other occupied. But I didn't care about attention, I was happy on my own. I'm still pretty much a loner. When there's a lot of people around, it stops me thinking, and sometimes you need to think. I was like that as a kid. But the three of us liked to do the same things, so we spent a great deal of time together."

"Most of Robin's friends are my friends," Dwina says.

He doesn't have any friends?

"No! A lot of acquaintances."

"You see, I lead a different kind of life to most people," he explains. "Ever since we were kids, we had a relationship that only we could share. Of course we have friends, but we also have this very close relationship that people can't understand unless they are doing the same thing. Not many children do it, it's a unique thing. It was a world that we created for ourselves."

Like the Mitfords?

"Yes, and you create your own mindset, so it becomes very hard to relate to other people."

He's just been reading about the Mitfords, Dwina says.

"I have, actually. They lived just down the road. I've been to visit the house."

What about Andy, was he left out?

"Well there was the age difference. And of course he was very young when he died."

Were you close, I ask.

"He was closer to Barry. I was closer to Maurice, because he was the last-born and he spent more time at home, after we left. So we didn't have a growing-up relationship.'

There is a sister also. "Lesley is the eldest. She sang with us, but only for fun. She has loads of children. She was having a baby the same day her daughter was having a baby. Looking at a photo of her and her family is like looking at Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!" "She has a great mothering instinct," Dwina chuckles.

At the time that Maurice died, Barry and Robin were very angry with the way he was treated, I mention.

"Yes. But it was out of our hands, it was down to his wife. We were told that we couldn't do any investigation, or instigate any legal action. She had to take the initial action. But there's nothing we can do."

Does it make it more difficult to move on?

"It doesn't make it difficult to move on, because Maurice is not in his body and it can't bring him back. I don't have a problem moving on, because I am very philosophical. You can't dwell on the past, you have to enjoy your life because nobody is going to live forever."

But to lose not only one brother, but two . . . "Yes."

"And to lose a twin," Dwina says. "And they were so close, they spoke every day of their lives."

"And he was never sick, not one day in his life," Robin adds.

What did Andy die of?

"Andy did a lot of cocaine and he had a problem with his heart. At the time of his death he wasn't doing anything, but he was completely run down and he had a condition called myocarditis, which was created by the abuse from his teens. They didn't know he had it. He only went in for observation and he died in his sleep."

Are you healthy, I ask.

"Yes, perfectly."

Did you cane it in your time?

"Not a great deal. I never really liked alcohol and I never did hard drugs. I only smoke two or three cigarettes a day." He's also macrobiotic, Dwina points out later. And he doesn't drink. "I've never been one of those people who want to get out of my brain, I don't know why that is."

And with that, he's called to the phone. And it's time for me to leave. I promise Dwina that I will see her at the launch in Dublin. And I am whisked away in a Merc. Without having asked Robin to sing something from Saturday Night Fever for me. Would he have done it? Perhaps. He seems like a gent.

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