KEITH FLOYD: Wives, wine and fame... my recipe for self-destruction

Keith Floyd was the original celebrity chef, an irrepressible roue and raconteur. Then, the drink took hold, four mariages went down the pan and the money ran out. And, as he reveals in this unsparingly honest memoir, worse was to follow...

The banquet was in honour of some long-deceased French chef — although as far as I could see it was nothing more than an excuse for the mother of all p***-ups.

Soup was served, oysters were gulped and a whole lamb was carved by an ancient maître d’ who looked like a cross between Dr Jekyll and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweetmeats and trifles came and went.

Château d’Yquem — that noblest of Sauternes — evaporated like an oasis in the desert.

Keith Floyd

Bon Appetit! Keith Floyd enjoying a meal with a bottle of wine in a typical pose

Bare-knuckle boxing took place, port and whisky flowed as the night turned into dawn and I finally floated along the teak-panelled corridor to my bedroom.

Later, I don’t know how long afterwards, I reached out a hand to press the bell for a steward.

My mattress was hard, I needed a glass of water and what with the tubes in my nose, I couldn’t breathe properly.

No steward arrived. Just a man in a white jacket with a stethoscope and a briefcase, from which he took a syringe and injected my arm. Strange, I thought.

Morning came — along with a group of people who stood round my bed, talking about me while they pressed their cool fingers over my stomach. ‘How did you enjoy the dinner?’ I asked them, by way of conversation. Silence.

‘Wasn’t it a great night?’ I said. ‘I mean, there was the port and the boxing, there was the whole baron of lamb, and then there was dawn. How do you manage to have such a place in what appears to me to be a hospital?’

It was a hospital. ‘Mr Floyd, you have been hallucinating,’ said one of the group. ‘The medication we had to give you in order to keep you alive together with the effects of — how can we say it? — an overindulgence of alcohol. . .’

It was unreal. The whole banquet thing had been a complete figment of my imagination. ‘You were suffering a nasty case of delirium tremens,’ continued the man, whom I had by now realised was a doctor. ‘DTs, Mr Floyd. We have played our part.

Now it is for you to play yours. Drink again as you have before and you will die.’

That was a year ago, in the spring of 2008 and I’m thankful to say that somehow or other, I’m still here.

Keith Floyd and fourth wife Tess at home in southern Spain

Spanish lesson: Floyd and fourth wife Tess at home in southern Spain

I didn’t discover for weeks that for two or three days and nights my 25-year-old daughter Poppy, who had flown from her home in France, and my 40-year-old son Patrick had been with me through the entire ordeal. They’d sat beside me holding my hands and willing me to pull through.

I was completely unaware of my children’s presence but without them I would not be here to tell you my story. . . the story of a cook who became what to my mind is glibly and spuriously called a celebrity, but which I prefer to call a curiosity.

As you will see, I’ve been stirred

but not shaken. I’m still standing. So how the hell had I got myself into such a terrible state in the first place?

Let’s go back ten years, shall we? Or was it 15? I’m damned if I can remember. Though does it matter?

Anyway, with three failed marriages behind me and a restaurant in Devon about to go belly-up, I was travelling to Birmingham one day to shoot a commercial for a furniture shop.

You know the sort of thing: ‘Take one cook’s table, add to that some fine dining chairs and a splendid sideboard and hey presto! Here is your wonderful dining room and here is some lovely food to put on the table.’ Pure torture, really.

I turned up as required at seven in the morning, knowing from donkeys’ years as a TV chef that I wouldn’t be asked to stand in front of the camera for another ten hours. There was nothing for it but to watch a cool and elegant young lady, who was walking around the place with tremendous poise.

She was chatty and funny and had great presence. In fact, she seemed to be so much the centre of attention that I assumed she was the owner of the furniture shop, or perhaps his daughter.

It was some hours before I realised that she was a food stylist who was there to make my food look stunning. Her name was Tess.

The place was humming with young men, all about Tess’s age — she was about 30, two decades my junior — and all with Armani suits. I thought I’d better hurry and invite her to lunch before they did. ‘Yes,’ she said to the invitation.

Please pray for me... I'm facing up to cancer

In June this year I went to see Ernest Guillem, my doctor.

He lives on the Costa del Sol and is a great friend from the years I spent there.

Most importantly, I trust him. He knows everything about me so it’s no good pretending I don’t drink or smoke.

He sees the overall picture.

I wanted Ernest to have a look at a small growth that had been troubling me, and I knew that with a local anaesthetic and a sharp knife he could do it.

The job was duly done, and the lump dispatched for a biopsy.

The tests showed that it was a malignant tumour. I went for scans and I had more tests.

When I sat with Ernest and he told me I had bowel cancer, I felt, strange though it might seem, a sense of relief.

I felt relief because he said: ‘If you had left this much longer then you would have died.

'But I am confident that we have caught it in time. We can deal with it.’

Celia and I then returned to France, where I underwent the same tests that I’d had in Spain.

The diagnosis of the French doctors was at odds with the diagnosis of the Spanish doctors.

This left me feeling desperately anxious.

I didn’t know what to do yet I knew I wanted to receive the best possible treatment.

Say what you like about the NHS, but they have saved my life on at least two occasions.

So at the end of the summer, I came to Dorset to get a definitive opinion from the specialists in the NHS.

I’m now awaiting the results of tests.

And on Monday please think of me, because it’s high noon.

That’s when I’ll meet my specialist who will inform me of the next step.

After the first tests in Spain, Ernest said an extraordinary thing.

‘I cannot believe,’ he said, ‘how your liver is in this condition. Its perfect.’

I was as surprised as he was — though I didn’t bloody well tell him.

At the end of the day, I said to her, ‘I’ve got to go to Thailand and Australia, but I’ll be back in three weeks and I’m going straight back to my house in Ireland. Would you like to come over for a barbecue?’

Again, she said, ‘Yes.’ I got out my diary and we fixed the date, time and all the rest of it. And off I went to do my job.

On the plane to Australia I did a bit of thinking. I reflected on my failed marriages and my friends who’d managed to stay married. What was it about me that I always appeared to have stepped horribly out of line, even if I hadn’t?

Take my friend David Martin, for example — a screenwriter for Doctor Who (it was he who came up with the idea of the K9 dog) and one of the best people you could ever hope to know. Now David was by no means a saint, being a good old drinking boy like me. But he managed to maintain his marriage perfectly well.

I suppose I was envious of David. He had this gorgeous, witty, vivacious wife called Celia, the daughter of a writer, whom I’d known for as long as I’d known him. I can’t even remember which of them I’d met first.

I said to myself, why couldn’t I have a wife like Celia? Why couldn’t I have someone like her and not get into trouble with my relationships? And I simply couldn’t find an answer. Perhaps I had spent too much time in my jobs, being a chef, being a restaurateur, being on television — I simply didn’t know.

I think you’re going to guess what happened next.

Back in Ireland a month or so later, Tess turned out to be the most wonderful companion. And yes — she became my fourth wife, on December 1, 1995, at Didcot Register Office, near her home in Oxfordshire.

Mad? I’d have laid myself on a railway line for her.

So there we were, Tess and me, staying in Spain at a friend’s flat while I finished a book, and blissfully in love.

‘Would you like to live in Spain?’ I asked her one day.

She did not hesitate. ‘You bet,’ she answered. ‘I’d love to live in Spain.’

We chose a bungalow on a private estate and set to work. The interior was demolished, rebuilt and entirely rearranged. Outside, I installed a water garden and built a terrace and a swimming pool. Beside the pool, I built an outside kitchen and bar along with a granny flat and a courtyard for visitors.

Then, just in case I hadn’t blown enough money, I bought a crazy Spanish sports car, a Pegaso — one of only ten left in the world. Oh, and I had a wonderful boat built. It was a gentleman’s launch, rather than a flash Mediterranean speedboat, with classic antique wood and radar, and twin-turbo engines to motor it along. We’d hop on to the boat and pop over to Morocco for lunch.

Add to this idyllic picture a couple of horses which I bought for Tess, who also enrolled at a riding school down the road where she took lessons from a former major in the Belgian army, and you begin to get the idea of what my life was like back then.

Sounds blissful, doesn’t it?

The house, the boat, the car, the horses... set against a backdrop of Mediterranean expanse with sun, and enjoying it all with someone you love.

But as every cook knows, you can have all the right ingredients, but it still doesn’t add up to the perfect dish. When you add too much of one ingredient, the whole thing is in danger of turning into something very unpalatable — which is exactly what happened.

The ingredient I added to our recipe for happiness in this case was alcohol — and far too much of it. An unwelcome ingredient I had not foreseen in our recipe, you see, was quite simply sheer and utter boredom.

Charismatic: Floyd in his early TV career

Charismatic: Floyd in his early TV career

It became particularly apparent to me that after the excitement of doing up the house, getting the gardens going and waiting for the next TV job offer to turn up, I now had nothing to do but go for lunch, go for dinner, and get drunk.

My relationship with Tess began to deteriorate.

There was no work and my money, believe it or not, was running low — except there was always enough to buy a bottle of whisky. It was a desperate downward spiral.

I began to hate food. Maybe it was because I’d been so occupied with it on television and running restaurants for all those years. Food wouldn’t leave me alone.

All people wanted to talk about was food, all the time.

It was as if I was just a one-dimensional person. When I went to restaurants with friends they deferred to me before ordering: ‘What should we have? How is that cooked?’ It became an absolute burden.

All I wanted was a nice meal, but in restaurants I was invited into the kitchen or the owner pulled up a chair and wanted to chat.

I know, I know: it was all my fault. I’d made a career from food and it seemed to anyone who watched my programmes that it was a subject I talked about non-stop.

Food is magnificent, don’t get me wrong. I wanted to eat, I really did, and I knew it was important.

But when the plate was put in front of me I just couldn’t do it. It is quite a strange form of eating disorder, but I do not think I am the only chef who has suffered from it. The others probably keep quiet about it for fear that such a confession could harm business.

Increasingly I found that I only wanted to eat things like cheese on toast or bread with Heinz sandwich spread, brought out to me by friends when I was living abroad.

I would get absolute cravings for something really ordinary — naff even — which people like David Martin used to bring to Spain for me.

Something like a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie which can be baked in its tin. Or a can of Heinz tomato soup.

So as I say, I wasn’t eating much, but boy was I drinking! And growing thoroughly depressed with living in paradise. Somewhere in the middle

of all this Rick Stein phoned to say: ‘For God’s sake, get out of Spain and come back to Britain. Everybody is missing you.’ Rick has always been kind to me. We didn’t — but we decided to buy a place in France instead.

Talk about dÈj‡ vu! I bought a house near Avignon and spent a fortune on improvements, repairs and building work on our new home.

I was really happy. I had a project to complete and I assumed that Tess, too, was happy. But she was not. The rows were terrible — really dreadful.

Meanwhile, I was being pursued by creditors over the restaurant in Devon, about which I will tell you more next week as this series continues. The bank, the brewery and others all wanted money.

In the autumn of 2001 I returned to Britain to promote Floyd’s India, the book that tied in with my most recent television series. I was in a large shopping centre just outside Bristol,

seated at a trestle table and signing copies of the book, when an envelope was placed in front of me.

I was about to sign it automatically, just as I had the books, when something stopped me. I picked it up and looked up at the man who had placed it before me. He was a ratfaced midget with dandruff. I said, ‘What’s that?’

He said, ‘You’ve touched it. It’s yours.’

I said, ‘What is it?’ But he had scarpered. It was a writ that would determine my personal bankruptcy. I was f***ed.

I would remain bankrupt for three years. I couldn’t work because whatever I earned would be handed on to someone else.

I’d hardly see a penny of it. I managed to get a few jobs overseas so the money never hit the country, and I was able to keep going, but essentially I was utterly stuffed.

The rows with Tess were getting worse, and try as we might, we just couldn’t seem to fix it. The fairy tale we’d once lived had turned into a grim reality that I can only now bring myself to talk about, although it still pains me to do so.

The fact is, I kept a bottle of Scotch in my bedside table. In the mornings, when I awoke I had to have — I didn’t have to but I felt that I did — a few large glasses of whisky before I could even get downstairs.

Nevertheless, we remained together. We would sit in Tess’s small home, at the dining room table, staring at each other. All day long.

High friends: Floyd with Ivana Trump

High friends: Floyd with Ivana Trump

Then I got a call from an old friend, a journalist, suggesting that I do a theatre tour, a one-man show. It was to be called Floyd Uncorked, and it would involve me standing on stage and recounting anecdotes for a couple of hours.

I jumped at the chance, especially as it would give Tess and me something to focus on. The show was an immediate hit.

What I had bargained without, however, was the fear — the fear of being live, rather than on TV. I’d be at the side of the stage, waiting to go on, my heart racing with terror. Finally my nerves would get the better of me, and I’d be sick on my dinner jacket.

Not a pleasant image; I offer no apologies for that. A quick dab of handkerchief on dinner jacket, however, and then I’d walk out on to the stage, a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other. ‘My name is Keith Floyd.’ And they were screaming, which is strange because I am not a pop star. I’m just a cook.

But I never lost it, even though I thought, Christ, I’m on stage. There’s not a script. There’s nothing on the clock but the maker’s name.

I’d tell lots of funny stories about eating, cooking, filming and being. . . just being Floydy. And I used to go off at half-time, feeling absolutely wrecked. And yet I’d held people for an hour and a half, two hours. I’d held them: there was a feeling of an enormous power that I’d had over them; actors must experience it all the time.

It’s not one that I ever felt in front of the cameras over the couple of decades I spent making some 23 television series.

If I tripped or slipped, or if I insulted, or abused or underestimated the audience, then I would lose them. I had to entertain. And I did. I did.

I’d wind up the show saying, ‘Well, as you see, I have had three divorces, and I have been bankrupt, lost a fortune. So if you need any advice on your marital affairs or your finances, don’t hesitate to contact me.’

If I did the show today, I could add another divorce, divorce from Tess, the woman who was driving me to the shows.

Because in 2007, in the 11th year of our marriage, I walked out on her. I just simply left. Extraordinary, really, to think that at one time I would have lain down and died for her.

During the dark months that followed I’d sometimes tell myself that if only I hadn’t been famous, I’d long ago have found the woman of my dreams. But somehow, it seemed, she had always eluded me.

How foolish I was. I say I could not find the woman, but she had been there all the time, coming in and out of my life. She was a presence, she made me laugh, she was a companion and above all, a friend. She was beautiful, and her name was Celia.

In the same year I left Tess, Celia had phoned with some very sad news: my great friend David Martin had died. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a couple of months after his 72nd birthday he lost the battle. I was devastated.

Some time later Celia got in touch again, inviting me to stay with her in Portugal, where she had gone to escape her memories and live quietly with one of her friends. I really wanted to see her. We were good friends, and I felt terrible that I hadn’t been able to make it to David’s funeral.

Celia met me at Faro airport and I filled her in on the Tess saga and the looming divorce. We talked happily about old times, and sadly about David’s death.

‘How are you coping?’ I asked, though she is a strong woman and a great giver and could deal with pretty much anything that life wants to throw at her.

One night we went for dinner — a nice little place where we could take a table on the terrace and enjoy the warmth of the sinking sun.

I told her about my business plans — there was a new restaurant in Singapore which I was hoping to open, which promised huge sums of money.

We talked about my place in France and I said, ‘If you like, you could come and stay.’

I added, ‘What can I do for you, Celia? What do you want out of me?’

‘I think I want you,’ she said.

For a few moments I was utterly gobsmacked. Then I was elated, euphoric. I had always loved Celia but she was, in my view, unattainable and married to one of my best friends. She was loyal to David, and I was loyal to David, but yes — I have to admit that I had always been enchanted by her.

I believed she had not felt the same way about me. I had always thought she was slightly critical of me. I thought she saw me as a rogue and untrustworthy, but when we spent the next few hours — and subsequent days — discussing our feelings for one another, it became clear that if we had not been in love before, then we were certainly in love now.

Is it possible to be a teenager in love when you are 65? I reckon it is. But why am I so sure that this will work when my other relationships have failed?

For many reasons. We already have a friendship that has lasted for 40 years — we know each other well. We know each other’s irritating foibles — I can be grumpy and Celia talks to herself and is quite clumsy. She cannot cook, but she can sew and she can make the flowers grow . . . and somehow she manages brilliantly.

To sit in the garden, under a ProvenÁal sunset, chatting and laughing and loving each other, is my idea of heaven. I will not mess up this one.

I might as well tell you that after my collapse in a haze of alcohol in the early months of 2008 I have since had a drink. Quite a few. But I have tried not to drink as I had before.

I never want to go back to that desperate situation I had got into a couple of years ago, when I kept a bottle of Scotch in my bedside table to blank out the inevitable argument with Tess that was going to take place.

Now I have stabilised myself, though, I have gone through all kinds of emotional disappointments as well as my own inability to live with Floyd, the public figure.

And as I said earlier, I owe my children Poppy and Patrick so much. Without them I would not have survived. But as I will explain next week, never a day goes by in my life when I don’t feel guilt, remorse, and even anger at the sort of father I have been to them.

• EXTRACTED from Stirred But Not Shaken: The Autobiography by Keith Floyd, to be published by Sidgwick & Jackson on October 2 at £18.99. © 2009 Keith Floyd and James Steen. To order a copy (p&p free) for £17.10, call 0845 155072.