- Nicola and Rachel Bruno to speak about their lives with Frank Bruno on BB3 documentary next Tuesday
- Nicola signed forms to hand over her Dad to doctors which saw the pair grow apart
- But as Frank learnt to cope with mental illness, his relationships improved
- Sisters hope programme creates a greater understanding of the illness
Ask sisters Nicola and Rachel Bruno to describe their relationship with their father, boxing legend Frank Bruno, and they fret over the question for some time before choosing the word ‘fragile’.
They love him, of course, and he loves them; that goes without saying. It’s just that things have been so very difficult and painfully raw between them for such a long time.
For the first time in almost ten years — a decade marked by misunderstandings and periods of emotional distance — they feel they are in a ‘good place’ as a family. Good enough to talk about the one fight Frank has yet to win.
To the nation, Frank Bruno remains one of Britain’s most beloved sporting heroes: a former world heavyweight boxing champion and consummate performer in and out of the ring. But to them, he is and has always been just Dad.
And it is they who have privately witnessed the biggest contest of their father’s life: his brave and at times heartbreaking fight against mental illness, which has led to him being sectioned three times.
Frank, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003, spent two enforced spells in a psychiatric hospital last year to stabilise his condition when his mental health suddenly deteriorated again — nine years after he was first sectioned.
He is in recovery now, and, when they talk about him, Nicola and Rachel sound more like the anxious parents of a highly vulnerable child who needs protecting than the daughters of a 6ft 4in giant capable of felling an opponent with a single punch.
‘As the child of someone with a mental illness, it’s hard because sometimes you have to step up and take the parental role when you don’t really want to,’ says Rachel, 26, Frank’s younger daughter. ‘It’s not nice, but it’s something we have to do. I was 16 when Dad was first diagnosed, and my coping strategy was to back off from it all because I felt so helpless.
‘I’m sorry to say that I backed away from my father when he was ill again last year because I didn’t know how to cope. That’s the thing about mental illness, it affects the whole family.’
On Tuesday, her documentary, Rachel Bruno: My Dad And Me will be broadcast on BBC3. In the programme, Frank, now aged 51, talks movingly to his daughter about his illness, which he publicly acknowledged only recently.
Rachel, a former drama student now working as a waitress, made the programme to try to understand her father’s condition better and says the experience has brought the whole family closer together.
She wanted to help other families living with bipolar disorder, which is believed to affect one in 20 people and is characterised by depression and intense manic episodes, or ‘highs’ .
‘Dad’s never been a chatty person. He’s never been very open about his life with us. His illness was a taboo subject and we never felt we could talk about it with him,’ explains Rachel.
‘It was only when we were in front of the camera that I had the confidence to ask all those questions I was too frightened to ask before.’ Frank’s elder daughter Nicola, 30, adds: ‘It’s all very tender at the moment. We’re still quite wary around each other. Dad opened up for the documentary, but in private we don’t talk to each other about his illness.
‘I don’t want to upset my dad by dredging up the past and he doesn’t want to say anything that might make me feel guilty.’
It was Nicola who in 2003 — just days after her 21st birthday — signed the form giving doctors the authorisation to section her father under the Mental Health Act and confine him to a psychiatric hospital.
This heavy burden of responsibility fell on Nicola’s young shoulders — even though it was a decision supported by Frank’s doctor and entire family — because she was his next of kin after her parents’ 2001 divorce.
Fearing he’d end up dead if they didn’t intervene, what choice did she have?
Frank, who at the time refused to accept he was ill, didn’t see it that way and bore a grudge for almost a decade. He barely spoke to Nicola.
It was almost as if she didn’t exist.
‘When you love someone who’s ill, your decision is based on making sure that person is safe. You don’t think about the consequences,’ says Nicola.
‘It was horrible seeing my dad in hospital. I didn’t want him to be there, but I didn’t want him to die either. I still feel I made the right decision. I hope he forgives me, but I don’t know because it’s too sensitive to discuss.’
I meet Nicola and Rachel at the Essex home they share with their mother Laura, also 51, and their younger brother Franklin, 18, who’s just finished sixth-form college and is a talented rugby player.
Like her sister, Nicola is a hard worker. Neither of them has ever traded on their father’s fame. For the past six years, Nicola has been employed as a carer for the elderly — a job she loves.
Theirs is a comfortable, spacious home but a far cry from Stondon Court, the luxurious six-bedroom mansion near Brentwood they grew up in when their father was at the height of his fame.
Rachel says: ‘Our childhood was happy and structured. He was just a normal dad. He was fun, very balanced and an entertainer. We were always closer to our mum, though, because Dad was away so much training. When he was home we all wanted to make sure it was happy and stress-free for him.’
Nicola adds: ‘The last time I can remember us being happy as a family was in 1995. That was the year Dad became WBC heavyweight champion and the year Franklin was born. Dad had always wanted a son, so he achieved both goals.
‘I was 13 and it was the first time I’d been allowed to watch my dad fight. It was so daunting and I felt sick because it wasn’t nice seeing my dad get hit, but I was so happy for him when he won. We all went home and celebrated with Asti Spumante and sausage rolls. Rachel was dancing around wearing Dad’s title belt and I remember him saying: “I’m so content. I am complete.”’
Just six months later, Frank lost his first defence, against Mike Tyson, the match being stopped in round three. He suffered a detached retina and doctors warned another fight could cost him his sight, so he retired.
But despite winning more fans as an affable television personality — catchphrase “Know what I mean ‘Arry” — and pantomime turn, Bruno struggled to adapt to retirement.
He and Laura separated in 2000 and divorced a year later.
Rachel says: ‘Dad’s trainer, George Francis, used to say the hardest fight of your life is when you retire, but when my dad was boxing he just didn’t think of that. What do you do?
‘One minute you’re successful, surrounded by people, and then it all just stops.’
The sisters say their father’s decline was gradual. Searching for a new direction, he became a DJ and was suddenly a target for spongers and hangers-on who only seemed interested in helping him spend his fortune.
Nicola says: ‘He just wasn’t my dad any more. He kept going Awol and we couldn’t contact him. We’d hear he was in one part of the country when he was supposed to be doing a job somewhere else.
‘He was completely erratic, his moods constantly up and down. Everything about his life was too fast, too frantic, he just couldn’t slow down.
‘He was training for hours a day, as if he were still a boxer. He wasn’t sleeping or eating and the weight was falling off him. He lost three-and-a-half stone and was living on fresh air and adrenaline.
‘I’d go round to his house and give him a back massage to calm him down, and I could feel his heart racing so fast I thought it was going to burst through his chest. I was terrified he was going to have a heart attack or wrap his car around a tree.’
Desperately worried, Frank’s family called a crisis meeting with him, to which they invited his GP.
As well as Nicola and Rachel, Frank’s mother and three of his siblings attended, along with ex-wife Laura.
‘Dad refused to accept he was ill and saw it as a personal attack. At that first meeting, it was a case of “will you take medication voluntarily, Frank?” but he was very challenging, like a small child who wouldn’t see reason.
‘He was offered four of five chances to be cared for at home before he was admitted to hospital, but he refused. So although I signed the form, he really sectioned himself,’ says Nicola.
It took nine hours for Frank to be persuaded to leave his home. A doctor, social worker, ambulance crew and police attended, during which time Frank spent hours calling journalist friends in a panic, resulting in upsetting newspaper headlines. Nicola, Rachel, Franklin and their mum visited Frank every day of the five weeks he was treated at Goodmayes Hospital, Ilford. It was a traumatic experience, especially for Rachel, who was just 16 at the time.
She says: ‘He was so sedated, he couldn’t even hold his head up.
‘Nothing can prepare you for that. No one sat us down and told us “this is what you can expect”.
‘It was a big shock. At the time, I didn’t think he’d ever come round from that.’
Nicola adds: ‘For me it was better seeing him like that than when he was manic. At least for that time he was in hospital we knew where he was and that he was safe.
‘I visited him every day, but, after the fourth day, he wouldn’t let me go near him. Someone — I don’t know who — had told him it was me who had signed the papers.
‘He said “I don’t want to see her” — it broke my heart, but I still visited every day. I just had to sit with the other patients instead of Dad.’ When Frank was released, he returned home. However, Nicola and Rachel say his after-care petered out after a couple of months and when he sold his mansion in Essex two years later and moved to Buckinghamshire, he received no follow-up at all.
They don’t know if he continued taking his medication or even if he had a GP.
Nicola says: ‘He was very solemn, he wasn’t the old Dad, but he wasn’t ill either. He seemed to have reached some sort of plateau. He didn’t refuse to see me, we just didn’t have a relationship. If we did speak, it was very short and sweet.
‘I think it was the fear factor. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me, but he was wary. He thought I’d always be on the look-out to see if he was manic, which wasn’t the case at all.’
Rachel’s contact with her father was also sporadic. He would attend her shows at drama college, offering advice about performance, but they never talked about his feelings or how he was managing his illness. The subject was off limits.
The sisters were thrilled when they met up with their father for his 50th birthday in November 2011.
He had a new partner and seemed happier than he’d been in years. His daughters use the words ‘chilled and relaxed’ to describe him.
That Christmas was one of their best ever, with Frank roasting a turkey for his children at his home in Buckinghamshire and Nicola cooking the rest of the dinner.
They thought the worst was behind them. The sisters believe Frank’s relapse in spring last year was triggered by two things. Frank’s older brother Michael, who has since died, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and Frank also agreed to appear on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories — his first major TV interview in ten years.
Wanting to look his best, Frank started training obsessively again as if preparing for a big fight and started to worry about the questions he would face.
‘We didn’t advise him not to do it, but asked him “Can you handle it? Is it going to dredge up something you don’t want to think about?”,’ says Nicola. ‘After he filmed the show, people started noticing that he wasn’t himself. He was challenging everything people said to him — very similar to how he was before during his first manic episode.’
Family and friends became so concerned, a mental health crisis team was asked to assess Frank.
Again he refused to take any medication or accept treatment voluntarily and was sectioned twice in April and May 2012.
That time it was a decision made by his medical team and Nicola did not have to sign any papers.
Nicola says: ‘It was more upsetting the second time because none of us wants him to be in hospital.
‘It’s not nice and Dad isn’t happy about it, because he doesn’t want to take medication.
‘He says it makes him feel like a zombie and takes away his motivation to train.
‘It’s terrible for us because we know there is no cure for bipolar.
‘It can only be managed and it’s upsetting to know it’s going to take time to get back to normality. You just have to take one day at a time.’
Frank was released from hospital on Father’s Day last year.
He is still receiving follow-up care from a mental health team who are monitoring his progress and he is doing well. On Wednesday — Nicola’s 31st birthday — he is taking both daughters and son Franklin out for a celebration lunch.
Nicola says: ‘We don’t have any involvement in his medical care now. It’s something between him and his team. Our relationship is strictly father to daughter now, which is how we want it to be.’
Rachel adds: ‘My dad is my dad, not Frank Bruno the boxer.
‘We want to show that this is something that can affect anyone.
‘It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone suffers in exactly the same way, famous for not.
‘We love our Dad and we want him to be happy and well, but if he gets ill again, we will face it as a family.’