It's been good to be here, now it's time for me to go...
During the weeks leading up to Gary's death, the British tabloid newspapers were relentlessly running exclusive articles on Gary's private life after they revealed to the nation that not only was Gary in a tangled love triangle relationship, but he was also a recovering heroin addict. After beating his addiction it was all thrown back in his face. It crucified Gary who had fought a winning battle to pull himself away from the drugs fraternity and to rebuild his life away from heroin. He had plans to start a therapy group to help other users with their addiction. But who would believe him now? The revelations about his drug using days had taken a terrible toll on the normally chirpy cockney.
In the autumn of 1985, Gary left the UK with the rest of the "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" staff to film on location in Spain with the British tabloid reporters following his every move in the hope of running yet more exclusive stories on him. "I'm getting fed up of the "Birds and Booze" image myself. I feel sorry for my Mum having to read stuff like that; it's boring and repetitive." complained Gary on the "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" film set. "A lot of it is my own doing, I shoot my mouth off. You want to be rich and famous when you're young but at 33 I think I'm gonna have to take stock of myself. I'm starting to realise I can't bullshit anymore. I don't see enough of my Mother or two brothers, my biggest problem is the effect my publicity has on my family."
Gary's manager and friend, John Harwood Bee, travelled with Gary to Spain in an advisory role as the tabloids were becoming obsessed with unearthing more stories. A pact was made, and Gary was backed up by everyone on the "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" production with an agreement that no-one would speak to the press until the filming was complete. With The Star heading the pack, Mr. Harwood Bee told their reporter that when Gary returned to England he would maybe speak to The Star about maybe giving them an exclusive, but only when the filming of "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" was wrapped. The Star's reporter appeared to be satisfied...for the time being. John Harwood Bee knew that people were trying to sell their stories about Gary to the press, so the intention was that Gary would admit to his problem by choice to the News of the World publication and talk about his efforts to rid himself of his addiction and also to warn people away from drugs.
On returning to the UK it was discovered that The Star were running further stories on Gary when it was alleged that his former-agent had locked Gary away for a month in an attempt to rid him of his drug addiction. This story whetted the appetites of two of their reporters, and they tracked Gary down as he sat chatting to his friend, Brian, in his local pub waiting for a meeting with John Harwood Bee. After reading the stories that The Star had printed about him, it was hardly surprising that Gary and his friend did not welcome the reporters with open arms. There was a brief argument during which it was alleged that Gary's friend had threatened the reporters and had broken their camera. Gary and Brian wisely chose to leave the pub, but the damage was done. The very next day The Star ran the infamous, lazy and downright irresponsible headline: "Heroin hoodlum!".
The Star ran the headline with no proof that Gary was a heroin user when the alleged argument took place, nor was there any proof that he was a "Hoodlum". The impact on Gary was devastating. Gary's Mother, Joan Pugh, fell ill after reading the newspaper stories and this in turn depressed Gary as he was unable to travel to her Shropshire home to see her due to his Auf Wiedersehen, Pet filming commitments. That night after filming, Gary was found in a corridor at Lenton Lane Studios by Jimmy Nail, crying "Look at this, man!" as he held up a copy of that morning's Star newspaper. Later on co-stars Kevin Whately and Madeline Newton found Gary alone in his dressing room with his head in his hands. Madeline put her arm around him and tried her best to comfort him and told Gary about it all being "Fish and Chip paper" and that he should ignore it..
The filming of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was becoming more and more intolerable with reported on and off set difficulties. Gary's problems added to the mix as he was now in a self destructive downward spiral. A show insider revealed: "Gary Holton was a terrible problem. I have never worked with a totally self-destructive drug addict before. He was making life extraordinarily difficult for everybody. I realised that an addict not only destroys himself but pretty well destroys everything around him. He was totally out of control for the last couple of months. We were trying to keep him and the show going.".
Gary spent the night before he died in the Warrington Hotel in Maida Vale, London. Grey faced, washed out and washed up. He arrived alone and looking utterly dejected and rejected. Gary sat drinking two pints of lager with his friends Martin and Simon beside him in the bar. "Squeeze me tight, Simon. Christ, man, I'm at rock bottom. I feel as though I'm looking over the edge of life. There's nothing left. And just when I thought I'd pulled it all together so well. I was just getting myself together again and someone brings it all back and throws it in my face. It's wrecking my life."
Gary shrugged his shoulders, gazed around the bar, and just for a moment it seemed as though he was going to break down. He rolled up the sleeves of his black satin bomber jacket and asked defiantly: "Do those look like the arms of someone still on heroin? I wanted to get involved in some sort of therapy to help people on drugs. Now no-one will believe me, they'll think I'm going to lead them further into it. I feel as though I've been kicked in the teeth. No one will take me seriously anymore. It's all over. It all seems hopeless...".
Gary's millions of fans would never have recognised him that night. The cheekiest chappie this side of Millwall docks had completely vanished. Normally he was the centre of the party in his local, forever chatting up the girls and cracking the jokes, but that night it was as if there wasn't a girl in the room. Instead, he kept putting his arm around Simon, hugging him and squeezing his hand. "We all make mistakes in our lives, but do we have to carry the stigma forever? I've been off heroin for a year now. I fought hard to clean myself up. It worries me that the kids think it's glamorous and exciting when it's not. It'll wreck their lives and cost them a fortune they don't have.".
Gary seemed like a man desperate to talk to someone, searching for a shoulder to cry on as they leaned on the bar. For over an hour he was consoled and was told that the public would soon forget his heroin days. For a moment he seemed convinced. And then remarked "It's the people closest to me who have been hurt the most.". At closing time Gary told his friends about a record he had made. When they asked what it was called he answered: "Catch a Falling Star". This time his friends didn't know whether he was serious or joking. As they left the pub Gary shook his friends' hands and said: "I'll be in touch...". His friends drove off and Gary was seen leaving the pub alone walking towards his home in Maida Vale.
Gary didn't just look over the edge of life on the night of 24 October, he was about to step over it. Later that night, a forlorn Gary Holton arrived at his friend Paul Witta's flat at Greenrigg Walk on the Chalk Hill estate in Wembley, London. Gary arrived at the front door and told his friends he was there "Seeking sanctuary". Shortly after entering the flat, he had a cup of tea then was seen retiring to a bedroom. In the early hours of the following morning he was found by his girlfriend, Jahnet McIllwain, lying dead in bed beside her. A distraught Jahnet tried to revive him by shaking his body and shouting his name. But it was too late.
Simon was due at Gary's flat the following day to discuss his problems further. Gary had also arranged to meet his manager and friend, John Harwood-Bee, to discuss his financial situation on the same day. Gary allegedly had debts totaling £61,000. Part of which were due to not paying tax since 1979 and also having a mortgage of £48,500 on his flat in Maida Vale, London. He died having two bankruptcy notices served on him by two of his creditors. Alas, neither of those meetings took place.
The inquest into Gary's death on 19 December 1985 left "Enormous unanswered questions". The Coroner, Dr David Paul, recorded an open verdict at Hornsey, North London. The medical evidence had shown that Gary had traces of alcohol and morphine in his blood. There were also traces of cannabis and valium. Pathologist Dr Rufus Crompton said that he would have been drinking less that half-an-hour before his death, and that the morphine would have made him unconscious within a matter of minutes. Gary had a blood alcohol level of 199mg and a morphine level of 0.8mg. After twice recalling Jahnet McIllwain to face searching questions, Dr David Paul said: "It must follow from the medical evidence that this man had a fix of heroin. The absence of any evidence to indicate when this was taken and the absence of evidence about finding a syringe and other material for drug abuse leaves enormous unanswered questions. Initially this was perfectly straightforward. A man who has been a heroin abuser under stress took a fix that proved to be fatal. There is no evidence at all to support a finding that this death is due to misadventure. The gaps in evidence leave me to record the only possible finding in this matter."
Following the inquest into his death Gary's mother, Joan, contacted The Star, with the help of an acquaintance, to inform them that they had to retract what they had written. Joan wanted a written apology from the newspaper, sadly this was not forthcoming.
Gary's funeral took place on 22 November 1985 with a fifteen minute service at Golder's Green Crematorium in London. His Mother, Father and two brothers cried openly as his coffin, adorned with an eight foot floral guitar, arrived. Jahnet McIllwan, clutching a photo of Gary, broke down and wept and hugged Donna Holton for comfort. Sue Harrison was absent from the service and when she was interviewed about Gary's death, she said that she would always think of Gary and remember his last words to her: "Catch ya later". "Catch ya later Daddy" were their son Red's last words to his Dad the Sunday before Gary died. The service ended as Harry Belafonte's "Catch a Falling Star" was played...
"Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" co-stars: Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy, Timothy Spall, Kevin Whately, Pat Roach and Christopher Fairbank were all there to pay their respects at the service. Kevin Whately who played "Neville" in the show said: "Gary was a very close friend of mine and I'm saddened by his death. He was a very talented lad and an integral part of the series. He will be greatly missed."
Tim Healy who plays "Dennis" said: "I feel completely unable to talk about it. I'm awfully sorry, it's been such a shock." Pat Roach, alias "Bomber" said "Gary was a great entertainer both in and out of character. He was always laughing and always had a smile. Auf Wiedersehen Gary, from all the lads.". Timothy Spall said "We all feel very upset. It's a terrible cliche, but the show must go on. I was as close to Gary as you can be to someone you work with for four years." Timothy also vehemently denied that there was any friction between Gary and the other members of the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet cast.
Following the funeral service in London, Gary's ashes were taken away and he rests in peace in the sanctuary of the Holton family grave in Welshpool, Powys.