Bill Cosby was “a great role model, a great father, a great husband, a great entertainer”, says Lynn Norment, former editor of Ebony magazine, in Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon (BBC 2).
TV critic James Poniewozik says he was “technically brilliant as a comedian”. And that The Cosby Show “was recognised as a social good, that people of all stripes and backgrounds and colours could identify with this family”.
It made African-Americans proud, it made white Americans feel good. “People loved him, he was America’s dad,” says Joseph C Phillips, who worked with Cosby on the programme.
Lili Bernard also worked on The Cosby Show (only once, crucially). “It was challenging that notion of blackness with wrongness, because the media has perpetuated a negative image of the black person,” she says.
So far, so yay. It could be be a biographical tribute, This Is Your Life, Bill. But then Bernard also says: “He drugged me, raped me and then he threatened serious consequences to my life.”
And Victoria Valentino describes, in sickening detail, how Cosby – whose trial for the sexual assault of another woman, Andrea Constand, has just begun – drugged and raped her in 1969.
So why all the first part, all the great role model and America’s dad, in a documentary about how he came to trial? Because it’s an essential part of the story. And not just because of the spectacular height from which he has fallen (Jennifer Lee Pryor says “Bill was the Mount Everest of celebrity”, and she should know, having been married to Richard “K2” Pryor a number of times).
This thorough film explores the story’s context that stretches back to the civil rights movement. Cosby was such a brilliant force for social good, he and his sitcom broke down racial barriers and appealed to everyone. This wasn’t just about the great wealth machine of Hollywood keeping people silent. It was about no one wanting to believe anything was wrong. “Can you believe that my trust for him as my father figure was so great,” says Bernard. “I trusted him so much I couldn’t make that connection that he could possibly do that.”
If the person being wronged didn’t believe, even as it was happening to her, it is perhaps not surprising that the US didn’t want to know either. You wouldn’t, about your dad, would you? Until you couldn’t ignore it any longer.
The most jaw-dropping, OMG did-you-see TV of the night was Lord Lucan: My Husband, The Truth (ITV), in which Lady Lucan breaks her silence, for the first time in 30 years. She makes up for lost time, spews it all out very frankly, about marriage to Lord Lucan, being accused of mental instability, custody battles. It would be funny (because it’s about a strange world of speedboats, pet tigers, and Monte Carlo while nanny took the kids to Westgate-on-Sea) if it weren’t so damn sad.
“He said: ‘Will you marry me?’ and I didn’t say anything, and he said: ‘Will you marry me?’ and I said: ‘Yes, I will marry you’ … It was sparsely attended on both sides because neither of us was very popular … We obviously spent a very unhappy Christmas … I could have been better [as a mother], perhaps I did stay in bed too often … All my relationships are cold … I think [my bottom] is an excellent bottom, my husband obviously thought so … He said that’s the point of being married, you don’t have to talk to the person … He took me for a drive, and he took me to the Priory … I had all these male GPs and they believed everything that he said, and even suggested I was psychotic … He said I’m going to beat these mad ideas out of your head, instructed me to bend over with my hand on the seat of the chair and he would give me 10 strokes with the cane … And then afterwards he would be very affectionate, and look regretfully at the damage he had caused … Well, he must have got pleasure out of it because he had intercourse afterwards.”
It’s a description of a horrible, toxic, abusive relationship. “He had intercourse afterwards” is especially chilling. Not “we”, but “he”, after beating her.
Nothing funny about murder, either. “I screamed: ‘Please don’t kill me, John,’” she remembers. He had already bludgeoned Sandra Rivett, the nanny, to death, of course, before disappearing.
She thinks he’s dead, that he jumped off the Channel ferry, “in the way of the propellers so his remains wouldn’t be found”. Is that even possible? And it contradicts an interview she did in 1981 when she said she was convinced he was alive, although she says now that she was heavily drugged at the time.
Not all cleared up, then, but an extraordinary interview. And she has the grace to be “deeply sad” that her marriage caused Sandra Rivett to die.