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secret agony of my famous ancestor and his sick wife

XENOPHOBIC, loutish and aggressively opinionated - it would be impossible to picture Al Murray's most popular creation, The Pub Landlord, handling sensitive secrets from his family's past with due delicacy.

But unlike his famous character, the 46-year-old comedian is about to show a softer side in new ITV family history show Secrets From The Asylum.

In the two-part series, Murray and Ray Winstone, Sue Johnston, Lesley Joseph, Claire Sweeney and Christopher Biggins delve into their families' pasts to find out why their ancestors spent time in a lunatic asylum.

While Sweeney goes on a journey to find out how senile dementia was treated in the Victorian age and Winstone discovers more about his great-great-grandmother's first husband who was committed to an asylum, Murray looks back at the life of his great-great-great-grandparents, Vanity Fair author William Thackeray and his wife Isabella.

When Thackeray was 29, Isabella, then 23, attempted suicide by trying to jump overboard from a ship.

Desperate to help his wife, Thackeray paid for her to stay at a private asylum in France where she had the very Victorian sounding Moral Therapy, which involved "exercise, occupation and amusement".


"It's a total crisis," says dad-of-two Murray. "His family's fallen apart, his career isn't established yet, the treatment's costing him a fortune and they're saying, 'Well, we'll keep her on for six or seven months of trial'. He doesn't even know if it's going to work."

After five months away, Thackeray "busted" his wife out of the asylum and took her back to the UK, where he tried treatment after treatment including hydrotherapy where patients were togged up and encouraged to sweat before being splashed with buckets of ice-cold water in the belief that it would purify the body.

"It sounds like the sort of thing Gwyneth Paltrow would pay a lot of money to do," adds the comedian.

Born in Buckinghamshire, Murray grew up knowing that his great-great-great-grandmother had suffered with post-natal depression. He found out a lot about his famous ancestor from his history buff great-aunt, he says, but discovering the lengths Thackeray went to in trying to help his wife "completely reversed" his opinion of what he must have been like.

"I'd always assumed that what he'd done was put her, Victorian-style, out of the way," says Murray. "In fact, what he did was get her the very, very best care he could at the time."

The son of a lieutenant - who took the family to Venezuela for a year when Murray was a child - the keen cricket fan has always been interested in history, even opting to study the subject at Oxford University before launching himself on to the comedy circuit.

Two decades ago, he showcased his Pub Landlord character at the Edinburgh Festival, where he was asked at the last minute to compere for Harry Hill.

The character has proved such a hit that the comedian even had his own ITV chat show, Al Murray's Happy Hour.

He has maintained his interest in history, though, which is reflected in his 2013 book Watching War Films With My Dad, and passing on his enthusiasm for the subject to his daughters, Scarlett and Willow, has always been important to him.

Privacy is another thing that has always been important to Murray, who likes to keep his private life and opinions to himself, insisting that he has "never, ever been tempted to come out with my own views".

He can see how hard it must have been for his famous relative to support his loved ones through their very personal crisis.

"I'm thinking about what I would do in this situation," muses Murray. "I have two girls, similar age gap to Thackeray's children. You'd worry about what to do about them. He's lonely, his children are upset and his wife's lost to him. It's agony."

Murray was affected by what he found out in the programme, and admits to being "really, really sad" on discovering through Thackeray's writing that he was longing for the days when his wife was happy.

"It's heart-rending stuff," he says. "Life is like that. Things pass and sometimes you wish you had the things you had before. He aspired to being a settled gentleman, having his wife and raising his daughters, and he lost it.

"It was taken away from him very cruelly by Isabella losing her reason. It's heartbreaking."

Ever the history student, Murray took some valuable lessons from participating in the series.

"It was a really exciting project to be involved in. The people of the past had different decisions in front of them, and different attitudes back then," Murray adds.

"The thing to do is look at them and think, 'I hope I don't make a mistake like that in my life'."

Secrets From The Asylum starts on ITV next Wednesday