The documentary Charlie Russell and Dov Freedman originally intended to make about Caroline Flack was going to focus on the media storm after she was arrested for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend in December 2019, and the effects of losing her high-profile job presenting Love Island. They had met and discussed the project with Flack, found her charming and enthusiastic about it all, despite the pressure she was under, and everyone prepared for it to go ahead. She killed herself, at the age of 40, two months later.
So what we have instead is an extended obituary-cum-eulogy in Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death (Channel 4), marking the first anniversary of her suicide. Her friends and family laugh and cry as they remember her, in all her vivacity and volatility, from childhood, through television stardom and on to disaster.
Everyone’s pain, a mere year on, is still raw and Flack’s twin sister, Jody, and their mother, Christine, look eviscerated by grief. “It doesn’t actually seem real,” says Christine. “It’s a different world now,” says Jody, of life since Caroline died. Their testimony forms the spine of the programme. Caroline – Carrie to them, always, and still often referred to in the present tense – was always a person of tremendous highs and desperate lows. When the boyfriend years began, it became evident that she often struggled with the emotional upheaval romantic relationships involve. A cycle of breakups, pills and hospital attendances began despite what – reading between the lines – seems to have been superlative and indefatigable support from her family and attempts by them to get her better help with her mental health than was forthcoming.
Her deeper, darker background is interlaced with an account of the events of December 2019 when she was accused of assaulting her partner, the model and former professional tennis player Lewis Barton. He called the police claiming she “tried to kill me, mate”. They were both covered in blood when the police arrived – apparently from a head wound that was dealt with at the scene – and Flack was arrested and charged. What her management call “a show trial” went ahead even after Barton withdrew support for the prosecution. The tabloids, who had long delighted in following Flack’s love life, had a field day and social media – with which Flack was obsessed – gave her no quarter, either. There was no cessation in hostilities after Flack posted a tearful video online. “It was a fight,” she says, crying softly. “I’ve never hurt anybody. The only person I’ve ever hurt was myself.”
The documentary it was originally intended to be occasionally rears its ghostly head. There are mentions of how Flack’s rise to stardom coincided almost exactly with the rise of social media, for example, and friends attest to the way it seems pretty much perfectly designed to damage someone with Flack’s vulnerabilities – of whom, of course, there are many – but it does not probe any further into what this might mean for those who come after her, let alone its effect on wider society and “ordinary”, but similarly susceptible people. Her co-presenter on The Xtra Factor and The X Factor Olly Murs notes: “God, she got it so much worse than me – I don’t know why”, but this, too, is never pressed.
Still, the narrow focus makes sense. It is simply too soon for a wider perspective. Instead of an insider’s analysis of fame and, as one of her friends puts it, “all the shit that comes with it”, we get a better portrait of the woman, her life, her death and the suffering of those she left behind, painted with a restrained hand and compassionate eye.
The memories are suffused with love and tenderness, and the present misery and the anger are palpable. The years of fear and worry that come with loving someone who is simply not able to cope with all of life’s vicissitudes, let alone the heightened versions visited on Flack, are powerfully evoked by Jody and Christine. But, at the same time, there are happy memories. “I never had as much fun with anybody, ever,” says Jody in the closing moments. “She was so full of joy. That’s what’s so greatly missed about her.” It is an hour that makes you long to plead with anyone and everyone – if you are ever thinking of going, please don’t. Please, please stay.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.