I’m haunted by guilt over the night my mother burned to death: With painful honesty, actress Lysette Anthony reveals how her mother’s troubled life came to a traumatic end two months ago
Actress Lysette Anthony feels that at last her mother is at peace after she died in a freak house fire two months ago
A few days before Christmas, actress Lysette Anthony was awoken at 8 am by someone banging on the front door of her North London home.
She opened the door to two police officers with grave expressions on their faces.
‘It’s your mother,’ one of them said quietly.
‘There’s been a fire.’
In the bewildering hours that followed, Lysette struggled to come to terms with the tragedy that had unfolded that night.
Her 82-year-old mother, Bernadette, had burnt to death in a freak accident at her home in Norfolk.
It was an unimaginably gruesome demise, but for Lysette the news of her mother’s death was particularly poignant, marking the end of a life defined by chaos and drama.
Like Lysette after her, Bernadette Milnes was a beautiful and successful actress who had appeared in more than 50 films and TV series.
But Bernadette was also a manic depressive and schizophrenic.
Until now, Lysette — an only child — has never spoken publicly about her mother’s psychological troubles.
She does so now, she says, in an attempt to dispel the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental illness, and to lay her mother to rest with love.
‘I want to do justice to her memory,’ Lysette says.
‘Mummy was wonderful in so many ways — hugely glamorous and great fun, generous and deeply kind — but she was also extremely difficult.
‘Mental illness leaves a huge legacy, not just for the person suffering it but for those around them. It eats people up, and in the end it consumed her.
‘Now, at least, I feel she is at peace.’
Her mother’s death has forced Lysette to confront some difficult memories.
‘Of course I feel guilt, and I will feel it every day for the rest of my life,’ she says.
‘You always think, “Could I have done more?” But, like anyone who has seen a close relative battle with mental illness, you also have to forgive yourself.’
Lysette, now 49, has clearly inherited her mother’s good looks. Photographs of Bernadette at the height of her beauty and success show a glamorous Marilyn Monroe-like blonde who, after graduating from theatre school in the 1950s, found herself in great professional demand.
She moved between theatre and television roles, and over the course of her career appeared in a number of popular dramas, including On The Buses, Z Cars, Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.
So celebrated were her looks that, for a time, her photographic portrait hung in an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery.
Bernadette met Lysette’s father, the actor Michael Anthony, when they appeared together in a production of Cinderella. They married, settled in London’s Hampstead, and in 1963 Lysette was born.
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