From Morecambe & Wise to Jekyll & Hyde: Comedy writer Mike Craig's widow tells how dementia turned the man she loved into a stranger
Last updated at 10:00 PM on 3rd March 2012
It was an ‘off-the-cuff’ after-dinner speech that comedy king Mike Craig had given countless times.
He would recount anecdotes about his days writing gags for Morecambe and Wise – most famously, Angela Rippon’s high-kicking dance sketch on their 1976 Christmas special – Ken Dodd and Les Dawson, among many others.
Yet as his wife Susan watched on that evening in 2002, she knew something was wrong.
Mike Craig with wife Susan before his illness struck. He was diagnosed with Pick's disease in 2004
‘He used to speak for up to an hour without notes and would never run out of brilliant stories, which I never tired of hearing,’ she recalls.
‘But this time he seemed to lose his thread. He was waffling and even I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
‘There were awkward silences – and this was a clever, witty man who was sharp as a tack.
'Even before that I had sensed things weren’t quite right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It sounds odd, but he would whistle. He liked to whistle a tune but he started doing it a lot.’
Susan and Mike met in 1982 while he was working for the BBC in Manchester as a radio and TV producer – both were divorced. They decided to marry two years later.
She continues: ‘Mike was always a bit eccentric but in his 60s, he would drop off to sleep during the day.
'He stopped helping around the house and became very untidy.
'Even when he started becoming withdrawn, sitting alone for hours and not wanting to chat to me, I just put it down to us getting old.’
Mike with Norman Wisdom and John Inman. 'He was always dreaming up funny lines – his mind was his living' said Susan
Mike also became forgetful.
‘It’s almost comic but he once flushed his false teeth down a lavatory while on a cruise,’ adds Susan.
‘He lost phones regularly, was always misplacing his wallet and he began doing odd things, such as not sending books to people who had bought them from his website, but cashing their cheques.
'He also forgot to bring back a friend from a funeral one day.
'By the end of 2004, when he was 69, I began to think we needed medical input.’
A series of blood tests and brain scans revealed a shocking diagnosis: Pick’s disease, a rare and aggressive form of dementia. It affects between 5,000 and 8,000 people a year, mainly those aged between 45 and 65.
The fronto-temporal lobes of the brain, which control personality and speech, are affected.
‘A psychiatrist at Trafford Clinic in Altrincham told us there was no cure and no treatment, that it was a progressive, degenerative condition for which we could do nothing. I just burst into tears,’ says Susan, 63.
Symptoms typically include loss of speech as well as compulsive behaviours such as whistling, tapping and pacing.
Some patients will also suffer from personality changes – including depression – go shoplifting, say inappropriate things, and become aggressive.
Changes in behaviour get worse and are often one of the most disturbing symptoms of the disease.
Mike with Ernie Wise. He wrote gags for Morecambe and Wise – most famously, Angela Rippon's high-kicking dance sketch on their 1976 Christmas special
‘It is a very cruel illness for those who have to care for their loved one,’ says David Neary, Professor of Neurology at
‘Whereas Alzheimer’s patients can remain
personable and are aware that their memory may be deteriorating, Pick’s
sufferers become aliens within the family.
‘They can become uncaring, unfeeling, rude, impulsive, and have no idea that their behaviour is distressing to those around them. It is incredibly tough for the carers to have to handle that.’
Penelope Rogues, of the Pick’s Disease Support Group, says: ‘The illness usually affects younger people but it isn’t uncommon for it to be diagnosed at Mike’s age.
‘It can be mistaken for a mid-life crisis or depression, as partners of those affected struggle with their loved one’s symptoms such as shoplifting, or a lack of social empathy.’
There is no specific treatment, and although certain antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs may help manage mood swings, more research is needed.
Susan was urged by Mike’s consultant to keep her husband working as much as possible.
She had to rely on leaflets and finding out about the condition via the Pick’s Disease Support Group.
As Mike’s health deteriorated, Susan – who is a magistrate and a deputy lieutenant of Greater Manchester – had to put him into a local day-care centre for two days a week.
‘It was exhausting,’ she says. ‘He needed constant supervision by early 2007.’
'To find that it (Mike's mind) was going to deteriorate completely was heartbreaking,' said Susan (pictured above: Mike with Ken Dodd)
In January 2008, Eva – Susan’s elder daughter from her previous marriage – came to stay at the couple’s home in Altrincham while Susan went abroad. It was during her stay that Mike’s condition became very serious.
Susan recalls: ‘Eva came with her young sons, James and Douglas.
'James was just a baby and on one occasion Eva momentarily took her eye off Douglas, who was aged four at the time.
'She found him upstairs with Mike, who was showing how a thick rope could be put around the boy’s neck to hang himself. Eva was horrified.
‘Mike was also picking up the baby, leaving him on shelves and on worktops and then walking off.
'He was constantly pacing around the dining table, whistling, turning on hot taps and leaving them running, leaving windows and doors open, and tapping. It was all very difficult to cope with.
'His eating became obsessive – he would sometimes eat too much and then be ill. If I left a bunch of bananas in a bowl, he would eat the whole lot.’
Susan asked for support from health visitors, who did not seem to think that Mike was a danger to anyone.
‘He would shoplift if you didn’t keep your eye on him,’ she recalls.
‘While in supermarkets, he would put things in his pocket. It was a bit like being with a naughty child.’
Mike with June Whitfield, centre, and Dame Thora Hird
By that year Mike also became incontinent and was losing control of his whole body.
‘As Mike was 16st and over 6ft, I struggled to wash and care for him.
'And when he fell, which happened more frequently, I would often be stuck for hours while I tried to cajole him into finding his feet again,’ adds Susan.
Her GP arranged for respite care, with Mike staying in local care homes for two weeks for two or three times a year, to give Susan and her family a break.
‘The financial side of things was a worry too, because I had to pay for nearly all the care and I had no idea how long it would go on for,’ she says.
By the end of 2009, Mike was falling more often, and on several occasions, Susan had to call out ambulance staff to come and lift him and put him back into bed.
Her husband had also started hallucinating, reporting seeing people who had died.
The erratic behaviour was later replaced with physical problems.
What is Pick's disease
Pick’s disease is a type of dementia that affects the frontal lobes of the brain. No one knows what causes it.
So far researchers have shown that a build-up of two types of protein – tau and amyloid – form clusters on parts of the brain, effectively stopping them working.
Whereas with Alzheimer’s disease, where different proteins are involved and can be acted upon by drugs such as Aricept, which slows down the clumping process and delays the progress of the illness, no such drugs are available for Pick’s disease.
Scientists also think that Pick’s disease is in part genetically caused, with the condition running in families.
Mike needed feeding, constant care and was barely speaking – instead he would just tap and whistle for hours on end.
‘When Mike was in day care, I would send him in with a bag of toffees to stop him from whistling, as it would annoy the other people there,’ says Susan, who was helped by her son Andrew, now 37, and daughter Dawn, 34, who came to live closer to her as Mike’s care needs increased.
In September 2010, after Mike had spent nearly two weeks in a local care home, Susan came home from America, where she had been visiting Eva, to find him in hospital suffering from dehydration.
‘I had told staff at the home that he didn’t drink much and needed encouraging but they didn’t listen,’ she says.
‘Mike then developed pneumonia and septicaemia. He was admitted on the Sunday and died on the Thursday. I was there with him. I read him his comedy sketches and favourite books and sang songs to him during his last couple of days.
'It was very sad that he died like that, but in a way, it was a relief too.’
Mike’s brain was donated to his local hospital for research purposes.
‘It was what he would have wanted,’ says Susan, who has devoted a room at her home in Altrincham to Mike’s memorabilia.
‘His illness was all the more devastating as he had been such a brilliant writer and healthy physically. He had a full diary of speaking engagements and lecturing on cruise ships.
'He had a wonderful social life, and was helped on cruises by comedians such as Bernie Clifton, Norman Collier and Jimmy Cricket.
‘Mike was always dreaming up funny lines – his mind was his living, so to suddenly find that it was going to deteriorate completely was heartbreaking.
‘It felt as if there was nothing we could do but watch him slowly disintegrate. That was the hardest thing.
'More and more people will develop dementia and we must learn more about this cruel disease to save others from what happened to Mike.’
For more information about Pick’s disease, visit pdsg.org.uk.