19 August 2004

Debbie Barham

I was just listening to The Sunday Format on Radio 4 when I heard a name I recognized in the credits: DA Barham.

I used to chat to Debbie Barham via IRC. She’d moved to London and gotten a regular gig writing for the Rory Bremner show, and would often while away time on IRC at odd hours as she came down from a writing binge. I think we got chatting because there was a discussion of Bond movies, and we both thought On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been the best Bond movie ever, if it wasn’t for George Lazenby. We’d mostly chat about radio and comedy, and try to make each other laugh, though she was also interested in geekier topics. I particularly remember her telling me how incredibly thrilled she was when they had The Stranglers guest on the Bremner show, and she got to meet them. I always felt bad that I didn’t get to meet her in person before I left for the US. Another time we got the whole channel swapping ideas for ridiculous phobias after she’d just finished an article on the subject.

Since I consider The Sunday Format to be the best radio comedy I’ve heard in years, I thought I’d see if I could find Dabs’ current e-mail address and send her a note of congratulation. As I recall, the last time I wrote to her was to compliment her on her BBC radio show celebrating The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which she showed her amazing skill by nailing Douglas Adams’ writing style precisely.

A quick search on Google revealed the horrific truth: she’s dead. She died a little over a year ago, aged 26.

Worse, she died of heart failure, from literally starving herself to death through anorexia. The Guardian has an obituary and a feature article about her. The obituary has a photo of her, in which she looks fragile, yet with a somehow piercing gaze. There’s an Evening Standard article with a color photo. Again, the same penetrating gaze. It’s not how I’d imagined she might look, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense.

She could be sharp, yes. To be funny, you often have to be. But at the same time, she was a good person, and always friendly to me. She seemed to need to write the way other people need to breathe; she wrote for everyone on every subject, yet never wanted to be in the spotlight, in spite of how much she deserved it. I’ll be seeing her name in unexpected places for years. I just wish I could hope to see it more and more.

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