Photo: Clara Molden
If the countenance is familiar, though, his current location isn’t. His usual on-screen sign-off is ringing in my ears — “Malcolm Brabant, BBC News, Athens” – but today he is welcoming me into his home in Copenhagen.
He is, he explains, currently living in exile from the Greek capital, and thereby “missing one the biggest news stories of my career”. The reason is the biggest personal story of Brabant’s 58 years. As he puts it with what I quickly learn is characteristic bluntness: “I went bonkers.”
In April 2011, he attended an Athens clinic for a routine vaccination against yellow fever before an assignment in the Ivory Coast. As well as reporting from Athens, he has also travelled the globe to cover international stories, winning a coveted Sony award in 1993 for his reporting from a besieged Sarajevo at the height of the Bosnian crisis.
His reaction to the vaccine, however, was anything but routine. “It fried my brain,” he states simply. Overnight a previously sane man developed severe psychosis. An agnostic, Brabant became so convinced he was the Messiah that he telephoned his bemused fellow correspondent, Allan Little, to appoint him “first disciple” and ask him to record his words of wisdom.
One minute he was announcing that the Queen was aware of his divine status, the next he was claiming to be able to stop the traffic just by thinking about it, and control all technology. To prove the point, he flushed his Kindle down the lavatory.
It was utterly bewildering for those around him, especially when he switched into the persona of Winston Churchill, and then the Devil. Yet, because he had no insight into how strangely he was acting, Brabant also attempted to carry on reporting, with results that horrified previously admiring editors at the BBC.
With the corporation’s support, he was sent to hospital in Athens, then released, but shortly afterwards he experienced a second mental breakdown. Unable to work, broke and broken, he returned to his childhood home in Suffolk where he tried and failed to get the help he needed from the NHS. While there, and out of control mentally, he presented himself, clad only in cycling gear but minus a bike, at BBC Television Centre in West London, which was being picketed in a pay dispute. He demanded to see senior managers and generally caused such a scene that the police were called.
“I was the man in Lycra, come to solve the strike,” he recalls without flinching. “I really thought in my madness that I could do it but, of course, I was away with the fairies. That will have been the last time many of those people at the BBC saw me face to face.”
At one stage, he bumped into Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent partially paralysed after being shot in Saudi Arabia in 2004. Brabant attempted, Messiah-like, to effect a miracle cure by rubbing his back.
He ended up back in Greece and no better. He was persuaded by his Danish wife, Trine Villemann, to abandon their rented home, pack what few possessions they could fit into their estate car, alongside their 11-year-old son, Lukas, and the family dog, and drive across the continent in a desperate search for psychiatric help in Denmark.
Perched on the sofa beside her husband in their typically Scandinavian white-walled apartment in the Danish capital, Villemann grimaces when she recalls just what a state he was in. “I have been around mental illness before [her father hanged himself], but I have never seen someone so gone before. Malcolm was clawing around in the deepest, darkest parts of his mind,” she says. “It would have killed a lesser human being.”
She pauses as she pushes her long blonde hair back from her face. “I am ashamed to remember them now, but there were even times when I thought it would be better if he died because his suffering was so great.
“I have this nagging image in my head that won’t ever go away of Malcolm, sitting on his bed in the hospital, with his arms folded. He was rocking backwards and forwards, saying, ‘I’m the Devil, I’m the Devil’. Whatever anger I’d felt about the situation we were in evaporated in that moment.”
The Danish health professionals who slowly and painstakingly brought Brabant back to sanity told him that he would have to spend the rest of his life on medication. He decided otherwise.
“I was determined this wasn’t going to beat me. When I finally left hospital in 2012, I would rattle as I walked around because I was carrying so many pills. I was a one-man chemist’s shop. It took me another year and a half to reduce my medication. I stopped taking it in January of last year, and since then I have gradually been getting stronger and stronger.”
So much so that he is now back at work, and back on our screens after almost four years away. His unheralded return came earlier this month with his reports on the murder of two people by an Islamist extremist in separate attacks in Copenhagen.
Brabant says: “In the aftermath of those attacks, I was working in the old way: until I dropped. I need to. Because of my illness, we have lost everything. I have a 15-year-old son to support, and we don’t even have a car any more. I am the man from the BBC who arrives by bicycle. It makes me feel like a cub reporter again.”
Picking up the threads of his career and of his reputation is one part of his life today in Copenhagen. But Brabant and his wife are also pouring their considerable energies into spearheading a campaign that they hope will prevent others suffering as a result of vaccinations.
“My husband had absolutely no previous history of mental illness,” says Villemann. “There was nothing latent in him. I have no doubt at all that his severe psychosis was brought on by the yellow fever vaccine.”
Brabant adds: “I was not a one-in-a-million case. We are determined to make the manufacturers, Sanofi Pasteur, investigate what is happening. I have provided them with open access to all the doctors who treated me so they can hear what their vaccine did to me, but they haven’t been in touch. They are refusing to engage.”
Faced with this silence, the couple have been collecting reports from many others around the globe who suffered similar consequences to
Brabant. And it is not just a question of a few individuals sounding the alarm bells. In 2005, Dr Thomas Monath, a world expert on yellow fever, who sits on various World Health Organisation committees, confirmed publicly that the vaccine in question can cause “really severe and significant, serious adverse events”.
Even the manufacturer seems to be aware that all may not be well. In 2013 its head of vaccine innovation, Dr Ronald Neeleman, admitted to a conference that the vaccine in question had not been reviewed in many years. “[It serves] a small market, with very low returns, and there is not really an incentive to redevelop,” he said.
If Dr Neeleman was hinting that it is past its sell-by date, then, as Brabant points out, it remains a product “routinely available in high street chemists. It is given to British soldiers who are going overseas. And it is used widely in Africa, where there are few channels for reporting when people go mad after taking it”.
“We are not anti-vaccine in general,” stresses Villemann. “Yellow-fever vaccination saves lives, but what concerns us is that, when something goes wrong, there appears to be no help for people like Malcolm whose lives have been ruined.”
They are seeking financial compensation and they are prepared for it to be a bruising fight. To which end they have bared all in a book, Malcolm is a Little Unwell.
They are also working on a documentary film, using some footage they shot during the most gruelling chapters of Brabant’s illness.
Aren’t they tempted to draw a veil and just get on with their careers?
“Even if we wanted to,” Brabant replies phlegmatically, “we couldn’t. It’s out there anyway because of how I behaved.”
“No one rolls out the red carpet to welcome back people who have suffered a mental illness,” says Villemann. “That cannot go unchallenged.”
• Malcolm is a Little Unwell is published by Andartes Press