How Jerome Flynn escaped the sect that cost him eitght years of his life and the woman he loved

Telegraph, UK/January 17, 2013

There are many unusual situations in which you might expect to find one of Simon Cowell's proteges - but quiet meditation is probably not one of them.

Jerome Flynn has never been a standard-issue celebrity, however. While the 49-year-old actor's peers might frequent the flashy bars and plush restaurants of London's West End, he is more likely to be found in a state of ecstatic rumination on his remote farm in Wales.

It may have been Mr Cowell whose entrepreneurial endeavours funded this retreat - he was the man behind Robson And Jerome's hit record Unchained Melody in 1995 - but these days that is as far as their association goes.

Because, at the height of his fame, Jerome abandoned his screaming fans, ploughed his share of the celebrity spoils into a dilapidated farm in Pembrokeshire, and disappeared from the spotlight on a spiritual quest which was to last for nearly a decade.

Even now he meditates daily in a whitewashed hut with a turfed roof designed to fit with the rural setting.

After a period of his life in which he all but disappeared from the public eye, however, Jerome is now back on our television screens in a role which is making him a household name all over again.

Two decades ago he won an army of female fans as the blond, wholesome corporal Paddy Garvey in the hugely popular ITV series Soldier Soldier, then went on to find unlikely pop success with his friend and co-star Robson Green.

Older, craggier and with his once-blond hair now a muddy shade of brown, Jerome is appearing in the BBC's new period crime drama, Ripper Street, starring alongside Matthew Macfadyen as two detectives working the streets of 19th-century Whitechapel.

It is a series that has attracted much controversy already for its shocking plotlines featuring torture, pornography and visceral violence (in the first episode Jerome was seen picking a broken tooth out of his fist after a brawl), but the actor is no stranger to the darker side of life.

After all, he shelved his career as a primetime television star to join a religious sect, surrendering eight years of his life in the process.

In an age of vapid celebrities such as Katie Price and the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, no one could accuse Jerome Flynn of predictability.

His father, Eric Flynn, was a leading man in West End musicals and took the title role in the 1970 BBC series Ivanhoe. As Jerome's own career took off - his single Unchained Melody remains one of the top-ten selling British records of all time, and is said to have earned Cowell his first £1million - he was always more inclined to escape to the country than to spend his nights dining in The Ivy or attending industry awards ceremonies.

The red-carpet lifestyle left Jerome cold, and he yearned to find meaning in his life. When an actor friend introduced him to the works of the American spiritual guru Andrew Cohen, his life changed almost overnight.

That friend was Linus Roache, the son of Coronation Street actor William Roache and a leading light in Cohen's so-called Enlightenment movement.

Jerome was fascinated by Cohen's spiritual teachings, essentially a reworking of Hindu mysticism and Tibetan Buddhism dressed up for Western consumption, and at the height of his fame fled to Rishikesh in India on a two-week retreat.

On his return to Britain in 1996 he threw everything in with Cohen's sect, abandoning his career and moving into a commune in North London with a group of fellow believers, including his long-standing girlfriend, Anna Jacobs.

It was, in Jerome's own words, 'a very intense spiritual life?...? equivalent to being a monk for eight years'.

Inspired by his new spiritual leader, Jerome made Cohen's teachings his life's work, travelling the country to give readings from Cohen's texts and embarking on grand plans to make plays and films based on the Enlightenment message.

Not everyone has been so enamoured with the movement, however.

Critics condemn Cohen's organisation, now known as EnlightenNext, over allegations it has broken up families and gained financially from vulnerable devotees.

Jerome's involvement in the movement was seized upon by sections of the Press, with some newspapers suggesting he was driven to convert after his girlfriend, Anna, miscarried their twins four months into her pregnancy in the mid-Nineties. But this is inaccurate, Anna explained to me this week.

'Jerome has always been interested in the spiritual side, and he found out about Andrew Cohen before we lost the children,' she says.

'I don't think anything would have been different. It was just something which happened and it's very sad but not connected.

'He's just a lovely guy with a massive heart who is trying to do some good in the world and be the best person he can.'

The couple had been together for two years before joining Cohen's movement. Together they became totally immersed in his teachings, spending every day meditating and studying with fellow converts.

Four years later, however, Anna became disillusioned and moved out of the movement's retreat in London's Belsize Park. She was convinced Jerome would share her disillusionment and follow her example, but that didn't happen for two more years.

Their relationship foundered soon after she left, but they remain on good terms.

'I appreciate there's a lot of controversy around Andrew Cohen which I think can be largely justified, but at the time we were very committed to the path we were on,' says Anna.

'If you want to be serious about spiritual life, you give up a huge amount of your time and attention.'

In the end, however, Jerome, like Anna, reached the end of the road with Cohen. He has admitted he became convinced Cohen was 'a Christ-like figure' and has criticised his former guru because 'he didn't discourage that in a way that I think he should have'.

Anna, now a successful interior designer with two children by her new partner, agrees.

'When you give everything in a spiritual context - you give your heart to it - that means your spiritual teacher has a really big responsibility because you're putting yourself in quite a vulnerable position,' she says.

'You give them your trust - it's a leap of faith. The problem I have with Andrew Cohen was that he did not take that responsibility seriously enough, and I think he abused the power he had.

'I left because I felt I was being too controlled and was in danger of losing myself. I think you have to be quite strong to extricate yourself from that and leave.

'Jerome always remained absolutely lovely. He's a big-hearted guy who approaches everything with self-deprecating humour. He's funny, and he's humble with it.'

That humility will have proved invaluable as he's tried to rebuild his career.

After his relationship with Anna ended and he left the organisation, Jerome spent 18 months taking stock of his life as he renovated the Georgian farm he had bought in Pembrokeshire. Those renovations are ongoing today.

It is in this beautiful corner of Wales, which Jerome has been visiting since his parents bought a holiday home there in 1969, that the Kent-born actor has put down new roots.

His once-dilapidated farm has been transformed into a self-sustaining business, with barns converted into holiday lets and a large walled garden where fruit and vegetables are grown.

According to Bob Ogley, who collaborated on a book with Jerome and has known him since he was a child, the farm is the culmination of many years' hard work.

'Jerome is hugely talented but he's also incredibly down-to-earth and has always stayed true to his roots,' he told me.

'His image has suffered because he wasn't the kind of celebrity who would turn up to the opening of an envelope. That was never him.

'I remember him as a great kid who went to the local secondary modern in Kent. He was extremely good at sports but always wanted to be an actor, because both his parents and his grandfather were actors.

'He was an immediate hit - it was obvious from the beginning that he'd go a long way.

'He has built an idyllic life for himself in Wales, surrounded by the people who matter to him. I believe his brother has moved up there from London to be with him - it's a beautiful home and he's really very happy.'

The one element missing is a wife and family of his own. While Jerome's understood not to have been short of female company over the years, there hasn't been a serious girlfriend since Anna and he's believed to be single at the moment.

Following the death of his father, Eric, from cancer in 2002, Jerome has set about rebuilding his career.

He won rave reviews the following year for his stage performances in a one-man show about Tommy Cooper directed by Simon Callow, then in 2010 won the role of Bronn in the hit HBO series Game Of Thrones.

Now in its third series, the show led to him being cast in Ripper Street. The fact that both series are filmed in Ireland means Jerome can easily catch a ferry home to Wales when he's not working.

Bob Ogley adds: 'He gets to play roles which interest him but doesn't have to go anywhere near London or a red carpet, which is perfect for him.'

The spiritual side of life remains important to Jerome, and these days he practises a form of meditation espoused by the Balinese spiritual master Ratu Bagus.

This, presumably, is why he has filed a retrospective planning application to his local authority for the beautifully-crafted meditation hut which stands on land at the farm.

A vegetarian since the age of 18 and now a patron of the Vegetarian Society, Jerome turns out regularly in the summer to play for Llanrhian cricket club.

Mr Miles, 61, who runs The Sloop Inn in Porthgain on the Welsh coast, admits he was surprised when Jerome turned his back on acting at the height of his fame, but says that local people don't pry into that side of his life.

'He's in the pub every week and he's just a regular customer, no airs or graces. I know he can hold a tune, but he never sings when we have live music. He's big mates with Cerys Matthews [the musician], who lives nearby. She often takes to the floor to sing, but not Jerome.

'He loves the pub quiz nights, and his knowledge is pretty impressive. He was in a team last Friday night with his brothers, Dan and Johnny, but they didn't win.'

It's unlikely Jerome will be losing any sleep over that particular defeat, however.

He has endured many trials and tribulations in his extraordinary life, and picking himself up and dusting himself down seem to have become second nature.

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