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She was everything to me: David Robb with wife Briony McRoberts at a social event in 2012Nestled with the many photos and mementos of his 35-year marriage lies a letter that Downton Abbey actor David Robb wishes he had never had to read.Written by a stranger, its contents are unimaginable to most of us. Yet for David it has provided some small semblance of comfort following the suicide of his wife Briony McRoberts, recounting, as it does, the last minutes of her life.For, while on screen the distinguished actor has become a global star as Downtons Dr Richard Clarkson – keeping millions of fans guessing if his unrequited love for Isobel Crawley might end in marriage – in private, for the past 18 months he has been struggling to come to terms with Brionys death.On July 17, 2013, the woman he thought of as his rock left home and jumped in front of a train at Fulham Broadway station. She was 56.She was the most gentle of people – she hated it if I had even a minor altercation with anyone, so the idea that she could have done this, inflict that on herself, is something I cannot comprehend, he says softly.Work and the close friendship of the Downton cast members – who have become like a second family to him during the past five years – has helped. A little squeeze on the shoulder from Maggie Smith as she leaves the make-up trailer is enough to show me I have wonderful support, he says.Briony would sometimes come to Downton Abbey get-togethers with me, and became friends with the actresses Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery. People were attracted to Briony, she was such a vibrant person.Like so many suicides, there was no note, no inkling of the tragedy to come. Two nights before her death she was at a drinks party swapping numbers with friends. There was even a holiday marked in the diary.I certainly dont believe that, when we were at the party, she was thinking she would be dead in a couple of days, says David, who met his wife in 1975 when she was 18 and they starred together in a West End play. They married in 1978.The letter about Brionys death came from a woman who had witnessed the suicide.
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It was the most beautiful letter from a lady who had been standing beside her on the platform, recalls David 67. She told me that Briony was calm, didnt seem distressed in anyway, looked almost serene.As the train came in it seemed as if Briony was looking over the track as if she had lost something, and then she was gone.The actresss career had taken off when she was 19, playing Wendy Darling in a musical adaptation of J.M. Barries Peter Pan starring Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye.She went on to star in a string of TV hits including The Professionals, Heartbeat, EastEnders and Scottish drama Take The High Road.
On screen: David as Dr Clarkson in Downton Abbey with Penelope Wilton as Isobel CrawleyBriony suffered from anorexia as a teenager – something David attributes to the death of her mother from pneumonia when she was seven. But it wasnt until she turned 50 that her eating disorder returned.Ironically, as Davids career flourished with the success of Downton, his wife felt hers was over, something he believes triggered the anorexia. It is like alcoholism, he maintains. You can not touch a drink for 50 years, but you are still an alcoholic. It might have gone into mental remission for years but it was still there.Her close friend, actress Joanna Lumley, warned Briony she would die unless she sought help when her weight dropped to six-and-a-half stone – severely underweight for her 5ft 7in frame.  She was the most gentle of people – she hated it if I had even a minor altercation with anyone, so the idea she could inflict that on herself is something I cannot comprehend David Robb Briony felt washed up, that no one remembered her and no matter how much I reassured her she felt worthless, a failure, David says. Of course she wasnt, but that is what this business can do to you, especially if you are a woman.David admits relations between them had been strained the night before her death. We were meeting friends at a pub in Putney and when I arrived Briony had already had a drink, he says. Being anorexic I knew she had to eat before she had a drink otherwise the alcohol was fast-acting so I was policing her for the rest of the evening.Walking back home later that evening, she pressed me, trying to have an argument and I wasnt having it so we were a bit sniffy with each other, but it was nothing more serious than that.We got up a bit earlier than usual because we had the decorators in, but Briony was doing her usual morning exercises. As she did her sit-ups, I even remember stepping over her at one point to get ready in the bathroom.I heard the front door close and assumed shed gone for a long walk to clear her head. I knew she was going to meet friends to see a matinee performance in Chichester.David, who recently played Sir Thomas Boleyn in the BBCs adaptation of Wolf Hall, admits he initially became concerned when he heard Brionys mobile phone ring.Id no idea she hadnt taken it with her until I saw a text saying, Darling, where are you, we are in the bar? he continues. Then at 4pm the police arrived with the news that Briony was dead.
Warning: Briony with close friend and actress Joanna Lumley, who was worried about her friend 
Actress Briony McRoberts in one of her first roles in 1976
All she had on her was her wedding ring and my Oyster card [for the Underground], he recalls. I understood what had happened but my heart just couldnt believe shed done it. I remember thinking who the hell was I living my life with all these years.The days and months that followed were a blur. Initially you are on auto-pilot, my friends and neighbours looked after me – every morning at 8.15am one would arrive with a coffee and a croissant, David admits. Then I began to over-socialise and drink like a fish. Luckily I dont have an addictive gene and I stopped that. There were also days when I had the feeling that I just didnt want to wake up.Somehow you settle into a kind of rhythm and you just stagger on.With his on-screen success, the couple were more financially secure than theyd been for years and David believed they had reached a stage in their life where they could look forward to their future.The guilt, however unwarranted, is relentless. It doesnt matter how much I know intellectually that it was not my fault, there is something at the heart of me that believes if Id maybe told her I loved her more or noticed some small sign, anything…
Sweethearts: David and Briony had starred in a West End play together and were married for 35 yearsSlowly Davids life is changing to accommodate the new normality forced upon him, and the loss of equilibrium in his life which he is not sure he will ever get back. He is anxious not to be defined by Brionys death and the normally private actor agreed to speak to The Mail on Sunday only to highlight a moving BBC documentary which shows the devastating aftermath for family left behind after a suicide.David, who has volunteered with the Samaritans since 1987, had no doubts about returning to work there six months after Brionys death. Initially when I went back I wasnt on the phones, but gradually I started dealing with calls again, he reveals.Maybe I have a greater understanding when someone calls to talk now, I am perhaps more aware of the little triggers.Sadly, many of his memories of the woman who captured his heart with her charismatic personality and sparkling laughter have started to fade. I cant imagine cuddling her any more and I dont feel her presence anywhere – that spiritual connection, its gone, he says.David admits to missing the intimacy of a relationship – I hate the idea of being a single, old bloke – but says Briony is an almost impossible act to follow, adding: She was everything to me.Life After Suicide is on BBC1 on Tuesday at 10.45pm.