What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers
Reviewed by Gabriel Byrne
What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed
At 3. 12am in the Watergate Hotel , Washington DC, on February 16th, 1985, I was awoken from a jet-lagged coma by the shattering of glass, and loud oaths. With racing heart I found the light which revealed an inebriated apparition fixing me with a rheumy and strabismic eye.
“On yer facking feet, McGuigan,” it roared, huge hams of fists windmilling. “I’m not Barry McGuigan, Oliver!” I croaked, attempting to bring my voice down to a manly calm. He lunged at me blindly like a bull to a red cape and collided with a table, whereupon he came face to face with his reflection in the mirror .
Immediately he straightened, barked at himself and then saluted: “Reed, Oliver. Corporal 18th field ambulance corps SAH,” he shouted as if on parade. Dressed in a rugby shirt and the trousers of an evening suit he sported also satin ballet slippers. There was a vivid gash of blood visible in his scalp.
Then, just as suddenly, he reverted to his pugilist self: “Come on, lady boy, let’s be ’avin yer then.”
“Barry is in the bar and he says he’s going to punch your lights out,” I said, as I heaved the great girth of him through the door. I lay on the sofa fearing I might expire of a heart attack as I heard him bawling for the non-existent McGuigan to come out like a man and take his knuckle sandwich.
We had starred together in a picture some months before, and now were here to attend a press conference to publicise the final product. I was filming in London so the producers decided to fly both of us by Concorde for the day. My heart sank when I realised I would be travelling inside the equivalent of a fountain pen at Mach 2 with Bill Sykes and no possibility of egress. Trepidation turned to elation when I was informed at Heathrow that Reed had been banned from all Concorde flights and for that relief I gave much thanks. Yet here he was, having somehow secured another flight.
The following morning I met him in the foyer, dressed like a banker in a pinstripe suit and he greeted me with the shyest and warmest affection. He enquired after my health, my family, assuring me he’d missed our conversations, and began to reminisce fondly about our time together. It was obvious he had no memory of the previous night’s shenanigans whatsoever.
Reading What Fresh Lunacy Is This?, one is reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Nearly every interviewee in this book alludes to a duality: the shy timid Oliver and the dangerous menace he could suddenly become without warning.
Oliver Reed was born in genteel Wimbledon in 1938, son of a newspaper racing journalist, an easygoing man, and his bored wife, Marcia, who craved excitement and wild affairs . She was by all accounts a cold woman who gave little in the way of affection.
His father, upon the outbreak of the second World War, made a decision to become a conscientious objector. Marcia found this cowardly and it precipitated the end of the marriage . Throughout his life, Oliver was deeply shamed and thought his father’s stance contemptible.
He was a secretive, solitary boy who found solace in nature and the company of animals but was packed off to boarding school at nine years old. Rendered innumerate and illiterate by dyslexia when the condition was little known, he was expelled from 14 different schools as a dreamy dunce and remained deeply self-conscious about his lack of education. “Detached in class”, wrote a teacher, “with flashes of temper which presage future violence.”
Yet he quickly learned that in the hierarchy of boarding school power, the strongest succeeded while the weak were despised, “ so I chose to become a bully, Bully Boy Reed, a swaggering Jack the Lad.” He also became an able athlete and at the annual victor ludorum, he won all events. Yet his own father was not best pleased, telling him with hurtful indifference that he was fit only to be a burglar or an actor. The relationship between father and son remained fractious and confrontational throughout their lives and Reed danced a jig at his funeral.
Oliver’s lineage boasted the great Victorian actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and the renowned film director Carol Reed. He also loved to boast that he was a scion of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1672 to 1725, and liked to imagine that he was a lost prince. Indeed when he’d had all his hair and eyebrows cut off for the role of Father Grandier in Ken Russell’s The Devils, he bore an eerie resemblance to the death mask of the fabled tyrant.