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
After school, there were stints as a fairground boxer, strip-club bouncer and morgue attendant, before he joined the army as a corporal. He was in his element in the all-male camaraderie and the atmosphere of bullying that pervades army life. Dyslexia, however, prevented his promotion up the ranks to officer class. For the remainder of his life, Ollie was in love with all things military, even volunteering for duty in Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands war, but he was courteously rejected.
Upon leaving the army he secured work as a film extra in some Norman Wisdom pictures. His first speaking lines were opposite Jack Hawkins in The League of Gentlemen, where he out-camped Kenneth Williams with an unbelievably mincing performance, but even here the impact of his presence is unmistakable. There was a mystery to him, a roughness, a sort of animal element; the eyes were spectacular and he possessed incredible bone structure. He was mesmerising, and the camera loved him and the rough-trade ambiguity of his sexuality.
Soon he was cast in Hammer Films’ Curse of the Werewolf in which he gives a performance of rare vulnerability and pathos as the poor lycanthrope which far surpasses that of Lon Chaney jr in the 1941 classic. Thereafter his rise was meteoric and films such as Women in Love, The Devils, and Oliver! made him an international star at a time when acting styles were beginning to change from the clean-cut image of actors such as Kenneth More and David Niven (the kind of men who went down with the ship) to the emergence of a brilliant generation of actors with mostly working-class roots (Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Richard Harris et al).
Before long Reed was the highest-paid actor in Britain and so confident of his pre-eminence that he could say to a Daily Express journalist in 1974: “Get rid of me and you get rid of the entire British film industry”. Already, however, his drinking exploits and sometimes psychotically aggressive personality were making him beloved of the tabloids as well as a hero of the incipient laddish culture.
With his new-found wealth, he bought a 52-roomed former monastery near Dorking in Surrey and revelled in playing the dissolute squire.
Among his mates were so-called “legendary hellraisers” Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and the certifiable Keith Moon, as well as the flotsam and jetsam of various pubs who frequented the mansion where mostly male bacchanalian roistering was mandatory.
In one gargantuan evening, he and 36 friends reputedly “drank 32 bottles of Scotch, 17 bottles of gin, 4 crates of wine and a Babycham”. “People expect that sort of thing from you when you are a hellraiser,” he once said to me with a mixture of despair and sadness.
However, the mythology which surrounds the hellraiser image (usually a euphemism for alcoholism) takes little account of the reality: the broken glass, the vomit, arrests, hangovers like thorns across a naked brain, broken bones, guilt, regret, blackouts, early-morning shakes, violence and blood. There is the denial of the sufferer himself, and very often of those around him, that he suffers from an illness which, if not arrested, can end only in insanity and death .
Oliver Reed was a chronic alcoholic and that is the huge elephant in the room that is never addressed properly in this exhausting biography. At 500 pages it is far too long and akin to being trapped with the pub bore. One can only take so many tales of excess and dissipation – a diligent editor might have addressed this as well as the inadequate index. Robert Sellers has mined this hellraiser phenomenon before and, although a good writer, he seems to have typecast himself in the role of amanuensis to the inebriated.
Alcoholism (long thought to be a moral failing) was declared by the American Medical Association to be an illness in 1956, both psychiatrically and medically, and we now know, with recent advances in neuroscience, that addiction is as much a disorder of the brain as any other neurological illness.
In the 1970s, as Reed’s career was in the ascendant, his behaviour was becoming more crackbrained and unhinged and he came to be regarded by many in the industry as an unpredictable bedlamite. He was wont to stick lighted candles up his nose, climb up pub chimneys and chew light bulbs.
Once, at a restaurant in Malta, I witnessed him vomit over a waiter after the patron had proudly brought to the table a cobwebbed bottle of wine which had been in his family’s cellar for more than 100 years. Oliver proceeded to glug from the neck as the humiliated man turned away.