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.
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.
He urinated on other countries’ flags, spiked peoples’ drinks for fun and pushed his factotum and friend Reg Prince off a balcony, breaking his back and ending a career in film. On the set of Castaway, he was so drunk he attacked an aircraft and was glassed in a pub, receiving 36 stitches in the face and leaving him scarred for life .
Although a compulsive womaniser in earlier days, after many turbulent relationships and at the age of 42, he wooed and won a 16-year-old girl named Josephine Burge and it was the beginning of a remarkable love story that endured till his death (I shall always remember Ollie sitting meekly by her side between takes while she sewed contentedly). There is no doubt they loved each other deeply.
Ollie had a disdain for the business of acting and eschewed the company of fellow actors. What he was in love with was being a star; and people were in love with him being an outrageous star. Fame, which often felt like being locked inside a drum with everyone banging on the skin, shielded and protected him, and allowed his alcoholism to worsen.
Inevitably, his career atrophied, then began to deteriorate into a declivity where he made only dross for the money, a bloated parody of his former self. You can watch on YouTube the infamous chat show appearances toward the end, where he is exploited and prodded like a wounded bull for the titillation of the whooping audience. (It is terribly sad to watch him drunkenly undress, unaware there is a camera secreted in his dressing room by callous producers.)
By now the lunacy has lost its freshness; the bacchanal is coming to its inevitable end. His final acting performance was in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a role that could have heralded a comeback. But he died suddenly during filming from a heart attack, on his day off, having consumed three bottles of rum and arm-wrestled a group of 18-year-old sailors.
He went probably as he’d have liked , on the floor of a pub in Malta, the complex stew of melancholy , gentleness , kindness, and cruelty dead at 61. The miracle is he lived so long.
Oliver Reed is buried in a cemetery in Churchtown, Co Cork, where he and Josephine lived the final years of his life. His grave, once seeded with wild flowers, is now a place of pilgrimage for drinkers with T-shirts proclaiming “Ollie Reed died in action” .
Alas poor Ollie! What a falling off was there!
What a Heathcliff he would have been, a Richard III, Stanley Kowalski, Hotspur, Lear, or James Bond. (He came within a hair’s breadth of being cast as 007.) At his peak he was cited in the same breath as Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum. “He made the very air move,” Orson Welles had said. But he, in Dylan Thomas’s phrase, gave his “soul a blind, slashed eye, / Gristle and rind, and a roarer’s life” and drank away his talent till there was nothing but the shadow of what once had been.
Here is a list worth pondering: Baudelaire, Doctor Johnson, Faulkner, Bukowski, Tolstoy, Dylan Thomas, Coleridge, Sartre, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ray Carver, John Cheever, Burton, Harris, Hank Williams, George Best, John Barrymore, Bogart, WC Fields, John Ford, Ted Kennedy, Churchill, Judy Garland, Kerouac, Anne Sexton, Truman Capote, Spencer Tracey, Brendan Behan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, etc, etc. What they all have in common is that like millions of unknown others they suffered, and in most cases died, from addiction to drugs or alcohol.
As a society we must begin to view this deadly illness not with condemnation but with compassion, and cease criminalising or romanticising the suffering of the addict. Let’s stop the prurient and voyeuristic media reporting of their sad travails (Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Paul Gascoigne).
I knew and drank with many famous “hellraisers”: Oliver, Richard Harris, Jon Finch, Richard Burton, George Scott, Sterling Hayden, Nicol Williamson, and many not so famous. All of them found the world as it is intolerable. They needed something more: the moon perhaps, something demented, as Camus says. But I’m convinced that all of them were half in love with easeful death itself – the soul a battleground, as in the story of Jekyll and Hyde, for the angel and the fiend.