What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed
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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. 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 , 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. 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.
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.
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The relationship between father and son remained fractious and confrontational throughout their lives and Reed danced a jig at his funeral. He also loved to boast that he was a scion of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from to , and liked to imagine that he was a lost prince. After school, there were stints as a fairground boxer, strip-club bouncer and morgue attendant, before he joined the army as a corporal.
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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. 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. 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 roomed former monastery near Dorking in Surrey and revelled in playing the dissolute squire. 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 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 , 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.
He was wont to stick lighted candles up his nose, climb up pub chimneys and chew light bulbs. Oliver proceeded to glug from the neck as the humiliated man turned away. 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 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.
What Fresh Lunacy Is This? by Robert Sellers – review
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.
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 year-old sailors. 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.
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All of them found the world as it is intolerable. They needed something more: the moon perhaps, something demented, as Camus says. He died at age 61 while relaxing during filming. In Malta. In a bar.
What Fresh Lunacy is This? The authorised biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers, review
It is a miracle, as Gabriel Byrne writes, that he lived so long. And you can see that life etched across his face on screen—but he did a damn fine job in the role and for that I am glad. Your email address will not be published. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. Enter your email address to subscribe to Byrneholics Online and receive notifications of new posts by email. Email Address. Aug 6, By Stella 0 comments. Oliver Reed was a thrilling and accomplished actor. Alas poor Ollie!
What Fresh Lunacy Is This? by Robert Sellers – review | Books | The Guardian
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