The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers: Sadly and crushingly, most important was that he was an alcoholic

The "Bill Sikes" actor turned down Spielberg, Polanski and even James Bond - why?

What Fresh Lunacy Is This? The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed
Robert Sellers
Constable & Robinson, 512pp, £20

Born in 1938 into an upper-middle-class family in Wimbledon, Oliver Reed would as a child set his pet jackdaw on the handlebar of his bike and watch his dark-sleek mother gossiping with her RAF hero lovers. Parties and pubs, smoke and chat: things Reed would always connect with being initiated into the freedom of adulthood.

Later, at public school, Oliver did very badly – his dyslexia was profound – but he ran fast and boxed theatrically. As a teenager in Soho, he would go about wearing an open shirt tied in a knot above his waist and a chain with a big skull on it, concocting a whole CV of touring in rep around made-up places such as Wagamoomoo in Australia. Acting, he reckoned, seemed as good a way to get by as any.

Early agents mistrusted his “Continental looks” and despaired that his films were mostly for the Hammer studios or had “condemned” ratings slapped on them for using the word “fuck”. Then, in 1969, when Reed was 31, Ken Russell offered him the part of Gerald Crich in Women in Love – a lifeline. And what do we see in that movie? His gorgeously outsized head and neck. The drowsy eyes that make him look like he’s always smelling something dirty. That combination of ham and perfectly natural and a stunning physical strength and carelessness. A few years down the line, on the set of The Three Musketeers, stunt men literally puked in the gutter for fear of Reed’s Athos let loose with a sword.

By 1976, Reed’s face was booze-bloated, his career uninteresting, his finances perpetually sapped by a battalion of hangers-on and unquenchable, pub-bound acolytes. In his life, Reed never set foot onstage to perform, never petitioned for parts, never went to view rushes, never fostered professional connections (his uncle Carol Reed cast him as an unbeatable Bill Sikes but Oliver had certainly not gone looking for it).

In some ways, you admire him for this apparent nonchalance. In the clutch of photographs gathered here by Robert Sellers, not once is the actor snapped sucking up to minor royalty or at the Baftas or buying jewels for some superannuated wife at Sotheby’s. Instead, he’s up to his waist in a village pond after a party or ten pints down at the Curry Garden in Dorking.

Three things Sellers mentions jump out – three parts that Reed either turned down or was for some reason denied that would have changed everything. First, Quint in Jaws. Clearly Steven Spielberg – always brilliant at casting –was looking for a genuine loose cannon. Second, as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Instead, history must settle for Jon Finch(and Keith Chegwin as Fleance).

And last, Bond. Think about this. While Sean Connery plays 007 as a chancer secretly impressed by his business account and caviar, the young Reed had the class and cruelty of Ian Fleming’s Bond and even the facial scars mentioned in the novels (Reed had been glassed in a pub, the shards shredding right through to his tongue). If Bond is a dream of social mobility, Reed had it all – but it was not to be. Too ruinous was his reputation for getting his cock out mid-shot, waving dildos at Keith Moon or eating light bulbs.

Sadly and boringly and crushingly, more important than anything else you can say about Reed is that he was an alcoholic. He drank more by the year: vodka, rum, Fairy liquid (when he couldn’t find crème de menthe), you name it. Some friends say he was a doll; others mutter about his loathsomeness. He whacked his lover, he kicked his dogs, he neglected his children. Sellers pretends to question the tag of “alcoholic” because Reed rarely drank alone but here is what the actor Fabio Testi had to say: “Oliver was a very lovely person until two or three in the afternoon. Let’s just say around the 25th or 26th bottle of wine, he could hold his liquor, no problem. Then after that it would get more difficult.”

Reed, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Shaw – it’s a long, drunken list. All of them were encouraged by a history of British acting and British drinking to believe that films were silly, beneath them, a means to a financial end. When Spielberg came calling, Reed refused to go to Hollywood because it would be a “blow to his credibility”. It’s a uniquely British superiority complex with violent insecurity at its core: you can’t be exposed to proper criticism if you never cared much in the first place.

In the end, does it come down to something as banal as this? Was Reed just a big, timorous baby? There is a resonant line in one of his early films, The System (directed by Michael Winner in 1964), in which, hilariously, Reed plays a photographer supposedly living in an unglamorous English seaside town (picture Brando hiding out in Whitstable), padding up and down the pier to the slow roll of the grey North Sea, stinking the place out with his charisma. Truly, Reed’s 26-year-old beauty in the film makes you laugh out loud: his voice, his chest in a Breton shirt, his battered straw Stetson. “Why do you stay here?” gasps his mumsy co-star as he dawdles devastatingly, fiddling with his camera. Reed gives one of his most sincere and shamefaced little shrugs and admits, “Perhaps I’m just a bit nervous of going anywhere bigger.”

Water, water everywhere - the actor Oliver Reed. Photograph: Emilio Gentilini/Camera Press.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.