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

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood