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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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