As Athos, in the film The Three Musketeers, Oliver Reed spoke a line that summed up his personal philosophy. “Life is so much more rosy when seen through the bottom of a glass of ale.”
Reed was born in 1938, into “a household that might have looked to the casual observer to be residing in an Edwardian time warp. There was a man downstairs who was the family’s dogsbody, gardener, car washer and so on, and upstairs a nanny who looked after both children, to all intents and purposes so that Marcia [their mother] didn’t have to,” his brother says.
Oliver and his brother were brought downstairs in the evenings to be presented to their parents, and that was the extent of the bond. When war broke out, Peter Reed’s conscientious objection rankled with his wife, who deemed failure to join the army as cowardice. She decamped with the children to the home of a lover in Buckinghamshire.
The war was a happy time for Oliver, playing out of doors and drinking lemonade outside the local pub, which may have started his lifelong love affair with booze.
Reed preferred the company of “ordinary” people, short of pretensions, to that of celebrities. At school, Reed looked like Charles Bronson crossed with a boy scout, and being the class clown made him a hero among his peers. So he developed a permanent anti-authority stance, and the conviction that an antidote to boredom was to do something outrageous or challenge someone to a fight.
The other antidote to boredom — and to excessive alcohol consumption — was acting. Reed never wanted to be a stage actor, rejecting the offer to play Brendan Behan in a one-man show. Doing the same thing night after night, and needing to be sober, had no appeal for him.
The camera loved his handsome face, his condemning eyes and even the scar on his jaw (he was glassed by a drunk). By his first marriage, he was appearing in horror movies and in a film about Robin Hood shot in Ardmore. “Running around the beautiful countryside of County Wicklow, brandishing swords and riding horses, was, for Ollie, rather like re-enacting his childhood,” writes Sellers. “Only he was getting paid for it.”
Reed became an enormously skilful screen actor, using stillness to convey deep emotion. His skill was matched by his professionalism. Despite dyslexia, Reed would learn not only his own lines, but the lines of other actors in the movie. He would give up booze for the shoot, but even when he caved in and drank until the small hours of the morning with crew members, he would turn up for makeup at dawn without any sign of a hangover.
This led to an inevitable contest, in the public mind, between Oliver Reed, actor, and Oliver Reed, aggressive drunk. And he was an astonishingly aggressive drunk, picking fights and arm-wrestling competitions, drinking vast amounts of alcohol just to prove he could still function thereafter, endangering himself and those around him by initiating crazy “pranks.” Reed seems to have felt most authentic when adrenalin met alcohol within him. One, he hung from the balcony of his hotel room because the antic made him feel more alive.
Forgiveness is one of the strange themes of this authorised biography. Reed brutalised and terrified people and damaged property, yet always charmed his way out.
“He would wander round, get drunk, tell outrageous jokes, occasionally take his clothes off and break a few windows or chairs and nobody would take a blind bit of notice,” England rugby international, Andy Ripley, said of Reed. “After a particularly riotous evening, a cheque would always arrive promptly the next morning, to make good any damage.”
People bullied by Reed into drinking when they didn’t want to, or drinking more than they wanted or than was safe for them, give retrospective shrugging interviews indicating acceptance: he wasn’t evil, they said, it was always meant to be fun.
And fun it may have been, for the central figure. Oddly, however, that does not carry into the post-factum account. Fun it is not, retold. All drunks are equally boring to those who either were not present or not equally drunk at the time, and the book’s accounts of one outrageous binge after another pall as the pages turn.
The accounts of Reed’s embarrassing and assaultive appearances on chat shows, including Gay Byrne’s Late, Late Show, also pall.
In counterpoint, the accounts of his relationships with children and with animals are fascinating. Although his children talk of him with much affection throughout the book, it does not seem as if Reed was good at routine, ever-present parenting. But he brought a benign imagination to children, once getting a pal to hide behind a tree on his land with a pile of petrol-soaked leaves.
“He then told a visiting four-year-old that a winter dragon lived in the woods, and when the child was searching the woods with her eyes, Reed suddenly yelled “It’s over there!” This gave the hidden friend the cue to light a match, so that a huge flame shot out, convincing the child that dragons existed, because she’d seen one.
As it bowls along, Robert Sellers’ lively biography makes it clear that, while Reed’s life might seem chaotic, the man himself enjoyed most of it, probably died as he would have wanted, and may also be remembered the way he’d have liked by the people he valued.
In the cemetery in Churchtown, in Cork, where the actor is buried, visitors still pour alcohol on his grave to commemorate him — so much alcohol, his daughter says, that she’s surprised grass grows on it.
“He was well-loved and he was loveable,” his son says..
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