Midway through this startling book, Robert Sellers asks himself a question with such apparent seriousness I barked with laughter: ‘Was Oliver Reed an alcoholic?’ A more pertinent enquiry would be: ‘Was the man ever capable of drawing a sober breath?’ What Fresh Lunacy is This? is the monotonous chronicle of a nasty drunk whose ‘explosions of pissed aggression’ filled every waking hour, culminating in a deranged session, while filming Castaway in 1986, when he attacked an aeroplane.
Reed would gulp 20 pints of lager as a way of limbering up. He’d then switch to spirits and the cycle of fighting and carousing would begin. It’s a miracle he survived to be 61, dropping dead in a Maltese bar after ‘drinking copious amounts of rum and arm-wrestling with 18-year-old sailors’.
Myself, I find no amusement in dissipation, but Sellers seems always to be impressed and tickled by Reed’s nasty pranks: sticking a lit candle up his nose for a bet, chewing light bulbs or putting cigarettes out on his tongue. He loved to climb up a pub chimney and leap into the grate as a demonic Santa Claus. He liked to beat up waiters, hoteliers and chauffeurs. ‘He was always trying to test a person to see how scared they were of him.’ He would dangle people over balconies or insist on swordfights. He said to a restaurant manager in Austria, ‘I’m coming back tomorrow night. If you haven’t got a Union Jack by then, I’m going to trash this place.’ They hadn’t. So he hurled chairs through the window.
There was real violence in him. On location, there’d always be ‘knife wounds, hospital visits and stitches’. Reed urinated on foreign flags, on Mercedes limousines and on anyone standing below him on the stairs. He vomited over Steve McQueen, and Bette Davis said that he was ‘possibly one of the most loathsome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting’ — a wide field in her case. Of the directors he worked with, Reed put laxatives in Michael Winner’s coffee, head-butted Terry Gilliam and on numerous occasions threw Ken Russell across the room in judo tackles.
The Neanderthal behaviour — or riotous horseplay, as Sellers would have it — was present in childhood. Reed was born in Wimbledon. His grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree. His father’s brother was Carol Reed. He was always being expelled from school for his angry outbursts, and he flourished as a bully. He threw a pet dog over the banister, broke his own brother’s nose, and hit a neighbour with a garden hoe.
Though Sellers tries to argue that Reed was dyslexic and insecure, ‘with a low boredom threshold’, it is surely simpler to say the man had a fascist mentality and was a crackpot. He clung to his instinctive belief that ‘the strongest succeeded, while the weak got abused and ignored’. He particularly enjoyed National Service because of ‘the atmosphere of bullying. He was in his element.’ Promoted to corporal, ‘his men came to despise him utterly’. He never stopped being ‘the macho army lout’, and tried to volunteer for active duty during the Falklands. (He made Fanny Hill with Alfred Marks instead.)
Reed started out in show business as a male model (‘There was a mystery and a roughness and a sort of animal element to him’), graduating to bit-parts in Norman Wisdom films and Hammer horrors. His defining role was as a werewolf. He was also notable as Gerald Critch in Women in Love (1969) and as Father Grandier in The Devils (1971), the latter ‘a tirade of masturbation and flagellation’. He was meant to be making a comeback in Gladiator, but because he’d dropped dead in the middle of filming, the role was assembled from out-takes, reverse-angle shots using a stunt double and computer-generated trickery. (I couldn’t tell.)
What’s clear from Sellers’ biography is that Reed didn’t like acting, never discussed it and perhaps rather despised himself for being so good at it — for the camera did capture a unique, brooding, sinister stillness. What a Flashman he’d have been, or a Richard III or Mussolini. Even Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. He is unnerving as Bill Sikes in Oliver! directed by Uncle Carol — and during the shoot he spiked the young Mark Lester’s orange squash with vodka. ‘Looking back on it, it’s quite amusing really,’ says Lester unconvincingly.
With the proceeds of the junk he appeared in — six films with Michael Winner! — Reed was able to afford an Edwardian mansion near Dorking, where he was very much the dissolute lord of the manor, filling the halls with road diggers, carpenters, builders and ‘people he’d meet in pubs’ — people he could easily dominate and from whom he did not have to fear intelligent conversation. His best pals were Hurricane Higgins, Keith Moon and a bruiser and personal bodyguard called Reg, whom Reed pushed off a wall for a laugh. Reg broke his back in two places.
Such was Reed’s ‘warped notion of masculinity’ and his compulsive need ‘to prove he was a man’, it comes as no surprise to learn he didn’t like women much — or children. ‘He was hard and he was hurtful,’ says his son. Reed’s idea of romantic chivalry was to say to one of his wives, ‘Love’s yer? Course I loves yer. Fucks yer, don’t I?’ When he met Gayle Hunnicut, then the wife of David Hemmings and later of Simon Jenkins, he thought he was being charming by announcing, ‘Give me a kiss, you fucking lovely Texan whore.’ Thora Hird’s daughter, Janette Scott, was terrified: ‘I really didn’t know what to do with him and I was afraid.’ Reed stalked her and tried to run her car off the road.
Women were wenches consigned to the kitchen — their lovingly prepared meals often flung in their face or at the wall: ‘I can’t eat this shit!’ Sex to Reed was a sort of rape or assault — but luckily, owing to his drinking, his libido vanished in his thirties. His last wife (and widow) was 16 when he began courting her. He’d meet her off the school bus. ‘He treated her like a doll, always adjusting her hair or clothing.’ Creepy.
Only one possible conclusion may be reached after reading this book and examining the evidence: that despite his homo-phobia (‘You’re a poof. You’re a fucking poofter,’ he said to Ian Ogilvy), Reed was homosexual, or crypto-homosexual, or deutero-homosexual. He was always stripping off in male company and couldn’t wait to expose his penis, which was tattooed with the design of an eagle. His kitchen cupboards had handles shaped like penises. His door knocker was a brass cock and balls. In pubs he thought it amusing to indulge in two-men kissing contests and, according to Sellers, was ‘unable to resist anyone in uniform’.
If he remains ‘a cultural figure in our nation’s psyche’ — a large claim that I somewhat dispute — then it’ll be for two things. First, there were his drunken, boorish appearances on late-night chat shows, which may now be watched with dread on Youtube. Secondly, he is remembered for the nude wresting scene, before the roaring drawing-room fire, in Women in Love. ‘He’s got a bigger donger than me!’ Reed had complained of Alan Bates. I cherish the remark of a pensioner, seeing the film with her friend in an otherwise empty cinema. As the grunting and grappling proceeded, her critique was succinct: ‘Nice carpet.’
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.