David Blackburn

Peter O’Toole’s new beginning

Peter O’Toole’s new beginning
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‘It is time for me to chuck in the sponge,’ said Peter O’Toole with characteristic singularity. The 79-year-old has announced his retirement from stage and screen, after a career that will span 56 years: with two films in post-production to be released next year. He goes, he said, ‘dry-eyed and profoundly grateful.’ He will devote his time to finishing a third volume of memoirs, which will record the ‘meat’ of his Hollywood career.

The two previous volumes — Loitering with Intent: The Child and Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice — stand largely unread on my bookshelves. I dip into them from time-to-time; they’re that sort of book. O’Toole is wonderful company of a quiet evening, sipping a brandy and soda as he gulps his way through the ‘50s. But I couldn’t spend a fortnight with him; it would be too much.

He is a raconteur, and his prose reflects this. His words cascade onto the page, as they do when he speaks on TV chat shows, a frequent haunt for him over the years if YouTube is a reliable guide. Those appearances are not so much conversations as one-man plays. O’Toole might have been Dave Allen had he not been so good-looking. He is a pub monologist; a sober version (these days) of Jeffrey Bernard, the plastered scribe once of this parish whom O’Toole played in three separate West End runs of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. (O’Toole was also an old and close friend of Keith Waterhouse, who wrote the play: the two having worked together on a newspaper in Leeds during the early ‘50s.)

O’Toole’s hell-raising is famous. Whether it is buying a pub with Peter Finch in order to drink after last orders or driving to Yugoslavia by mistake, his antics have entered popular myth through his appearances on Letterman and the like, and through the memoirs of others. It will be a treat to read O’Toole’s definitive version, if one can accept his understandably hazy testimony.

Most of all, I want to read O’Toole’s recollections of his friends: friendship is at the root of so many of these famous though murky tales. Little is known of O’Toole’s trips to watch Five Nations rugby internationals with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch — dare to imagine a post-match bender with that quartet.

Each bawdy anecdote will be lit with O’Toole’s mischievous wit. He shared a grotty room with Michael Caine in the late ‘50s. They got deliriously smashed one night; and the morning after, the naive Caine asked the more worldly O’Toole what they had done, to which he replied: ‘Never ask what you did. It’s better not to know.’      

And then there is the strange world of film making. Rumours about the 2-year Lawrence of Arabia shoot have circulated since the movie’s release. My favourite concerns a scene in the tent of Prince Faisal (played by a blacked-up Alec Guinness, whose attempt at Arabian dignity fell somewhere between the sagacious and the funereal). Faisal is issuing his directions to Lawrence and Sherif Ali (played by O’Toole and Omar Sharif respectively). Having done that, Faisal turns to an attendant cleric, Kaleem, for Koranic instruction, taken on this occasion from a consoling passage named ‘The Brightness’. Each time the sepulchral Guinness said: ‘Kaleem, the Brightness’, O’Toole and Sharif collapsed in uncontrollable mirth. Guinness grew tetchy as take after take was lost to this unscripted farce. O’Toole and Sharif eventually regained composure, and the company proceeded with the scene once more. Guinness gave his orders and said: ‘Kaleem’, but was instantly overcome by the giggles.

The next instalment of ‘Loitering with Intent’ will add meat to these and many other bones.