Star­ring boor with a bot­tle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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 in­quiry 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. Its a mir­a­cle he sur­vived to be 61, drop­ping dead in a Mal­tese bar af­ter ‘‘ drink­ing co­pi­ous amounts of rum and armwrestling with 18-year-old sailors’’.

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 sword fights.

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 would 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’’. Of the di­rec­tors he worked with, Reed put lax­a­tives in Michael Win­ner’s cof­fee, head­but­ted 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 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’’. Af­ter he was 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

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