GLASSED IN A PUB IN 1963 and returning from hospital with 36 stitches, Oliver Reed apparently felt the need to prove his masculinity by attempting “the love act” with his wife, who understandably objected that he was dripping blood all over her. Like a trip down the boozer with an enthusiastic raconteur, Robert Sellers’ authorised biography of Reed is full of these sorts of gossipy anecdotes and fond reminiscences. Taking a chronological approach to the exploits of the iconic hellraiser, commentary from family, friends, colleagues and lovers is pieced together to create a broadly flattering picture of the legendary piss artist and imposing screen presence, whose performances in the likes of Tommy and Oliver! cemented his place in British film history as much as his wild lifestyle did.
It’s probably fair to say it’s not a very objective portrait of the man. Although you can read between the lines and can see that he was awful on many occasions to many people, this book is for the fans, waving the more troublesome details away as “Ollie being Ollie”, and entranced by his charisma, eccentricity and lavish displays of generosity (as a struggling unknown, he promised a penniless army vet in a bar that if he became a big star he would buy the man a house, which he did). Sellers’ final conclusion is that Reed’s tragedy was ultimately his compulsion to act out an outrageous public persona he’d created to hide his innate shyness, up to the premature end of his life during the filming of Gladiator in 1999.
If you’re a student of British cinema, this book will provide invaluable colour, context and quotable stories, but you may need to read around to supplement it with more serious analysis of the period. But if you’re after a collection of pub stories or — say — a Father’s Day present, look no further. It would be surprising if this book didn’t inspire at least a few pub crawls around what Reed called “the Wimbledon run”: the Rose & Crown, the Dog & Fox, The Fire Stables (née The Castle), The Swan, the Hand In Hand and The Crooked Billet. In Reed’s day there were two more, now gone. It’s appropriate that latter-day versions of the crawl are missing something — as well as a biography, Sellers’ book is also a lament for a version of England and a way of being a movie star that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Reviewed by Catherine Bray