Before I begin this review, I have to declare a bias. I’m from the Scottish Borders town of Peebles and people there regard the late hellraising movie star Oliver Reed as an honorary Peeblean. In 1995, Reed was staying in the area whilst making a film called The Bruce – a sub-Braveheart effort that, like most of Reed’s late-career films, was fairly dreadful – and one day he managed to find his way to the raucous public bar of the Crown Hotel, known to locals as ‘the Croon’, on Peebles High Street. If you’re to believe the Scottish tabloid press, Reed took such a shine to the Croon, and the regulars of the Croon took such a shine to him, that he took up permanent residency in the bar for the next couple of days.
Indeed, the Scottish edition of the Sun printed a front-page headline saying SHAME ON EWE, with a photo underneath of Reed slumped against the inside of the Croon’s front door whilst cradling a toy sheep in his inebriated arms. Some unsuspecting soul was on the street outside, trying to open the door and get in, and he must’ve been thinking: “What’s blocking this door…? Oh… Oh, look… It’s Oliver Reed.”
Thereafter, Reed made Peebles his port-of-call whenever he visited Scotland. He even elected to spend his sixtieth birthday there in 1998. And when he died of excess the following year, BBC Radio Scotland sent a reporter to Peebles to interview Peter Cassidy, the owner of the Croon. During the interview, Peter observed that although Reed had died at the relatively young age of 61, he’d managed to cram into his time on earth twice as many years’ worth of living.
My fear when I approached Oliver Reed – Wild Thing, which has just finished its Edinburgh Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, was that the play’s focus would be very much on those 122 years’ worth of ‘living’ – the industrial consumption of alcohol, the partying, the brawling, the hi-jinks with fellow hellraisers like Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Keith ‘the Loon’ Moon, the notorious chat-show appearances where he’d turn up in the studio completely trolleyed, the tattoo he famously bore on his penis – at the expense of his film career. And the first half of that career, at least, was pretty impressive.
He started out as a bit-player in the late-1950s British film industry – for example, he was the leader of the teddy-boy gang who beat up Norman Wisdom in The Bulldog Breed. (Thanks for that, Ollie.) Hammer Films discovered him and began his development as a star, casting him in both their costumed swashbucklers (Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar) and their internationally famous horror movies (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, Paranoiac and The Curse of the Werewolf, which offered the oddly prophetic spectacle of Reed turning into a slavering, out-of-control monster whenever the sun went down).
After that, he found proper fame between the mid-1960s and early 1970s making trendy comedies like The System, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Is Name and Hannibal Brooks for Michael Winner – it’s difficult to believe now, but prior to the bitchy restaurant reviews in the Sunday Times, the car insurance commercials and the Death Wish movies, Winner was regarded as one of Britain’s most promising directors – and making more challenging, sometimes-quite-bonkers fare like Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy for the late, great Ken Russell.
In his prime, Reed was unlike any leading man that the British film industry had seen before (or has seen since, for that matter). He could be charming, he could brood and smoulder, and he could come across as an utter brute: sometimes, all three qualities seemed to exist within his burly frame at the same time. It’s a shame nobody got around to casting him as Heathcliff in a late-1960s version of Wuthering Heights.
In popular terms, his high-water mark was probably Richard Lester’s Musketeers films of the mid-1970s. The most entertaining versions of Alexandre Dumas’ novel ever made, they managed to be funny, knowing and exciting, and were packed with faces that were iconic in the cinema of the time: as well as Reed, they featured Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Michael York, Christopher Lee and Charlton Heston.
Around this time, Reed got the opportunity to make it in Hollywood. He was offered the role of Quint, the Captain-Ahab-like character in Steven Spielberg’s record-breaking blockbuster Jaws, before it was given to Robert Shaw. Financially, the role would probably have set him up for life, but he passed on it. Now I love Shaw’s performance in Jaws, but I consider the possibility of Reed in the role as one of the great might-have-beens of film history. Can you imagine the film 10 minutes before the end, with the shark leaping up on the boat’s deck, grabbing Oliver Reed and dragging him roaring and cursing beneath the waves, while he beats the beast on its nose with a harpoon? (Though knowing Reed, he’d probably have been beating it with an empty beer-keg.)
An incident in Stringfellow’s nightclub, where he vomited over Steve McQueen, no doubt helped to blow his chances in Hollywood too.
By the end of the 1970s, with the British film industry in terminal decline, his career was on the skids. Although he got the occasional good role – usually thanks to directors who, in different ways, were as maverick as he was, like David Cronenberg, Nicholas Roeg and Terry Gilliam – most of his movies were either so bad they were good (Piers Haggard’s Venom) or so bad they were dismal (Winner’s Parting Shots). And from this time onwards, he cultivated a grotesque parallel career rampaging about the television chat-show circuit. He’d turn up on programmes like After Dark, The Word and Aspel and Company, totter around drunkenly, insult feminists and threaten to whip out his penis. With hindsight, it’s debatable how much of this behaviour was genuine inebriation and how much was playacting. By then, he was aware that British TV viewers expected – wanted – him to be a drunken hooligan doing outrageous things in front of the cameras, and he didn’t wish to disappoint his public.
This warped sense of showmanship was one element in the combustible mixture that powered Reed. Other elements included a restlessness that came from having an extremely low boredom threshold, a fondness for pranks and japery – no wonder he got on so well with Keith Moon – and a genuine love of boozing in ordinary pubs with ordinary Joes far removed from the well-heeled and pretentious film-industry thespians whom he despised.
But it wasn’t quite over for Reed’s film career, for in the late 1990s Ridley Scott came calling and gave him an important role in his sword-and-sandals blockbuster Gladiator. When you look beyond Scott’s brilliantly-choreographed battle sequences, and beyond Russell Crowe’s pecs, you realise that Reed’s performance as Proximo, the weary ex-gladiator who become’s Crowe’s reluctant ally in his plot against Roman Emperor Joaquin Phoenix, is one of the best things in the film. Shrewdly, Scott gave him the best lines. (“Die to be remembered as men!”)
It probably would’ve revived Reed’s fortunes as an actor but, alas, he didn’t live to see the end of filming. While on location in Malta, Reed visited a British-style bar in Valletta called The Pub, got into a major drinking-session-cum-armwrestling-tournament with some sailors from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, and suffered a fatal heart attack. At least how he died was consistent with how he’d lived.
Oliver Reed – Wild Thing, written by Mike Davis and Rob Crouch, and with Crouch in the title role, is set in The Pub in Valletta on the last day of Reed’s life. It has the ageing and soon-to-depart hellraiser reminiscing about, and sometimes acting out, the highlights of his life. Thankfully, the highlights covered by the play include those on Reed’s acting CV – Hammer, Winner, Russell, the Musketeers and Gladiator, plus the B-movies and Z-movies that came in the 1980s and 1990s – as well as the incidents of drunken excess.
Rob Crouch does an excellent job capturing the many shades of Ollie – drunkard, charmer, hooligan, barroom philosopher, buffoon, rebel, overgrown schoolboy, prankster, exhibitionist and occasionally something of a bitch (as evidenced by catty remarks about Jack Nicholson’s height and the thickness of Raquel Welch’s ankles). So good is Crouch during the play’s most exuberant moments that you forget it’s him on the stage and not Reed himself. He becomes almost shamanistic in his ability to channel the unruly actor’s spirit.
It is not a play, if you’re of a shy and retiring disposition, to watch whilst sitting in the front row of seats – as I found out. While Crouch / Ollie cavorts above you, you find yourself on the receiving end of a rain of spittle and beer-flecks. And it becomes alarming when he gets onto the topic of the Musketeers films and, with great relish, starts waving a large and realistic-looking sword above the audience’s heads. (During the making of those movies, so enthusiastically did Reed enter into the swordfight sequences that the stuntmen ended up deliberately injuring him, figuring that they’d better put him out-of-action before he killed somebody on the set.) Spectators in the front seats were also hauled onstage to participate in the drama. It wasn’t long before I found myself up there, acting the role of the barman in The Pub, and handing out beers. At least, Crouch / Ollie invited me to have one myself. Having a beer with Oliver Reed in 2012 – not many people can claim they’ve done that.
One last thing – two and a half years ago, my Dad and I were on holiday in Malta and we visited The Pub, scene of Ollie’s last stand and now, inevitably, something of a shrine to him. Here’s a picture of my Dad and Oliver Reed. (Oliver Reed is the one hanging on the wall.)
And here’s a link to a pertinent website: http://www.oliverreed.net/.