Artistic Off-Licence

The Drinker’s role-model … James Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Your correspondent is off his feet at present, following a long-delayed surgical procedure – a ‘tendoachilles reconstruction’ on my right foot – carried out at Guy’s Hospital last week. The operation seems to have gone well but I was more than a touch over-ambitious in estimating my post-operative capabilities; and as my flat is on the 6th floor, I have forsaken Drinker’s Towers in The Deep South (SE19) and fallen upon the kindness of family in Metro-Land. As they say on literary blurbs, ‘He divides his time …’ between a sofa in the front room and a sofa in the back room. In some respects, this is a lockdown within a lockdown: but unlike earlier experiments in socially-distant living, back in March, when staying in and getting drunk whilst watching daytime TV could be categorised as a patriotic duty, I am currently on strong painkillers and blood thinners and am obliged to be teetotal for the next few weeks. This is beyond daunting. Already, the novelty of watching contemporary television is wearing thin and even the comfort of a 1975 episode of The Sweeney is not the same without a large Malbec at hand. With plenty of time to ponder the texture of my life, the question that has been troubling me is this: how many of my aesthetic pleasures are contingent upon booze? To what extent is my inner landscape littered with empty bottles? Is my cultural engagement merely a pretext for a few glasses of whatever they’ve got behind the bar?

Music. I’m safe with this one. I’ll admit that I find drink to be an effective enhancer when listening at home – a light dessert wine with Haydn, a fine Armagnac with Debussy, blood-temperature Tennants with The Cramps, etc. – but I am a model of sobriety when I go to hear live music. (That said, I once woke up to find myself drooling on a stranger’s shoulder during a programme of late Brahms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Never attempt high culture after a heavy meal.) The exception is live opera. You’re OK with Mozart, Puccini and one or two others, but Richard Strauss or Harrison Birtwistle should only be attempted after a few fistfuls of gin. (A similar rule applies to ballet.)

Literature. Reading a novel whilst drunk might lend an ethereal shimmer to otherwise undistinguished prose but booze tends to obliterate plot, so this is not recommended unless you are a professional book reviewer. However, the average literary event is vastly improved by judicious pre-loading, which also helps smooth out the more obvious signs of freeloading at the drinks table. A few glasses of ‘concrete floor’* catering wine and you’re ready to impress the literati with your observations on, say, the thematic importance of alcohol in the short stories of John Cheever, erudition that should marginalise any infelicities, such as dropping your devilled egg in Margaret Drabble’s hair. (Remember that the more toney the publisher, the greater the potential for social or career suicide.) Poetry nights can be particularly desperate affairs, real life-or-death stuff, especially if the poems in question have been translated from an obscure sub-Saharan dialect, or are in Welsh. Poets get gnarly very quickly and Pinot Grigio-scented tears are never far away. I remember a strange, lurching evening at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, wherein the tremulous urgency of the poet declaiming from the tiny stage was undermined by a drunken row in the audience (‘Your problem is you’re too fucking highbrow!’), accompanied by an obbligato of slamming toilet doors, clacking high heels, clinking bottles and tinkling tins.

(* A term coined, if I’m not mistaken, by Charles Jennings, late of Sediment.)

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. See it at The National Gallery, then nip to the Lamb and Flag for a quick one.

Visual Arts. Like many non-believers, I consider a trip to a great gallery to be a substitute for religious observation. Perhaps that is why I find private views in such surroundings to be rather jarring: it is hard to muster high spirits in front of Titian or Mantegna or Holbein, the old masters make you keenly aware of your own inadequacy. And, should you decide to go for it, all that free Dom Perignon will have you playing ‘Twister’ behind the Elgin Marbles and feeling utterly ashamed the next day. My own experience of art world ligging has generally been on a less elevated plane, usually involving repurposed industrial units in east London, events where art and venue are as grubby as they are evanescent, and the exhibiting artists the drunkest people in the room. In these cases, in spite of strenuous and explicit claims for the Work, what passes for art is a perfunctory excuse for a piss-up. Careful you don’t trip over the Turner-nominated Maker passed out in the corridor, overcome by an excess of sponsor’s lager and a naval-strength dose of Impostor Syndrome.

Theatre. It should go without saying that it is heresy to see a play without having a drink in the interval. It is impossible to really enjoy the first act of anything without the promise of a pre-booked gin and tonic served in a wonky plastic vessel, a ritual that – as all crafty playwrights know – functions as a structural element in the drama itself. In some cases, it is advisable to take your own flask into the auditorium, especially if you are seeing the Oresteia or are accompanying a relative keen to sing along to Mamma Mia!. But you need to get the proportions right or you risk involuntary audience participation. My sister was performing in a play at the National Theatre when the action was interrupted by a death rattle coming from the stalls, prompting an alarmed theatre-goer to raise the alarm thus: ‘For pity’s sake stop acting! Can’t you hear someone’s in trouble?!’ It transpired that the distressed punter had merely fallen asleep, and awoke to find the entire Lyttleton auditorium staring at him.

Cinema. A visit to the flicks is usually pretty sober for me, but a trip to see Tenet – just about the only film showing in cinemas last summer – made me wish that I had brought my own stash of brandy with me. The film was utter tosh but the seats were so comfy and it was a relief to be out of the flat.

Cut to the present. This exercise feels depressingly redundant, an old fart remembering the glories of a lost age. I am currently under a duvet on a sofa, where I have laid for the past fifteen hours. I had a bit of an accident in the night but it’s all mopped up now. On television, the commercials are all of the Covid Christmas variety, explicitly equating consumerism with national heroism, with a side order of nervous, pre-Brexit flag-waving (‘Made with British potatoes’ etc.) On the bright side, I’ve just taken some more painkillers, I have a cup of tea, an M&S fruit and fibre bar, and Cash In The Attic is on soon. I’ve never felt so alive.

Coronavirus St. Patrick’s Day Special: TV Drunks


Kate Millett and Oliver Reed on Channel 4’s ‘After Dark’, 1989.

‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.’ John Updike, Self-Consciousness, 1989.

‘Give us a kiss big tits!’ Oliver Reed to Kate Millett, After Dark, Channel 4 TV, 1991.

We live in very strange times; today is Saint Patrick’s Day but how to celebrate it? With the world stuck indoors, bored and fretful, nervously checking the news and avoiding contact with everyone except the person delivering the online grocery order, it seems fatuous to even mention it. However, given that we are denied access to drunks in person, perhaps it is fitting to celebrate rampaging drunkenness as seen on TV. And when it comes to televised bibulousness, the great Irish playwright Brendan Behan was the Edmund Hillary of the form: he achieved the remarkable feat of being the first man seen drunk on British television, during a live interview on BBC’s Panorama in 1956. Behan’s play The Quare Fellow was running in London at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East; it was a hit, and was shortly to transfer to the West End.

Behan was booked to appear on Panorama to discuss his play with that well-known occupier of the moral high ground, Malcolm Muggeridge. (Muggeridge was for decades an inescapable figure in British cultural life. He is best-remembered now for his conspicuous hostility to Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.) On the afternoon of the programme, Muggeridge met Behan at the Garrick Club to discuss the broadcast. At the Garrick, Behan drank Scotch as the club’s bar didn’t serve beer, and refused his wife’s entreaties to eat anything, so by the time he arrived at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush he was already pretty spiffed. But the run-through was a success, and the producers were confident that it would be a memorable TV encounter. This turned out to be the case, but for reasons other than foreseen: between the rehearsal and the live broadcast, Brendan drank whisky in the hospitality suite and became increasingly leery to the other guests, which included a War Office delegation and a group of debutantes who fled the green room after Behan’s remarks got too personal.

Brendan Behan.

By the time Panorama was due to air, Behan was almost incapable; but, despite mounting panic from BBC executives, Muggeridge insisted that the interview should go ahead. And thus it was that Brendan Behan, shoeless, his shirt awry, and comprehensively shitfaced, slurred his way through a live TV interview – culminating in an off-key rendition of The Old Triangle, the song from his show – and became an immediate celebrity. The template was set for all the others and the die was cast for Brendan Behan, whose fame as a loquacious drunk soon outstripped his reputation as a trenchant playwright. (Behan’s Panorama interview is lost, but Peter Sellers’ take on it is highly enjoyable.)

But the undisputed champion of televised inebriation was, of course, the late Oliver Reed, whose chaotic appearances on chat shows in the 1980s and 90s were a matter of appalled fascination for British viewers. His simian performance of The Wild One on Aspel and Company in 1987 might be regarded as a ironic deconstruction of his own persona – were it not for the information that, like Brendan Behan, he had loaded up before arriving at the studio, and then continued to load up until the moment the red light went on. Is irony available to a very drunk man when he is being watched by a TV audience of eight million people?

Reed managed to top even that garish display with an unforgettable turn on a serious-minded discussion programme called After Dark in 1991. Over the course of its run, this Channel 4 series managed to assemble an impressive array of guests to discuss the most pressing issues of the day – but some mischievous researcher suggested that Oliver Reed would be an entirely suitable guest for an edition ominously entitled ‘Do Men Have To Be Violent?’ After Dark was unique because it was open-ended; broadcast live, it stayed on air until the host decided that the assembled personnel had exhausted the subject under discussion. Another of its conceits was that the set was a sort of on-air green room: guests could smoke and help themselves to a well-stocked drinks trolley.

Reed’s appearance on the programme ensured an excruciating white-knuckle ride: the other, more legitimate, guests attempted to follow their trains of thought whilst Ollie made unintelligible interjections, wandered about, distributed drinks, disappeared behind a sofa, then abruptly reappeared to force a kiss upon noted feminist Kate Millett. This was the point at which the moderator, (Dame) Helena Kennedy QC, feebly attempted to bring Reed to heel with the words: ‘Now Oliver … stop it.’ After muted protests from the other guests, Reed quietly departed with the self-pitying pathos of the misunderstood drunk.

(This horribly riveting edition of After Dark was briefly taken off air when Channel 4 received a hoax call purporting to be from chief executive Michael Grade. Sadly, I went to bed at this point; a pity, as it was back after just 20 minutes.)

What is undeniable about these drunken TV events is the extent of their reach: Panorama made Behan immediately famous and Reed’s chaotic turns will not be forgotten by anyone who watched them as they went out. Nearer our own time, Tracy Emin’s lurching appearance on a post-Turner Prize TV arts show accelerated her career and ensured her place in tabloid culture, an interesting achievement considering that she was not the recipient of the prize itself.

Inevitably, there is a price to pay for being a professional drunk. Drink transformed Behan into a self-parodic bore, destroyed a burgeoning talent and eventually destroyed him: dead of liver failure at 41. Reed eventually managed to moderate his drinking and was on the verge of a major comeback with Gladiator – but on a free day on location in Malta, he was recognised by British sailors in a pub and felt obliged to give them his macho Ollie routine. Witnesses claim he drank eight pints of lager, twelve shots of rum, half a bottle of whisky and some cognac. He promptly had a heart attack and died in the ambulance on the way to hospital, aged 61.


The Drinker.