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.

Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms

Graham does it gently.

‘Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office. If he had been asked why he lunched here he would have referred to the excellent quality of the sausages; he might have preferred a different bitter from Watneys, but the quality of the sausages outweighed that. He was always prepared to account for his actions, even the most innocent, and he was always strictly on time’.

The first paragraph of The Human Factor by Graham Greene, 1978. (Greene had a thing for sausages. In the mid-1960s he nearly went bankrupt after he was defrauded in a bogus sausage factory scam fronted by Hollywood villain George Sanders.)

Number 14 Ryder Street, off St. James’s St., was where the Secret Intelligence Service’s Section V (prototype for MI6) was based during the later stages of the 2nd World War. Another wartime SIS location was a flat at no. 5 St. James’s St., which was used to brief agents due to be sent into occupied countries. Graham Greene, who worked for SIS during the war, used a description of the flat for The Human Factor, his novel about a Soviet spy in British Intelligence. Greene’s wartime boss was none other than Kim Philby, the most damaging Soviet spy in the history of the Cold War.

Philby and Greene became good friends and they took their lunches together in The King’s Arms, located – as per the description in The Human Factor – ‘behind St. James’s Street.’ (The King’s Arms is no longer in business, and Greene left no description of it beyond the one given in the above extract. Anyone seeking a simulacrum is advised to try The Red Lion in Crown Passage, an old and atmospheric little pub which retains a pre-war flavour: a Greene-ish combo of cosy and seedy. It’s easy to imagine sausages and secrets being bandied about in there.)

Greene and his whiskies in his rooms at the Albany.

When Philby’s fellow spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean defected in 1951, suspicion fell upon Philby. Summoned to a series of meetings at MI5’s HQ in Curzon St., Philby was subject to increasingly sharp interrogations. But Philby refused to confess and his friends in MI6 stood by their man, even though MI5 remained suspicious. Philby resigned instead. The frustration of unimpressed MI5 investigators may be judged by the fact that they kept Philby under surveillance after his resignation from MI6. It is worth noting that MI6 was made up of well-connected, ‘clubbable’ old boys and toffs; whereas the ranks of MI5 were largely drawn from the armed forces and the police.

Philby’s victory lap: the ‘exonerated’ spy lies through his teeth to the press.

In 1955, Philby was named in the House of Commons as a possible traitor once rumours of a ‘third man’ began to circulate: but he faced down these accusations with extraordinary chutzpah, calling a press conference in his mother’s South Kensington flat after his ‘exoneration’ by an internal MI6 inquiry, and received an apology from the Labour MP who had made the allegations. Amazingly, he was later re-recruited into MI6 and worked as a journalist, agent and double agent in Beirut until 1963, when MI6 finally realised his treachery, courtesy of a Soviet defector. Philby fled before he could be arrested; although some believe he was allowed to run, as a public trial of a traitor who’d spent years at the heart of the British establishment would have been even more embarrassing than having one turn up in Moscow. It was eventually revealed that there were actually five Soviet spies at the heart of British intelligence: Anthony Blunt was outed in 1979 and John Cairncross in 1990. Neither was prosecuted.

It’s fascinating to consider what Greene and Philby talked about during their lunches in The King’s Arms. The bond between them seemed strong, forged over a mutual love of booze and a natural flair for subordination, albeit one that ran a lot deeper on Philby’s part. Greene even contributed a foreword to Philby’s memoir, written in Moscow, My Secret War. In his biography of Greene, Norman Sherry was sharp with his subject on this point: Greene had a horror of personal betrayal and Philby betrayed everyone, so why make a moral exception in his case? But after Greene’s death Sherry received a letter disclosing that Greene was feeding information about his later correspondence with Philby back to MI6, suggesting that Greene might have remained a British agent well into his seventies – and that his public indulgence of Philby was an elaborate front.

Paperback edition of ‘The Human Factor’ with very silly cover photo.

The Human Factor is an interesting foray into Le Carre territory, although its depiction of late 1970s English life seems anachronistic. It was made into a dull film by Greene’s friend Otto Preminger. They ran out of money during shooting and Preminger had to sell a Matisse and a spare house to finish it. The film is notable for Nicol Williamson’s performance as Greene’s conflicted spy, but its cramped budget makes it looks a bit like late 1970s TV: a dud episode of The Sweeney, perhaps, one without any car chases. It is also hampered by a wooden performance by supermodel Iman as Williamson’s screen wife. (An amazing piece of trivia about this film is that Preminger reportedly considered author, Tory peer and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer for the lead – but this was dropped when they realised that Archer was about a foot shorter than Iman.)

Nicol Williamson and Iman in ‘The Human Factor’.

Philby, like Guy Burgess, was an old Etonian; and, whilst they might have been traitors for Stalin, they never abandoned the privileges of their own class. That nameless, numberless people might be tortured and killed as a result of their actions was to them an abstraction; the same mechanism that allowed 18th century old boys to squander colossal fortunes in the gaming rooms of White’s, Brooks’s, et al. It is a very specific kind of entitlement; one only has to look at the Britain of our own time to see that high-stakes gambling regardless of consequences is still pursued with zeal by old Etonians at the highest levels of government. Europe was lost in the debating chambers of Eton.

Philby in Moscow, 1980s.