Peter Cook and Private Eye drink Robert Maxwell’s Champagne


‘Mrs Maxwell and all our children were utterly shocked to have me, their father, compared to a convicted major gangster.’ Robert Maxwell giving evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in 1986 during his libel action against Private Eye.

(Private Eye had, amongst other things, printed a photographic ‘lookalike’, comparing Maxwell’s photo with one of Ronnie Kray.)

On the south western corner of Holborn Circus is a vast 21st century office block that is the corporate HQ of Sainsbury’s. This site was once occupied by a 1950s block that was the home of Mirror Group newspapers. In the 1980s Mirror Group was bought by the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. A preposterous but menacing figure, a natural and inveterate bully, Maxwell blustered his way through the British media scene from the 1950s through to his mysterious death in 1991.

There are a great many Maxwell stories and more than a few are apocryphal; but all are informed by his authentically monstrous personality. Maxwell inspired real fear and real loathing. The top of the Mirror building served as a parking spot for Maxwell’s personal helicopter and witnesses testified that he liked to urinate off the roof, joking that people in the street below didn’t know he was pissing on them. But it was also said that, after one particularly hairy landing in a sudden squall, his pilot discovered a brick in the heli-pad’s wind sock. He was not a popular man.

Maxwell atop the Mirror Building.

I have heard Maxwell stories from people who experienced his temper at first hand but my favourite story involves his feud with Private Eye. Maxwell had long been a target of the ‘Eye but when he sued the magazine for libel in 1986 he was awarded damages of about a third of a million quid, a sum that nearly sank the magazine. This was over an article suggesting that Maxwell was funding the Labour party in the hope of getting a state honour (‘cash for peerages’ as the phrase went). Following his victory, Maxwell – in what we might now characterize as a Trump-ish gesture – decreed that the Daily Mirror produce a one-off publication called Not Private Eye. Meanwhile, the Eye’s staff mused that if they could only get hold of the dummy magazine they could persuade W.H. Smith’s to reverse their decision to stock it – but how to get it? The Eye’s owner, the great Peter Cook, had an idea … Here’s Ian Hislop, quoted by Peter Cook’s biographer:

‘So Cookie said, ‘Let’s send a crate of whisky over to the people who are putting it together, because they won’t want to do it, they’ll have been ordered to do this.’ So we sent this crate of whisky over. About two hours later, Cookie said ‘Let’s phone them up and see what’s happened.’ We phoned up and the four people doing it were completely legless. So Cookie said ‘Sounds like really good fun there, we’re coming over.’ And they were all so drunk they said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ So we all got into a taxi and went to the Mirror building; and it was the first time I realised that if you’re famous you can do anything, because security stopped us and said, ‘Have you got passes?’ and we had to say ‘No’ and then Cookie appeared and said ‘We’re just going upstairs lads, is that all right?’ And they said ‘Oh, it’s Peter Cook’ and let us in. So we went up to Maxwell’s suite, where they were all lying across the floor, and stole the dummy.’

Peter Cook outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand.

‘The others were keen to head for the exit, but Peter had only just begun. He sat at Maxwell’s desk, rang the Mirror’s catering department and ordered champagne. Then he telephoned the picture desk and ordered them to come up and take a picture of the Eye staff relaxing in Maxwell’s suite. He graffiti’d the walls and windows with crayons, writing ‘Hello Captain Bob’ everywhere. Then he telephoned Maxwell’s mistress in New York, and got Maxwell on the phone to explain what he’d done. Maxwell went ballistic and telephoned Mirror security at once. Before long a party of security men burst into Maxwell’s suite; such was Peter’s charisma, however, that before long they too had joined the party.’ (Taken from Peter Cook: a Biography by Harry Thompson, Hodder, 1997.)

The mission was a success: on seeing the dummy copy W.H. Smith were persuaded not to stock Maxwell’s lumbering ‘Eye parody.

The Mirror announces Maxwell’s death, before their journalists realised that he’d stolen their pensions.

In December 1991 Maxwell died at sea, falling off his yacht in open water near the Canary Islands. After his death he was found to have embezzled the Mirror’s pension fund to the tune of about £460,000,000. One theory has it that Maxwell jumped off his yacht as he knew the game was up; another theory is that he was murdered by Israeli intelligence agents. Others who knew Maxwell say that the man would never have done himself in; and falling off the boat whilst peeing into the sea was as plausible as it was fitting.

(As it happens, my then-wife was working for a Maxwell company at the time of his death. As the chaos of Maxwell’s finances was revealed – it wasn’t just the Mirror that was affected – employees saw their end of year wage packets disappear from their bank accounts, and desperate office managers wrote personal cheques to pay for staff Christmas parties. My ex attended a grim lunch + discotheque, curtains drawn so staff could get shitfaced, dance, do karaoke – ‘I believe that children are the futuuure’ – and try to forget their missed mortgage payments. Ah, the memories …)

1991 Christmas edition.

The Drinker.

Dry Quarantini

Samuel Pepys’s diary, 7th June 1665: ‘The hottest day that ever I felt in my life, This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us,” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw’.

This is a very odd time to be starting a project about Londoners’ relationship to drinking. When I put up my first post, all of three weeks ago, I was hoping that this site might encourage people to go out and visit London’s bars in a spirit of bibulous curiosity; I think I can be forgiven for being wrongfooted by a sudden attack of ‘events’. At a stroke, the notion of going into a bar to meet a friend for a drink has become impossibly exotic, a lost custom of a lush epoch. However, our current predicament is an obvious opportunity to take a look at the most celebrated pandemic to have hit this or any other city. Pepys is our man on the ground here, and his account of seeing quarantined plague houses in Drury Lane is significant; Drury Lane is, of course, in the parish of St Giles, and this doomed locality was ground zero for the epidemic. Plague had been quietly festering here since early in the year, and a parish official later admitted to Pepys that he was only recording a portion of plague fatalities as having actually died from the illness. With brutal directness, the authorities tried to stop the spread by locking up infected houses and imprisoning anyone left inside for forty days, marking the doomed premises with a red cross on the door. In April the first house was shut up but neighbours took pity on the inmates, overpowered the guards and released the afflicted into the streets.

Other parishes viewed St Giles with horror and more strenuous attempts at quarantine were made, but it was too late. The disease crept into Holborn, down Chancery Lane to the Strand, and eventually into the City itself. The churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields contained so many hastily-interred corpses that the church’s foundations were undermined, leading to its demolition and re-building in the 18th century. (This seems entirely appropriate for St Giles, one of those London spots that seems permanently blighted. After all, the phrase ‘one for the road’ is a local coinage, deriving from the custom of condemned convicts receiving a last drink outside the church, half-way point on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn.)

That could have been handled better … London in 1665.

On 13th of July Pepys writes: ‘Above 700 died of the plague this week’. A week later Pepys was in Deptford, seeing off friends who were leaving the city for the country, and one them gave him a bottle of ‘plague water’ as a prophylactic against the disease. Plague water was an interesting concoction, produced by macerating handfuls of leaves and roots in white wine and brandy. (An adventurous distillery in Minnesota has recently launched its own version of the beverage, using a 17th century recipe sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The London Distiller’ of 1667.) I suppose that any alcohol would have better than drinking straight London water, which remained a hazard to life well into the 19th century.

The plague peaked in September, after which a cold autumn shrivelled the contagion. The king finally returned to London on 1st February 1666. All told, somewhere between 68,000 and 100,000 Londoners had died: roughly a quarter of the capital’s population. If I was writing this in more normal times I would now be suggesting that curious topers should investigate the pubs of St. Giles. There’s The White Hart, a neat Edwardian pub occupying a spot that has been associated with drinking for 700 years; or The Angel, a pub next to St.Giles-in-the-Fields, and which is associated with the ‘one for the road’ custom. Both are welcoming and interesting and God knows when you or I will be able to drink in them again. However, it is worth mentioning that the period after the Great Plague saw a boom in the growth of taverns and hostelries, so perhaps there is hope for a 21st century revival for London’s pubs; they have, as we all know, been closing at a distressing rate over the past few years.

Modern St Giles seen from the saloon of The Angel

As of today, Tuesday 24 March 2020, all of Britain has, along with most of the western world, been placed under lockdown. Hard to know what’s going to happen next but, if supermarkets are any guide, many familiar brands of alcohol will be in short supply. But consider this: if Prohibition gave us the Gin Rickey, the Southside, and other sticky concoctions designed to mask the taste of raw ethanol, then maybe our own grim times will find expression in a new generation of ‘artisan’ cocktails. For example, the ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set), mixed and chilled as appropriate, and gently imbibed in front of re-runs of Porridge, Poirot, Bargain Hunt, etc. Happy Hour can be whenever you like: I’m synchronising mine with Star Trek – The Original Series, but I wouldn’t judge if you opted for the breakfast showing of Minder.

The Drinker.

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.