‘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.
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 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.