John Osborne’s Champagne Fridge

John Osborne and Penelope Gilliatt arrive in New York as divorce writs fly.

When I was a young shaver, circa 1983, I was working on a photo shoot in one of those huge ‘wedding cake’ townhouses that characterise Belgravia. In the mid-1960s this particular house had belonged to John Osborne and his wife Penelope Gilliatt, who subjected it to an elaborate sixties makeover: a fabulous monument to mid-century luxe, the decoration supervised by none other than Hugh Casson. In his appallingly entertaining memoir Almost a Gentleman, Osborne writes waspishly of Penelope’s ‘Swedish experiments’; he was particularly vituperative about the cost of the massive copper doors on the ground floor. But the couple’s high style made an impression: their guests at their house parties included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lord Snowden, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Oliviers, assorted aristocrats and intellectuals, plus all the requisite theatrical personnel. Osborne collaborators, such as Nicol Williamson, remember this period as the apex of the playwright’s life.

Johnny has left the building … 31 Chester Square in March 2020.

Two decades on, the big house in Chester Square was a relic of a lost era. The basement and top floor were let out to tenants, but the main rooms were suspended in time, frozen since the day in June 1966 when Osborne walked out on a distraught Gilliatt, leaving her for the actress Jill Bennett. Gilliatt spent most of the rest of her life in New York, returning to London for only short occasional visits. The suite of rooms – comprising the major portion of the house – that Gilliatt retained formed a backdrop to some strange, speculative photography I was doing for a man who lived in the basement. The ground floor was taken up by a huge dining room: an elaborate exercise in formal décor, it featured not one but two genuine Roman marble statues – grave male nudes whose antiquity offered an ironic counterpoint to the layers of dust smothering the table and place settings. (We used one of these statues as a prop in a photo shoot: we hung an alto saxophone round its neck. I can’t remember why, it certainly wasn’t my idea – but people did some strange things in the eighties.) The main living room was on the first floor, an airy space with exquisite appointments: a Castiglione floor lamp, shag-pile sheepskin rugs, vintage stereo system, harpsichord, etc. There is a photograph of Osborne sitting in this room at the time of his play Luther: the playwright’s success made tangible by his surroundings – although in his memoirs he refers to this room as ‘the airport lounge’.

But by 1983 the room and its furnishings – art books forever un-opened, classical LPs permanently in their sleeves – had the poignant aspect of an abandoned theatrical set. Osborne’s diaries record physical fights as Penelope tried to prevent him from leaving, at one point trying to wrestle his suitcase off him as he was going down the staircase. She later made an abortive suicide attempt in the bathroom. The 1980s tenants told tales of Gilliatt’s erratic behaviour and Osborne’s callous attitude to his ex-wife and their daughter; these stories ratified the sense of loss in that house, a mansion haunted by the not-yet-dead. Osborne’s own bilious drama was playing elsewhere.

The unhappy couple: John Osborne and fourth wife Jill Bennett. God knows what’s going to happen when they get home. Frankie Howerd’s not hanging about.

When Osborne and Jill Bennett set up house together they installed a dedicated champagne fridge in the bedroom of their house in Chelsea. They got through so much ‘shampoo’ that they didn’t have to identify it, and the question was merely ‘Would you like some?’ Jill Bennett became Osborne’s fourth wife (there were five in all) but unfortunately, this marriage turned out to be even more volatile than his one with Penelope Gilliatt, and the two leading lights of the theatre fought like cats in a sack. They achieved a spectacular nadir one Sunday in 1973 when, during a drive to Dulwich to have lunch with friends, they had a vicious row that ended with Osborne deliberately ploughing his Mercedes into the Wandsworth roundabout. Osborne had failed to notice that there was police car behind him; he was breathalysed and lost his license for a year. Bennett suffered a fractured ankle – and lost a part in a West End play she’d been rehearsing.

Even Bette Davis is upstaged: Jill Bennett in ‘The Nanny’, directed by Seth Holt for Hammer in 1965.

Gilliatt died of cirrhosis in 1993, at the age of 61. Osborne died the following year, a victim of diabetes derived from a liver complaint, at 65. Jill Bennett died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1990. In his memoir, published a year after his ex-wife’s suicide, Osborne notoriously attacked Bennett in the most gratuitously offensive terms, e.g.: ‘She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, who she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own.’ Or: ‘Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.’ Champagne anyone?

Good evening Mr. Torrance. What’ll it be?

Jack goes back for another drink in The Gold Room …

Winter, 1978. In a film studio to the north of London, Jack Nicholson sits on a bar stool in a cavernous ballroom as Stanley Kubrick films the first ‘Gold Room’ set-up in The Shining, Kubrick’s adaptation of Steven King’s bestselling novel. In this scene Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance encounters the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly but immaculate bartender Lloyd, played by the immaculate Joe Turkel. They are the only two performers, marooned amidst the empty, glittering vastness of the Gold Room set. Kubrick films take after take after take of Nicholson’s self-pitying drinker’s monologue. In a lull between takes, as the Panavision camera is re-loaded, Nicholson leans across the bar and mutters to Turkel: ‘Right, for this next one I’m going to go waaaaaaaay over the edge; let’s see what he does.’ Nicholson is as good as his word; and cinematic history is made. (Disclaimer: I read this somewhere, the source being Turkel himself. I’m paraphrasing Nicholson’s reported comment as best I can remember.)

As the lockdown gradually lifts and pubs tentatively re-open for business, your correspondent has lurched from joyous anticipation to beady suspicion. God knows it is a relief to see watering holes opening up again, if only for the reassurance that those bars are still in business; but I am hardly the only one suspicious of glad-handing boosterism. You only have to look at Trump’s America to see the car-crash consequences of premature re-opening. But let’s go back to Nicholson, Kubrick and The Shining. In case you think that I am straying from my brief, let me remind you that practically the entire film was shot on huge soundstages at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, a short drive from Kubrick’s palatial Hertfordshire mansion. For our purposes, I’m going to class this as London. And although you hardly need me to tell you how significant the film is in cinematic or pop cultural terms, please bear with me: I want to discuss the film as a drinker.

Stephen King – who famously hated Kubrick’s film of his novel – wrote The Shining as a recovering alcoholic, and made the character of Jack Torrance a struggling writer with a drink problem; thus, the bottles of Jack Daniels that appear by supernatural agency embody Jack Torrance’s hellish temptation. In his conception, the hotel was the ultimate evil and Torrance was a flawed but essentially decent man sucked unwillingly into its maw. Kubrick had a more oblique, sardonic view of the possibilities offered by the novel, and his treatment of Torrance, as embodied by Jack Nicholson at his most unhinged, is far bleaker than King’s original character. No room for redemption here; Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is a man whose soul is dirt cheap. This point is explicitly, even clumsily, made: when Jack says to himself, alone in the echoing emptiness of The Gold Room, that he’d ‘give his goddamn soul just for a glass of beer’, Lloyd the barkeep appears, ready to serve him anything he’d like. And what follows is one of the best drinking scenes in all cinema. Lloyd pours Jack a JD on the rocks – the rocks being only slightly runny from the studio lights – and Jack sips his first glass of whisky in God knows how long. Nicholson might be on his way to self-parodic iconography, but the moment eloquently conveys the narcotic hit of addiction. And Lloyd patiently indulges Jack’s tedious drinker’s conversation with the smiling contempt of any smooth, real-world bartender; those of us who have sat on too many bar stools, spending the facts of our lives ‘like small change on strangers‘, know the type all too well.

Nicholson cedes control and Kubrick puts Shelley Duvall at her unease … filming ‘The Shining’.

The shoot was famously long and fraught, as Kubrick drove principals Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall to physical and nervous exhaustion, a process documented by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian in a very interesting ‘making of’ film. Kubrick’s direction of Nicholson into ham territory seems to have been a conscious choice: a collection of twitchy mannerisms set against the understated chill of Turkel’s bartender or The Shining‘s other catering spectre, waiter Delbert Grady, icily played by Philip Stone. It seems to me that Nicholson was forced over the top in this film and never quite came back: The Shining marks the great divide in his career, between the nuanced actor of Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail, etc., and the leering gargoyle he has been in almost everything since. To that extent, Jack Nicholson is Jack Torrance, unable to leave The Overlook Hotel. And as for poor Shelley Duvall … well, that is a genuine tragedy.

So why am I talking about this now? Well, The Shining came to mind by way of an old drink-driving awareness ad that shamelessly ripped it off, but which could easily be adapted to the age of Covid-19. Social drinking as existential threat. Jack Torrance might have been assailed by murderous phantoms, but at least he didn’t have to worry about a contagious pathogen; in fact, The Overlook strikes me as the perfect place to self-isolate, assuming the bar is well stocked and you don’t mind a vengeful wraith or two. A crowded Soho bar in July 2020 is another matter. I am not alone in my anxiety. I did an informal poll of my friends today: I asked them how they felt about public drinking Covid-stlye and even the toughest livers recoiled at the prospect. It’s not that I’m expecting to walk into, say, the Lamb and Flag to find Joe Turkel behind the bar or Philip Stone loitering in the gents’ (‘I’ve always been here’), but I certainly don’t want to encounter this chancer: that would be worse than meeting Jack Torrance and all The Overlook’s spooks put together. I want my visit to the pub to be a solace, a refuge from the cares of the world, not a game of Russian roulette. I resent the gung-ho appeals to ‘patriotic drinking’ adduced by self-serving politicians: I have my own reasons for drinking and they have nothing to do with saving someone else’s face. For now, I will continue to drink alone, summoning my own ghosts, in my own Overlook Hotel. Cheers.

‘Great party isn’t it?’

Dirk and Dennis at The Salisbury

Dirk Bogarde (as ‘Melville Farr’) in St. Martin’s Court, outside The Salisbury, in ‘Victim’.

Halfway up St. Martin’s Lane is The Salisbury: a crystal and mahogany Victorian confection, a gleaming temple to the conviviality of drinking. The Salisbury was one of Ian Nairn’s favourite pubs and gets lovingly referenced in Nairn’s London: ‘as much sparkle as a brandy and soda’. (Sadly, one imagines that The Salisbury might have glimpsed the great architectural critic’s alcoholic decline, a process managed with a sea of pub Guinness.) It was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced as such in the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – a dated but enjoyable thriller wherein Dirk, coiffed and clenched in Savile Row threads, tackles insolent, Vespa-riding, leather-clad blackmailer Derren Nesbitt. (Whatever happened to him? Did his fleshy lips wither and go out of fashion?)

Victim is a landmark in British cinema, as it was the first film to tackle male homosexuality in a sympathetic manner in a contemporary setting. Attitudes were changing: the previous year, saw the release of not one but two British films about the fall of Oscar Wilde (one starred Robert Morley, but Peter Finch’s Oscar is the clear winner). In Victim, Bogarde’s smooth, successful but uptight barrister stumbles across an extortion racket targeting gay men; in the process he has to face awkward truths about his own closeted sexuality, and the tragic consequences of his rejection of romantic rough trade Peter McEnery. On its own terms it remains very entertaining and was seen as highly daring at a time when homosexual acts between males was against the law, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1967. Bogarde took a big risk with his matinee idol image to make this film. A gay man adored by straight women, Victim suggested that he would be prepared to come out when the time was right; but for some reason he never did.

Dirk assisting some implausibly sympathetic policemen.

Some moments in the film retain real power, especially an excellent scene when Bogarde admits the truth about himself to his wife; but it betrays its age at the end, when it’s clear that Dirk and the lovely Sylvia Sims are going to stick it out together. By this point, Dirk has succeeded in exposing the blackmail ring, which operated out of a bookshop in nearby Cecil Court. (Incidentally, a Cecil Court bookshop is also used for furtive purposes in The Human Factor, wherein a spy uses a book-based system to communicate with his Soviet handler.) It’s hugely enjoyable on many levels: as social history, for its London locations, and – for this viewer – those moments where the film-makers’ good intentions collide with bathetic camp: I particularly like the bluff, burly detective who seems to want to ask Dirk out on a date. But it is sobering to reflect that it was protesting against the same law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison.

Not Oscar Wilde … Dennis Nilsen has his day in court.

The Salisbury also features in a dark episode in the life of gay London: as a cruising spot for the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. An authentic urban bogeyman, Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (notably Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London, like any big city, swallows the vulnerable. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer until Dennis’s neighbours in Muswell Hill called in Dyno-Rod to investigate a blocked drain – and found human remains. He’d been killing pick-ups in his attic flat but had had trouble getting rid of the bodies; so he tried boiling body parts on his stove and flushing the residue down the toilet. The official body count was twelve, all men, mostly runaways and vagrants that he encountered in the West End, four of whom remain unidentified. Nielsen is currency in a good many bar-room stories. Nilsen’s work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – mention helping him move house between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’). A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? The flat finally sold to a foreign couple who moved out when they discovered its history … I have met people who have given me these accounts – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. Nilsen has become as much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that we know that the latter never existed as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: Death as a friendly chap propping the bar, buying a stranger a drink and offering him a bed for the night.

Postscript: I feel obliged to note here that in 1963 a woman who worked in an antique shop at 23 Cecil Court was stabbed in a botched robbery. Her killer was caught after his Identikit profile was circulated, the first time the technique is credited with catching a criminal of any kind.

a further postscript: the estimable Miles Richardson has pointed out (see his comment below) that the pub was a favourite with Sir John Gielgud, who might well have availed himself of all its facilities. (In Victim one of the blackmailed is a noted theatrical star, played by Dennis Price.) Here is a nice photo, taken by the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman, of Gielgud in the Salisbury; he is talking, I think, to Kenneth Tynan. Also in the comments, Dale Rapley’s poignant anecdote about working with Dirk Bogarde in the twilight of Dirk’s career is worth a moment of anyone’s time.