What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

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What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of film star Oliver Reed, remembered for his off-screen antics as much as his acting, written with the aid of interviews with family, friends and peers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 500 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 9781472101129

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For rather more of his career than he, his family and closest friends might have liked, the name Oliver Reed was a byword for booze, brawls and all types of laddish behaviour. As Sellers’ very full and remarkably objective biography reveals, it was a funny yet sad life all at once. For although he repeatedly played up to the image of the lovable rogue which he had created, underneath the bad boy of popular legend he was at heart a professional actor who could always deliver a first-rate performance on the film set when required.

Born in 1938, he was the grandson of the Victorian actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and he was also allegedly a descendant, through an illegitimate line, of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia. It was a connection, albeit disputed, of which he was very proud, and seemed determined to live up to. He had a difficult childhood, born to parents who separated not long after he was born, dyslexic in an age when the condition was not properly recognised and sufferers were written off as 'thick', a secretive, insecure and solitary youngster embarrassed about his poor education, yet good at athletics and on occasion something of an exhibitionist. After a brief stint in the army during the last days of national service, he embarked on his vocation as an extra in two early Norman Wisdom comedies and then graduated to more important roles. It was his good fortune to be recognised by up and coming directors and producers such as Ken Russell and Michael Winner, with whom he struck up a good working relationship and became one of the leading movie stars of the era.

As a personality, Ollie as everyone called him was a strange combination of opposites. He was not working-class but a bit of a rebel against his rather posh background, he was never a 'luvvie', but preferred hanging out with film crews and ordinary people rather than glamorous society figures and businessmen, he always sided with the underdog yet at the same time was a staunch patriot and pro-monarchist, and he could be very courteous to some, downright offensive to others simply because he loved to shock. Although he generally kept his political views to himself he never got on with the likes of Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave, arguing angrily with the latter when she supported an all-out strike in the acting profession against anti-trade union legislation during the Heath administration, telling her to stop involving politics in their profession.

No biography of Ollie can avoid the subject of liquid refreshment. Though professionals may dispute the matter, his family, who helped a good deal with this biography, are adamant that he was not an alcoholic. He would binge-drink for several days at a time, then check himself into the clinic metaphorically speaking and lay off the hard stuff for a while, feasting on ice cream, chocolate and bottles of Lucozade. When filming he would deliver the goods on camera, although he might go off and unwind rather more well than wisely afterwards. It was unfortunate, and bearing in mind inevitable as his exploits made good copy for the tabloid press, that he soon gained notoriety for drunkenness, dangling people from balconies, getting involved in knife fights, swinging from chandeliers and occasionally wrecking pubs once or twice too often. His unpredictable behaviour tended to scare off employers and TV chat show hosts alike. Some of the anecdotes in this book are very funny and not always repeatable (just don’t ask where he had one of his tattoos, although he was not always shy about revealing it to the more prudish), but he could be his own worst enemy.

After a career which included films such as the comedy 'Jokers Wild', co-starring Michael Crawford, big screen versions of the musical 'Oliver' and The Who's rock opera 'Tommy', and Ken Russell's controversial adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love', and a few mediocre pictures followed by a return to form with 'Castaway', Sellers tells us, he seemed to be deliberately throwing it all away. Was it vanity, mischievousness, the bottle, or sheer bloody-mindedness? We can only speculate, but by the late 1980s he was clearly on a slippery slope downwards. Perhaps it was partly a matter of having been there and done it all, and feeling happier playing the part of the country squire on and around his estate at Churchtown, Ireland. He was very popular there in the local community, and there is a particularly touching tale about his fronting a successful fund-raising campaign for a small girl who lived locally and had been born with no arms or legs. Some years later when she was in her teens, although he did not live to see it, she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Ollie did not fade away like the proverbial old soldier. In 1999 he was full of optimism for the future, as he went to make another picture, 'Gladiator' on Malta, with an offer of a major TV role after that. To describe the final scene in this review would probably be the equivalent of revealing the name of the murderer in a crime story, but suffice to say that the suddenness of it all was surely the way he would have wanted it.

I found this book unexpectedly moving, as well as one of the most compelling volumes it has been my pleasure to pick up for some time. As a person Ollie must have been maddeningly unpredictable, and tremendously good company at times, someone to avoid like the plague at others. But he was certainly a larger-than-life character, and no doubt sorely missed by those closest to him on a personal and professional level. A 16-page section of plates and a comprehensive filmography are included. Even the casual reader of biography will find this book a compelling read.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy:

In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it has Shaped Us by Francine Stock

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Buy What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies of 2013.

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