LIFE AS the son of a hellraiser
Oliver Reed was much more than just an international wildman – to his son Mark, he was first and foremost a dad. He tells Barry Egan about his unconventional upbringing and the lessons he learned from his legendary father
SPIKE MILLIGAN used to joke: "My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic." Mark Reed's father was at times a complex lunatic – albeit a much-loved one. Judging by the man I met for lunch in Jurys, 52-year-old Mark has turned out well. He is polite and gentle and, in that respect, actually a lot like his infamous father, Oliver Reed.
I know this because I met Oliver for lunch in the Clarence Hotel in Dublin in 1996. He told me that his grandmother, Beatrice Reed, was "the only one who understood me, listened to me, encouraged me and kissed me''. The night his beloved Beatrice died she said her last words to him: "I'm quite tall, Oliver. I hope they make the coffin long enough.'' Oliver told me that when the coffin was taken out of the house, he hid in the rhododendrons at the bottom of the garden, "crying, crying, crying".
During our lunch back in the 90s, Oliver Reed cried and cried like a young child. There was a certain amount of drink involved – it was more liquid lunch than actual lunch – but he was a deeply sensitive, even shy, man with a lot going on beneath the surface. The tears started in earnest when the subject of his mother Marcia came up. He remembered, as a very young child in the 40s, serving cocktails to his mother's uniformed lovers. His father Peter had registered as a conscientious objector in April 1939 and Marcia and her young son "to escape the Blitz", and the husband she no longer loved, went to an aunt's house in Berkshire. "She fell in love with an RAF officer." They "moved into her lover's cottage in Bledlow, Buckinghamshire".
Oliver, tears rolling down his cheeks, told me that his world consisted of seeing RAF officers stagger in from the pub late at night with his mother "and spending the night singing. Sometimes I would be allowed to stay up late, playing barman".
"When I first realised what was happening in society, everyone was away at war, they were all dying. Not coming back. The laughter in the room just got smaller and smaller. The cocktails got bigger and bigger ... they made me cocktail barman because I was four and didn't know what I was doing. So in the end, there was just an empty room with a mother sobbing in the corner and a lot of empty bottles in the bottom of the cocktail cabinet.''
I remember asking him what sort of impact this had on his later life. "It painted a pretty heavy brushstroke on my life because I saw the laughter disappear.''
Some of us will remember the laughter disappearing from the set of Channel 4's After Dark arty discussion show in 1991 when Reed roared in the direction of American feminist Kate Millett and assorted academics: "Where's the bull dyke?" Not long after, he was referring to her routinely as "big tits" and then this piece de resistance: "I'll put my plonker on the table if you don't give me my mushy peas."
There was so much macho mythology about Oliver Reed, yet much of it was him indulging in a bit of mischievous myth-making. During a packed press conference in 1972, an elderly female journalist in a fine hat unwisely wondered how he compared to Burt Reynolds – who had recently been a nude centrefold in Playgirl magazine – in the trouser-snake department.
Reed said he had declined a similar offer because "my snake was too big to fit on the page'.'
"Prove it,'' the lady journo said. Without blinking, Reed dropped his trousers and immediately exposed the top of the aforesaid trouser snake.
"Why have you stopped?'' wondered the behatted Miss Middle England.
"Madam,'' retorted Oliver, "If I'd pulled it out in its entirety, I'd have knocked your hat off.''
Mark Reed remembers his father as much much more than the Byronic roustabout of international reputation. "My dad wasn't the hellraiser at home. And he wasn't that much of a hellraiser when it comes to it. The press loved it. Anything that he did they would be up for it. He liked to be in his garden."
Mark's upbringing, he says, wasn't conventional. He was born in Wimbledon in 1961. (He still lives there with his wife of two years, Louise. He has a 33-year-old son, Ryan, from a previous relationship and is a grandfather. Mark also has a younger sister, Sarah, from Reed's relationship with a ballet dancer, Jacquie Daryl.) His parents – his mother was former Irish model Kate Byrne – divorced after 10 years in 1970.
Following the split, he went to boarding school when he was 12 and saw his father during holidays. And he used to go to locations a lot to see his dad when he was working. On one such occasion in 1975, he flew on a private jet to Mexico where his dad was filming with Lee Marvin. When he arrived he was given tequila after tequila by his father. "At three in the morning," Mark remembers, "I didn't feel good at all. Oliver had left his lizard-skin cowboy boots by the bed. I got sick into them. Lee Marvin said to him: 'Ollie, you need to leave your boots standing up in the west.'"
Despite all the madcap antics and stories of abandon and mayhem, Oliver Reed was, first and foremost, Mark's father. How does he look back on him? After a pause, he says with "fondness, sadness, sadness that he was 61 when he died and it would have been great to see him today as a 75-year-old. I'm sure he would have been a cantankerous old bastard by now. But he always dreamt of getting old. Underneath it all, there was this very mannered, intelligent shy individual. The other side of the coin was this – as people sadly remember him – hellraiser. But, looking back on him, I remember him for his work as well as the antics. The antics weren't all the time. That was a percentage of it, but it was reportable. But I think that time allows you to see things in a little more context than just a death," he says wistfully.
He says that there were some good films in there: Women In Love (1966), Oliver (1968), The Devils (1971), The Three Musketeers (1973). "It went into the wilderness a bit in the Eighties. I thought Castaway was a decent film," he refers to Reed's paradise-lost movie with Amanda Donohoe in 1986, "and then of course Gladiator. If you are going to go out, that is not a bad swan song."
Reed died while filming the Ridley Scott epic. "It is sad," continues his son, "because Gladiator showed that he could still do it. There was still a twinkle and a magic there and it would have been interesting to see what came after that. We didn't get to see it. So when I look back I don't see the hellraiser because to me he was my dad and I loved him. There were a lot of times when we would just be sitting talking in the garden."
Asked what was Oliver like as a father, Mark is honest enough to say: "He wasn't the best father."
Did he ever say to you, 'I'm sorry I wasn't always there for you'?
"No. He would never have said that. In many ways he was good for giving signposts. When I was young, elocution and manners were important to him, knowing how to pour a glass of wine was important to him; the rules and the etiquettes were important to him. But it was a fragmented upbringing. He spent a lot of time away. My parents divorced when I was about nine."
In terms of how that affected him, he says as a kid "you just sort of get on with things".
"I thought that everyone's dad was on telly when I was a kid. Then, when you get to an age you realise it wasn't that way, you get used to it. I have an indication now of his magnitude and how he touched people."
His mother and father met on a Cadbury's Milk Tray ad in the late Fifties in London. "She was from Dublin. She went over to England when she was about 10 with the rest of her family. Tough times over here," he says meaning Dublin, "and trying to find work."
I ask him did his mother ever warn him he'd end up like his father if he started drinking and carrying on? "I never needed the bollockings to keep me on the straight and narrow. But he was difficult to manage. I had quite a few conversations with my mother over the years about my dad. He was troubled in many ways."
Oliver was certainly troubled by the thought that Mark – who now works in marketing and advertising as well as teaching scuba-diving – would follow him into acting.
"When I was young I thought about doing it and his grandfather, my great grandfather, founded RADA. My dad said not to go there because 'You will be taught by failed actors how to act'."
Oliver did relate this story to Fiona Russell Powell of Arena magazine in the spring of 1992: "As dispassionately as a news reader, he announced his son had been acquitted the previous day on an assault charge: 'he'd already served 11 out of the 12 weeks in jail before the fools finally quashed the conviction – he was accused of drunken assault outside a pub and breaking a man's leg'."
"Yes," Mark replied by email when I point it out to him later. "I was initially convicted of GBH for a fracas outside a pub in 1990 – the fellow in question was actually a friend of mine. The really boring bit was having won leave to appeal shortly after conviction, I had to wait for a slot to become available at the Appeal Court in the Strand. When I did appear, the conviction was deemed to be "unsafe and unsatisfactory" and quashed. As was the fashion at the time, I was retried a few months later and found not guilty after an hour's deliberation by the jury. As such, the slate was wiped clean. No GBH – no criminal record."
Mark is here for lunch in Dublin to promote Wild Thing – a one-man play about his father – which is on tour around Ireland. It started with a conversation with a producer from BBC Radio 4 last year. Mark was told that there had been a play about his dad – in south-east London. He booked a couple of tickets for himself and his wife. "I hoped to creep in under the radar but the producers Mike Davis and Rob Crouch saw me and we went for a drink afterwards," Mark explains. "I chatted to them and watched the show and I was touched by the show. It was actually a decent piece of work that really did more than focus on the antics and the hellraising. It was a bit more of what he was about and trying to understand what made my dad tick."
"What we do is we reconstruct the last session in Valetta in Malta," Rob Crouch, who plays Reed in the play, tells me, "and he is sort of telling his life story. There are flashbacks. So I play him at various ages in his life. I think the reasons we wanted to do it was for the reasons you have just talked about: there is this complexity and darkness but underneath the bonnet of a really rollicking character. That's what the attraction was for us."
Mark goes to his father's grave in Co Cork every year on the anniversary of Oliver's death. Oliver had always been very fond of Ireland. He had a place here in the late Sixties, early Seventies in Co Clare, between Kilrush and Kilkee. Ireland was somewhere where he felt at home. He then came over to Ireland in 1991 with his young wife Josephine Burge (Mark says Josephine eventually remarried after Oliver died and now lives in west Cork.)
"Dad is buried in Churchtown in north Cork. It was where he was living when he died. To me – and to the rest of the family – it just seemed like a logical place to bring him back to.
"That's where he lived and that's where he was happy. That was home for dad."
'Oliver Reed – Wild Thing' opens at the Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire, on Wednesday and then tours the country until Saturday, May 25. Full tour details, visit www.olliereedtheplay.co.uk