A life story well worth hearing

Pat Stacey

Edna O'Brien: Life Stories (RTE1) Celebrity Exposed (Sky Arts 1)"WHY do you think so many people are interested in your private life?" was the first question asked in Edna O'Brien: Life, Stories. "I try not to think about that," replied the 81-year-old author with a half-smile.

By "private life", I assume what was meant was "sex life" and the younger, strikingly beautiful O'Brien's position at the centre of the social and sexual whirl of celebrity-infested London in the 60s and 70s. This high-profile portion of her life was briefly covered around the midway point of Charlie McCarthy's film.

"It was like a chain letter," she recalled of the way famous guests -- including Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Liza Minnelli and Princess Margaret -- turned up to the parties she hosted at her London home.

She didn't feel "at ease" with Elizabeth Taylor, she said, but was quite taken with Richard Burton. Marlon Brando, on the other hand, was quite taken with her.

"He was a magnetic man," she recalled. Once, at a social gathering, Brando dismissed his chauffeur and said he'd accompany her to her place. She said he could take a taxi back after they'd got there; he said he wouldn't be needing a taxi. He stayed over but slept, she stressed, in her kitchen, not her bedroom.

"Robert Mitchum was also a wild man, but I'm leaving it at that," she said, that half-smile sidling across her face again.

There was no such reticence on O'Brien's about her difficult relationships with her parents and her late ex-husband, the Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she eloped to London in 1954.

These reminiscences, as much as the bombshell effect of her first novel, 1960's The Country Girls, which was banned, burned and damned to hell by the church, as well as by O'Brien's own, fervently Catholic mother, who she said mistook the book's "openness for betrayal", formed the core of this excellent documentary.

Her father, she said, was "a very angry drinker" and a man with "an untameable streak". She feels he was hardest on her because she was the youngest child, and very "observant", a word that surfaced several times in the film.

"My mother was affixed to me and I was her little protectress when there were rows," she said. "She owned me." They were both upset when O'Brien went to London with Gebler.

They had two sons, Carlo and Sasha, the first born before they were married.

She thinks Gebler, an intellectual who inspired both awe and fear, "felt he had failed or disappointed himself". He resented her sudden success.

When she presented him with the finished manuscript of The Country Girls, for which a publisher had advanced her £50, he grudgingly told her: "You CAN do it, and I will never forgive you." She walked away from the marriage.

Life, Stories found O'Brien still furiously writing and still provoking reactions. Of her 2002 novel In the Forest, inspired by the horrific murders of Imelda Riney and her son, she said, "I think what I did was to commemorate something very terrible."

Not everyone agreed and there was a deal of controversy. But who would have it any other way with the wonderful, unique O'Brien?

There was a moment in Celebrity Exposed, a drooling four-part tribute to top celebrity photographer Richard Young, when a contributor described him as "the Zen master of gatecrashing". I had to lean over and squint at the TV screen to look for the bulge of the speaker's tongue in his cheek, but no -- he was being serious.

There's no doubt Young, whose mixture of charm and deference allows him to mingle effortlessly with rock stars, fashion designers and A-list movie actors (even Elton John, who usually hates photographers, likes him), has taken some cracking pictures, including the final ones of Keith Moon the night before he died, but really.

Zen master my asster.

Edna O'Brien: Life, Stories 4/5 Celebrity Exposed 2/5