Raising a glass to Peter O’Toole

Graham Barnfield

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It turns out Jeffrey Bernard was unwell after all. Peter O’Toole, the actor who played the legendary, booze-hound journalist on the West End stage, died yesterday at the age of 81. However, despite a six-decade stage and screen career, O’Toole looks set to be most remembered for his portrayal of the title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – with his chipped-ice eyes and steely diction – and for his off-screen and off-stage antics with wines and spirits.

Of course, there was more to O’Toole than this, even if some of the parts he chose in the aftermath of his first Academy Award nomination (for Lawrence) prompted puzzlement. His performances radiated warmth and his comic timing was typically spot on. Furthermore, his professionalism and sharp memory – whether in recalling lines or never forgetting a face – ran counter to his one-dimensional reputation as a hard-drinking party animal.

Of course, his fondness for a drink did make him the perfect actor to play Jeffrey Bernard. Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell told the story of the real-life journalist who, legend had it, could dictate his ‘Low Life’ column to the Spectator down the payphone in Soho’s Coach and Horses pub. Except, of course, when he couldn’t – the play took its name from the one-line apology the Speccie would print whenever Bernard was too drunk or hungover to meet his deadline. O’Toole starred in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell from its September 1989 preview in Brighton and on through much of its first decade of packed West End performances and revivals.

As we raise a glass to Peter O’Toole’s life and times, it’s also worth reflecting on how times have changed. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that many pundits have been hinting at O’Toole being the ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ of contemporary jargon. He was nothing of the sort. His actual relationship with the demon drink was peppered with periods of drying out, designed to give his liver some time to get back in the game. O’Toole’s boozing wasn’t the actions of a pitiable addict, he was simply a man dedicated to living life to the full, rather than in half-measures. Like an infinitely more humane version of Lawrence, O’Toole took ‘No prisoners!’ and for this he should be celebrated.

Graham Barnfield blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox. He is a co-author of ‘Restoring tourist flows and regenerating city’s image: the case of Belgrade‘.

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