Peter O’Toole has passed away today, aged 81. Amongst the many characters he played was the lead role in Keith Waterhouse’s  Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, based on the Spectator’s Low Life column.

O’Toole was easily Jeffrey’s favourite of the actors to play him – Tom Conti, he thought, seemed to disapprove of all the drinking but O’Toole ‘made it his play’. Below is our review of his performance, by Christopher Edwards dated 20 October 1989.

Readers of The Spectator will need no explanation about the contents of this production, based as it is upon the weekly column of our own Low Life correspondent. When I recently tried to arrange an interview with Jeffrey Bernard for Drama magazine, I was told the best way of reaching him on the telephone was to ring the Coach and Horses pub just after 11 o’clock (in the morning). Sure enough he was there. Apologies were made for disturbing him at the pub. ‘This is my office,’ he replied. Well, this play is set in his office after a hard day’s work. The time is very early in the morning. Bernard (brilliantly played by Peter O’Toole) has passed out in the lavatory and woken up to find that the pub is locked and everyone has gone home. The clever set, by John Gunter, is the interior of the pub but the perspectives are slanted. The design offers a view of the inside of the Coach and Horses as seen by a drunk lying on the floor — which is precisely where we first encounter Peter O’Toole.

After he has picked himself up, tried, unsuccessfully, to open the door and helped himself to a vodka, O’Toole embarks on a series of anecdotes and reminiscences about Soho past and present, childhood, death, women, racing and drink. Many of the characters are brought on to the stage for sharp little vignettes, played with great virtuosity by Timothy Ackroyd, Sarah Berger, Annabel Lejeffrey2venton and, notably, the talented and funny Royce Mills. But it is Peter O’Toole who anchors the production with his great charm and excellent timing. Most of the jokes and stories are good, many of them hilarious. And, with a drink-befuddled voice that manages to be both whimsical and elegiac, he beguiles you into this demi-monde and makes its rules of conduct seem almost normal.

The script, while based upon Bernard’s life and writings, is composed by Keith Waterhouse. Much of the credit for the success of the production must go to him. There must have been some danger that material that is touching and amusing in a short weekly column would not stay the distance of an evening. So, by allowing this dramatisation, Jeffrey Bernard ran the great risk of turning himself into the creature he so eloquently abhors, the buttonholing pub bore. Waterhouse deftly avoids this pitfall by mining his subject for its variety, wisdom and wit.

Is the production authentic? Is the sage chronicler of Low Life this engaging, or has Waterhouse played down Bernard’s self-pity and self- censure — the latter being, as Dr Johnson remarked, an invidious form of self-love? You can check up for yourselves each week a few pages on from this column. In the meantime, I can, without any hint of a conflict of interest, recommend this production in the most quotable form possible as

‘A triumphant and witty excursion into the Lower Depths by England’s foremost pub philosopher; Peter O’Toole is magnificent’

Safe in the knowledge that it will be a deserved hit without this incestuous, but sincere, endorsement.

Tags: Jeffrey Bernard, Low life, Peter O'Toole