Tom Conti is starring in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell at the Garrick until 2 September. He talks to Laura North about cigarettes, alcohol and falling asleep.
The date for my interview with Tom Conti was stamped at the top of the confirmation letter: 06.06.06. Below it were ‘6pm’ and more than one ‘6’ in the address. I was mildly relieved when the location was moved to the Soho Hotel and completely reassured by Conti's response to the suggestion that he might be satanic: “Oh yes. You thought I’d have horns?” Conti is as far away from fiendish as you can get. He is equally hard to picture as a dishevelled drunk, a role he is currently playing in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
On stage at the Garrick, the respectability falls off him like the ash from a cigarette; complete with crumpled suit, slurring voice and a large bottle of vodka, he creates an impressive portrait of an alcoholic hack. Bernard was “an extreme human being,” says Conti, who gambled, womanised and drank “like there was no tomorrow”. His mother wanted him to be a naval officer but when he walked into Soho at the age of 13, the prospect of a naval career simply sailed away. In his own words he was “unable to hold down the most ordinary of jobs and he was consequently advised to take up journalism”. He often failed to write his column in the Spectator and the magazine regularly published “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” in lieu of his copy. On one occasion the magazine printed “Jeffrey Bernard’s column does not appear this week, as it is remarkably similar to that which he wrote last week.”
Bernard spent much of his working and leisure time literally drinking his life away in a pub called the Coach And Horses in Greek Street, just a stone’s throw from where we are sitting in Dean Street. There he socialised with the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas and the equally eminent No Knickers Joyce. For his play, Keith Waterhouse distilled Bernard and his writing into the interior of the Coach And Horses. The set is, says Conti, “exactly the same [as the real Coach And Horses], except the perpendiculars are a bit off kilter”; recreating how the pub must have looked through Bernard’s eyes. An inebriated Bernard falls asleep in the toilets and wakes up to find himself alone in the pub, the only participant in an inadvertent lock-in. He passes the time until dawn recounting anecdotes to the audience while attempting to contact Norman, “London’s rudest landlord”.
“Drink just makes me want to go to bed… alone!”
This is not the first time Conti has played a convincing drunk; he was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of a drinking thinking lothario in Reuben Reuben, and this is the third time he has played Bernard. His first time was in 1989 at the Apollo, when he took over from Peter O’Toole, who originated the role. O’Toole was widely accepted to be perfect for the part. “He knew that life,” agrees Conti. When asked in the New York Times in 1972 if he had a drinking problem, O’Toole replied: “Why, no, not at all. Drinking is the easiest thing in the world.” His heavy drinking resulted in an operation to remove his pancreas in 1976. His turn as Bernard won him a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2000. When he accepted the award from Lord Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, O’Toole demonstrated that he had a lot in common with Bernard by telling an anecdote about Olivier: “We shared a dressing room for Hamlet at the Old Vic and we hit a few snags. I was not speechlessly happy about his positioning of the shower. And Larry was less than ecstatic about where I kept the Guinness. I kept the Guinness in the shower.”
Conti takes a nap during the showKeeping Guinness cool is not Conti’s aim and hell-raising is not his game. Whereas drink destroyed Bernard and almost O’Toole, Conti can take it or leave it. His car can claim a lot of the credit for this. “I think having a car has always protected me because I never ever drink when I'm going to drive, and I mostly drive. When I get home and have supper I have wine, but again not much because it makes me sleepy. It doesn't make me feel terrific, it just makes me want to go to bed… alone!” Instead of propping up the bar in a Soho dive, you might find him listening to classical music or playing the flamenco guitar, evidenced by the longer nails on his right hand. But Conti believes that being a hardened drinker is not a pre-requisite for the role. “You don't have to murder someone to play a murderer. The actor’s job is just to observe people really and you don't do that in a conscious way it just goes in.”
Even if you don’t have to be a drinker to play the part, the role demands that the actor smokes. Conti is rarely on stage without a cigarette; he lights up approximately 15 in the course of the play. “But I don't smoke them. You’ve occasionally got to take a puff, but you don't have to inhale the whole thing.” Although he is a non-smoker now, he starting smoking at ten and continued for about 15 years, an indication that he is not entirely vice-free. “Everybody smoked. It was just one of the natural things that you did. You weren't supposed to do it when you were ten, we had to do it behind the bike shed.” At the age of 16, he went to Italy on holiday with his family and his father offered him a cigarette, the first time he had done so; it was “one of these large moments of life”. Conti continued a 20 or 30-a-day habit until he got married. “I was suddenly filled with a sense of responsibility of keeping myself alive for the person I loved, so I stopped.” But has smoking on stage re-ignited his addiction? “No, it's so horrible. The strange thing is that the addiction doesn't ever leave you and still there are moments where I want to smoke. But if I did light one, I would put it out again, it's so foul.”
“[Jeffrey Bernard's] had been catastrophic, his face had collapsed. He was a walking corpse.”
Bernard, riddled with addictions, continues to fascinate audiences who flock to see the play. Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell has been an unqualified success in each of the last three decades, winning awards, critical acclaim and approving audiences. Why has it been so successful? “Bernard was a wonderful, witty, entertaining, observant man and he had a way with words and that's why the play has always been successful – because it's a terrifically entertaining piece.” But there is another reason behind the appeal. “There is an envy, I think, that people like you and I have for… the idea of someone who just has relinquished all responsibility. It is a seductive idea.” When Bernard is asked if he ever missed work due to drinking, he replies: “The situation is very much the reverse. Work frequently interferes with my drinking.” He rejects the shackles of the ‘normal’ codes of behaviour, where you have to turn up to work or home, on time and sober. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to do that for a bit?” says Conti. “Abandoning yourself to everything.
Divesting yourself of responsibility is an appealing concept, but the consequences can be less attractive. “The play is a good representation of part of him,” says Conti. “The awful bit is missing. I mean, he talks about it but you don’t see it. He does talk about hitting a greengrocer in Goodge Street but you don’t get the stark violence of what he was capable of when he was really drunk… There was a point in the day when he just clicked over to this other thing and he wouldn’t know where he was and he would wake up in the morning in a field or something, without the faintest bloody idea where he was. I mean, can you imagine? You’re on the street in the gutter.”
Conti met Bernard years before the play was even written. He was starring in a TV series called The Glittering Prizes and Bernard was writing a piece about it for the Sunday Times, attending rehearsals for about a week. “He was just delightful, charming, fun, witty, very very good company.” However, it was quite a shock when Conti saw him again just over a decade later in a restaurant called Wheeler’s in Soho. “There was a man in there one day who looked as if he was going to die and I said to whoever I was with, ‘Do you know who that is?’ and he said, ‘Oh yes, that's a journalist guy named Jeff Bernard.’ He bore no resemblance at all to the man I knew, none, none. Ravished, utterly ravished. Maybe ten or 12 years I hadn't seen him and in that time his fall had been catastrophic, his face had collapsed. He was a walking corpse.”
The drinking had caught up with him. Bernard was still alive when the play was first produced and, perhaps by osmosis, he became a regular in the bar of the Apollo theatre where Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was on (he rarely watched the show itself). But, by the time the play was revived in 1999, he had suffered numerous health problems and had his leg amputated before finally succumbing to renal failure in 1997. He outlived many of his friends and, although womanising was one of his addictions, his relationships ultimately failed: he was locked into a life where his major love was 48 per cent proof. On the plus side, Bernard must have been the only person to have his home-help take him to the Groucho Club. Tragedy goes hand-in-hand with comedy in the play, especially towards the end when he gets ready to go home and realises, “What the hell – this is home.”
“[There is] a huge sense of waste,” says Conti. “Except that he wouldn’t agree that he had wasted his life. As far as he was concerned he had a good life, and he did from many points of view. I mean, he sat around all day with people that he liked and they laughed a lot and had a good time… I looked into the Coach [And Horses] the other night and my God, Jeffrey wouldn't spend any more than 30 seconds in there, not like the old days at all. He was in his own way a snob. What he liked was interesting and clever people who were also drunks, like Francis Bacon and suchlike.”