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Life and Love after Oliver

It is two years since OLIVER REED died in a bar in Malta, aged 61, and on the brink of a big-screen comeback in Gladiator. As his young widow Josephine prepares to marry again, the star's son Mark reveals why he thinks his father would be the first to give the union his blessing.

Mark Reed is anxious to order a gin and tonic. "I need this," he says, taking a generous swig from the tumbler. It is the second anniversary of his father's Oliver Reed's death and the alcohol will anaesthetise the grief, which is particularly raw today. "It was a horrible time in my life," he recalls. "It was also strangely one of the best because the memories of the madness and laughter he generated came flooding back and bonded our family."

Reed collapsed and died in a Maltese bar after a boisterous drinking and arm-wrestling session with a group of sailors. He was on a day off from filming his roles as Proximo, a gladiator trainer, in Gladiator, the blockbuster destined to resurrect his career. Film editors had to spend £2 million on computer wizardry to complete his role.

Mark and the film star's last wife, Josephine, helped bring Reed's body home from Malta, and laid him to rest in a graveyard in Churchtown, County Cork, the village where he had lived with Josephine. "He once had this idea of having a cherry tree planted on his grave, but nothing would ever thrive because of the huge quantities of Guinness and gin and tonics which his friends and regulars from his favourite pub still pour over it in his memory." laughs Mark.

It was in that pub, O'Brien's, that Josephine 37, met Walter Ryan-Purcell, also 37, a local landowner and company director, who encouraged her to meet new friends following Oliver's death two years ago. Next Saturday she is to marry him in Churchtown. For Mark, who will be attending the wedding, coming to terms with the loss of Oliver's mesmeric personality has been a slower process. "A private screening of Gladiator for the family was arranged shortly before its release," he says, "But at the last moment I didn't want to see it. His death was too new and too fresh. Then, late last year, a friend encouraged me to see it. I'm glad now, because I thought that it was great and it laid a few ghosts to rest. In it he has an energy and vibrancy. It's that vibrancy and that absolute madness which I miss".

The last time Mark, now 40, and a personnel director, came to Wimbledon's Cannizaro House hotel, where we met, was eight years ago, when he and his father were barred for life. "I can still see him coming down that staircase wearing one wellington boot," says Mark. "He refused to change when the manager indicated he was not 'suitably attired'. I can also see him rushing over to slurp the sherries laid out fro the new arrivals, or hanging out his towel from the bedroom window, which was a symbol to all his old friends that he was back in town to do some serious playing."

Reed was a hellraiser, but one who was full of paradoxes. He was a man who, if punched on the nose, would invariably repay the gesture, yet he could not bring himself to hurt an animal. "He never passed a cat without stroking it," recalls Mark. "My childhood was one of wonder, brought to life by my father, who would often wake me up to listen to the dawn chorus. We would imagine what the birds were saying to each other. There was sensitive side to my father, which only those close to him knew."

A dyslexic, Oliver Reed worked his way through 13 different schools - sometimes because of his father's precarious finance and sometimes because he was expelled - and sank to the bottom of every class. He made sure his son didn't suffer a similar fate. "At home, my father took my schooling very seriously," explains Mark. "He insisted on punctuality, completing homework, good manners and especially elocution."

He also gave Mark an education in life. "My father's own education was erratic, but he learned how to study people and events. He was intuitive and understood a child's sense of fun. He would also take me and my friends on a favourite game, which was to jump in and out of ditches on Wimbledon Common in our school uniforms. Yet he had a thing about clean shoes and fingernails, the things, needed to 'make you a gentleman'. One important attribute, he believed, was knowing exactly how much wine to pour into a glass. It was as though you had to know all the rules before breaking them."

Mark insists that in the early days, Reed didn't have the reputation for drinking he later acquired. "He wasn't a huge drinker. It was part of being sociable. I remember pedalling my little toy car around to Woodland Wine Shop to find my father, who was hanging out in the storage room at the back drinking with his friends in the days when the pubs weren't open all day."

But at one school sports day Mark witnessed the end of his mother and father's marriage. "There must have been a row, as I remember my mother whacking my father on the head with her handbag. She took me home, we collected our basic belongings and the dog, then we were off."

When Reed met Mark's mother, Kate, a model, who appeared in the Cadbury's Milk Tray advertisement, she was earning more than him. "My father would often take half a crown out of here purse, which he'd use to go to the pub and gamble at darts, always making sure he could replace it by the end of the night. My father was a strong character who required someone equally strong, and my mother was his match."

But it was an explosive marriage. Reed met Jacquie Daryl, a dancer, on the film set of the musical Oliver! They became lovers and later she fell pregnant, spelling the end of his marriage, when Mark was nine years old. "When my mother and father split up, they took great care to explain how they both still loved me. They always retained a great respect and fondness for each other. It took a while to accept, but my whole childhood was one where things were constantly changing."

When Jacquie gave birth to their baby, Sarah, Reed said to Mark: "This is you sister". "He tried to introduce the new family situation openly, but without making a great fuss," says Mark. "Jacquie was kind and supportive, even sticking up for me against my father when I needed it because he was a formidable character."

Dividing time equally between both parents became tricky when Reed moved away from Wimbledon into Broome Hall, a 54-bedroomed house set in 66 acres of Surrey countryside. "It was a wreck of a place when he bought it," says Mark, "We had 30 workmen in it. Nearly every day, my father would take them all down to the pub, so nothing happened quickly. We still had people working on the house after eight years."

The house was the perfect setting for Reed, who, although not snobbish, fancied himself as lord of the manor. "It became the scene of may wild parties," recalls Mark. "We had what was called the Thornhill Glass, an old crystal glass which held exactly one bottle of port. To become a member of the Thornhill Club, you had to drink it all in one and stay in the room for 20 minutes afterwards without being sick. He once took me, aged 12, to the pub and said: 'Beer, boy?' I had seven pints. He was immensely proud."

The more famous his father became, the more Mark's childhood changed. "He started to pick me up from boarding school by helicopter and was disappointed that I was more impressed by the tractors in the fields below. At Broome Hall, he could be himself and tune into my childhood. We'd put boot polish on our faces and pretend to be soldiers in the woods at three o'clock in the morning. He also loved riding and we'd go at sunrise and sunset and soak up the beautiful countryside. The sensitive side never left him."

Mark got to meet his father's greatest sparring partners, in particular snooker player Alex Higgins and drummer Keith Moon of The Who. With Alex, Reed embarked on a two-week binge. He poured a bottle of perfume into a half-pint glass and dared Higgins to down it in one. "He did, and was violently ill for two days. When he recovered, he had his revenge, getting my father to drink a pint cocktail of crème de menthe and Fairy Liquid."

Keith Moon once arrived at Broome Hall in a helicopter. "My father was in the bath when the helicopter landed. He thought it was an intruder, so he grabbed an antique broadsword and charged him - after making The Three Musketeers, father would often challenge guests to sword fights. Keith was full-on, 24 hours a day, and my father loved that. They were two talented people, and where you get great talent, you also get a large degree of madness". Reed and Moon were arrested at a Madrid hotel in 1973 after stripping off and climbing into the giant goldfish tank in the foyer, where Reed made a big show of swallowing the fish. "He had shaped some carrots to look like goldfish the day before so it was all a big trick to tease the public. He loved to shock," explains Mark.

Contrary to popular belief, there were times when his behaviour was not stage-managed, such as his drunken appearances on television chat shows, which began when he was interviewed by Michael Aspel in 1986. He arrived, staggering, slurring and carrying a large jug of what everyone thought was gin and orange, before insisting on singing Wild Thing with the studio band. Five years later, he made a similar drunken appearance on Channel 4's After Dark, when his voice was caught off camera, saying: "Oh, shut up, you silly old fool." Back in the armchair, he scandalised a feminist guest with his views that a woman's role in society depended on how much she liked sex.

"There were times when he was eloquent, funny and quick, and there were times when he was actually drunk and it wasn't an act," says Mark. "He didn't really care and wanted to live life as he was, but there were times when the chat shows were a bit embarrassing and too far over the top. My father drank to have fun with people. He never drank by himself. To him, beer was like a cup of tea. But it was whiskey which turned him into Mr Nasty and made him belligerent. At those times, I would make an exit. Then I'd find him in great humour at 7am the next morning, drinking tequila and eating strawberries."

Mark insists that his father's life wasn't all about drinking. "When he was preparing for a role, he'd pack the circus away, not see his friends or drink, and disappear upstairs to read his scripts. He was incredibly shy, which he overcame by drinking, but there were many times when he didn't drink at all. If he was at home in his garden, which he loved, he would potter around and take great pride in his plants."

In his prime, Reed had a healthy sexual appetite, but he found women boring, and preferred the company of his male friends, declaring a woman's place was in the home and a man's role was to do whatever he liked. "There was a public image and a private image," says Mark. "The chauvinistic image was merely an act. Early in his career, he wanted to make a mark. The heavy, villainous act was all about getting noticed, but then it became what the public expected. It is true he believed men should be the providers and women the nurtures at home, but I never once heard him brag about any conquest or say anything derogatory about women."

The mutual dislike between Reed and Raquel Welch, however, was evident on the set of The Three Musketeers, where the only words she would exchange with him were those in the script. Their feud began when Welch's hairdresser came to complain that Raquel had not been formally invited to Reed's cast party. He said that his parties were always open house, and that she was jealous, because he fancied her hairdresser instead of her. Mark diplomatically says, "Raquel was very professional, but she didn't find his lifestyle compatible, nor did she try to understand him. I went to see him filming in Budapest and we all went to a nightclub, including Raquel. My father got into a fight with some men who kept coming over to ask Raquel to dance. My father said to them: 'The lady doesn't want to dance, I think you heard me.' With that, one of them hit my father over the head, and an almighty brawl broke out. But I think Raquel was grateful that my father was there."

Reed failed, though, to win over Amanda Donohoe, his co-star in Castaway. "Father thought he was good in that film," says Mark. "They gave him free rein in it and I can see similarities between his character and his own personality. But I don't think he and Amanda were each other's favourite cups of tea."

In 1980, Reed's 13-year relationship with Jacquie ended after constant quarrelling. He sold Broome Hall and bought a smaller place near Oakwoodhill in Surrey, where, at 42, he found new love with Josephine Burge, a schoolgirl 26 years his junior. When they met - where else but in a pub - she was about to take her O-levels. He fell instantly in love, and each morning stood at the roadside to wave as Josephine set off on the bus from her home village of Rudgewick, West Sussex, to school in Billinghurst.

He personally delivered bouquets to her home. Sometimes he would arrive with a leg of lamb, which here widowed mother, Anne, cooked for Sunday lunch. When Josephine picked fruit to sell from the quince tree in her garden, Reed bought the entire harvest to supplement her pocket money. It was, she recalled, "a very lovely courtship. Oliver was extremely gentle and charming." Even her mother claimed he was a "gentleman". They married in 1985.

"Josephine used to be around the pub when I was drinking with my father and friends," says Mark. "Nothing he ever did really surprised me, so I remember thinking there was nothing strange, even though she was four years younger than me. I used to joke that she was too young for me to go out with. The shared an affinity which made their pairing seem not in the least bit unnatural."

"Josephine is a very personable, easy-going individual. She identified with him and shared a similar interest in the countryside, gardening and horses. They made a beautiful home in Churchtown, Ireland, and really joined in with village life there. She had as sense of madness, but liked the simple life, just as he did. By then he needed calming down a bit and she was perfect for him. The shared a string bond of companionship."

Nevertheless, Mark is delighted that Josephine has found someone else to share her life. "It's two years since my fathers death and it is right and proper that Josephine move on. I'm very pleased for her and Walter. They share a lot of interests. Nobody could ever replace my father, but Josephine is young and she deserves a new life. The last thing my father would have wanted would be for Josephine to dress in black, draw the curtains and shut out life. It wasn't his style - for him, living was a celebration. I am delighted to be attending the wedding. I can't deny that it will be strange, but it's part of moving on. Nothing stays the same."

Lisa Sewards, Daily Mail Weekend, July 14th, 2001

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