JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL was a famous one-line apology on a blank page in the respected British magazine, The Spectator, when the infamous columnist and constant soak Jeffrey Bernard was either to drunk or hung-over to produce the required copy for his LOW LIFE column. It is also the title for Keith Waterhouse’s hit play and loving tribute to the legendary Soho drunk, which premiered in the West End at the Apollo Theatre in 1989 with Peter O’Toole in the title role. He also revived the part in the sell-out run at the Old Vic ten years later. Peter was followed by Tom Conti, who also revived the role at the Garrick Theatre in 2006.
According to the playwright, Jeffrey Bernard was born in 1932 – probably by mistake. He had few friends at school, preferring to sit at the back of the classroom, playing with himself. He left, a chain smoker with no worthwhile academic qualifications. In 1946 Jeff paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look forward, finding himself in his element as a registered layabout in the cafes and pubs of Dean and Old Compton Streets. It was here that he ‘developed his remarkable sloth envy and self-pity.’
He failed at a number of odd jobs, including a disastrous stint as a barman, which was to lead to his chaotic life of alcohol abuse and ‘chronic unwellness’.
A sycophant, he mixed with the famous Soho residents including Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon and by chance became a journalist firstly for ‘Sporting Life’ before establishing himself as one of the funniest columnists in British journalism. He was the first racing correspondent to write from the point of view of the loser, a stance that was to become the basis for his future writing.
He once wrote the following, which summed up his existence. “I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960-1974.”
Tom signed this appropriately chaotic sketch I drew of him in his role as Jeffrey Bernard at the Garrick, which he signed for me at the Park Theatre last week during his season in THE PATRIOTIC TRAITOR.