Drawing: Robert Bathurst in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

“I believe that no one should go back to work after lunch, but for some unfortunate people it’s in the middle of the working day.” One of the many satirical commentaries by the infamous British scribe and soak Jeffrey Bernard, often described as the ‘Soho Tom Sawyer.’

He would wake up, smoke in bed for half an hour, and then move to his desk in an attempt to write, his creative flow lubricated with orange juice, topped with vodka, before heading to a place he called his ‘office’ which was a pub that opened precisely at 11am. It was and still is one of London’s great public houses, The Coach & Horses in Greek Street in London’s Soho, where fellow journo and frequenter Keith Waterhouse was inspired to write his hit West End play JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL, which imagines the writer locked in the pub overnight, allowing him plenty of time to reflect on life.

It premiered at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue with the equally legendary Peter O’Toole, who won an Olivier Award for his portrayal, with a sold-out revival at the Old Vic ten years later. Now a unique and immersive production is being staged inside the actual venue itself, complete with the traditional Saturday night ‘lock-ins’, with Robert Bathurst performing a trimmed, one-hour version.

It’s a collaboration between the pub’s independent landlord Alastair Choat, director Jame Hiller and Defibrillator Theatre to not only celebrate the 30th anniversary of the play, but to highlight the opposition of this independent establishment to a big pub chain takeover. A petition is also circulating. The title is taken from the one-line apology that would be published in the Spectator in the 1970’s and 80’s on the occasions that he was unable to complete his weekly ‘Low Life’ column – a euphemism for ‘pissed again.’ The column chronicled his debauched days and nights with, in his own words, ” a place full of poets, painters, prostitutes, bookmakers, runners, bohemians, bums, cafe philosophers, crooks and cranks.” The column was described by Jonathan Meades as a “weekly suicide note.”

Jeffrey was introduced to the ‘Soho set’ at an early age in the 1940’s and as he said, “never looked forward.” In later life, he wrote, “I’m not well, I’m fucking dying,” which he did, at home, from renal failure in 1997, after refusing dialysis treatment.

While reading law at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Robert joined the infamous Cambridge Footlights Group and, after graduating began a successful acting career. His professional stage debut was in Michael Frayn’s NOISES OFF at the Savoy Theatre in 1983, before joining the NationalTheatre. TV viewers will be familiar with his roles as David Marsden in the popular comedy drama COLD FEET and Sir Anthony Strallen in DOWNTON ABBEY. He joins an illustrious line of actors, who have played the part of Jeffrey Bernard, that include Peter, Tom Conti, Dennis Waterman, James Bolam, Robert Powell and the late Sir John Hurt. He kindly signed this drawing for me after last Tuesday’s performance at The Coach & Horses.

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Drawing: Tom Conti in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Tom Conti Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

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.