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.

Drawing: Alison Steadman, Ruthie Henshall, Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst in Blithe Spirit

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One of the classic stage doors is the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue (not the stage door, the theatre. The stage door is round the back in Archer Street). It’s opposite the White Horse pub and the home of 6 million pigeons (someone keeps feeding them). It is quintessential West End, flanked by the Gielgud and Lyric Theatres bordering on Soho.

A revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit had transferred there after a regional tour in 2010. Alison Steadman had signed the single sketch for me a couple of weeks earlier and I left her a copy. She was talking to the guy who feeds the pigeons, so I asked if she could sign the cast sketch. She was more than happy to, saying “we all really love your work, it’s excellent, thank you,” which was nice to hear.

Ruthie Henshall was already in… in fact, if I went to the first floor of the White Horse I would be on the same level as her dressing room and could get her attention… but no, that could lead to a conviction. Ruthie, apart from being a West End and Broadway star, dated Prince Edward “solidly for two years, on and off for five years”. Because it wasn’t public knowledge she was often ‘smuggled’ into Buckingham Palace. The relationship ended because she didn’t want to give up her career, but she did attend the Prince’s wedding to Sophie Rhys Jones in 1999.

TV star Hermione Norris was on her phone to a family member (I guessed), so I waited, but she multitasked and signed while she was still talking. I apologised, but she said, “not a problem,” and went inside. Very nice lady.

Her Cold Feet co-star Robert Bathurst is usually the last… and late. “He bikes,” said the stage door manager. Now, that’s running a few gauntlets at that time of night in the heart of London. But his understudy was reprieved again and he arrived in tact. He duly signed and wheeled his bike into the theatre.

Since it was a very pleasant May evening I ensconced myself at the White Horse to partake of their hospitality until the show ended and Ruthie left in the conventional manner (not needing to employ the covert operations of her royal courtship days). I got her coming out, so to speak, to complete the set.

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