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.
Jonathan Lynn’s new play THE PATRIOTIC TRAITOR examines the gripping encounter between two giants of history, France’s WWI hero Philippe Petain and his protege Charles de Gaulle and the infamous armistice with Nazi Germany signed during the Second World War, which resulted in de Gaulle trying his life long friend for treason. Tom Conti played Petain and Laurence Fox was De Gaulle, which completed its run at North London’s Park Theatre last week. In his five-star review for the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts wrote “… scintilla tingly topical, beautifully written and magnificently acted.”
Both Tom and Laurence signed this montage drawing for me on the final night.
Tom Conti has always been one of my favourite actors. In fact, I’m not alone. In 2002 he was voted Favourite West End Actor in the last 25 years by a theatregoers’ poll. I had the privilege of working with Tom many years ago when he narrated one of my short animated films.
It was great to briefly catch up again last week. He replaced Martin Shaw as Juror No.8 in the extended run of Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick Theatre which finishes this Saturday (14 June 2014). He signed this sketch after an evening performance.
“So, what’s next?” I asked.
“I’m going to complete my book,” Tom replied.
His debut novel The Doctor was described by the Sunday Express as an ideal ‘Hollywood epic’. He will be appearing at the Borders Book Festival on June 25.
I have had the great pleasure of seeing both Tom and his daughter Nina on stage at various times and venues in London. More known for his contemporary rather than classical theatre, Tom is one of the West End’s most enduring and popular actors over the past four decades.
He received the Tony and Olivier Awards for this role as a paralysed sculptor in the right-to-die play Whose Life Is It Anyway? in 1979.
In films tom won the National Board of Review Award Twice for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Reuben, Reuben. In the latter he also received an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination.
Nina is a wonderful comedian, actress and ventriloquist who regularly headlines at London comedy venues, including the comedy store. In 2002 she won the BBC New Comedy Award. Her first full length solo show Complete and Utter Conti debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 and went on to win the Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the following year. Her primary on stage sidekick is a depressed monkey called Monk and she has recently added ‘Granny’, a puppet she inherited from her mentor Ken Campbell on his death.
Both Tom and Nina signed their drawings at the Menier Chocolate Factory after their respective shows in 2011.