Book review / O'Toole of the trade

Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice by Peter O'Toole, Macmillan, pounds 20

In Peter O'Toole's stately, eccentric progress through these few years of his life (the latest volume barely covers the period 1953-5 - cynics might wonder if this is a lucrative formula for memoirs-by-instalment), the actor's eye is always on the lookout for the baroquely comic or pathetically poignant incident. Like some 18th-century picaresque, The Apprentice portrays bawdy scenes from the aspirant thespian's life in the London of the Fifties. From trawling through Soho's Bohemia (where he hopes, vainly, to bump into Dylan Thomas) to travelling on the Northern Line (hilariously smuggling a double bed past the ticket collector), O'Toole's tales pile up on each other, lacking chronology and orthodox syntax but revelling in words.

He is a man who loves words, in the manner of his evident influences: Miller, Burgess, Beckett and Joyce seem likely to feature on O'Toole's Celtic-rhetorical checklist. Yet his voice is pre-eminently his own. Though it's self-indulgent and potentially tiresome, the fact that The Apprentice (mostly) avoids such offence derives entirely from the author's wayward charm. None, perhaps, has ever been more wayward, or more charming: Noel Coward, who always had something to say about everybody, told O'Toole after having seen Lawrence of Arabia that "if Lawrence had looked like him there would have been many more than twelve Turks queuing up for the buggering session". The unspoken hubris of O'Toole's handsomeness is plain in one album snap, portraying the ingenu with his languid arms wrapped round a bevy of Rada beauties. He was ever surrounded by an admiring circle.

Such indulgence may account for the high-flown prose of the book, and possibly for its theatrical sentimentality. (O'Toole deplores the pejorative connotations of "theatrical"; how he must hate the abusive term "luvvie"). There's an atavism and a nostalgia to his narrative of "this lovely hard old game that we... play" which, coming from a less larger-than-life figure, could cloy: O'Toole unashamedly parades his stage heroes, from the ever- present shade of Edmund Kean (whose biography runs through the book as a counterpoint to the author's adventures) to Rada tutors and whisky priests. Here's Albie Finney, Ronald Fraser, Kenneth "The Untouchable" Griffith, demigods and drinking partners, sketchily but vividly rendered; an evocative opening section has the ghosts of Peter Finch and Rudolph Nureyev dancing on O'Toole's coffee table. This orgiastic, wistful scene prepares us for the uproarious alcoholism and dissolute dialogue to follow. "Sweet laminated Jesus" is a frequent exhortation; an entire section is devoted to the laundering of "shitty knickers"; and a careering skid through Camden Town in a brake-failed old banger leaves our hero "shaking like a Sheffield dog shitting penknives". There's a laddishness here, a surprising precursor of the world of Loaded magazine, tempered with a vaguely camp Withnail and I irony. O'Toole's liberality fills the book with affectionate snapshots - but snapshots that seem to be fading even as he describes them.

Shuffled among these vignettes are discursive forays into dramatic technique and "The Play"; an ancient tuition, it might seem, to modern-day students. To abide by the rules and learn from one's masters came naturally to his generation. As for motivation: "Now, we all know that in the theatre the devil displays his pomp with so many charms and seductive graces that the most solid virtue can hardly withstand it, which is as good and gamey a reason as you may need for being a lively member of the audience; and it will do quite nicely, thank you, for my being an actor."

Elsewhere, O'Toole's potted theatrical histories can seem too obviously the product of research at the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection; and occasionally one yearns for some straightforwardness and less "dawn- plucked fungi", "banjaxed" pupils, and Cockney rhyming slang (here always given its literal translation).

Yet these are not serious criticisms, especially to admirers of O'Toole's first volume of memoirs. Like many successful players of his game, O'Toole has re-invented himself, on this occasion as a fine writer. And by progressing so slowly through his autobiography, O'Toole gives his fans much to look forward to.

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