HowWe Met

Dave knows about madness from a clinical point of view. I'm aware of it because of my own disposition
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
David MacSweeney, 57, is Community Consultant Psychiatrist at Redbridge Healthcare Trust, and Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at the London Hospital Medical College. His novel, Killing the Cuckoo, has just been published. Separated from his third wife, he lives in London.

The actor Richard Harris, 63, was born in County Limerick in Ireland. Trained at LAMDA, he has appeared in films including Camelot, A Man Called Horse, The Field and Unforgiven. He has been married twice, has three sons and lives alone, either in the Bahamas or in London.

DAVID MACSWEENEY: I remember first meeting Richard, though he probably doesn't remember it. I went to Rockwell College in Tipperary, which was run by the Holy Ghost fathers, and Richard went to Crescent College in Limerick, run by the Jesuits. And in both camps, they almost put as much importance on practising your rugby as they did on your religion. So we met playing schoolboy rugby.

Richard was very big for his age, very wild, even during the interval when you're supposed to suck on oranges. He was a very good athlete, but then he got this chest infection when he was about 19, which put him out of athletics for several years.

After that, he went to LAMDA and trained with people like Peter O'Toole. I sort of lost track of him until I saw him in The Hostage, Brendan Behan's play. He seemed to spend all his time sewing mailbags. I went backstage afterwards and with a straight face I congratulated him on how well he made the mailbags.

And he kept a straight face and took it as a compliment.

We used to meet occasionally at the Antelope pub at Sloane Square in the Seventies. He was always wanting to pick rows, and when he'd get drunk enough, he'd create a situation where you would have to go and challenge someone to fisticuffs, and he would come in and finish him off. But as a consequence, his nose was as concave as a navel. Later, he spent a fortune having it fixed, and now his nose is made out of one of his ribs.

The next time I saw him he was in This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson's film, and I thought he should have got an Oscar for that. And then he vanished into a sort of alcoholic stew that must have lasted about 10 years. Whole years of his life went by that he doesn't remember. And his marriage got a bit tricky.

He drinks because he's very, very highly strung. This is a simplistic explanation, but alcohol is a sedative. There's a periodic euphoric elation, especially in good company, but it's almost like an anti-epileptic drug. O'Toole was also very highly strung. Richard told me O'Toole would drink three or four pints of beer before he went on to play Hamlet.

But then Richard pulled out of it. I'd forgotten what a good actor he was, and when he did Pirandello's Henry IV, he asked me to analyse it for the cast. I'm blowing my own trumpet, but I think my notes on how to interpret the madness helped him and the cast. When I saw the opening, I realised he had immense presence on stage - more physical presence than Olivier. Richard had tremendous nerve in that play because he had to challenge the audience, he had to challenge the cast. I was trying to get him back into something like King Lear. He wasn't too interested in that, but then he got involved in The Field, by Keane. That was as near as you'll get to an Irish King Lear- terrifying and authentic, and I know my Kerry and my Gaelic.

Everybody thinks of him as a boozing brawler, but in fact he's got a very fine mind. He's widely read in the classics, Shakespeare and Sam Beckett. At the moment, he's playing Hemingway in a film, and he's doing Cry The Beloved Country. His career is booming. He'd look a lot healthier if he had his face dry-cleaned, if he shaved and stopped going around like a half-hearted Cistercian. He's always dressed funny - they didn't invite him to meet Princess Diana when he was at the Savoy because they were afraid he'd turn up in some sort of strange pyjama trousers. She should be so lucky.

His greatest strength, apart from his ability as an actor, is his mental and physical resilience. He got himself out of a decade of acting in rubbish films, poisoning himself with alcohol and getting involved in affairs.

He is a very sensitive man. He wasn't his father's favourite son. He wrote a poem about how jealous he was of his sister. And when he developed this chest trouble, which meant he was bedridden for a long time, his father accused him of swinging the lead,which is the last thing he'd want to do, because he wanted to be an athlete. In spite of being highly strung, he must have tremendous confidence in himself professionally. But his weakness is every Irishman's weakness - his vanity, his egomania.

ce RICHARD HARRIS: I can't remember where we actually met. He's a great friend of my ex-wife's brother, Morgan. There was one time when my marriage was breaking up, and I was quite rude to Morgan. Dave absolutely destroyed me verbally, but I've never hated him. Not once. Even at that moment, I knew he was defending Morgan. We didn't see each other for a couple of years. The first time we met again, he apologised.

We've become great friends. I don't necessarily see him a lot. I'm a bit of a drifter. I live in the Savoy by myself, in the Bahamas by myself. And I like that. I don't mix with actors. They're so boring - dim-witted arseholes who've no interest in anything but themselves. I don't gather acquaintances easily.

I certainly don't gather friends at all. I'm friendly with my two ex-wives, and my three boys. And there's a guy in Wales called Terry James. He's a musician. And there's Dave. That's more or less it for me.

Dave was a great friend through various things in my life. My son had a great drug problem, and Dave helped him. He's now kicked it, and starred in his first movie.

Dave's a great wit, but he's very human. He has a huge heart. He helps people - that's what his whole profession is, what he's dedicated his whole life to. He could have a Harley Street practice if he wanted to. He has no idea of the number of doctors I've been exposed to who know who he is and would like to meet him.

His literary achievements have not been accepted yet, because his other achievements have out-paced him. Here's this brilliant psychoanalyst, and his side-show is his writing. He'd like it to be equal.

He's terribly smart, and he's got a brilliant brain. He's a marvellous writer - did you ever read his poetry? His first novel is Jesus Mary Delahunty. It's an astonishing piece of literature - poetic and brilliantly observed. And, of course, it's MacSweeney's idea of what life is all about. I wanted to make a movie of it because it corresponded exactly to what I felt. He knows about madness from a clinical point of view because he spends his time with people. I'm aware of it because of my own dispositio n. My approach to life is that the whole thing is madness, and we should all go out and create chaos.

There was a play I did, Henry IV, by Pirandello. Dave helped me a lot on that. He read it and together we analysed it, talked it over. I had a sort of fragmented, peripheral idea of what the play was about. But to get into the clinical side of it, I needed his help.

I am negotiating to buy the film rights to Jesus Mary Delahunty now. It's about a man running amok in the middle of madness. And the main guy is a psychiatrist. We could make a definitive movie of it about our time. And it's done with such humour, you'llbreak your arse laughing.

If you want to make a statement in life as an artist, you get very few chances to do so. There have been a few great parts I've played in my life, which I was very good in, and they were always a part of my own philosophy, like The Field, This Sporting Life. And then this book, which is a microcosm of what the whole world's about.

It emphasises absolutely to me the utter madness of life. Once you accept the fact that it's all mad, you have a licence to kill, a licence to do what you like. It's insanity to take it seriously.

But some things in life are serious. The people you choose to be with are serious. Dave's very serious. Most actors who are stars mix with inferior people. I'm the opposite, and when I meet MacSweeney I feel it's a learning process. I want to learn more.And he is cleverer than me. I'm in the fourth division. He's in the first division. !

Comments