A very uncommon man

Peter O'Toole has more than a few tricks up his sleeve as Sarah Gristwood discovers

No one could claim the interview got off to a good start. In between shots, on the Pinewood set of Fairytale: A True Story, you read once more through the printed biography in your production notes, and put your first, frankly routine, question to Peter O'Toole.

"What's it like to play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when you took the leading role in three" - you glance back down at the production notes to check - "three of his Sherlock Holmes stories already?"

"Name one." High, imperious - not unamused but rather scary - the unmistakable voice cracks back.

"Sorry?"

"Would you be kind enough to tell me what work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's I have played in?"

The production notes got it wrong. But having made his point, he waves away your stuttering apology. The first thing to know about a conversation with Peter O'Toole is that it is not unlike a game of cricket - competitive but mannerly. And one in which your opponent is definitely a gentleman as well as a player, gracious in defeat and in victory.

The second thing to know is that it's not like a conversation with anyone else on earth. Paul McGann, his co-star in Fairytale, describes their first meeting. "He just said, `Hello, how do you do? Now - disease. I've been meaning to talk to you.' " And we were off on typhus. The Irish potato famine. The Battle of the Somme, the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. He sits there and discusses these appalling things with a smile on his face," says McGann.

The hopscotch nature of O'Toole's conversation could fool the unwary interviewer into concluding that he is barking. This would be a serious error. I wonder if it isn't half a technique. He must know he's making you jumpy. And by the time he expansively invites you to "Ask me anything. Do. Do," you're almost too intimidated to comply.

At 65, his looks are still unmistakable. Battered, of course, but beautiful anyway, with eyes that extraordinary Lawrence of Arabia blue. Six-foot- three and stick thin, he's in the full Edwardian costume required for Fairytale.

But O'Toole today is no longer the rip-roarer of old. "The pirate ship has berthed," is how he puts it.

Divorced from Sian Phillips in 1979, his name has not been linked with a woman for an eternity. His home in the unfashionable outer reaches of north west London, is shared in term time by Lorcan (Gaelic for Lawrence), his son by American model Karen Somerville.

And yet a career, which at one time looked memorable chiefly for the high of Lawrence and the low of Macbeth, has been reborn in a stop/go sort of way, with Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Gulliver's Travels, and two (so far) acclaimed volumes of autobiography.

In Fairytale, he is convincingly cast as the literary lion who subscribed to the truth of the "Cottingley Fairies" - five photographs taken by two little girls in Yorkshire which fascinated the media and the moralists of the day. "It was as big as the UFOs," says O'Toole, appreciatively.

The film sets Conan Doyle's credulity against the cynicism of his friend, the escapologist Houdini, played by Harvey Keitel. But Conan Doyle, like so many during the Great War, had lost a son, and it is the sense of loss, says O'Toole, that gives the film its emotional reality. A feeling with which he is familiar, even before the death last year of Jeffrey Bernard. "The common denominator of all my friends [Samuel Beckett, Richard Burton] is that they're dead," he once said.

"Oddly enough, a boyhood friend of mine, Joe Cooper, is the authority on the Cottingley Fairies," he says. "We were wild chums running around making nuisances of ourselves, once. But he spent 10 years on the subject, talking to Frances and Elsie when they were elderly women."

Back at the time, the children were interrogated by physicists and theosophers, believers and non-believers, and their story remained absolutely consistent. It was only in 1982 that Frances coughed up.

"Joe met Frances in a coffee shop in Canterbury. She left him for half an hour - I presume to pop into the cathedral - came back, and laid it on him that the photographs were fake." Or four of them, anyway. It's the continued uncertainty about the fifth that lends the story the necessary mystery.

In the late Forties, as a youthful hack on the Yorkshire Evening News, O'Toole set out to disprove the flying saucer story. "A photographer friend and I went on the moor with some ordinary tea saucers and I frisbeed them into the sky. We printed the photographs, made the saucer a bit blurry, and the art editor couldn't tell the difference...."

He obviously enjoys the whimsicality. "I was a devout little boy. A great believer. Even now the myth, the idea of magic, appeals to me. But on the whole, I'm fairly sceptical."

O'Toole is fond of quoting an early poem: "I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony."

Does the extraordinary, colourful world in which he grew up, thanks to his racing tipster father Spats O'Toole - "a contrary hoor" - explain how the son, later, could go off the rails in such grand style without ever really foundering? It's notable that the sober O'Toole of today has never expressed regret for the hard living of the past. "It was fun," he says, firmly.

He and Harvey Keitel "spent most of the time talking about bars we knew". Did they have different ways of working? "Oh, completely." While Keitel is associated with the Method school, O'Toole dismisses even the idea of research. "I never do that. Don't know what it means. I read the script and it's either there or it's not. At the end of the day it's just a couple of mummers, chuntering words."

Enough of the introspection. He'd rather practise the tricks he's been learning from the magician on set. Chortling, O'Toole tells me to hold out my hands. And then he passes a coin through the flesh of my palm, rather impressively.

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