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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links