Popped over to South London to see a friend whilst Dearly Beloved was playing golf. On the way back, switched the radio to BBC Radio 4 – always interesting but can be a little dry. This afternoon though I caught the last part of a radio adaptation of the play “Jeffrey Barnard is unwell…”. Always a gem, this version starred the very much missed John Hurt as the eponymous Jeffrey Barnard. The play was penned by Keith Waterhouse about his friend Jeffrey, who was a real-life journalist and piss-artist, and whose “unwell” stints usually meant “hungover” or “drunk”. He wrote for the the Spectator, a London magazine; this was the one line apology they printed whenever he (frequently) failed to turn in a column. I remember seeing the play on stage at the Garrick Theatre (it starred Tom Conti, although its original star was Peter O’Toole). This was back in the 80s with the also piss-artist ex, when I could watch a play about an alcoholic and still laugh, although later on the irony was not lost.
I listened to it all the way back (only missing 4 minutes or so coming through the Dartford Tunnel), remembering how funny and poignant it actually was. A few standout moments: ‘cat’ racing – invented by Jeffrey and fellow gamblers who were missing horse and dog racing due to snow and ended when a fight broke out after allegations of ‘doping’! Also, towards the end, Jeffery says “last week, I had an erection. I was so astonished I took a photograph”! This made me laugh out loud in the car; John Hurt said this so perfectly it was funny and sad at the same time.
The play ended just as I pulled off the M25. I had to turn off the radio because I wanted to think about what I’d just listened to and what I would write about. It was a great surprise to hear the play – a tribute to John Hurt, I believe – it was well written, funny and affectionate. Jeffrey Barnard was louch and bohemian and lived in Soho, full of other louch and bohemian men (read: alcoholics). He died at 65 of renal failure due to complications from diabetes and alcoholism. He’d had his right leg amputated a few years before for the same reasons. I find this sad and very close to home. He was erudite and interesting but feckless and always looking for his next drink or bet. Rest in peace Jeffrey.