“I have come to terms with the fact that my dinner is in the oven and always will be.” One of the many pointed epigrams from the pen of legendary writer Jeffrey Bernard that feature in Keith Waterhouse’s splendid and hilarious script for Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, being performed for the first time at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival in 2015.
Not only is the play making its GICF debut, it’s also the first time it’s been done in Scotland and is rarely performed elsewhere which is a shame given that it is riotous, funny, sad and elegiac. It’s also a bit sweary (though worlds away from Mamet) and, if you happen to be the sort of bore who looks for offence in everything, then you should feel right at home here.
Jeffrey Bernard: stage hand, fairground boxer, inveterate gambler, womaniser will be remembered mostly for two things – drinking and writing. With the former frequently affecting the latter, his weekly column “Low Life” in the otherwise sober and stentorian Spectator magazine, often failed to appear due to Jeffrey’s inebriation. The magazine’s editors, often left with a space to fill at the eleventh hour after Jeff failed to deliver yet another piece on time, came up with the delightful phrase “Jeffrey Bernard Is Ill” later watered down to the far more euphemistic “Unwell” to cover a hole in their page plan.
Many of the characters that populate the script, including Jeff himself, are now dead – sent to an early grave in most cases by an over-fondness for the bottle. Bernard was always going for ‘just the one’... another euphemism, of course, for a bender that often lasted several days. The rogues’ gallery lives on though in Waterhouse’s sparkling script... from no knickers Joyce, potty mouthed landlady Muriel Belcher, Dennis Shaw – a man even drunker that JB if that was possible, to the stars of stage, screen and Fleet Street back in the day.
Journalists, and people working in the media, should love this play. In an era when getting out to actually cover news was the rule rather than the exception (sitting in an office lifting quotes from Twitter just doesn’t have the same appeal, does it?) Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell provides a window into a mostly forgotten world where the fourth estate meant long liquid lunches, fist fights, angry editors and, sometimes, fist fights with angry editors.
Bernard though was more than just a journalist: a grim, brave and funny diarist of the times in which he was a snarling participant. It might have been stories from the gutter, but it was a gutter he knew and which knew him (often, literally, when he ended up lying in the street after yet another multi-day piss up).
Come along and see our show: a play set in a pub: what more could you ask for? Only on this occasion Soho’s Coach and Horses is transported to Glasgow’s oldest and much-loved Sloans bar. Jeffrey Bernard might be unwell but in March we will bring him back to life for “just the one”... one last time.