BBC News

Magazine

Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 11:08 UK

Why do hellraisers fascinate us?

Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Pete Doherty

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

From Oliver Reed to Amy Winehouse, the antics of badly behaved celebrities seem to draw us to them. Why?

Years before Pete Doherty or the Gallagher brothers had enjoyed their first sip of alcohol, the rich and infamous were stumbling out of nightclubs and fighting with photographers.

Richard Burton and Oliver Reed were among the first stars to capture the imagination as much for their colourful lives off screen as their talents in front of the camera or on the stage.

A new book catalogues some of the legendary drinking feats, womanising and occasional violence that made these boozing buddies - alongside Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole - famous in the 1960s and 70s.

OTHER SO-CALLED HELLRAISERS*
Keith Richards
Colin Farrell
Charlotte Church
Tracey Emin
Keith Allen
Jack Nicholson
Mike Tyson
*so-called in newspaper reports

Although only the long-teetotal O'Toole is still alive today, their mantle has passed to a new generation of badly-behaved stars.

Hardly a day goes by without the same old faces being snapped prostrate in the gutter or checking into rehab.

While many claim to be tired of reading about the antics of Winehouse and Doherty, the media coverage of wayward stars - and the resulting sales - suggests the public appetite is largely undiminished.

Nostalgia

"I guess the fascination is to see flaws in people - even if you attain huge stardom and wealth and fame, you're in trouble as much as we are," says Robert Sellers, author of Hellraisers.

"There's a reassurance about that. We don't want to read about people being rich and famous and having a great life."

He believes Harris, Burton, O'Toole and Reed became legends partly because their antics were not plastered all over the papers every day.

Richard Burton
God put me on this earth to raise sheer hell
Richard Burton

"We look back with rose-tinted glasses because they were guilty of some very unpalatable behaviour yet they achieved mythical status.

"Not many people saw them paralytic and drunk like we do today with Amy Winehouse. The 24-hour media wasn't around in the 60s."

Richard Burton would throw up in the foyers of hotels, but if top stars did that now, he says, someone would be there with a mobile phone to take a picture.

Most of their antics - like O'Toole going for a drink in Paris and waking up in Corsica, or Richard Burton downing 48 shots of whisky on a film set - were reported years later.

But shouldn't this behaviour be condemned, rather than glorified?

OED definition of 'hellraiser'
What the hell is a hellraiser?

Sellers says his book does not moralise.

"It's pretty obvious that they behaved outrageously. If you throw a wardrobe at the wife or go out to an orgy and come back a week later, then that's outrageous behaviour. But we celebrate it as well because people don't do that anymore."

Today's stars are not worthy of the label "hellraiser", he thinks, because they don't have the style and humour of the bad boys of the past.

But we envy these people because they seem to be able to break the rules we all want to break, says Ellis Cashmore, author of Celebrity/Culture.

"We would end up behind bars or fined or wounded by embarrassment. There are costs that we would have to pay that they can get away with."

At some point in our lives we would like to speak to a copper like that, he says, or chuck a glass of warm beer in the face of a barman and walk away, so there's a grudging admiration.

Pride before fall

But there's something inherently conservative about the way celebrities eventually pay for their sins through punishment or stigmatisation.

THEY DID WHAT?
Reed drank 126 pints in 24 hours
Burton can't remember filming The Clansman - he was drunk throughout
Harris often drank two bottles of vodka each day and said he loved reading the papers to find out what he had done
O'Toole severed top of his finger and reattached it himself, under influence of brandy
"It's a restorative balance. We did admire these people because they break the rules and we can't do that. But hey, isn't it nice to see them get their comeuppance?

"It reminds us that they can get away with it for a time but at some point there's a status quo that has to be observed."

The path of self-destruction does offer artistic credibility, however, especially in the world of rock 'n' roll, says Cashmore.

For some, like Robbie Williams, it's a career choice in the pursuit of recognition. Others, like the Rolling Stones and Doherty, just fall into excess, he says. In Doherty's case, it has arguably rewarded him with publicity far beyond what his talent could muster.

It may be no accident that so many turn to drugs or booze. Some psychologists believe addictive personalities are linked to artistic creativity, so musicians and actors are more likely to suffer addictions, especially under the pressure of fame.

The public tires very quickly from unrepentant hellraisers
Ashley Pearson
For women who stray on to the wild side, there is a higher price to pay, says show business columnist Ashley Pearson.

"Figures like Richard Burton and Oliver Reed are celebrated and glorified, these hard-living, alcoholic men who get into brawls.

"But look at the female equivalent, Kathleen Turner, who wrote openly about her addiction to alcohol.

"We talk about women losing their looks or their unfeminine behaviour. Lily Allen flashed her boobs at Cannes and was carried out of a nightclub into a taxi.

"If she were male it would be smiled and laughed at. It reflects our culture that women must be ladylike."

But there's only so much bad behaviour that fans can stomach, she warns.

"The public tires very quickly of unrepentant hellraisers. We smile for a bit but if it wasn't for Amy's talent she would be over by now."

Ill-health and apathy. Raising hell, it seems, may not be a fulfilling career choice.


Below is a selection of your comments:

I personally think it's nothing to do with the past stars mentioned being revered due to less coverage at the time - it's a simple fact that they had huge talent. Moss, Doherty, Winehouse, Williams don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Reed, O'Toole, Harris & especially Burton.
Ross Millar, Edinburgh

Colourful creative characters throughout history enrich a country's cultural heritage. Whether it was Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde or Oliver Reed- you can not deny these are very interesting people. The 24 hour media culture is to blame for over saturating the situation, but ultimately the relationship between genius and self depreciation is an interesting one.
Curig, Manchester

I was working at a restaurant not too far from where Oliver Reed lived, I guess he was a regular when he was in Ireland, and he came in, got plastered, got mad when he was asked to leave and then proceeded to parade around the parking lot in the nude.
Tamara, Victoria BC Canada

Pity the hotel worker who cleans up the vomit. Worse consider the idiots who emulate this behaviour every weekend who don't pay to have the world cleared up after them. It isn't big, it isn't funny and hellraising is another word for criminal behaviour.
Trina, UK

Keith Richards is a legend. Where would the Rolling Stones be now if they'd all gone to bed early and drunk sparkling water? The only down side is when people can't see the difference between the millionaire Keith Richards partying all night and paying his way, and the scrotes I see hanging round Blackpool every day signing on and drinking meths
Mike , Blackpool

"Sellers says his book does not moralise". To say nothing is wrong and to take the money is even worse. 'Hell-raisers' are either useless drunken rabble or people, like Richard Burton, who will fail to realise their true potential. Were Kant, Handel, James Joyce or Monet drunks or drug addicts? Kant for King, London

I've have nothing but contempt for the hell raiser lifestyle. Usually they are selfish, have huge egos, and create misery for everyone unfortunate to be around them. What is so big about drinking 126 pints in 24 hours anyway? Bet Olly Reid didn't keep the count though. Can't they apply their wealth and fame to something more productive?
Alistair Walker,

Many people live vicariously through the exploits of wild people, but the only reason why a lot of these figures are so suddenly popular is because of the extent to which the media in this day and age feeds off society to set the cultural agenda.
Karl Chads, London, UK

'Hellraisers' are selfish, careless individuals who have no respect for peace, decorum and manners in a given situation. The news is that it is not impressive, it's annoying and says many more bad things about a person than good. I feel nothing for the likes of Kate Moss and Pete Docherty, they are nothing to me.
Doug, UK

We need these people as role models against the bleak mediocrity fostered by governments.
Paolo, St Albans

Is it that we, the public, are interested in 'Stars' behaving badly, or that the media are & we are merely buying the papers etc out of habit?
Sharon Pearse, Portsmouth, UK




FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific