Burning Both Ends: When Oliver Reed Met Keith Moon

This week, Radio 4 broadcast “Burning Both Ends: When Oliver Reed Met Keith Moon,” an hour-long radio play starring Sean Pertwee as Reed and Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill as Moon.

Burning Both Ends tells the story of one of the most infamous, unexpected and touching of friendships between two icons of the 1970s, Oliver Reed and Keith Moon.

In the mid-1970s, Oliver was an international movie star, and Keith was a rock n’roll legend, the drummer for rock band, The Who. Both were famous for their partying and boozing, as well as their undeniable talents. Mercurial and unpredictable, both men were at the top of their game — but the top can be a very lonely place.

Then they met, on the film set of The Who’s epic rock opera, Tommy. What followed was a revelation — in each other they found a true kindred spirit, their own shadow image.

This is a story of madness and mayhem, antics and adventures, but also of love and loss — the dangerous, dazzling brilliance of two unbridled spirits connecting, but then the huge pain when one of them dies prematurely.

Burning Both Ends tells the story of one of the most infamous, unexpected and touching of friendships between two icons of the 1970s, Oliver Reed and Keith Moon.

In 1974, Reed feels trapped by the life of a British film superstar.  Offered a role in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which means six months in Los Angeles, a city that Reed “loved as much as I loved having [his] genitals stamped on by estate agents,” Reed turns it down to take a role in Ken Russell’s Tommy.  Then, a few weeks before the film shoot, a helicopter buzzes his Surrey estate while he’s having a bath, and an enraged Oliver Reed goes outside, naked, and shoots at it and forces it to land.  He storms toward the chopper and comes face to face with Keith Moon, a man with “a big expressive cartoon-like face under a mop of hair, his eyebrows were going up and down like caterpillars on elastic, and his eyes rolled like Groucho Marx after a swift kick in the nuts.”  Reed’s attitude changes — “I had every right to knock his face off.  Unfortunately, I liked him immediately.”  Reed offers Moon a drink, and the two men bond.

What struck me was how much like Fight Club this was.  I sussed onto that about twenty minutes in, when Moonie has recruited Oliver into his first moment of destructive mayhem — a cherry bomb down the toilet of the cast hotel for Tommy.  Reed is the Ed Norton character — he’s disenchanted with his life and his career, he’s good at what he does but he doesn’t feel that he is and he isn’t particularly happy with the demands that his life places upon him.  Then he meets Moonie, and Moonie becomes Reed’s Tyler Durden — the id unchecked.  And that encounter profoundly changes Oliver Reed; in the company of Moonie, Reed begins to unshackle himself from the demands of friends, society, and his excessive professionalism, embracing an anarchistic lifestyle.  Says Moonie: “You’ve got a choice.  Play their game, or play yours.”  Then Reed realizes: “He was right.  Embrace madness or settle for normality.  Those were the options.”  The Fight Club parallel breaks apart in the final act when Reed and Moonie part, but that leads to a final moment of epiphany on Reed’s part about his deceased friend that struck me as rather touching.

Burning Both Ends was laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly touching, and what makes it work is the peformances.  Reed is the central character in the play with a compelling and emotional character arc, while Moon isn’t quite as central, being more the catalyst for Reed’s change.  Darvill is especially good at capturing the manic schoolboy insanity of Keith Moon, and he veers wildly from drunk to serious, sometimes in the same scene.  It’s Pertwee’s Oliver Reed that carries the play; he moves from dour to exuberent to pensive in the course of the play.  I don’t think that either actor particularly sounds like the person they are portraying, but they do quite well in inhabiting their characters and imbuing them with life.

Burning Both Ends is an enjoyable hour.  It’s available on the BBC iPlayer for the next few days, and it’s also downloadable through the BBC’s Play of the Week podcast.


Originally published here.