Peter O’Toole, the redoubtable 51-year-old actor and notable hellraiser, was entering one of the more unsettled periods of his life, an incredible statement given that O’Toole had all but given up drinking. Now restricted to the occasional glass of red wine, half a lager or vodka – the latter the result of a dreary visit to Moscow in 1980, where there was little else to sip – O’Toole remained a largely unreadable document even when sober. For precisely this reason, O’Toole was single again. His glamorous, blonde girlfriend of three years, former model Karen Brown, 15 years his junior, had returned to her native New York with their ten-month-old son Lorcan. Brown could take no more of O’Toole’s random behaviour. O’Toole was a die-hard daredevil. He would think nothing of scaling a wall or shimmying a drainpipe to gain entry to a fourth-storey property. What was once exciting and delirious had become a deep concern. What if he slipped? What if he broke his neck? As the relationship developed, stability was sought, but little was forthcoming. There was no rational conduct. A woman’s devotion bounced off an invisible protective shield. You didn’t even know what you were trying to love. Who was Peter O’Toole? What resided beyond the legend and that staggering acting ability? With O’Toole, you simply had to accept him for what he was – whatever that was. O’Toole wasn’t wired the same way as most people, although after Brown had fled he told a friend that if any woman were to show interest in him, they should be led to safety.
Brown’s departing was difficult to digest, but O’Toole was mortified to have lost Lorcan. For decades, O’Toole had longed for a son and when he’d finally been presented with one, he’d liked what he saw. Every thought was now taken up with that sweet child so many miles away. The uncertainty of regular interaction was a torture, tearing O’Toole’s soul to shreds like Geoff Capes pulling apart a Yellow Pages. Not a year old, Lorcan would surely forget his father’s Columbia-blue eyes, ashen hue and affectionate glances. He would, perhaps, become the son of another man, a Sylvester Stallone-like meatpacker from the Bronx with a voice reminiscent of a walrus gearing up for battle prior to leathery courtship.
In the past, O’Toole would have strode to the nearest free house and pointed to a refreshingly expensive tincture, but sidestepping life’s harsh realities with Highland-strength waters was no longer an option. In 1975, following a decades-spanning stomach complaint, O’Toole had almost gone for a Burton, only to be saved by an immediate operation where yards of intestines had been removed. Doctors warned that drinking in the future would lead to swift death and for the first time since his teens, O’Toole faced the possibility of life stone-cold sober. He had loved whisky, adored its warmth and its radiating bonhomie. And he missed the camaraderie of heavy sessions, of crackling conversation with complete strangers, those glorious lost hours. Whisky was the “sovereign remedy”. O’Toole allowed himself a smile as he remembered the night that he drained a full bottle of single-malt Laphroaig in one breathless swig, as his fellow RADA-trained friend Roy Kinnear gasped in disbelief. Oh, those were the days.
O’Toole was behind the wheel of a car, a rare event in the Eighties. The reason for this was simple: O’Toole was as wild a driver as he had been a drinking companion. His early existence could be told through a series of car smashes. Road accidents and booze were often fellow conspirators and it was somewhat disturbing that O’Toole could only recall such life-threatening circumstances when reminded at a later date, to which O’Toole would purr, “Oh yes…” Even sober, O’Toole was a Buckaroo motorist, tackling bends and inclines like a Spitfire pilot facing a finger-four formation of Luftwaffe fighters over the English Channel.
How O’Toole avoided a custodial sentence for his erratic driving was a mystery. Occasionally, in the Fifties and early Sixties, he’d deliberately shunt police cars, spurred on by some past police wrongdoing he’d witnessed, but would receive little more than a ticking off. They were different times, of course, different people. O’Toole owned an Irish driving licence, but had never actually sat a test. The slip of paper had been bought for 30 shillings from a third party in a pub, but in reality the licence was barely used. O’Toole employed a chauffeur, but today, Friday, 13 January 1984, John Kenny – O’Toole’s bodyguard and general dogsbody – had taken a two-week break to spend time with an ill relative in Galway.
On a whim, as the moment had taken him, O’Toole had flown to Ireland to discuss with Kenny the possibility of them kidnapping the actor’s son, Lorcan, from New York. Quite rightly Kenny believed the plot was a cordon-bleu recipe for utter disaster, and gave a stern warning of prison stays, slippery soap in showers and Genial Groutys, yet O’Toole was convinced the idea was sound and began planning a military-like strike involving yachts, Caribbean-island hideaways and secret plane flights back to the Emerald Isle. Timing was of the essence – O’Toole would return to London, promptly, to prepare the heist. O’Toole knew people who knew people – the devil was in the detail, and all this was quite, quite possible. In the chaotic existence of the Lawrence Of Arabia star, drama and comedy were the norm. He gave himself a fortnight to complete the dastardly deed. He’d then go to ground, like the nameless protagonist in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male – a Hitler-hunting story greatly admired by O’Toole – and remain out of sight of Lily Law, possibly in West Connacht at the furthest reaches of Europe. With a bit of luck, he’d miss the premiere of his latest big-screen debacle, Supergirl.
He was driven to Dublin Airport by Kenny, but all flights were grounded until further notice: fog. The concourse was a confused mass of scowls and bejesuses. O’Toole’s timetable had been bowled a googly, but an information desk offered alternative routes. Ferries from Dublin were fully booked, but if sir would like to hotfoot it to Belfast, there was a swift crossing to Stranraer at midday. With his 30-shilling licence and a great deal of platinum chat, O’Toole was able to hire a burnt-orange, three-litre Ford Capri S, and with much haste, after some unsightly bunny hops out of the rental yard, steered the long bonnet towards the N1 dual carriageway on the northern outskirts of the city. Ulster, here we come.
On board the ferry, O’Toole awkwardly positioned the Capri amid dreary, smeared Transit vans and removals lorries and switched the engine off. Already, there was an ugly gash along the Capri’s door and the “S” decal by the rear wheel arch had been given a scrape – it must have been the traffic barrier he’d clipped. O’Toole allowed himself a grin and a bronchial chuckle. Up on deck, powerful foghorns sounded out their low-frequency belching, while return calls blasted back across the Belfast Lough. The fog! O’Toole marvelled. The thick, thick fog! What an adventure this was becoming!
Better still, the chance to kill two birds with one stone had suddenly appeared. Getting behind the wheel for the first time in ten years and riding the Irish Sea’s chop, O’Toole would, by mid-afternoon, find himself in northern parts of the mainland, offering a tantalising chance to research a location that had been causing him grave concern for some time. An Adolf Hitler obsessive, O’Toole fanatically loathed – as he’d titled – “that mincing dude from Linz”, a hatred with roots in the cinemas of wartime Leeds, where O’Toole had once lived. The vision of Hitler, that spluttering, exploding, contorted, wide-eyed lunatic had been, for young Peter, the pure vision of evil – for he planned to invade my England of Robin Hood, King Arthur and William Shakespeare and lead my formidable Mummy and Daddy to slavery, starvation and death by bullet.
O’Toole had discovered that Hitler, the bookie’s favourite to conquer Britain in 1940 with his brazen blitzkriegs, had earmarked potential countryside hideaways for personal use, an eagle’s nest, wolf’s lair – shitehawk’s crag – or some other ferocious-sounding sett that confirmed the exultant one’s standing at the top of the foodchain. Shropshire had been studied through black-and-white photographs, postcards and reconnaissance images and given “potential” status. But the Führer, recalled O’Toole, fancied the crystal sniff of Cumbria.
The border setting was well out of the way of the smoky extermination camps that would have sprung up in Lincolnshire and Lancashire. The iron will, spearheaded by barking-mad Colonel Professor Dr Franz Six, would have seen murderous Einsatzkommandos round up 300,000 British Jews and countless other freemasons, academics and entertainers, and crammed their trembling bodies into the chambers. While all manner of indecency was taking place, Hitler would have walked his German shepherd dogs – what else? – to urinate on the stones of Hadrian’s Wall.
But there was something more sinister to this castellated Cumbrian pile that had piqued Alf’s interest. It was noted in secret SS documents that Hangingbrow Hall was haunted, a depot of demented memories with its own doorway to the underworld. Not a safe house like Windsor Castle or Chatsworth to salivate over verdant views and lawnmowers, no. Hangingbrow was a melting pot of evil and wickedness, a woodland-sheltered hollow of secrets, nightmares and, it was said, raging phantoms. Much must surely have been based on hearsay, the obscure ramblings of a tortured crackpot spy of Reivers stock, but ever the occultist, Hangingbrow Hall sounded right up Hitler’s Straße. O’Toole would make a cold call and see these spooks for himself.
At Stranraer, in thick, swirling mists, O’Toole scraped past a Morris Marina on the quayside and a melee ensued. After paying off an irate Scotsman with five crisp £20 notes, O’Toole picked up the A75 eastwards, within earshot of harbour gulls, and let the V6 Capri off the lead. It was a fine thing to floor a three-litre sports car when the visibility was down to 20 feet.