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Peter O’Toole in 2000. (Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)
Peter O’Toole in 2000. (Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)

john doyle

Why Peter O’Toole’s death marks the end of an era Add to ...

Exactly how Celine Dion and Michael Bublé view Christmas and choose to celebrate the holiday season is of no interest to me.

A Home for the Holidays With Celine Dion (CBS, 8 p.m.) is on tonight and, if you’re partial to this kind of hooey, a short time later along comes Michael Bublé’s 3rd Annual Christmas Special (NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.).

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The former, it is alleged, involves “celebrities presenting inspirational stories of adoption and musical performers include Ne-Yo and Chris Young.” Bublé’s thingamajig is this: “Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Cookie Monster join the singer to perform Christmas classics.”

Somebody’s idea of entertainment, no doubt. In the spirit of the season it would be unwise to begrudge anyone their pleasures but, you know, this stuff is baloney.

I’d like to dwell instead – if you will indulge me – on the recent passing of one Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole. And how his passing signifies the end of an era in entertainment and media.

It is asserted that Peter O’Toole was born in Connemara, County Galway, a place as beautiful as it is bereft. It is also asserted that his birth was registered in Yorkshire, to where his father had fled for work and opportunity. Certainly he spent a lot of time in Connemara in later years. In his lovely statement about O’Toole’s death, Irish President Michael D. Higgins, a Galway man, pointed out that at one time he ran into O’Toole almost daily.

O’Toole was indeed a regular, though fleeting, presence in Ireland, something that made me especially curious about him. One of his few TV roles was as iconic Irish trade union leader James Larkin in a very fine Irish miniseries adaptation of James Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City. It’s worth seeking out – as is one of his last roles, again for TV, in the 2008 Canadian miniseries drama Iron Road, which has never got the attention it deserves.

He was a representative figure of the entertainment racket in the second half of the 20th century. He was a movie star. Almost every obituary has opened with mention of Lawrence of Arabia. He was an actor with a set of great skills and charisma that, at that time, made television seem too small for him. Those days are over now. The era of the profound, unforgettable movie as a vehicle for an actor of O’Toole’s calibre is gone. Television is now where the finest of acting is found, in the richly nuanced multiseason dramas of cable TV.

I was lucky to see O’Toole on the stage once. That was in a performance of one of his classic roles, as the main character in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. (I was too young to see him in Waiting for Godot at the Abbey Theatre in the late 1960s, a role still discussed when I was at university in Ireland.) As Bernard, the legendary English columnist, bon vivant and drinker, O’Toole was playing a soulmate and it showed. The wryness, the wistful regret about hell-raising years and the pleasure in wit, good company and beautiful women was exquisitely delivered.

But thinking about Jeffrey Bernard, and O’Toole’s gift for the role, made me ever more conscious of how much has changed. The real Bernard wrote a splendid column for The Spectator magazine called Low Life. It chronicled his adventures in bohemian London, in the company of poets, actors, artists and others who spent part of their day in the pubs. (Famously, when he delivered his copy, he’d ask to be paid in cash, on the spot.) The Spectator, which was briefly owned by Conrad Black, was and is a conservative magazine. But it contained wonderful, eccentric voices in its pages. Nigella Lawson began her media career reviewing restaurants for it.

One savoured those voices – idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. When O’Toole embodied Bernard it was a lament for such figures. There are no such figures these days. All is abrasive argument and punditry in the digital age. And with O’Toole’s end we see the end of a specific era.

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