Charles Heslett: The time I met Peter O’Toole in a pub in Leeds...honestly!

Peter O'Toole.
Peter O'Toole.
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When I first started working as a reporter for the YEP I had three people who I really wanted to interview.

They were all either from Leeds, or had very close connections with the city. They were Jimmy Savile, Damien Hirst and Peter O’Toole. It was the last name which started it all off.

As a teenager I was in the tap room of The Adelphi pub in Hunslet drinking a pint of Tetley’s bitter, then brewed a short walk away at the now closed brewery.

Me, my mate Woody and another lad called Rob were talking about nothing in particular when a tall, lanky middle-aged bloke came in through the side door and ordered a drink.

This figure caught my eye as he was wearing a cream linen suit. In the late 1980s this was an unusual sight in Leeds.

I turned to my mates and said: “That’s Peter O’Toole.” Neither of them showed any interest.

To be fair, O’Toole was then well past the 1960s pomp of his Lawrence of Arabia days and still a long way off his eighth Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor in the film Venus (2006).

Fetching the next round, I asked the barman if it was O’Toole. He confirmed it was, and said O’Toole occasionally drank there as he had grown up in the area (apparently, he affectionately called it “Hunsbeck” – combining Holbeck and Hunslet).

I paid for the round – 2p cheaper per pint than in the lounge – and a seed was sown.

Now I acknowledge this all sounds a bit far-fetched and you may even feel it’s a bit of a tall tale, but bear with me.

Our then editor was very keen on obituaries after our extensive coverage of Jimmy Savile’s funeral – sadly, we weren’t to know then what was to follow.

Each reporter was either told, or volunteered, to put together an obituary on a leading Leeds figure in the event of their death. This was once standard practice in newspapers but staffing cuts had made it more difficult.

I offered to do Peter O’Toole’s. In his autobiography the actor accepts his birth date as August 2, 1932, but says he has birth certificates from Leeds and Ireland. Many thespians of that generation liked to embellish their background to make themselves seem more colourful. But Peter O’Toole’s Irish father Patrick was, among others things, a metal plater, footballer and bookmaker.

His mother, Constance Jean Elliot O’Toole, was a Scottish nurse and together they toured the racecourses of the north of England with baby Peter in tow.

A young Peter then was evacuated from Leeds during the war and on his return later entered the darkrooms of the Yorkshire Evening Post in Albion Street as a photographic assistant. So he already had an interesting enough backstory.

After a quick trip to Leeds Town Hall a very kind woman handed over a copy of a birth certificate for one Peter James O’Toole. But according to this certificate he was born at 123 Beckett Street, now part of the site of St James’s Hospital. Back then it was known by a different name – the Leeds Workhouse.

In 1904, the Registrar General advised local registration officers that where a child was born in just such a place it didn’t need to be written down on his or her birth certificate, it could be recorded simply as an ordinary street address.

Hence under Column 1 (When and where born) of Mr O’Toole’s certificate it reads Second August 1932, 123 Beckett Street UD. It might explain the actor’s uncertainty over his origins, but it was with great pride that I discovered this as I’ve always wanted him to be from Leeds ever since that chance sighting in The Adelphi.

Island sculpture still all at sea when it comes to access

A conversation in a curry house this week reminded me of the small garage that used to sit in the middle of Eastgate roundabout.

It’s no longer there which is a shame as it made Leeds seem that bit more exotic, especially back in the bleak 1980s.

What is still on the island is a sculpture which commemorates Arthur Louis Aaron who was given the highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross, after his death in 1943.

The 21-year-old pilot from Leeds had bravely helped guide his stricken Sterling aircraft back to base after a raid over Turin in Italy.

In his citation it is acknowledged that Aaron, who was horrifically injured, had used up his physical reserves to see the plane and its crew home safely and the effort cost him his life.

In 2000 the Leeds Civic Trust held a competition and the people of Leeds voted to honour this brave young man with a statue.

The sculpture by Barnsley artist Graham Ibbeson was plonked on the roundabout, the theory being it was symbolic of the future redevelopment of that part of town.

There has been much debate since regarding its position as not many people know it is there and there were repeated calls to move it up to the Leeds Museum where people could actually see it.

The £120m Victoria Gate scheme looks set to start next Spring but the plans do not include the roundabout and so the statue will remain in splendid isolation. Maybe now is the time to look again at where Arthur’s statue should finally rest?

Small is beautiful if you want to be a king of the road

First we had the ‘Chelsea Tractor’.

This was a luxury 4x4, often a Range Rover, used solely for the school run by yummy mummies in posh parts of the south and never so much as driven by a muddy field let alone in one.

Now it seems in Leeds we have a more down-to-earth, but equally annoying, version which we’ll call the ‘Menston Monster Truck’.

These are the American-style pickups – ironically usually Japanese makes although even VW are getting in on the act – which pretty much do exactly what they please on the roads.

Their names say it all; the Invincible (Toyota), the Barbarian (Mitsubishi), the Amarok (VW).

All ooze aggression and dominance – an amarok is from Inuit mythology and means wolf.

Those inside these mechanical beasts will argue that today’s roads are so dangerous that you have to protect your family. For the rest of us it seems the only threat to our safety comes from being in a crash with this new breed of monster truck. I’d prefer an old Land Rover anyway. Meow..!