Peter O’Toole and a lost Sunderland passion


Eight years ago, I thought I’d cracked it for my series of Celebrity Supporter interviews for
Wear Down South. Missing out on Gina McKee, Dave Stewart and – bizarrely given his initial enthusiasm – Glenn Hugill had been disappointing, but an exclusive interview with Peter O’Toole beckoned …

Peter O’Toole‘s connection with Sunderland AFC was, for a very long time, a mystery to me.

I’d heard the rumours, been told of the chatshow asides and wondered about the truth. Couldn’t recall seeing him in the away end anywhere, and didn’t bump into him on rare forays into executive dining areas.

But in 2002, I thought I had made a breakthrough that would lead the a modest world scoop for the newsletter of the London and Southern England branch of the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association.

My obscure musical interests had led me to interview Linda Thompson, the folk-rock singer.

She turned out to be one of his closest friends (her American husband, Steve Kenis, was his agent). And she had an idea that the link had something to do with his Irish father playing for us. Wikipedia says: “O’Toole is the son of Constance Jane (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O’Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player and racecourse bookmaker.” But there is no trace of PJ O’Toole in my SAFC records.

So Linda and I did a swap: Tony Benn for Peter O’Toole.

I promised to send Benn a copy of her album, Fashionably Late, which she excitedly signed “from a fan” (prompting an equally effusive reply) and she set to work on O’Toole.

“Normally he won’t do interviews,” she told me as I left her rather desirable pad off the King’s Road in Chelsea (Linda, it must be said, had moved effortlessly from life in a commune with her ex, the fabulous guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, to a life of luxury.)

“But he’s so mad about sport that I’m sure he’d do this”.

Oh no he wouldn’t. The trail was to lead nowhere in terms of an interview, but did enable me to assemble the story of the O’Toole connection to Wearside.

Failure of the principal mission was announced by Steve Kenis a couple of weeks after his wife’s confident encouragement. “I spoke to Peter who is in Tunisia shooting a picture. But he said that his tie to Sunderland AFC, if you could even call it a tie, was strictly historical and very tenuous.

“It was all really to do with Roker Park. Since they moved to the Stadium of Light, he has not really considered himself to be in the Sunderland AFC group or family or whatever. So he thanks you very, very much but says sorry, it’s not for him. He has not considered himself a supporter since the move. Everything they meant to him was when they were at Roker Park.”

The story obviously still deserved to be told. And I knew that O’Toole had mentioned Sunderland on television some years ago, and perhaps in an autobiography.

A plea for help on the Blackcats e-mail loop brought instant relief: one subscriber, Ian Ewart, said his grandfather had worked as a builder’s labourer in Sunderland “with an Irish fella called O’Toole – and according to my dad it was none other than Peter’s fatha”.

The nature of the work, Ian thought, probably explained the “reticence in recounting his humble origins”.

Another e-mail, from Michael Storey, put flesh on bones. He came up with a story the Sunderland Echo ran in 2002 as O’Toole was pondering whether to accept an honorary Oscar (he did in the end).

The Echo began by confirming the book reference. To quote snippets from O’Toole’s memoirs, his dad – “Captain Pat” – had “served an apprenticeship as a metal plater and shipwright in the North East of England, where my grandmother ran a pair of second-hand furniture shops. At the end of Great War his 20s were running out and he turned to gambling. Captain Pat lived … as an itinerant racetrack bookmaker.”

The Echo‘s John Howe was helped in his researches by a bit of his own family history.

His grandfather also knew O’Toole senior and worked for him as a bookie’s runner. John found that Pat had been a man who, though well-liked, lived “on the fringes of the law” and may well have been talked into leaving Sunderland by the police.

The family eventually settled in Leeds, where Peter was brought up, but father (and, in turn, son) maintained a “strong affiliation” with Sunderland, through football.

During the 1980s, the Echo added, O’Toole made a low-key return to Wearside, staying at the Seaburn Hotel (now the Marriott), while digging for the autobiography.

Maybe O’Toole genuinely, though just as wrongly as Gina McKee, felt he had nothing to say that would interest us. My Wear Down South series ended a long time ago. O’Toole was just another of those who got away.

Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole is now 77. If the passing of a few more years has mellowed him, Salut! Sunderland Towers remain open to one of the great actors of his generation, a man who holds the unusual distinction of being the most-nominated male lead (eight) not to win an Oscar. Failing that, maybe big Niall could play the Irish card and lure him to the Stadium of Light …


Colin Randall

* The article is based on the resume, published previously when the readership of Salut! Sunderland was much smaller, of the Celebrity Supporter interviews I obtained – and the ones I failed to obtain. See this link for the archive, though I should warn you that the transfer of material between site hosts has left it in dire need of a tidy-up.

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9 thoughts on “Peter O’Toole and a lost Sunderland passion”

  1. As a Mackam born and bred I was interested to read about the Irish connection and the information that O’Toole senior may have been a Bookie around the time of WW1. A few years ago I wrote a fictionalised version of my grandfathers early life, ‘The Picture of Joe Roc,’ (now an underground classic.) Although my grandfather was French he spent a lot of his life in Sunderland working at Millburns Bakery. ‘Joe Roc’ was the psuedonym he used for gambling, After the book was published someone from Sunderland told me that ‘Joe Roc’ was a common psuedonym used by many gamblers around that time? Can anyone verify this as I have been approached to revise the book for the second edition? There is also a reference to a match in the book, Sunderland v Villa. Cheers Owen

  2. Thanks – haha , I’ll ignore the obvious sarcasm
    I was really trying to say that , I get a real buzz every time I go to Sunderland – it’s a strange feeling really – a sense of belonging – and it was good to find out I was originally from there – and my loathing of the mags is second to none .
    Your postings are always very readable , and varied ; I’d never heard of Linda Thompson – but I’ll give that album a try now , see how she compares with my fave Eva Cassidy .

  3. Although not quite as famous , albeit extremely more handsome than the 2 aforementioned chaps , I too was from a Sunderland mother . Adopted at birth (I think I was born at Elswick – which was the home for unmarried mothers during their pregnancy – as carrying a child outside wedlock was frowned upon in those days ) . I have always followed Sunderland since my father took me (at a very young age) to see the game against Man Utd at roker park – I think it ended 0 – 0 – although please someone correct me – and the headlines on the next days papers was “Baxter dazzles United”
    Anyway it was nice to find out I was a true mackem upon tracing my birth mother

    ps My father also took me to see Lawrence of Arabia – at the pics for a birthday treat – I was bored senseless !!!!!!!!!

  4. T.E. Lawrence’s mother was born in Sunderland and his grandmother, though the records are a little imprecise, almost certainly in Monkwearmouth. That doesn’t quite make him the Mackem of Arabia but it’s a start.

  5. Thanks Phil. I vaguely knew about that, too, but had forgotten. His mother was born in Sunderland and as of six years ago, there were still living relatives on Wearside.

    This is from the Echo in April 2004:

    The Echo recently revealed that Thomas Edward Lawrence’s mother, Sarah Junner, was born in Sunderland.
    She was the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Junner, a domestic servant, and John Lawrence, a Sunderland shipyard worker.
    We asked our readers: Could you be a long-lost relation of Lawrence of Arabia?
    Tony Arthur, who has been researching his family tree, came up with a wealth of new information.
    It appears that his mother’s Aunt Simonia – the niece of Elizabeth Junner – had come back to Sunderland for a funeral and revealed the famous connection.
    “But nobody believed her at the time. I was flabbergasted to find out she was right,” says Tony.
    His connection is through his mother, born Sarah Roper in Sunderland in 1916.
    Sarah went to Ireland to work as a nanny in the household of Thomas Chapman. He left his wife for Sarah and they had seven illegitimate sons, including Thomas Edward.
    Tony can also reveal that Elizabeth Junner’s parents were not, as had been thought, John and Jane Junner, who lived in Hamilton Street, Sunderland, at the time of the 1861 census.
    Her parents were, in fact, George and Simonia Junner, of Cromarty, Scotland, who had seven children.
    Tony’s own researches are also backed up by the latest evidence unearthed by academics.
    They trace the lineage through Sarah, born in Sunderland, and her mother Elizabeth, to George and Simonia Junner in Cromarty.
    Their research also shows Sarah, aged 19, working as a milliner and living in the household of her uncle, also George Junner, in Skye, at the time of the 1881 census. So this shows she went to Ireland, where she worked as a nanny in the household of Lawrence’s father, much later than has been supposed.
    Sarah’s maternal grandparents, George and Simonia, had seven children.
    At least two strands from this family ended up in Sunderland.
    As we have seen, Elizabeth (Lawrence of Arabia’s grandmother) worked here as a servant, and at some point her brother Walter’s daughter, Simonia Junner, settled on Wearside with her husband Robert Platten, and three subsequent generations were born here.
    One of their sons, Everett Edward, was Tony Arthur’s grandfather.
    Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence’s biographer who is continuing his own research and also working on Lawrence family correspondence to be published as a book, was delighted to hear of Sarah’s further Sunderland connections.
    “This is absolutely fascinating, particularly because this seemed the least likely strand of the lineage to yield further information,” he said.
    For obvious reasons, in those more puritanical times, Sarah revealed nothing of her background and Lawrence himself thought his adopted surname had been plucked at random.
    But now Jeremy Wilson is hoping that Sarah may have secretly kept in touch with her Wearside relations – and that someone may have some of her letters or other memorabilia tucked in the archives.

    His connection is through his mother, born Sarah Roper in Sunderland in 1916.
    Sarah went to Ireland to work as a nanny in the household of Thomas Chapman. He left his wife for Sarah and they had seven illegitimate sons, including Thomas Edward.

    Tony can also reveal that Elizabeth Junner’s parents were not, as had been thought, John and Jane Junner, who lived in Hamilton Street, Sunderland at the time of the 1861 census.
    Her parents were, in fact, George and Simonia Junner, of Cromarty, Scotland, who had seven children.
    Tony’s own researches are also backed up by the latest evidence unearthed by academics. They trace the lineage through Sarah, born in Sunderland, and her mother Elizabeth, to George and Simonia Junner in Cromarty.
    Their research also shows Sarah, aged 19, working as a milliner and living in the household of her uncle, also George Junner, in Skye, at the time of the 1881 census. So this shows she went to Ireland, where she worked as a nanny in the household of Lawrence’s father, much later than has been supposed.
    Sarah’s maternal grandparents, George and Simonia, had seven children.
    At least two strands from this family ended up in Sunderland.
    As we have seen, Elizabeth (Lawrence of Arabia’s grandmother) worked here as a servant, and at some point her brother Walter’s daughter, Simonia Junner, settled on Wearside with her husband Robert Platten, and three subsequent generations were born here.
    One of their sons, Everett Edward, was Tony Arthur’s grandfather.
    Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence’s biographer who is continuing his own research and also working on Lawrence family correspondence to be published as a book, was delighted to hear of Sarah’s further Sunderland connections.
    “This is absolutely fascinating, particularly because this seemed the least likely strand of the lineage to yield further information,” he said.
    For obvious reasons, in those more puritanical times, Sarah revealed nothing of her background and Lawrence himself thought his adopted surname had been plucked at random.
    But now Jeremy Wilson is hoping that Sarah may have secretly kept in touch with her Wearside relations – and that someone may have some of her letters or other memorabilia tucked in the archives.

  6. I think if you do some research you wil also find Lawrance of Arabia is connected to Sunderland. What a co-incidence!

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