Experiences of writer-director Bruce Robinson

Withnail and I is one of the most quoted films of all time. James Oliver revisits a favourite of his youth with more mature eyes.

Withnail and I was a film drawn from the experiences of writer-director Bruce Robinson.

Before he was nominated for an Oscar for his script for The Killing Fields or achieved a measure of acting success in The Story of Adele H. (for François Truffaut) and Romeo and Juliet (for Franco Zeffirelli), Robinson had shared digs with a waspish young actor called Vivian MacKerrell. He became the model for Withnail.

Much of the film was drawn from his adventures with MacKerrell at the very fringes of polite society. ‘I”s awkward encounter with the amorous Uncle Monty (“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!”) however, is drawn from Robinson’s own awkward encounter with a then-prominent Italian film director.

Given that it’s based on anecdotes polished and perfected over 20 years, it’s hardly a surprise that the film is so funny, especially when it’s topped off with some of the most quotable dialogue available to humanity.

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Withnail and I

 

Like Hamlet, pretty much every Withnail and I line has entered the vernacular (“I demand to have some booze!”; “A coward you are, Withnail. An expert on bulls you are not!”; “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”; “I’ve only had a few ales” amongst many, many others).

No matter how funny it is, it misrepresents the film to label it a comedy. This is, ultimately, a movie soaked in the most terrible sadness. Withnail himself makes for fine company but we can be in no doubt his lifestyle is not built to last.

The conclusion sees ‘I’ finally securing a job, in a play that requires him to smarten up and, to Withnail’s disgust, cut his hair.

Withnail is incapable of making such compromises, no matter how they might benefit his acting career, and is forever destined flounder through poverty and obscurity. He might recite a soliloquy from Hamlet at the end but we know he will never, in the words of Uncle Monty, “play the Dane.”

“Youngsters enjoy Withnail as a hero or even—God forbid—a role model because the consequences of his lifestyle are so hard to imagine.”

Such was the fate of the real Withnail, Vivian MacKerrell. A lifetime of heavy drinking took its toll; he was diagnosed with throat cancer around the time the film was released and he died, aged only 50, in 1995.

I guess most directors would say that it’s not a nine-to-five job. When you write or direct a film, you are into it completely. Some people are good at detaching themselves from their work, and some are not. The way things have happened with me, I can’t guarantee that I will be making films two-three years down the line. But right now, I am excited about my next script. I have been happy with the way things have happened. Now that I have a grown-up daughter, who is studying in the US, I’m trying some time management, so that I can give more time to not only the people I love, but also to myself for my personal growth

I am talking about 1984. So, my middle-class parents had their insecurities, as they felt I needed to take up a professional course. But I was lucky to have parents who, despite being alarmed, went along with my wish. Then I went to Keval Arora (staff advisor to The Players), in whom I found a teacher who understood my enthusiasm. I consider myself lucky to have understanding parents and a teacher like that.

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Interesting Facts About ‘Withnail and I’

By Garin Pirnia

When the British film Withnail and I was released in 1987, it wasn’t a huge hit. It took a VHS release for people to develop a taste for the movie, which follows two “resting” thespians, the dipsomaniac Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), in 1969. Withnail and I visit Uncle Monty (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) in the countryside for a “holiday by mistake,” one in which everything goes wrong.

First-time director Bruce Robinson—who was nominated for an Oscar two years earlier for his script for The Killing Fields—based the screenplay on his own life as a broke actor in drama school living in Camden Town, England. Beatle George Harrison produced the film through his HandMade Films, which is why Robinson was able to use The Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the soundtrack. The film launched the careers of everyone involved, including McGann (Doctor Who) and Grant. Here are 13 boozy facts about the cult classic.

1. WITHNAIL WAS BASED ON BRUCE ROBINSON’S FRIEND, ACTOR VIVIAN MACKERRELL.

Robinson and MacKerrell were flatmates in the 1960s, and he based Withnail on his friend. “Withnail is basically me and Viv, but I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and notepad writing down what Viv said,” Robinson told Daily Record. “I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humor and wrote that character.” MacKerrell’s friend, Colin Bacon, wrote a book about MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995 (Robinson believes that drinking lighter fluid in real life possibly led to the disease).

Although Withnail is based on MacKerrell, the movie is fictional. “He certainly had his opinions, but I never witnessed him being as nasty as the Richard E. Grant character,” Bacon said. “Withnail and I had loads of Vivian in it, but the extreme version. He isn’t the character. There’s a bit of artistic license. And the one thing Bruce Robinson warned me about was that I couldn’t claim that anything said in the film was ever uttered by Vivian or else he’d issue a writ. He’s adamant that Viv didn’t say these things, although he stated in a revised screenplay of the film that although ‘there isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail, his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word.’”

Bacon said MacKerrell was proud of the movie, “but he didn’t sit with an arrow pointing to his head saying ‘Withnail.’ He had too much going for him for that.”

2. ROBINSON WROTE THE STORY DURING A DIFFICULT WINTER.

Just as I left Withnail for a job, MacKerrell left Robinson for a gig. “I was left alone with no money, no food, a gas oven, one light bulb, and a mattress on the floor,” Robinson told Premiere. “It was the winter of 1969. I was desolate, completely in despair. I was an actor and I couldn’t get a job. So one day I came back to the flat and it was snowing, and I started weeping and screaming at the floorboards. Begging the God of Equity, or any f*cking god, you know, to help me. And then it really made me laugh, the predicament that I was in. I laughed hysterically when I thought about it. And I had this old Olivetti typewriter that I used to try and write poetry on. I sat down and I started writing this story about my predicament, involving me and my friend who had now gone.”

At first the story was written as a novel, not a screenplay. A friend gave the novel to a guy who wanted Robinson to adapt it into a comedy TV series. Another guy came along and told Robinson, “this is going to make a great movie.” In 1980 that guy gave Robinson money to adapt it into a script, but the project went into limbo for six years. Eventually, George Harrison got a hold of the script and thought it was funny, and Robinson was in business.

3. SOME PEOPLE THINK THE MOVIE WAS FILMED IN THE 1960S.

The movie takes place in 1969, and the low-budget quality of it often leads viewers to think it was filmed at that time. It was not. “It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann told the New Zealand Herald about the movie. “Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an ’80s picture. I’ve had people say to me ‘Geez, I thought it was actually shot in the ’60s’—I don’t know how old they think I am!”

4. THE NAME “WITHNAIL” COMES FROM ROBINSON’S CHILDHOOD.

In 2013, Richard E. Grant revealed on Twitter that Withnail’s first name was “Vyvian,” but according to Robinson, in real life the guy’s name was Jonathan. “The reason he’s called Withnail is because when I was a little boy I knew this bloke called Jonathan Withnall—Nall. Because I can’t spell, I called him ‘Nail.’ And he backed his Aston Martin into a police car, and he was like the coolest guy I’d ever met in my life, so consequently that name stayed in my head.”

5. RALPH BROWN AUDITIONED IN CHARACTER.

Ralph Brown plays the funny drug dealer Danny, who supplies Withnail and I with The Camberwell Carrot. “I read the stage directions very carefully and I decided to dress like Danny, as I saw him at the time,” Brown said about his audition, in the documentary Withnail and Us. “He was quite frightening when he came with purple nail varnish and eye makeup and all the rest of it,” Robinson said. “Yeah, he was a shock.”

“I think he had a bit of a laugh because I looked a bit foolish,” Brown said. “He probably also thought I was worth a go. He didn’t let me know …

We Put On A Play By Mistake

Mike Hall

Back in May 1999, the KOMEDIA Theatre, Brighton, saw the first ever licensed production of Withnail and I for the stage. The Withnail and I Multimedia Archive spoke to writer/producer/director Chris Beaumont just a few weeks before opening night.

“It had always been a favourite of mine,” says Chris, “It but didn’t become anything more until a couple of friends from the Brighton Fringe Festival, Sam and Kath, suggested it would make a great stage play. I thought about it and started making enquiries.”

Surely the license was a pain to get hold of?

“Surprisingly it wasn’t hard at all. I contacted Bruce via his publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing and they passed on my details including past track record, to him. I think I must have caught him on a good day and he said yes – as long as I made a sizeable donation to the Save the Children fund. I couldn’t believe my luck!
“I’ve been involved in the transference of several shows from one medium to another,” Chris smiles “and as long as they’re handled sensitively they usually work. You must never forget what the original was about and why it was so successful (if indeed it was). Many pieces will transfer very well.
“Back in 1989 I was involved in a stage show about Doctor Who.”

Chris is, of course, talking about The Ultimate Adventure, a hugely sucessful play written by Terrance Dicks. It was the third time the series had been transferred to stage and attracted enough major publicity for Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan to consider playing majors parts in a planned Austrailian tour.

“Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker played the role (Colin taking over from Jon half way through the tour – a ‘regeneration’ in fact!) People loved it. The fact that you could see the set moving occassionally made it all the more authentic. And yes, I was that ‘sulky’ Dalek!
“Very often you can bring a whole new lease of life to a piece by introducing it to a different arena. That’s not to say that Withnail needs a new lease of life, but I am hoping to bring it to another, partly new, audience. Theatre is very ‘immediate’ and is a very particular ‘first-hand’ kind of experience for the audience.”

Many fans, I say, strongly believe that no-one could play Withnail and Marwood like Grant and McGann. Was this a worry?

“Yes. Of course it was. No-one could ever try to reproduce those performances. They are classic. But other actors can bring something special of their own to those characters. The way the screenplay/playscript is written determines the way the characters are portrayed. You can’t help but see and hear elements of Richard and Paul in the words ‘as writ’, but I’m certainly not casting actors who are their ‘clones’, as it were.”

So who is starring in the piece?

“I am,” laughs Chris, “All the parts… no, not really! I am currently waiting for a few people to put their names on the dotted line, as it were. I shouldn’t say too much until then. We did actually lose our biggest name last week. Christopher Biggins was lined up to play ‘Uncle Monty’. he would have been brilliant. He’s actually a very good actor and was seriously interested in playing the part. But he’s opted for a six month tour on his ‘usual rate’ and I couldn’t possible hope to match that. But I can say that the cast will be made up of top notch pro’s. Several of them from Brighton.”

It is with joy, that I ask Chris about the ‘fencing’ scene, one of many scenes in the script that were cut from the movie, where Marwood thrashes Withnail in a sword fight.

“Yes, indeed I have included that scene.” grins Chris, “Brilliant. And that in itself explains a lot about the reasons why the fans love it so. The words. We all know the script. Many, line by line. I have to admit, I have a sort of actors dread that people will be shouting the lines along with the cast – a bit like Rocky Horror! Who knows what will happen… I’m sure we won’t mind huge peals of laughter or even rounds of applause after certain lines and scenes. Let’s play it by ear, eh? That’s part of the excitement of the whole project.”

Of course the music was a very important part of the feel of the movie. Will it be included for stage?

“Yeah, lots of loud Hendrix! Most of it happens in scene changes or as incidental music. I’m getting some new versions of things written and recorded as well. A Whiter Shade of Pale done on an eerie cello, for instance, and possibly some moody piano as well.”

The mention of Hendrix strikes images in my head of Withnail bellowing “Scrubbers!” and swigging whisky whilst speeding up the motorway to Penrith. Now that’s a point.. the car. How can you do the scenes to/from Penrith?

A wry smile. “Well… they’re there… you’ll have to wait and see…”

I sense I am reaching the limit of the information I can drag from Chris, as he becomes increasingly enigmatic.

“The show is running for two weeks from May 23rd to June 4th (except May 29th) at the KOMEDIA Theatre in Gardner St, Brighton. Shows start at 7.30pm. It is featuring as part of the Brighton International Festival and is the KOMEDIA’s main theatre event of the festival. There will also be a lunchtime discussion session on Thursday 25th at 1pm in the KOMEDIA cabaret bar. It’s FREE and the bar will be open! I’m keeping fingers crossed on getting at least one special guest.”

Before we part company, Chris mentions a rather special message he recieved recently.

“I had an Email from Richard E. Grant the other day. He said that sadly he wouldn’t be able to make it as he will be off filming in Europe at the time, but …

Vested Interest – Withnail’s Uncle Monty

Uncle Monty in, Bruce Robinson’s brilliant directorial debut, Withnail and I, is one of the great comic characters of British film in the last half of the twentieth century. Marwood’s nemesis has become so popular, especially with his gay admirers, that he even has own fanclub.

Montague Withnail, as played by Thornaby’s finest son Richard Griffiths, the portly seducer spends less time on-screen than either of the leading players, but has ensured Robinson’s cult comedy a place in British film history, putting it with the best of Ealing’s darker masterpieces.

Kind Hearts and Coronets and Withnail and I both share a dark heart. Whilst the former is clearly fiction, the latter is clearly autobiographical. If so, who was Uncle Monty? The truth, in this case, is most certainly stranger than fiction.

As a young actor, Robinson, who had just left drama school and had yet to tread the boards, found himself flying to Rome to star in Franco Zefferelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet. His initial euphoria at landing such a plum job, however, swiftly turned to trepidation once he had touched down in Italy.

From an interview given many years later, he admitted that Uncle Monty was based on his experiences with the famous director. Unable to reciprocate Zefferelli’s advances, he made the callow actor’s life a living hell, claiming that the young Robinson was nothing more than “a pretty face” and not much else.

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Whereas, in the film, Marwood escapes the clutches of Monty and suffers no lasting ill effects, Robinson was not so lucky. He returned to England and ended up being hospitalised, due to a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, he recovered. As everyone in the industry was aware of what happened, however, he found it difficult to get acting work which eventually led him to writing. He would later be nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for The Killing Fields.

Now the older, and much wiser, Robinson is magnanimous in his feelings towards Zefferelli: “If I met him today I’d be the first to open a bottle…”

Yet, without that hellish experience, we would have been deprived of one of the greatest comedic characters to have graced British film in the latter half of the twentieth century.…