Friday, 16 December 2011

Film Books For Christmas

Forgot to post this. My round-up from The Sunday Times.


The Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing by Jim Clark (Landmarc) 311pp

How apt that this book slipped out unnoticed. Editors are the unsung heroes of filmmaking — the weavers of silk purses from sows’ ears, more poetically, the Dream Repairmen.

Veteran editor Jim Clark’s tale of life in the cutting room runs from Ealing Studios to James Bond by way of his long collaboration with director John Schlesinger (it was Clark who slapped Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talking At Me onto Midnight Cowboy).

Though the best bit is when Clark, an Oscar-winner for The Killing Fields, is whisked off to Columbia Pictures as David Puttnam’s right hand man, charged with salvaging the dreadful slate of movies Puttnam inherited.

There are some wonderful anecdotes — Clark spurning an invitation by Noel Coward to “Sit in the Rolls with your old uncle”; Marilyn Monroe paralytic on The Prince And The Showgirl; and the author piecing together Robert De Niro’s dialogue word-by-word on The Mission.


The Good The Bad And The Multiplex: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies by Mark Kermode (Random House) 328pp
 Mark Kermode has built up a cult following as a Five Live critic. Hysterical tendencies notwithstanding, he clearly has a profound love for film and the depth of knowledge to go with it. If you want to get the blood pumping with a humorous rant about the inadequacies of 3-D, or how there is “a tenth circle of hell in which Michael Bay’s movies play for all eternity”, this is your baby.

In Glorious Technicolor: A Century Of Films And How It Shaped Us by Francine Stock (Chatto & Windus) 344pp
 The more measured arts broadcaster, Francine Stock, cites wartime censorship and the moral strictures of the Hays Code amongst numerous examples in support of her lofty thesis. Though her book works best as a bright and breezy movie history charting cinema’s evolution from carnival sideshow to CGI monstrosity.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Simon & Schuster) 468pp
 Genial Irishman Callan spent sixteen years tailing Robert Redford for one of the most thoroughly-researched showbiz biographies ever penned. His subject still remains something of an enigma — serious artist, creator of Sundance, eschewer of film stardom, but who, according to his long-term collaborator, the late Sidney Pollack, “will always be thirty, blond, perfection.”

Pete Postlethwaite: A Spectacle Of Dust, The Autobiography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 279pp
 Pete Postlethwaite started this memoir but, sadly, didn’t live to complete it, the job finished by writer Andy Richardson. The Warrington-born actor was embraced by Hollywood but never forgot his theatrical roots, preferring a British tour of Macbeth over one starry role in particular. “Steven (Spielberg) offered me Saving Private Ryan,” he notes. “He went ahead with Tom Hanks.” The final chapter, as Postlethwaite succumbs to cancer, is immensely moving.

Tough Without A Gun: The Extraordinary Life Of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer (Faber & Faber) 288pp
 “Impersonators don’t do[ital] Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale,” reminds the author. The (much misquoted) Humphrey Bogart, on the other hand, has endured as a screen icon, ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest male legend in cinema history. The actor has been written about endlessly, but there’s a sense of getting up close and personal with “Bogie” — the delinquent scion of East Coast privilege who fell into the movies by accident.
Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis (Hutchinson) £25, 1001pp 
Hepburn chasing Spencer Tracy with a loaded shotgun is one of the highlights of this epic deconstruction of a notorious drunk and womaniser (she had suspected him of carrying on with Ingrid Bergman). Tracy and Hepburn enjoyed a 26-year affair on and off the screen, though the real star here is Louise Treadwell Tracy, the wife who stuck by her husband throughout.

Christopher Hitchens

Alas, another writer-hero shuffles off this mortal coil. An essayist par excellence Hitch was the very reason I've subscribed to Vanity Fair these past sixteen years. And what a dignified exit. Although it seems like old news now, I think his skewering of Bill Clinton, post-Lewinsky, was particularly brilliant (and this from a natural political bedfellow). Slick Willie got away with murder... some would say almost literally. Farewell C.H.

Friday, 25 November 2011


I have a piece about the excellent film Moneyball in the latest edition of Word magazine (Kate Bush cover). Will post when no longer on sale. Have applied the theory to English football. Use it to predict, with absolute certainty, the finishing position of every club in the Premier League. No kidding.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Michael Shannon

Keen On Rough Edges 

Sunday Times Culture, November 13, 2011 by Jeff Dawson

Is there a more intense screen presence than Michael Shannon?

As Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden — Bible-thumping, self-flagellating nemesis of Prohibition bootleggers — Shannon has been a critical element of Boardwalk Empire, the Emmy-showered, Martin Scorsese-produced drama currently into its second series on Sky Atlantic.

It’s not everyday, for example, that you witness a fanatical God-botherer drag a duplicitous colleague to a Christian baptism only to dunk him with such zeal that his sins are washed away for all eternity.

Shannon laughs. The forty-strong congregation of African-American extras on the riverbank for that scene — a Van Alden standout — thought he really had killed actor, Erik Weiner.

“I took him out there and started drowning him and just lost my mind. When the director’s megaphone goes ‘Cut’ there was this pause… and then I heard like ‘Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!” (he mimes wild applause). And one guy was like, ‘Damn, you’re nuts man.’”

In person, Shannon’s not nuts at all. Actually rather mellow — a laid-back, slow-talker with a deadpan wit. But he’s an imposing presence. “I’m tall and I have a certain way about me. People find it intimidating sometimes.” A broad man of 6’4”, he shuffles along with feet at ten-to-two, as if he’s wearing manacles.

Having been hauled to London on a 48-hour furlough from the Vancouver set of the new Superman film, there are mitigating circumstances. “I’m on a bit of a catapult,” he sighs — perhaps the reason, too, for nursing a glass of Adam’s ale in the hotel bar where we meet. Van Alden would approve. Officially anyway.

There’s little wonder that in his new film, Take Shelter, Shannon’s not exactly a ray of sunshine. Though the 37-year-old actor has been getting raves for his performance. The film won Critics' Week at Cannes.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a foreman with a mining company in smalltown Ohio, who becomes plagued by nightmare, apocalyptic visions. His conviction that the end is nigh leads him to build an excessive storm shelter in the backyard, much to the consternation of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their young, deaf daughter, whose medical fund he blows.

Is Curtis a Midwestern Cassandra, to be ignored by the locals at their peril? Or simply succumbing to the same mental illness that has afflicted his mother (Kathy Baker)? Part of the intrigue is down to the fact that this is all happening in the unlikely, realistic blue-collar backwater of Independent Movieland.

“Usually when you have a movie about the apocalypse, it’s in some metropolis and there’s aliens involved and people with guns running around,” says Shannon. “And as fun as that might be, I would think it’s nothing like what would actually happen.”

The film was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, with whom the actor made 2007’s Shotgun Stories. Nichols penned Take Shelter during a bout of neurosis about becoming a father. “It’s a film about tying to come to terms with the fragility of things,” muses Shannon (who has a young child himself).  And mere coincidence, he adds, that their film comes out alongside doomsdayers like Melancholia and Another Earth.

“I guess that’s how the zeitgeist works — people all just happen to be thinking about the same thing at the same time.”

Shannon is a busy chap. He currently has another movie in cinemas, Machine Gun Preacher — the less said about the better — although he does sterling support work there, too, as a crack-addled Hell’s Angel.

Having cropped up in such works as Bad Lieutenant, World Trade Center, 8 Mile and, more recently, The Runaways, the film about Joan Jett, with an underrated turn as the producer-svengali, Kim Fowley, Shannon had always been a solid pro, known to insiders, but not necessarily by the public.

It was only with 2008’s Revolutionary Road that people started to put a name to his face. Shannon was Oscar-nominated for his role as John Givings, the psychologically troubled neighbour to desperate suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).

Shannon was as “totally shocked” by the accolade, he concedes, as anyone else. He hadn’t been nominated in a single one of the awards leading up to it and so spent Nomination Eve at a Sundance Film Festival party, crawling back his pit a four in the morning. "And then, at five, the phone started ringing.”

Beating a dead man would have been plain unsporting, the statuette going, inevitably, to Heath Ledger. "It was funny because everybody was, ‘We’re so excited for you… (then whispering) There's no way you're gonna win.' So I guess the victory was just to get invited."

It was never Shannon’s intention to have a film career in the first place. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky to an accounting professor father and social worker, his first love was music.

He still sings and plays guitar with Corporal a sort of thrashy acoustic outfit. “It’s kind of a cliché really most actors want to be rock stars and most rock stars want to be actors.”

When his parents split, Shannon divided his time between Kentucky and Chicago, where he got into theatre. He remains a highly regarded stage actor with a long association with playwright Tracy Letts, whose Killer Joe and Bug he performed in London.

Inevitably the movies came calling. There are worse places to start than Groundhog Day, in which Shannon appeared as a diner in Bill Murray's recurring sojourn in Punxsutawney. “Fred and Debbie Kleiser and they're going to get married. Although Debbie's having second thoughts,” he mimics.

Eighteen years later and Shannon’s is the name above the title, playing superbaddie General Zod in Superman: Man Of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Henry Cavill as the man in tights. “It’s a real adventure. I'm doing a lot things I've never done before like the whole green screen experience and motion capture. The first day you put on one of those suits you feel like a bit of a moron, but you get used to it."

Much of the film entails Zod going head-to-head with Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in roles originated by Terence Stamp and Marlon Brando. “Although they get didn’t get quite as down and dirty as we do," he assures.

Shannon has several films in the works, including The Iceman about contract killer Richard Kuklinski. More pressingly comes season three of “Boardwalk” which Shannon now treats as a day job, commuting from his home in New York to Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, where sits the enormous Atlantic City set.

He has no idea where his character is going, only that — shall we say — Van Alden is getting to know Sin a little too personally. “Everything’s kind of a surprise because when I originally went in, I assumed they wanted me to play some gangster. They went, ‘No, no, we want you to play the cop.’ I said, ‘Great this is just what I’ve been looking for.’ Little did I know I’d be getting the scripts and it was, 'What? What’s this? What am I doing?'"

He does seem to have an attraction to darkness, I say. "I don’t think I’m a moody person but the whole Buddhist mantra that ‘life is suffering’ has always made a certain sense to me. Maybe I just get it all out of my system when I’m working. It's not like I call up all the studios in Hollywood and say, 'Hey, I only play edgy characters. So that romantic comedy that you were going to send me? Keep it in your office.' I mean, people give you the opportunities and you can either say yes or no.”

Actually, he admits, he did try out for a romcom recently, rehearsing with a name actress. “But I think we all knew," he says. "The director was very sweet, but in the end, yeah, it was, 'It just doesn’t make sense.' "


Monday, 31 October 2011

Withnail & Me


The Sunday Times, Culture section, October 30, 2011

by Jeff Dawson (Unexpurgated version of my interview)

In the bucolic splendour of the Herefordshire hills near Ross-on-Wye, life is beginning to imitate art — a growing sense, to nick one of Robinson’s lines, that one might have “gone on holiday by mistake.”

Robinson’s farmhouse is neither on the map, nor correctly identified on Google. There’s no mobile reception, so you can’t call ahead. Not that Robinson ever answers the phone.

You enquire at a gnarled Tudor pub, flag down a tractor, knock triumphantly at a wrong door, until a random drive down a narrow track leads to a pas de deux with an oncoming estate car whose cheery owner reveals that he has just been cleaning out “Mr. Robinson’s fireplace.”

Up ahead, there it is, the Robinson pile, shimmering in the autumn heatwave; bees swarming over the honeysuckle; brook babbling under the bridge that leads to the front door. Less Country Life, more the antiquated retreat of the “resting” entertainer.

Robinson answers the door stripped to the waist. Grey designer pants are hitched above the waistband of his jeans. His torso is Iggy Pop sinewy, tanned to the hue of those Iron Age bodies they pull out of peat bogs. He’s in good nick for 65 — tousled grey hair, strong white teeth and round rock-and-roll shades. “Can you believe this fucking weather?” booms the lord of the manor.

Robinson leads you into the dark, cool kitchen with its flagstone floor and mind-your-head-doorways. Another semi-naked man appears. "Keith, my Indian (an old actor buddy here doing research for the master). He’s a fucking homosexual." 

A classical guitar lies on the sofa. A laptop teeters on the Welsh dresser. There are stains and crumbs on the sticky oak table and an open can of Beck's Vier. 

The spurning of an alcoholic beverage for myself — driving and all that — results in a contemptuous cup of tea, Robinson bidding you to sniff the milk carton first in the manner of a lactic sommelier.

Mrs. Robinson is away, leading both to an atmosphere of boys at play but with the impending doom of chores that must be completed. We can do the interview outside, says Robinson. But he’s also got to clean the swimming pool. 

He grabs his beer and hoofs, with some fury, a punctured football, after which scurry an overweight black Labrador and indeterminate terrier. 

The house was built in 1590, the stables in 1792, “the year Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off.” They moved here in the early 1990s. Better for the kids. Plus the missus wanted somewhere to keep her horses. A chestnut mare saunters out from behind a tree. “There’s one of the cunts now.”

Though he won a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay to the The Killing Fields (1984), Robinson will be forever known as the writer/director of Withnail & I — not just a semi-autobiographical film about a pair of struggling actors, but a chronicle of booze-addled urbanites marooned in the English countryside.

Coventional wisdom has his old flatmate Vivian MacKerrell as the model for the abrasive Withnail, with Robinson himself as the meek “I” (played in the film, respectively, by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann). Me, I'm not so sure.

Withnail’s release in 1987 marked Robinson as one of Britain’s hottest film talents, but it led to a disastrous spell in Hollywood. According to popular legend, he simply walked away from the movies and has been holed up here for the best part of two decades.

When, three years it was revealed that Robinson was to direct again — a film version of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary — there were eyebrows raised. But, at last, the film is out. It stars Johnny Depp. And you know what? It’s rather good.

Depp, who also produces, is key here. “The only reason this film exists is because of Johnny Depp,” Robinson stresses. A Withnail fan, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Robinson to direct the film version of Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), helmed eventually by Terry Gilliam. But once he had sweettalked Robinson into penning The Rum Diary screenplay, he had got his man.

“They knew I was a piss artist, that I hadn’t done a film for years and that the only reason I was doing it was because Johnny wanted me to,” he says. “I bet you the meeting went, ‘Johnny, the script’s fucking great but we can get anyone for this. Why do you want this fucking idiot, this bloke who lives with sheep looking in the window?’ ”

Clearly Depp is a persuasive chap. It was he who had discovered the original discarded 1961 manuscript in Thompson’s basement while lodging with the author. He twisted Thompson’s arm into publishing the novel 37 years after committing it to paper.

Written before Thompson went “gonzo” — his famed idiosyncratic style — The Rum Diary tells the story of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), assigned to a newspaper on Puerto Rico in the late 1950s (as Thompson had been) where he nurtures his writing career amid the drinking dens of San Juan.

Robinson admits that he “wasn’t entirely impressed with the book.” He could only make it work by excising a major character, the crazed journalist Yeamon, really a second Thompson alter-ego. He subsequently rebuilt the thing from scratch. “All of it. There’s only three lines of Hunter’s in the whole film.” But such is the process of adaptation. He even threw in some excess dialogue from Withnail. Quite thrilling, he says. ”It made my arsehole pout.”

He roots around the shed and hauls out a couple of deck chairs. After a protracted Jacques Tati episode unfolding the things, we lounge by the pool before a crumbling Italianate pavilion while a self-powered aquatic hoover — “the gobbler” — sucks up the dead leaves. It is glorious, “This day of days,” Robinson proclaims. He lights a café crème cigar. “Are you sure I can’t get you a glass of red?”

The Rum Diary seems a perfect fit for Robinson. Not least because Robinson himself has been described … “As a cunt?”  I was going to say Britain’s own answer to Thompson. 

“I remember the guy who I based the character Withnail on, my friend Vivian. I had this godawful fucking thunderous hangover and I was lying on my big brass bed in Camden, this was in 1972, and he threw the book at me and he said, ‘Read this, this could have been you.’ I do kind of write in a similar vernacular.”

Thompson is not everyone’s poison. “Do I like him? He’s not Mark Twain and certainly not Henry Miller but he wrote a few fabulous lines that entitle him to be a remembered American writer.”

Robinson appreciates the good word on the film. Depp has never looked cooler. He hopes that audiences won’t find it a stretch, a man in his forties playing a man in his twenties. And did I like the actress, he wonders (Amber Heard)? “Would you like to sort of kiss her nude?”

What Thompson would have made of it, we’ll never know. He blew his brains out in 2005. Though it is unlikely he’d have voiced much opinion. Robinson met him once at the Chateau Marmont hotel in LA in the company of others. “We sat there and he sniffed it, smoked it, drunk it for two hours and he never said a word. So weird.”

Thompson was on the set in spirit. He had his own chair with his name on the back. Every day they furnished it with a carton of Dunhill and a bottle of Chivas Regal, some of which Bruce and Johnny dabbed behind their ears for good luck. 

Robinson fetches himself a glass of Bordeaux. “Anything I’ve done of any value as a writer has a root in booze,” he concedes. “Clearly there is something about it that I’m addicted to. But I’ve never missed a fucking day for drink. I’ve never got up in the morning and thought, ‘I cant write today, I’m too hungover.’”

San Juan is not a town lacking in refreshments. “I have to say I could see a problem, Johnny and I being daft boys, and so he and I had a deal that we weren’t gong to drink during this film.” Till the last night. “Johnny and I got completely fucking wasted.”

Not every relationship begins with a shared experience of imminent death. While they were location scouting, Depp’s private plane had been hit with a power failure. “Everyone thought, ‘Christ this is going to crash,’” says Robinson. “it’s like you’re dick’s hanging out. We were holding each other on our knees in hysterics.” But disaster, mercifully, was averted.

“I have an extremely maudlin affection for the fucker,” he adds. “I really like him. He’s a bibliophile. He’s a piss artist. He’s like a good old bro.”

Robinson’s 17-year-old Adonis of a son appears, similarly shirtless, to chop wood. Out here, in the sticks, I wonder what kids get up to. ”Have sex mainly,” says Robinson, proceeding to make some candid comments about teenage girls.

He’s magnificently entertaining, is Robinson, but he rarely does interviews. His work, he dismisses… “Is the work of a cunt…" And for reinforcement... "I’m one of England’s well-known cunts.”

The Robinson story goes like this — born in Broadstairs to an abusive father and an eventual revelation that his biological paternity was down to an American GI, much of this channelled into his autobiographical novel, The Diary of Thomas Penman (1998).

Robinson was clever but, mystifyingly, failed his 11-plus, consigned to his local secondary modern. The under-achievement made him “totally full of fear,” he says. “And that knocks on all through your life. What’s the way to get rid of fear? Dutch courage — glug glug. So that’s a very important part of why I’m a writer — that I’m full of rage. I’m 65-years-old and I’m full of fucking rage.”

(Rage, Robinson does in froth-spitting magnificence. He’s “a Mussolini about politics,” and no less forthright on anything else, reserving particular venom on this day of days for the unholy trinity of Michael Gove, Gok Wan and Simon Cowell.)

He found an outlet in acting and got his break in the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet as Benvolio, much of the production spent fighting off the gaily amorous director, Franco Zeffirelli, upon whom he later modelled Withnail’s Uncle Monty.

His final lead role was as young British officer in 1975’s The Story Of Adele H. But, as Uncle Monty would say, there comes a time in a young man’s when he realises he is never going to play The Dane. “If you’re acting for Truffaut and not enjoying it, what’s the point?”

In London, the squalid Camden flat was shared with the since deceased, McKerrell, a splenetic fop, plus actor Michael Feast and slumming aristocrat (Lord) David Dundas (later to have a one-hit pop hit, Jeans On). Their impoverished, inebriated lives provided the material for Withnail-the-novel, which Robinson wrote in 1969, supported by his actress girlfriend, Lesley Anne Down. “God bless her.” 

He couldn’t get it published but producer David Puttnam read it and offered him minor scriptwriting assignments. Robinson recalls an awards dinner, seated on a table with Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Neil Simon. When Dame Maggie Smith asked loudly “And what do you do?” He replied, simply. “Typist.”

Later, Puttnam sent him a New York Times cutting about journalists in Phnom Penh during the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. “I mean what a fucking risk he took.” And thus was born The Killing Fields.

Robinson being Robinson, success was bittersweet. He quotes the famous line by movie mogul Jack Warner — “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” “Everyone said ‘powerful antiwar film’ and then three weeks later it’s Sylvester Stallone and his massive tits rushing up the Mekong delta holding an M50 machine gun.”

He now had leverage to direct Withnail. He roped in illustrator Ralph Steadman (coincidentally a Thompson collaborator) to scare up a proposal and convinced Handmade Films to let him do it.

Withnail was never a commercial success but a film that has endured. “The only reason it survives is because every year a new mob go to university and it’s, ‘Let’s have a curry and watch Withnail and get pissed.’” Robinson raves in particular about Grant’s Hamlet soliloquy at the end. “I remember sort of having a wank while he was doing it. He’s never been better.”

But, inevitably, there is an axe to grind. Nominally, Robinson got paid one pound for the screenplay, his director’s fee then almost halved by the withholding of £30,000 as a penalty for a budgetary overspend. Yes, he got it back recently, but it’s not the point, he says. “Thirty grand was outstanding for 25 years.”

Things soured. He made an anti-Thatcher rant called How To Get Ahead In Advertising, which bombed. He was unemployed again. He was at a film festival in Toronto with his agent trying to pitch for jobs when he came up with an idea for a serial killer movie, which was surprisingly snapped up by MGM.

The resultant 1992 flick, Jennifer 8, which Robinson will only refer to as “the unmentionable” was, he explains, a disaster from the moment they cast the dashing Andy Garcia as the film’s fat, washed-up middle-aged loser of a detective. On set, during filming, studio executives would even step in to yell, “Okay. Cut. Got that," over his shoulder.

“It upset me beyond belief. I just went, ‘That’s it, I’ll never do this again. If this is what being a film director is I don’t want anything to do with it.’ And you know, I kept the promise. I didn’t do it for 17 years, until this thing came up.”

Reports of his retirement have been exaggerated. Robinson and his wife Sophie Windham have written a couple of children’s books. Moreover Robinson has bashed out scores of screenplays (all on a trio ancient IBM typewriters that have to be serviced by “a bloke with a fucking turban in Leicester who comes down twice a year.”)

If a film never gets made, no one ever knows. “I just wish I’d been a novelist rather than a screenwriter, that’s my only regret.”

Three did[ita] get produced — the atomic bomb drama, Shadowmakers, the supernatural thriller In Dreams and the Malaysian drug bust story, Return To Paradise. He groans profanely at their butchery. “They’re unwatchable films.”

He looks skyward. “Won’t be long now. I see Ezekiel beckoning.” But it’s doubtful he’ll go quietly. He is currently stalking Michael Caine to play the grandfather in his film version of Thomas Penman. “I need to have a fucking smoke and a drink with him.” He wouldn’t mind, doing some more acting after a cameo in the old rocker flick, Still Crazy.

But his big thing is his eleven-year project to expose the real Jack The Ripper in the most definitive book on the subject. “I know who he is,” he says. “The Metropolitan Police files are just complete lies.” The thousand-pager is due out in December 2013.

“Would you like a boiled egg?" he asks. They’re freshly laid. Back in the kitchen, over the cracking of shells, both Robinson and Keith (Skinner, nowadays a leading Ripperologist and not a homosexual) tell corking stories about the old days — about Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson and drunk driving around Soho with David Dundas.

The house is full of photos. Robinson looks a mere babe on the shoot of Withnail. In pride of place in the living room is a giant painting of Keith Richards by Depp, done on a canvas of Rizlas.

“Yeah, I was offered a few films to do in what they may say were ‘the wilderness years’. They weren’t wilderness to me at all. If hadn’t been for the dear old Depp... if had been anyone else… I’d have said no.”

Monday, 17 October 2011

Spencer Tracy

My review. Published Sunday Times, October 16, 2011

Spencer Tracy: A Biography, by James Curtis
Hutchinson, £25, 1001pp

Despite his prodigious screen talents, Spencer Tracy has never been accorded the iconic status of his contemporaries. He wasn’t dashing like Errol Flynn, heroic like John Wayne, smooth like Cary Grant.

Squat and square-faced, Tracy appeared older than his years, his latter days employed as Hollywood’s grumpy old man — white-hair, jaunty fedora, harrumphing about his daughter’s nuptials (Father Of The Bride, 1950) or his daughter’s miscegenous nuptials (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, 1967).

Nonetheless, in his time, Tracy was one of the[ital] biggest box office draws — Fox, then MGM, capitalising on his rugged, natural, everyman charm and seemingly effortless versatility. He was at home in drama (Inherit The Wind, 1960), comedy (Adam's Rib, 1949), in uniform (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944), or out (The Old Man And The Sea, 1958).

As someone who had toyed with joining the priesthood, he was not averse to a dog collar. As Father Flanagan in Boys Town, 1938, Tracy won the second of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, following Captains Courageous (1937), a feat of prize-bagging equalled only by Tom Hanks nearly sixty years later.

Unlike his friend Humphrey Bogart with Casablanca, it is perhaps Tracy’s lack of a signature role that has caused him to be defined instead by his relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Onscreen, they made a string of pictures together, starting with Woman Of The Year (1942). Offscreen, their liaison lasted till Tracy’s death in 1967. Though an open secret within showbiz, Tracy maintained his sham of a marriage to Louise Treadwell Tracy, forbidden by his Catholicism to divorce.

It was Hepburn who prompted this book, says Curtis. There are 25 serious biographies on her, nothing definitive on him[ital]. And so here we are, this great doorstop, an exhaustively researched work drawn from diaries, correspondence, studio archives, interviews and other records, largely curated by Tracy’s daughter, Susie.

If you’re in any doubt about the degree of scrutiny, check the irritable fifth day of April, 1938, Tracy’s 38th birthday, in which Curtis records that the actor “developed a mysterious itch” in the rectal area. This is an author who truly probes his subject.

Tracy seems tortured on every level. There was self-loathing over his own success, gained from a job meant for “sissies”. (Tracy never wore make-up. He conspired to have a hernia operation to avoid acceptance of his first Oscar. He resolutely refused to work after 4pm.) Moreover, he was racked with religious guilt over his son, John, born congenitally and profoundly deaf.

And the root of that guilt? An awful lot of sin. For, behind the Ordinary Joe act peddled to the public, Tracy goes down in Tinseltown lore as a serial womaniser and one of its most notorious drunks.

As a partisan biographer, Curtis sanitises the indiscretions, though in one amusing vignette, the older Tracy gazes misty-eyed at a commemorative photograph of the early MGM players, before stabbing a finger at the ranks of starlets to indicate, “Her, her, her and her.”

His conquests included Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr and Joan Crawford. But no one was off limits (“Days of drinking had left him belligerent,” recalls Myrna Loy, casually. "He made his usual play for me”). Hepburn, convinced that Tracy was still carrying on with Bergman behind her[ital] back, stalked him round the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel with a loaded shotgun.

Curtis' book doesn’t ease up on the boozing. "He turned out to be a real bastard. When he drank he was mean," remembers Crawford. Whole pictures (like The Seventh Cross, 1944) would be shut down while Tracy embarked on one of his trademark benders, sometimes for days on end, only to be tracked down, comatose in some hotel room, brothel or drunk tank. "I don't now where the hell we were," Tracy remarks of an extended absence from Test Pilot (1938) in the company of Clark Gable. Though usually they were lone sessions, a pathetic Tracy lugging a suitcase full of scotch.

Today, Tracy’s alcoholism would treated as an illness. Certainly, Tracy wrestled its cruel grip, lasting twenty months on the wagon before noting in his diary of August 20, 1937, “Spoilt it all.” In May 1945, after an arrest in Manhattan for being drunk and disorderly, tumbling out of a cab in the company of a prostitute, MGM had him forcibly restrained and hospitalised. It didn’t work. For a while he was hooked on Benzedrine.

The biography unfolds like a movie. We first meet Tracy in 1923 en route to summer stock in New York state, where he espies the aspiring actress who would become his long-suffering wife. From there it's flashback to Milwaukee 1900 and Tracy’s birth into a family of railway workers, “lace curtain Irish”. Patriotically, he joined the navy at eighteen only to see out the fag end of World War One in a training station. College led to drama school. After that came theatre, then the movies, making his debut in John Ford’s Up The River (1930).

So mammoth is Curtis’ biography that Hepburn doesn’t enter the picture until after the intermission. “Spence” had been introduced to “Kath” at MGM by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The willowy actress apologised for wearing heels. “Don’t worry,” quipped Mankiewicz. “He’ll cut you down to size”. And he did. They were an odd couple, the working class Irish Midwesterner and the haughty New England blueblood. And if it wasn’t the most pacific of couplings, it stood the test of time. “I always liked bad eggs,” she said. “Always[ital].”

It is unthinkable today, of course, that Tracy and Hepburn could have kept the lid on it for so long. So untouchable were they that the columnists simply entered into a kind of omertà. Until — tellingly — a trip to London in 1954, when The People broke cover to “reveal” (thirteen years off the pace), “The secret romance of Spencer and Katie.”

Tracy was indulged for his manifold transgressions because, when the camera whirred, he always delivered. The book provides a wealth of information about his 78 films — his Cuban bar brawls with Hemingway; his coaxing of a performance out of even-more-of-a-drunk Montgomery Clift on Judgement At Nuremburg. On Bad Day At Black Rock, the Production Code censors were concerned that Tracy's character fought using an un-heroic, un-American karate chop. “What the hell?” spluttered producer Dore Schary. “The guy's got one arm.”

And then there is Tracy's valedictory performance in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on which he re-teamed with Hepburn. Uninsurable, riddled with heart disease and diabetes, lungs failing, Tracy delivers a closing eight-minute monologue, arguably his finest screen moment.

Tracy died sixteen days later, aged 67 (but looking 87). He was Oscar-nominated posthumously. Hepburn preserved the dignity of Mrs. Tracy by avoiding the funeral, though she telephoned later to wonder whether they could now be friends. "But I thought you were only a rumour," dismissed Louise.

Indeed, it is Louise Treadwell Tracy who emerges as the real star. Living separately for much of their marriage, tucked way on an Encino ranch while he whooped it up in Hollywood, she remained utterly loyal to her husband. "She respects my individuality," as he so gallantly put it. She achieved her own quiet distinction as a pioneering educator of deaf children.

Tony Iommi

Met Tony Iommi today. Really nice chap and underrated axeman. Whether you like Black Sabbath or not, there's no denying his guitar style has been hugely influential on hard rock. Up there with Jimmy Page. Autobiography out called Iron Man. Some great rock anecdotes. How he's still standing beats me.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In Glorious Technicolor

My Sunday Times review of Francine Stock's new book...

In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How It Shaped Us, by Francine Stock

Chatto £18.99/ebook £19.81 pp344

As a guide to 100 years of cinema, Francine Stock certainly has the credentials. The presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme remembers being mesmerised by the flowers in her first film, My Fair Lady (1964); being consumed by adolescent thrills during Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969); and having her enjoyment of Chinatown (1974) ruined by an IRA bomb.

Divided up into decades, her cinematic survey covers film’s main developments from carnival sideshow to 3-D multiplex monster — DeMille to De Niro, ­Thomas Edison to Toy Story. As a straight film history it’s an informative, easy read, stronger on the earlier years as Hollywood finds its feet. But, mindful that such studies are two a penny, Stock wants to address a bigger question. Might cinema have induced “particular effects on our behaviour, both public and private?” she asks. “Ways in which we had become indoctrinated by this most seductive medium?” Right from the start, she argues, movies had an impact. DW Griffith’s civil war epic, The Birth of a Nation, with its crude, racist depiction of Southern negroes and ennoblement of the Ku Klux Klan, helped that sinister organisation, near extinction prior to the film’s release in 1915, to swell its membership to 5m. 

As the new medium took hold, cinema was quickly seen to be endangering public morality. In the early 1930s, a study by the sociologist Herbert Blumer suggested that up to a third of American teenagers had embraced the “art of necking” as demonstrated by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. (The Hays Code, adopted in 1930, with its proscriptions against “excessive or lustful kissing or mixed-race relationships” on screen, aimed to put paid to that.) And it wasn’t just sex that film stars could influence. When Clark Gable undertook the simple act of eschewing his undershirt in the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934), the vest market reportedly crashed. 

Politicians were all too aware of film’s potential. Joseph Goebbels banned Jean Renoir’s peacenik picture La Grande Illusion (1937), and German cinema during the Nazi era became an instrument of state policy, whether in the Aryan romanticism of Leni Reifenstahl or the Jew-baiting of the film Jud Süss. As war drums thundered, film became a handy conscript, yielding British propaganda pieces such as In Which We Serve (1942), or an American imitation of a British propaganda piece in Mrs Miniver (1942). Even in peacetime, cinema has been a forger of national myth. The American West is probably cinema’s most enduring concoction, Stock says, a fantasy that was instrumental in weaning the United States away from Europe and towards the new frontier.

It is all engagingly told, and one can forgive that some of the evidence might be entirely circumstantial — did sales of Merlot, for example, really fall by 2% in Britain as a result of a put-down in the 2004 comedy, Sideways?

A more serious problem, though, is the author’s decision to pin each decade on three films, resulting in a book that champions Basic Instinct, Natural Born Killers and Three Colours: Blue/White/Red as the significant films of the 1990s, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Avatar and the Thai film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as the hat-trick of selections from the Noughties. 

To be fair, she declares that the book is “an impressionistic map” and that “the reason for taking this idiosyncratic journey is precisely to provoke argument”. But, given that Stock merely uses her choices as jumping-off points (enabling us to breeze from, say, a discussion of Gold Diggers of 1933 and The Dark Knight to Iron Man) it seems a redundant gimmick.

It is, of course, obvious to suggest that cinema has been a cultural game-changer. As far back as 1924 the director of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation at the League of Nations was proclaiming that “only the Bible and the Koran have an indisputably larger circulation than that of the latest film from Los Angeles”. What Stock’s distillation seems to confirm is that, as a cumbersome industrial process, lacking the immediacy of music or television, film-making is generally reflective rather than causal — one that more often apes trends than influences them. 

Nor should we ignore the medium’s habit of feeding off itself. Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) is one of many classics offered up for dissection in the book, but this seems largely because of its influence on other romcoms including Jerry Maguire and 500 Days of Summer. As much as Stock claims that film has shaped us, one is left with the impression that one of its greatest achievements has been in shaping other filmmakers.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Eva Green: Bewitching and Bewildering

Sunday Times Culture, October 2, 2011 by Jeff Dawson

Is Eva Green Britain’s ultimate screen Nemesis? She seems to have made it a personal mission to despoil our idols. She had James Bond blubbing into his budgie smugglers In Casino Royale. In the forthcoming movie, Womb, she gets Dr. Who (well, Matt Smith) run over. Dare one mention TV’s Camelot, in which her Morgan Le Fay stopped tastefully short of bedding half-sibling, King Arthur, but gave Dark Age Albion a good old seeing to? 

Green is certainly a beguiler, wafting into the lobby of a London Hotel, her slender frame clad head-to-toe in black — from the leather jacket to the lace-up boots, her face hidden behind giant Jackie O shades. The dark hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, hoop earrings clang, her lips blood red against alabaster skin.

“Hello,” she says, extending slender fingers sporting clunky goth rings and inch-long Wiccan-regulation talons. In the middle of shooting Dark Shadows with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp at Pinewood Studios, in which she plays (not for the first time) a crazed witch, Green is either taking her work home with her or has been spending far too long with the Burton-Bonham-Carters.

She was shooting till 3am. Black is easy. “You don’t have to bother in the morning.” But her character’s a hoot. “She’s extreme, she’s big, she’s full-on, very cuckoo. I’ve never played somebody so over the top,” (which is saying something), so one must be very nice about her new chums, Tim and Helena. You should lend them a comb, I say. An unconvincing laugh. Too early in proceedings.

In her new film, the low-budget Scottish independent, Perfect Sense, from director David Mackenzie, Green adds Obi-Wan Kenobi to her list of conquests… okay, Ewan McGregor. He plays the bit-of-rough Glaswegian chef to Green’s toff-totty scientist.

Though what starts out as your typical mismatched set-up veers off into apocalyptic sc-fi as the world’s population — including the denizens of Clydeside — becomes afflicted with a series of short, sharp illnesses that wipe out the senses of smell, taste, hearing, sight and, one supposes, though we don’t get that far, touch. 

“The story was very unusual and provoking,” she considers. “When I read it there was a lot of humour, like a romantic comedy, but when I saw the movie it’s quite dramatic, not funny at all.” It’s very odd. There are riots in the streets. Green eats a bunch of gladioli. They weren’t very tasty. “Oh my God. We had a bucket next to us.”

She perches on the sofa, orders green tea and — in what can only assume is an acquired and filthy British habit — squashes her chewing gum onto the saucer. “Isn’t that nice?” Better than the pavement.

Her eyes are deep blue, her voice a sort of cut-glass English, or the kind of cut-glass English uttered by someone imitating “posh”. There are only the slightest of curlicues to suggest her Parisian provenance.

The Anglophilia began at 17 when she came to study English in Ramsgate. Later, she returned to Blighty for drama school. Though she did start her career in France, the now 31-year-old has been living in London for… “uh six years,” she ponders. She prefers Primrose Hill to Paris. “I feel like a grown up. I feel more centred. It’s very calming.” She even likes our grub.

Nowadays Green not only speaks English but thinks in it too. A recent few days away, speaking exclusively French, was rather discombobulating. Back on the Dark Shadows set, her line readings were all over the place. You use different parts of your brain, she describes.

Green had made only one French-language film, 2004’s Arsène Lupin, before us Anglo-Saxons got our horny mitts on her. Though what is most intriguing is that after 2006’s Casino Royale, which made her a star… “I disappeared,” she cuts in. One wouldn’t go quite that far. “I did,” she insists.

Certainly, when the world was Green’s big glossy oyster, she decided to throw in her lot with the grubbier end of independent British cinema. “Well I really need to like what I’m doing,” she explains. “If I don’t like something, I don’t think that I can even perform. A movie’s from my heart, my soul.” So what if few people see her stuff? It’s better than the “3D films and fighting monsters” which clog up our multiplexes, she grumbles. People who watch such things have had “a lobotomy.”

Acting was in the family. Green’s mother, Algerian-born actress, Marlène Jobert — now a children’s author — worked with Jean-Luc Godard. Her uncle, Christian Berger, is a cinematographer, her aunt, Marika Green, an actress. Even her father, Walter Green, a Swedish dentist, who met his wife while filling a cavity — “what a romantic” — had popped up onscreen in the 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar about (it says here) a knackered donkey. “He hated it. You can see it on his face,” she says. The experience, that is, not the poor beast.

Her surname is pronounced, with a nasal snort, “Grenn”, her coniferous appelage not the contrived stage name some assumed. Nor she was conceived during a duet between Babs Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. She pulls a face.

Mama was not keen on her daughter following in her footsteps (Green’s sister is married to an Italian count and breeds horses in Normandy). “My mother stopped when she was 40, when she had me actually, so I was never like on sets,” she says.

But she trod the boards anyway and had only just begun in Parisian theatre when she was spotted by Bernardo Bertolucci, the director, most famously — or infamously — of Last Tango In Paris. He raved that the 22-year-old Green was “so beautiful it’s indecent” (the rascal). “Ah yeah, that’s him,” she chuckles. It proved quit a tonic. “I was going through a weird time. I was not enjoying myself on stage and I think he saved me.”  

Bertolucci cast Green in The Dreamers, a European co-production, set during the Paris riots of 1968. It was risky business — Green is starkers for much of the picture, undertaking a triangular sexual relationship with an American student and her very own screen brother.

“My mother and my agent didn’t want me to do it. But I was so much in love with Bertolucci’s his work. I was big fan. I had a big poster of Last Tango in Paris in my room.” The nudity “was not pleasant”, but the fact that there were three of them sans-culottes lessened the impact, she says. 

 “It’s more difficult now. If I have to do a sex scene. I feel very self conscious,” she admits (in Perfect Sense her breasts make an appearance within 90 seconds). “Now I’m like, ‘Ohmigod. Never on top!’” She mimes lying back and thinking, one supposes, of England, maybe Ramsgate. “Close your eyes!” 

Unsurprisingly, The Dreamers got Green a lot of interest. It was but a short hop to Ridley Scott’s Crusader epic, Kingdom Of Heaven. Unfortunately, much of Green’s part, as moody Arab seductress, Sibylla, was cut out at the last minute. “I was devastated, but I learnt a lot from it. It’s politics. Hollywood is afraid of darkness.” Scott has since restored Green’s role (complete with her bedding of Orlando Bloom) in his Director’s Cut.

Green later made a film with Jordan Scott, Ridley’s daughter, called Cracks, in which she plays an unhinged lesbian house mistress, a lust object for the blue-stockings at a girls’ private school.

It was Casino Royale, though, which changed everything. “I’m not spitting on it,” she joshes. In the re-booted franchise, Daniel Craig found waspy Vesper Lynd no mere babe but an equal. Green had read the script not “not as a Bond thing” but as “a spy story, love story. She was a cool character  —very sharp, witty, a lot of banter (she snaps her fingers). It was kind of old-fashioned.”

A stringent elocution programme was required to woo the producers. But so convincing was Green in the final product that everyone assumed she was one of us. She appeared with Craig again in The Golden Compass (as another witch) and has remained a celebrity. The other day I saw a headline in a women’s mag: “’Pasta relaxes me,’ says Eva Green”. She laughs. “They could have used something else!”

French sexiness seems somehow effortless. A couple of years ago, I interviewed the actress, Ludivine Sagnier — a friend of Green’s, it turns out — who attributed her own appeal, with majestic insouciance, to a regime of no gym, eating what she wanted and smoking lots of fags. Green chuckles. “Sometimes you want to provoke. You want to go, ‘Yeah, I’m a whore.’” But she’s not dissimilar. “I’m not good. Because I don’t have time, when I come back home, I’m going to have a glass of wine and a cigarette. I’m not going to exercise.” 

For a while Green was the face of Midnight Poison, by Dior. She became pally with designer John Galliano, who got into bother with his anti-semitic rant in a restaurant. Where most in showbiz dropped him like a hot potato, Green, half-Jewish via her mother, has remained loyal. “He’s a very fragile person. He’s like a little bird. I’m sure he’s going to get back on track, he’s so talented. Sometimes, when you are a bit drunk, you cannot be yourself.”

If the rumours are to be believed, the filming of another British indie, the futuristic Franklyn (she plays a schizophrenic), caused Green to spurn an invitation to join Nicolas Sarkozy on his campaign trail — shortly after his divorce and before he met Carla Bruni. It prompts one to envisage a parallel history where Green is France’s First Lady. But it’s all nonsense, she says. “It was crazy. I don’t know the man. I was invited like to a party once or something. But then it turned into something ridiculous.”

More recently, Green’s appearance in Camelot raised a few eyebrows. “What the fuck is she doing?” she mimics. With its furs and leather, its swords and sorcery, it proved a guilty, trashy pleasure. As Morgan Le Temptress, Green got to be not just naked and bonkers and[ital] a witch, but to bleed out of her eyes. In one episode, in a break from more classical interpretations of the Arthurian legend, Morgan calls her lover, King Lot (James Purefoy), a “silly cunt”. 

“She’s so ballsy. We don’t have a lot of roles like this. I didn’t want to play girlfriends and love interest. It’s great to be almost like a man,” she gushes. Sadly, Camelot has not been recommissioned — Le Morte D’Arthur, as you might put it.

There was talk of Green playing Maria Callas in a biopic, but that won’t be happening. Instead she is excited about Womb, another low-budget film about cloning and in which she plays both partner and mother of Matt Smith. “He’s an eccentric. He’s unusual. I’ve never met somebody like him.” But, a confession. “I don’t know Dr. Who,” she whispers. “I’ve never seen it.” 

Green must go. She’s due back at Pinewood to put her witchy moves on Johnny Depp, a shoot that will go on all night again. It’s a blinder of a day outside, but as her pallor attests, Green has seen little of the sun in recent weeks. Must be like doing shift work. She laughs. ”I feel like a vampire.”


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Lars Von Trier: Rainbow Warrior

Received the following press statement yesterday:

Today at 2 pm I was questioned by the Police of North Zealand in connection with charges made by the prosecution of Grasse in France from August 2011 regarding a possible violation of prohibition in French law against justification of war crimes. The investigation covers comments made during the press conference in Cannes in May 2011. Due to these serious accusations I have realized that I do not possess the skills to express myself unequivocally and I have therefore decided from this day forth to refrain from all public statements and interviews.

Lars von Trier
Avedøre, 5. October 2011

All I can say is, what a nonsense. No way is Lars Von Trier a "Nazi", let alone a "war criminal". I refer you to my recent Sunday Times interview (posted elsewhere on this blog) — possibly, if he is true to his word, one of his last; certainly the final UK exclusive. At best (or worst) Von Trier is guilty of a poorly transmitted sense of humour. 

Methinks the French doth protest too much. While Germany has laid itself bare regarding its war guilt, France has clung to a national narrative pinned to the unquestionably heroic but minority French Resistance (what was it Jacques Chirac said regarding the snub to British representation at the 60th anniversary of D-Day? "France liberated herself"). France's role as a victorious power in WW2 is based largely on a myth, promulgated for reasons of political expediency as Europe braced for the Cold War — one that has whitewashed Vichy, ignores the fact that France actually fought the Allies in Africa and the Middle East and that it was complicit in Nazi genocide. These are facts.

France is a tremendous country and we should be the firmest of friends and neighbours, but unless it yanks out those skeletons rattling in its cupboard, there's always going to be suspicion. If it were confident in itself (much of the South is still Le Pen-ite, remember), it surely wouldn't feel threatened by the clumsy remarks of a Danish film director.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Saw this evening. Good film. A grown-up Aaron Sorkin talker. I happen to like baseball. Got addicted when I lived in the US. But it doesn't matter if you don't. Some achievement to pull off a feature film about the analysis of sports stats. There could be Oscars in this.

The Rum Diary expedition

Off, tomorrow, to meet Bruce Robinson at his farmhouse in the Welsh Marches. I think he's going to make entertaining copy. If you're interested in Bruce, check out the book Smoking In Bed by Alistair Owen, a series of in-depth Q&As. Very illuminating about scriptwriting/filmmaking. I had to sign a release promising not to blog about the new film, The Rum Diary, but I can confirm that I've seen it!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Eva Green: Part Deux

Yup, it finally happened. A beguiling mademoiselle. To follow soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Waiting for Eva

So, Eva Green. A midnight call tonight will determine whether we're doing a brunch interview tomorrow. I do hope so, Eva.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Withnail & I

Have a rare Bruce Robinson interview coming up. Looking forward to it. Here's the Withnail & I retrospective I did for the Sunday Times in June 2009...

Amongst screenwriters there’s a trusty old metaphor when it comes to crafting a film — act one: send a man up a tree; act two: throw rocks at him; act three: get him down again. If ever a case illustrated this point, it’s Withnail & I, the plot of which goes like this — two out-of-work London actors take a break in the Lake District; they endure mild misfortune; they come home again.

There’s really not much more to it. “Resting” thesps Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann), inveigle Withnail’s well-heeled Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into parting with the keys to his Cumberland cottage; the dwelling proves more of a dump than their squalid Camden gaff; “I” fends off the gaily amorous Monty. What else? Withnail is nicked for drunk driving. Oh, it rains a lot.

Audiences clearly didn’t know what to make of Withnail & I. After a year searching for a willing distributor, it was released in February 1988. Despite some glowing reviews, it lasted just a couple of weeks before being yanked from the nation’s cinema screens.

Its burn, however, was to prove as slow as a Camberwell Carrot. Rediscovered on video/DVD, boosted by re-releases, this bittersweet comedy has since been embraced as one of the best-loved, most quoted British films of modern times. “Because of its very strange mixture of farce and lyricism,” explains Kevin Jackson, whose BFI study, Withnail & I, remains the definitive book on the subject. “If you hold it up from one aspect it’s a howlingly funny comedy. Hold it up another way and it is a tragedy about the loss of youth and the waste of talent. At the level of craftsmanship some of the lines are as good as Pinter.”

“Withnail” has spawned student societies, myriad internet discussions, a drinking game. Its locations are subject to pilgrimage. When Monty’s “Crow Crag” cottage — actually dilapidated Sleddale Hall, near Shap —  was put on the market recently, its heritage value was touted as being equal to Wordsworth’s home. “I’ve probably been the biggest bore with ex-girlfriends,” laughs Dave Panter, who runs one of the many dedicated Withnail websites. “I’ve always sort of ‘sold’ the film. But I’ve converted my wife. Now she gets it.” (Some achievement. In the world of Withnail, women are conspicuous absentees.)

This year marks Withnail & I’s fortieth anniversary. It was in late 1969 — the year the story is set — that writer/director Bruce Robinson first sent Marwood’s battered Jag up the M1 (Marwood being “I”’s revealed name in the screenplay). The project began life as a novel, bashed out in frustration at the impoverished lot of the unemployed thesp. Though there won’t be celebrations on the part of Robinson. “One of the reasons I don’t like having a lot to do with it is because I’m so angry with the people who own it,” he harrumphed in 2006. It is a recurring refrain, echoed by at least one of the film’s three principals. “I’m still owed thirty grand for directing it,” Robinson added in his memoir, Smoking In Bed. “This thing is playing all over the world. Neither I nor the producers nor the actors have ever received one penny of residuals.”

Wind back to the late Sixties and Robinson was one a band of refugees from Central School of Speech and Drama crashing at a fetid townhouse on Albert Street, NW1. The contingent included Michael Feast, now an acclaimed stage actor; (Lord) David Dundas, later to have a pop hit with 1976’s Jeans On; and a splenetic fop of wastrel named Viv MacKerrell. “Sort of slightly upper class, drunken rather arrogant,” describes Feast. It was MacKerrell who would essentially become the model for Withnail.

Robinson had already made a breakthrough as a film actor — appearing in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. But life, according to legend, was an Arctic trudge between home, the local café and The Spread Eagle pub where welfare cheques were proffered. “We still had that student mentality,” says Feast. “It was that time, you know, drugs and drink and rock and roll were the order of the day. Personal hygiene and domestic duties weren’t the priority.”

Robinson and Feast had recently taken a jaunt to Cumbria to try and write a script (the Jag had belonged to Robinson’s then girlfriend, actress Lesley Anne Down). “That whole Lake District fiasco, all of that stuff happened,” says Feast, recounting familiar details. “Getting into the field with the bull; the search for fuel; tying plastic bags round our feet; the chicken thing. The cottage was a tip. The farmer — who did have a plaster on his leg — was just looking to make a bit of extra cash from idiot southerners. It was freezing. We were burning bits of furniture. We slept with our coats on. Even ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity’ (one of the film’s most quoted lines) was coined up there. The first night we blew all our money on a slap-up meal in one of those very upmarket hotels.”

Robinson based the Marwood character on himself, and borrowed the name Withnall from someone he once knew, only misspelling it (the pronunciation “Withnall” remains). More than anything, the act of hammering at the battered Olivetti convinced him that writing was his calling. Though he would continue to act in films like The Story Of Adele H, the career switch was vindicated. Under the wing of producer David Puttnam, Robinson’s screenwriting career culminated with an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for 1984’s The Killing Fields.

Withnail & I continued to simmer. The novel became “like samizdat”, according to Robinson, passed around amongst friends. By 1980 Robinson had converted it into a screenplay and commissioned Ralph Steadman to produce artwork for it — Steadman best known for his association with Hunter S. Thompson, oft regarded as Robinson’s trans-Atlantic twin.

In 1985 the script found its way to George Harrison, who remarked that the laddish squalor reminded him of the pre-Fab Four’s Hamburg days. Post-Beatles, Harrison had turned his hand to producing, his Handmade Films formed to bale out Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, now riding high on the success of films like Time Bandits. An industry player, Robinson was able to get himself attached as director. In July 1986, almost 17 years after its inception, Withnail & I went into production.

Events are well-known to fans. The novice Grant — whose manic performance soon brought him to the attention of Robert Altman, Francis Coppola and Steve Martin — had beaten the likes of Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis to the part of Withnail. Paul McGann, hot off controversial TV drama The Monocled Mutineer pipped Michael Maloney for “I”. Griffiths was selected for Uncle Monty after his role in another Handmade film, A Private Function — his propositioning of Marwood (“Are you a sponge or a stone?”) lifted directly from Robinson’s own experience of an attempted homosexual seduction by Zeffirelli

In keeping with the theme, most of the film appears to have been shot while Robinson and co. were half-cut — with the honourable exception of the teetotal Grant, though even he conceded to a night of alcoholic abandon, the better to truly experience the “bastard behind the eyes” that blights his aspirin-less character.

The laissez faire approach had been indulged by Handmade’s creatives — Harrison, Ray Cooper (better known as Elton John’s percussionist), the certain “Richard Starkey MBE” that the film’s credits list as Special Production Consultant. It was not, however, to be tolerated by Harrison’s American partner, Denis O’Brien, a former merchant banker who was Handmade’s driving force.

Famously, so appalled was O’Brien at the darkness evident in early footage — in contrast to the anticipated fruity laugh-a-minute British farce — that furious rows ensued, with Robinson threatening to walk. In the end, with the film pretty much written off, Robinson was allowed to do as he pleased, the reason, he claims, that it turned out as well as it did. Though O’Brien exacted his pound of flesh. Robinson had been paid £80,000 to direct the film and a token £1 for the screenplay. He had to shell out £30,000 from his own pocket to finance certain scenes of the film (the road trip back to the capital), which were deemed extraneous by O’Brien.

It is small beer compared with what happened to Harrison. Having not learned his lesson from the management wranglings that had kiboshed the Beatles, the musician-turned-producer had jumped into bed with the wrong “suit”. In 1995 Harrison sued O’Brien for $20m, claiming vast sums had been misappropriated from the Handmade coffers. A Californian court subsequently awarded an $11.7m judgement in Harrison’s favour. But it was too late. Hastened by the US flop, Cold Dog Soup, Handmade was sold in 1994, for a paltry $8.5m, to the Canadian outfit, Paragon Entertainment Group. It forced Harrison into alternative money-spinning ventures, not least, it is said, the Beatles Anthology reunion.

That same year, coincidentally, the Withnail revival had begun, its unlikely champion the lads’ mag Loaded, which saluted the film with its student-friendly Drinking Game, inviting participants to line up the beverages quaffed onscreen, consuming them at the appropriate moments (two pints of cider, two large shots of gin, eight glasses of sherry, a bottle of whisky, as well as fourteen subsequent measures of Scotch, four pints of ale, multiple bottles of red wine and, if you’re really pushing the boat out, a tot of lighter fluid, something MacKerrell is said to have actually imbibed, rendering him blind for a few days). There followed a 1996, “tenth anniversary” re-release, promotions by Oddbins and Stella Artois. Withnail was back… and boozier than ever.

“They’re very welcome to have Withnail but to think of it merely as a film to get pissed by was unfair,” says Jackson. “It was richer than that.” Indeed, for all the bacchanalian festivity, Withnail & I is a film underpinned by tragedy. And would have been more so according to the original ending, in which, after bidding adieu to Marwood in Regent’s Park, Withnail goes home, loads a shotgun with Monty’s prized Chateau Margeaux ‘53 and blows his brains out. Instead, the requiem is for the Sixties itself, the film’s drab grimness in contrast to the usual paisley whirl. “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man,” as Ralph Brown’s Danny The Drug Dealer puts it. “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”

“I was there at the time and I’m still alive too, which some of us aren’t,” stresses Feast. For both MacKerrell, and Michael Elphick (another Central pal, who played Jake the Poacher), effectively drank themselves to death, MacKerrell dying in 1995 from throat cancer, Ephick in 2002 from a heart attack. Feast has since triumphed in his own battles with drugs and alcohol. “The price that was paid by those two was nearly paid by me.” On the soundtrack there are casualties in Jimi Hendrix (overdose) and King Curtis (murdered). And then there is Harrison, who died in 2001, still trying to stay O’Brien’s declaration of bankruptcy.
Handmade, for their part, dispute Robinson’s claims regarding remuneration. In 1999 the company was bought back and newly constituted by CEO Patrick Meehan, himself a former rock manager, who had looked after artists including Black Sabbath. “When Withnail came out it took nothing at the box office,” declares Meehan. “It was a small ‘nothing’ film. It lost a lot of money. It actually didn’t make a single penny. As time has gone on it has become a cult film, but it doesn’t make the money that people think it makes. It might sell 10,000 DVDs (p.a.). It’s not that much. Everybody talks about it, everybody’s seen it, and everybody loves it, but that doesn’t turn into cash. I’ve had this all my life. It’s like these pop groups that had this one hit thirty years ago wondering where all the money is. It’s got to recoup the money that it lost in the first place. And that’s what people just tend to forget.”

Statistics would tend to bear Meehan out. Withnail cost £1.1m to make, and probably about as much again to market. It earned £565,000 at the UK box office in 1988 (compared to the £12m of that year’s comedy hit, A Fish Called Wanda). Add on a combined £418,000 on limited re-releases in 1996 and 2007 plus its American return of $1.5m and it’s still a marginal asset. (For the record, actors don’t make residuals from broadcasts of films on TV.)

As for the fabled Missing Thirty Grand, it was a standard penalty for Robinson going over budget, claims Meehan. “I reimbursed him for that when I didn’t have to. I was actually quite upset. He always said that Handmade had ripped him off, so I sent him a cheque for 30 grand, and he doesn’t tell anybody that… I actually sent somebody to drive up to his (Herefordshire) cottage to give it to him.”

Robinson’s directorial career never did take off after Withnail & I. His next film, also with Grant, How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989) was a flop, as was his debut Hollywood film, the thriller Jennifer 8 (1992), which was chopped about by its studio, Paramount — so much so that the whole miserable experience had Robinson swearing off directing for good. Despite screenplays for films like Return To Paradise and In Dreams, and an acting cameo in old-rockers flick, Still Crazy (1998), the reclusive Robinson turned his attention to authoring children’s books and a semi-autobiographical novel, The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman.

Withnail & I, though, has fans in very high places and none more so than Johnny Depp. Having tried for years to tempt Robinson out of retirement, Depp has finally succeeded at the fifth time of asking. They have just finished shooting Robinson’s own adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’ s The Rum Diary in Puerto Rico, with Depp as a version of the celebrated gonzo journalist — the late personal friend essayed previously in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It will be released in 2010, Robinson’s first directorial outing in 18 years.