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.