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Withnail and I at Birmingham Rep – ‘I stayed away from rehearsals’, says writer


Withnail and I stars Paul McGann and Richard E Grant

Original Withnail and I stars Paul McGann and Richard E Grant (Image: Arrow Films)

It would be fair to say Bruce Robinson’s relationship with the first film he directed has had its ups and downs over the last four decades. Having once referred to Withnail & I as being “stuck to me like a colostomy bag”, the 78-year-old writer and director is apparently on better terms today with what has long been regarded as perhaps the funniest and certainly most quotable British film ever made.

If you’ve ever heard a group of men loudly declaring, “We want the finest wines available to humanity” or “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”, then you were probably listening to some of the notoriously obsessive fans of the 1987 film that propelled Richard E Grant to movie stardom and remains the greatest cinematic depiction of the slow death of the hippie dreams of the 1960s.

“I wasn’t fond of the idea of staging it,” admits Robinson, about the first ever theatre adaption of Withnail, which recently opened at the Birmingham Rep. “I’d done it, you know; it’s decades ago and it’s over… I just wanted to move on.

“But a while back, a lovely geezer called George Ward wanted to buy the stage rights. He is a very generous man and coughed up a good chunk of dough. So I’ve written the script but I am not the director.

“I’ve deliberately stayed away from rehearsals. I’d only bring a ball and chain as I would be looking to do what I did before.”

Adonis Siddique and Robert Sheehan as Withnail and I

Adonis Siddique and Robert Sheehan as Marwood and Withnail in stage adaptation (Image: Manuel Harlan)

For the uninitiated who remain perplexed about the cult of Withnail, the plot of the film is easy to relate.

Two down-and-out actors (Withnail, played by Grant and “I”, Paul McGann, whose name is never referred to during the film but is now known to be Marwood) are living in a toxically decrepit flat in Camden Town and drowning themselves in drink and drugs in the early autumn of 1969.

Offered the keys to a cottage in the Lake District by Withnail’s upper-class, flamboyant and lascivious Uncle Monty (played, unforgettably, by the late Richard Griffiths), the pair find their holiday home is even more squalid than their London dwellings.

More trauma ensues as Uncle Monty unexpectedly arrives with predatory designs on the young Marwood.

After various howlingly funny misadventures, and shockingly bad language, the film ends with Marwood leaving London for a job in a Manchester rep theatre while Withnail is left alone to slide ever further down life’s slippery slope. The credits roll after his vituperative reading of Hamlet’s “what piece of worth is a man” soliloquy to a group of disinterested wolves at London Zoo.

Yet the micro-scale of the film’s narrative (and its equally parsimonious budget) belies the legacy of Withnail. Robinson has directed only three films since then, most latterly the adaption of Hunter S Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary. Starring Johnny Depp, it was the Hollywood star’s adoration of Withnail that led to Robinson returning to the director’s chair, a position that he admits to never being truly comfortable with.

“I remember when the film [Withnail] was at the cutting stage, saying to my wife, ‘Oh God, I hope we can get two weeks at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill’,” recalled Robinson in an interview in 1994.

“To my amazement I took it to New York to preview it and – I’d always thought it was funny – but the audience were standing up to laugh. I couldn’t believe it. And it played there in New York to packed houses for seven months. It’s only since it transferred to video that it has built its cult status.”

The latest stage production is directed by Sean Foley, and stars Irish actor Robert Sheehan as Withnail, Adonis Siddique as “I” and Malcolm Sinclair playing Uncle Monty.

Yet, just as fascinating to devotees of Withnail are the memories Bruce has regarding the situation he was in when he wrote the original script back in the winter of 1970.

“I was living in Camden Town in a road called Albert Street off the Parkway,” Robinson recalled. “The house that we shot in was very much based on that house. I was living there for about four or five years.

“When we all came out of drama school in 1967, one of our friends had a lot more money than the rest of us and bought the house for himself and slowly we all moved in. Eventually, all the more affluent ones moved out, leaving just me and this friend of mine, Vivian MacKerrell.”

MacKerrell, who died aged just 50 from throat cancer in 1995, was the man with whom Robinson shared his darkest hours, and whose turbulent personality morphed into that of Withnail. They were so poor they possessed only one lightbulb – screwing it into the fitting of whatever room of the house they entered.

Robinson managed to turn this frankly depressing existence into a script while MacKerrell drank lighter fluid (an act famously recreated by Richard E Grant in the film, though the can was filled with vinegar) and demolished entire walls of the house with a hammer and an artificial leg.

“We were on the brink of despair… no money, no work, living on £11 National Assistance,” recalled Robinson. “But I used to live with an actress who was doing very well in those days, Lesley-Anne Down, and she had bought this old Jaguar which was the same one used in the film.”

Withnail and I film director and writer Bruce Robinso

Withnail and I film director and writer Bruce Robinson on set in 1986 (Image: Getty)

Without MacKerrell, but with another young actor friend of his called Michael Feast, Bruce decided, just as Grant and McGann’s characters do in the film, to get out of London to regenerate in the country.

“We’d [Feast and myself] found this ad in The Times for an idyllic cottage for £8 a week. We drove up to this cottage in the Lake District and it really was a f****** barn,” recalls Robinson. “Rain was pouring in through the roof in a bucket and we couldn’t believe what had happened. We had no fuel or food and it was horrible – we couldn’t wait to get out.”

The Uncle Monty character was inspired by the late Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director who cast a young Robinson as Benvolio in his 1968 movie adaption of Romeo and Juliet. “He was genuinely appalling, sadistic to me,” said Robinson, six decades later.

“It’s a cliché, isn’t it, the casting couch, but that didn’t come from nowhere. I think powerful film directors would kind of de rigueur take the girls to bed.

“But it’s an iniquitous thing to do; actors are so vulner­able, anyway. When I was a young actor, it wasn’t uncommon at all to get hit on by, in my case, homosexual directors expecting you to play the game.”

The filming of Withnail & I was beset by problems, including one representative of the production company, HandMade Films, arriving on set demanding that the script be altered and that the lighting be less sepulchral.

Robinson threatened to walk unless he could make the film the way he wanted. He got his wish, doubtless to the pleasure of George Harrison, who had founded the company in order to finance and release Monty Python’s Life Of Brian film in 1978.

On the film’s cinematic release in the UK, critics were broadly supportive, with The Times appropriately paraphrasing Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale – featured in the film’s memorable opening sequence in the form of a saxophone cover by virtuoso King Curtis – to describe it as depicting a “sordid shade of pale”.

But it was the VHS and DVD releases in the 1990s and Noughties that triggered Withnail’s evolution into one of the biggest sleeper hits of all time. Grossing around £1million internationally at the time of its first screening, Withnail went on to make 50 times that much over the next three decades.

Richard E Grant would work with Robinson again on How To Get Ahead In Advertising in 1989 before finding Hollywood success with movies such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and LA Story. McGann has since appeared as the eighth Time Lord in Doctor Who as well as taking small-screen roles in Luther and Holby City, before recently narrating the successful podcast documentary series Real Dictators.

As for Robinson, he is now fast closing in on 80, yet still possesses the fire and conviction that enabled him to complete Withnail. He may have authorised the new theatre adaptation, even going so far as to add a few new lines to the script.

But, to the disappointment of myriad Withnail fanatics, the chances of a movie sequel are, and will remain, absolutely out of the question for Robinson.

“If I did a sequel you’d be totally setting yourself up to be kicked in the b******s,” concludes Robinson.

“People would just say I was cashing in, when incidentally, I never got a bloody penny out of Withnail & I. I sold the script to HandMade Films for a quid. I got paid for directing. No, I would never want to get back into Withnail & I.”

Withnail & I is on at the Birmingham Rep until May 25. For more info and bookings, visit birmingham-rep.co.uk

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