Author Colin Bacon discusses “Vivian and I,” his 2010 book on Vivian Mackerrell – the inspiration for Withnail and I
Vivian Mackerrell grew up in Nottingham and was a jobbing actor in the sixties and seventies. He played ‘Fourth Tramp’ in a BBC play and had a bit part in a film about a doll that came to life. Then he retreated back to Notts to work for Paul Smith, eventually becoming a pub legend and dying of throat cancer in 1995. So why has Colin Bacon written his autobiography [sic]? Well, he was also Bruce Robinson’s flatmate in the late sixties and the inspiration for the iconic Withnail and I…
Researching your book was a little more difficult than you imagined…
Initially I was shot down when I contacted the director Bruce Robinson because he’d said all he wanted to say about Withnail and I and had moved on. When I said I was thinking of calling the book In Search of Withnail he became a bit touchy and said ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that’, which took the wind out of my sails a little bit. So initially it was a knock in the teeth but after that everyone I spoke to was incredibly helpful because they all loved Vivian.
Do you think Withnail and I has been a millstone around his neck?
He’s had an active creative life through books and films, and wants people to recognise other things he’s done. But he loved Viv. He definitely had great affection for him, so I don’t think there’s any jealousy. I suspect he’s just fed up with being misquoted and people wanting more from the character than he’s prepared to give. Robinson didn’t make any money from the film and funded the last part of the film himself because of various complications. He nearly walked out on the first day of filming because the producer – who’d worked with the Monty Python crew – had his own view of how Withnail should be portrayed. So I guess to see something like this take off after all of the problems and then become a cult classic without financial benefit – I think he sold the rights – must have been frustrating.
Let’s clear up some of the enduring myths that surround the film. Did the flat exist?
Yes, it was based on the Camden flat on Albert Street, which was owned by their classmate David Dundas, who wrote the score for the film. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal from what I can gather; a typical student flat of the time in bohemian London, with some very wealthy people hanging around pretending that they had nothing! They had all of this wonderful furniture and works of art but were living in absolute squalor, surviving off beans and covering themselves in Deep Heat to keep themselves warm – and of course drinking good wine. Both Viv and Bruce developed a taste for good wine as students.
Did the lighter fuel episode really happen?
Apparently so. I spoke to someone who said they were present when it occurred. Certain people have suggested that Vivian’s throat cancer could be attributable to this.
And the Camberwell Carrot?
I didn’t necessarily know it by that name, but people used to roll fantastic joints shaped like television aerials, and great long ones you’d give yourself a hernia trying to toke on. Rolling joints like the Camberwell Carrot was a typical sixties pastime.
Richard E Grant’s remit for the role was a ‘lying, mendacious, utterly charming, old darling’. Is that an accurate reflection of Vivian?
By the time I met Viv, he’d mellowed a lot. He certainly had his opinions, but I never witnessed him being as nasty as the Richard E Grant character. He was quite a Thatcherite, though; he’d see homeless people and say they should be nuked. But he wasn’t embittered, just overly dramatic. Withnail and I had loads of Vivian in it, but the extreme version. He isn’t the character. There’s a bit of artistic licence. And the one thing Bruce Robinson warned me about was that I couldn’t claim that anything said in the film was ever uttered by Vivian or else he’d issue a writ. He’s adamant that Viv didn’t say these things, although he stated in a revised screenplay of the film that although; “there isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail, his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word.” Viv at one point suggested he’d helped him write the screenplay, but I don’t think he did. I’m sure that’s just Viv being a bit extreme in the pub one evening.
How did you meet Vivian?
I’d meet him whenever I used to come back to Nottingham to see friends, after moving down to the West Country in the seventies. Nottingham had become a lot trendier during this time. The
emphasis had shifted from the Playhouse Bar – which used to be the place to be seen in the sixties – to the Lace Market. We’d drink in Jaceys, Brownes, The Carter Club – places like that.
So was he the kind of person who would sell an arse to get a weekend away, or even a free drink?
He wouldn’t need to do anything for a free drink; he was such a lovely bloke that people would buy them for him anyway. He just talked to people and had them in raptures with his asides. If he had someone to drink with, he was happy. Once they couldn’t drink anymore, he’d find someone else. Because he lived on Cecil Street he’d hang about mostly in Lenton, at The Grove. They loved him and I guess they saw him as this eccentric guy and would buy him drinks. Continue reading