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
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Directed by Marielle HellerCertificate 15☆☆☆☆
LIKE a slimmer version of the great Uncle Monty, Richard E Grant sashays his way into this marvellous film with an unquenchable thirst for substances that make him feel skewwhiff, a vocabulary of gorgeously pronounced swear words (can anyone else give the f-word such depth and richness?), and a tragic backstory that feels so much like Richard Griffiths’ seminal outing in Withnail and I that it feels like Grant is paying homage to his co-star.Throw in a knockout performance by fellow lead Melissa McCarthy, and you could have had this these two characters doing absolutely nothing but sitting in a bar and I’d pay top dollar to watch it.Continue reading
Richard E Grant is playing another starry-eyed drunk and this time he’s Oscar nominated
In 1991, actor, perfumier, director and keen diarist Richard E Grant was on the set of Rambling Rose with Laura Dern when he met an enthusiastic young chap who had just scored a three-picture deal. “Met 24-year-old J J Abrams – incredibly self-confident, self-possessed and rich,” wrote the Swaziland-born artist.
He must have made an impression. More than two decades later, Abrams cast the actor in the still untitled Star Wars IX.
“Let me tell you all about it,” says Grant. “So my character is called [he mouths words] and the end of the movie is just fantastic. It’s [he mouths more words]. It’s a good story, isn’t it? How’s your lip-reading?”
It stands to reason that the man with the world’s jolliest Twitter feed likes to have fun during interviews. On Melissa McCarthy: “What a terrible person to work with!” he cries, in utmost insincerity. On Brexit: “I think the current strategy is carry a cork and stick that up your arse.” On Yorgos Lanthimos: “He’s the person I most want to work with: put that in print: I’m bent over in readiness.” On his early career: “Well, when I started a hundred thousand years ago…”
“I’m nearly 62,” he says. “It seems to me you only have one crack at this. So enjoy the ride while you can. There’s so much that you can moan about. But try not to.”
Grant has seldom been away from our screens since his iconic drunken turn in Withnail and I in 1987. In recent years, he’s had recurring roles on Doctor Who, Girls and Game of Thrones. Of late, however, he’s on something of a roll. Following Jackie, Logan and The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Star Wars is just the latest in a series of high-profile projects to feature the affable 61-year-old.
“You can’t plan a career in acting,” he says. “Or I certainly can’t at the level that I’m at. All you can really do say yes or no to something. I’m always constantly reminded of something John Lennon said before he died: life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. I never imagined I’d be the guy shot by Wolverine in his last ever movie. I certainly never imagined I’d be in Star Wars. I remember seeing the first one when I was 20 years old at drama school. Forty-one years later and here I am. It feels surreal.”
‘One of those’
With Star Wars under his belt, it seems inconceivable that movies featuring Grant won’t pass the billion dollar mark in terms of this year’s box office. But, having been named by more than a dozen critics’ circles as 2018’s best supporting actor for his work on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, he may well be shortlisted for an even bigger accolade. There’s major Oscar buzz around the film which has already been shortlisted by the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes across multiple categories. And it’s another starry drunk role for the teetotal actor
Richard E Grant has captivated the internet. The actor greeted the news of his nomination for an Academy Award by returning to his first rental when no one had heard of him. There he whooped with childlike delight, and then shared the whole thing in an utterly disarming Instagram post. He also phoned up his co-star and co-nominee Melissa McCarthy, and together they cried. Perhaps now Grant will finally be umbilically linked in the public mind to his performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (pictured below), for which he has been nominated as Best Supporting Actor, as well as his career-igniting turn in Withnail and I. Continue reading