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
Richard E Grant has been delighting fans of his most famous role, in cult 1987 film Withnail and I, by quoting famous lines from it on a daily basis to help relieve the boredom of lock-down.
It’s been 33 years since Grant starred as the title character, aspiring actor Withnail, in Bruce Robinson’s hit black comedy, but the love for it remains strong.
Introducing his pick of his favourite lines as the ‘Withnail and I isolation quote for today’, Grant, 62, is seen in the short videos on Twitter uttering lines such as ‘We’re not from London, you know’ and ‘Are you the farmer?’.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
“You could choke a dozen donkeys on that! And you’re haggling over one hundred pound? What d’you do when you’re not buying stereos, Nick? Finance revolutions?”
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s first and finest feature film, just gets better with age. A sharp, stylish insight into London’s gritty underworld, the film made a household name of its director and kick-started the acting careers of ex-driver Jason Statham and a former footballer by the name by Vinnie Jones – who proved he could be just as intimidating on screen as he was on the pitch. Witty, pacey and packed full of poster-worthy one-liners – “If the milk turns out to be sour, I ain’t the kind of pussy to drink it. You know what I mean, Nick?” – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is the best British gangster flick of the past quarter-century – know what I mean, Nick?
Chosen by Richard Brown, editorial director
About a Boy (2002)
Having invented a son to impress single mum Rachel (Rachel Weisz), wealthy bachelor Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) faces a conundrum when she invites him, and his fictional child Ned, to a playdate. Enlisting the help of misfit teenager Marcus (Nicholas Holt), Will unwittingly enters into a relationship that forms the basis of this coming-of-age tale, which touches on themes of friendship, suicide and teenage anxiety. In Nick Hornby’s original novel, the story is set in Islington, but the film adaptation is shot across the capital, with Will’s apartment located in Clerkenwell, his local supermarket in Richmond, his hair salon in Westbourne Grove and his favourite restaurants (Otto Dining Lounge and Hakkasan) in Maida Vale and Hanway Place respectively. And let’s not forget Regent’s Park, the scene of Marcus’s accidental crime involving a duck and a stale loaf of bread…
Chosen by Ellen Millard, deputy editor
The much-loved Penrith tea room scene from Withnail & I (actually filmed at a chemists’ in Milton Keynes)
Unspecified cake it was, which for this publication is a rarity. “Just bring out the cakes.” “Cake, and fine wine.” The context was all. A couple of wastefully drunk and filthily arrogant unemployed actors bumbling into the Penrith Tea Rooms at closing time. And Richard E Grant’s unimprovably bonkers follow-up, somehow both slurred and royally, commandingly, articulate: “We want the finest wines available to humanity.”
It was 1986 and the filming of Withnail and I. Yet the writer and director Bruce Robinson, for whom this was pretty much autobiographical, was back in 1960s Camden. Railing as ever against an unestablishable establishment: and moving the setting to the Lake District effectively moved the decades. The distaste on the face of the proprietor, the fine character actor Llewellyn Rees, surely echoes the pursed lips of all who had dogged Robinson’s 60s days with twitching curtains and long noses when all he was trying to do was … have some fun.
Robinson is thankfully very much alive, as I found a few years ago. As are of course Grant and Paul McGann, the “I” of the film’s title. Rees died in 1994. But I managed to catch up with photographer Murray Close, who took this still. Did anyone, I ask, have an inkling of what a success, a cult, that film would become, with its timeless celebration of simple friendship and generational differences?
“Not at all. Bruce had to fund the last reel himself. We didn’t have a clue. It was a great script, of course, but everyone was an unknown – though I believe Bill Nighy read for the main part. But slowly, slowly, videos and then DVDs came out, and … yes, in hindsight, it’s a great film, but I just remember it as truly tremendous fun, with a UK crew of a certain age and propensity to laughter.”
Murray’s website has many more extraordinary outtakes. The “Penrith tea-rooms” location was in fact what is now a chemists’ shop in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes. The last few lines of Robinson’s script, with Grant doing Hamlet by the London Zoo wolves, still enthral. “What a piece of work is a man … [yet] man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither.” [The wolves are unimpressed. Withnail exits into the rain.