Monday, 31 October 2011

Withnail & Me


The Sunday Times, Culture section, October 30, 2011

by Jeff Dawson (Unexpurgated version of my interview)

In the bucolic splendour of the Herefordshire hills near Ross-on-Wye, life is beginning to imitate art — a growing sense, to nick one of Robinson’s lines, that one might have “gone on holiday by mistake.”

Robinson’s farmhouse is neither on the map, nor correctly identified on Google. There’s no mobile reception, so you can’t call ahead. Not that Robinson ever answers the phone.

You enquire at a gnarled Tudor pub, flag down a tractor, knock triumphantly at a wrong door, until a random drive down a narrow track leads to a pas de deux with an oncoming estate car whose cheery owner reveals that he has just been cleaning out “Mr. Robinson’s fireplace.”

Up ahead, there it is, the Robinson pile, shimmering in the autumn heatwave; bees swarming over the honeysuckle; brook babbling under the bridge that leads to the front door. Less Country Life, more the antiquated retreat of the “resting” entertainer.

Robinson answers the door stripped to the waist. Grey designer pants are hitched above the waistband of his jeans. His torso is Iggy Pop sinewy, tanned to the hue of those Iron Age bodies they pull out of peat bogs. He’s in good nick for 65 — tousled grey hair, strong white teeth and round rock-and-roll shades. “Can you believe this fucking weather?” booms the lord of the manor.

Robinson leads you into the dark, cool kitchen with its flagstone floor and mind-your-head-doorways. Another semi-naked man appears. "Keith, my Indian (an old actor buddy here doing research for the master). He’s a fucking homosexual." 

A classical guitar lies on the sofa. A laptop teeters on the Welsh dresser. There are stains and crumbs on the sticky oak table and an open can of Beck's Vier. 

The spurning of an alcoholic beverage for myself — driving and all that — results in a contemptuous cup of tea, Robinson bidding you to sniff the milk carton first in the manner of a lactic sommelier.

Mrs. Robinson is away, leading both to an atmosphere of boys at play but with the impending doom of chores that must be completed. We can do the interview outside, says Robinson. But he’s also got to clean the swimming pool. 

He grabs his beer and hoofs, with some fury, a punctured football, after which scurry an overweight black Labrador and indeterminate terrier. 

The house was built in 1590, the stables in 1792, “the year Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off.” They moved here in the early 1990s. Better for the kids. Plus the missus wanted somewhere to keep her horses. A chestnut mare saunters out from behind a tree. “There’s one of the cunts now.”

Though he won a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay to the The Killing Fields (1984), Robinson will be forever known as the writer/director of Withnail & I — not just a semi-autobiographical film about a pair of struggling actors, but a chronicle of booze-addled urbanites marooned in the English countryside.

Coventional wisdom has his old flatmate Vivian MacKerrell as the model for the abrasive Withnail, with Robinson himself as the meek “I” (played in the film, respectively, by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann). Me, I'm not so sure.

Withnail’s release in 1987 marked Robinson as one of Britain’s hottest film talents, but it led to a disastrous spell in Hollywood. According to popular legend, he simply walked away from the movies and has been holed up here for the best part of two decades.

When, three years it was revealed that Robinson was to direct again — a film version of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary — there were eyebrows raised. But, at last, the film is out. It stars Johnny Depp. And you know what? It’s rather good.

Depp, who also produces, is key here. “The only reason this film exists is because of Johnny Depp,” Robinson stresses. A Withnail fan, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Robinson to direct the film version of Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), helmed eventually by Terry Gilliam. But once he had sweettalked Robinson into penning The Rum Diary screenplay, he had got his man.

“They knew I was a piss artist, that I hadn’t done a film for years and that the only reason I was doing it was because Johnny wanted me to,” he says. “I bet you the meeting went, ‘Johnny, the script’s fucking great but we can get anyone for this. Why do you want this fucking idiot, this bloke who lives with sheep looking in the window?’ ”

Clearly Depp is a persuasive chap. It was he who had discovered the original discarded 1961 manuscript in Thompson’s basement while lodging with the author. He twisted Thompson’s arm into publishing the novel 37 years after committing it to paper.

Written before Thompson went “gonzo” — his famed idiosyncratic style — The Rum Diary tells the story of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), assigned to a newspaper on Puerto Rico in the late 1950s (as Thompson had been) where he nurtures his writing career amid the drinking dens of San Juan.

Robinson admits that he “wasn’t entirely impressed with the book.” He could only make it work by excising a major character, the crazed journalist Yeamon, really a second Thompson alter-ego. He subsequently rebuilt the thing from scratch. “All of it. There’s only three lines of Hunter’s in the whole film.” But such is the process of adaptation. He even threw in some excess dialogue from Withnail. Quite thrilling, he says. ”It made my arsehole pout.”

He roots around the shed and hauls out a couple of deck chairs. After a protracted Jacques Tati episode unfolding the things, we lounge by the pool before a crumbling Italianate pavilion while a self-powered aquatic hoover — “the gobbler” — sucks up the dead leaves. It is glorious, “This day of days,” Robinson proclaims. He lights a café crème cigar. “Are you sure I can’t get you a glass of red?”

The Rum Diary seems a perfect fit for Robinson. Not least because Robinson himself has been described … “As a cunt?”  I was going to say Britain’s own answer to Thompson. 

“I remember the guy who I based the character Withnail on, my friend Vivian. I had this godawful fucking thunderous hangover and I was lying on my big brass bed in Camden, this was in 1972, and he threw the book at me and he said, ‘Read this, this could have been you.’ I do kind of write in a similar vernacular.”

Thompson is not everyone’s poison. “Do I like him? He’s not Mark Twain and certainly not Henry Miller but he wrote a few fabulous lines that entitle him to be a remembered American writer.”

Robinson appreciates the good word on the film. Depp has never looked cooler. He hopes that audiences won’t find it a stretch, a man in his forties playing a man in his twenties. And did I like the actress, he wonders (Amber Heard)? “Would you like to sort of kiss her nude?”

What Thompson would have made of it, we’ll never know. He blew his brains out in 2005. Though it is unlikely he’d have voiced much opinion. Robinson met him once at the Chateau Marmont hotel in LA in the company of others. “We sat there and he sniffed it, smoked it, drunk it for two hours and he never said a word. So weird.”

Thompson was on the set in spirit. He had his own chair with his name on the back. Every day they furnished it with a carton of Dunhill and a bottle of Chivas Regal, some of which Bruce and Johnny dabbed behind their ears for good luck. 

Robinson fetches himself a glass of Bordeaux. “Anything I’ve done of any value as a writer has a root in booze,” he concedes. “Clearly there is something about it that I’m addicted to. But I’ve never missed a fucking day for drink. I’ve never got up in the morning and thought, ‘I cant write today, I’m too hungover.’”

San Juan is not a town lacking in refreshments. “I have to say I could see a problem, Johnny and I being daft boys, and so he and I had a deal that we weren’t gong to drink during this film.” Till the last night. “Johnny and I got completely fucking wasted.”

Not every relationship begins with a shared experience of imminent death. While they were location scouting, Depp’s private plane had been hit with a power failure. “Everyone thought, ‘Christ this is going to crash,’” says Robinson. “it’s like you’re dick’s hanging out. We were holding each other on our knees in hysterics.” But disaster, mercifully, was averted.

“I have an extremely maudlin affection for the fucker,” he adds. “I really like him. He’s a bibliophile. He’s a piss artist. He’s like a good old bro.”

Robinson’s 17-year-old Adonis of a son appears, similarly shirtless, to chop wood. Out here, in the sticks, I wonder what kids get up to. ”Have sex mainly,” says Robinson, proceeding to make some candid comments about teenage girls.

He’s magnificently entertaining, is Robinson, but he rarely does interviews. His work, he dismisses… “Is the work of a cunt…" And for reinforcement... "I’m one of England’s well-known cunts.”

The Robinson story goes like this — born in Broadstairs to an abusive father and an eventual revelation that his biological paternity was down to an American GI, much of this channelled into his autobiographical novel, The Diary of Thomas Penman (1998).

Robinson was clever but, mystifyingly, failed his 11-plus, consigned to his local secondary modern. The under-achievement made him “totally full of fear,” he says. “And that knocks on all through your life. What’s the way to get rid of fear? Dutch courage — glug glug. So that’s a very important part of why I’m a writer — that I’m full of rage. I’m 65-years-old and I’m full of fucking rage.”

(Rage, Robinson does in froth-spitting magnificence. He’s “a Mussolini about politics,” and no less forthright on anything else, reserving particular venom on this day of days for the unholy trinity of Michael Gove, Gok Wan and Simon Cowell.)

He found an outlet in acting and got his break in the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet as Benvolio, much of the production spent fighting off the gaily amorous director, Franco Zeffirelli, upon whom he later modelled Withnail’s Uncle Monty.

His final lead role was as young British officer in 1975’s The Story Of Adele H. But, as Uncle Monty would say, there comes a time in a young man’s when he realises he is never going to play The Dane. “If you’re acting for Truffaut and not enjoying it, what’s the point?”

In London, the squalid Camden flat was shared with the since deceased, McKerrell, a splenetic fop, plus actor Michael Feast and slumming aristocrat (Lord) David Dundas (later to have a one-hit pop hit, Jeans On). Their impoverished, inebriated lives provided the material for Withnail-the-novel, which Robinson wrote in 1969, supported by his actress girlfriend, Lesley Anne Down. “God bless her.” 

He couldn’t get it published but producer David Puttnam read it and offered him minor scriptwriting assignments. Robinson recalls an awards dinner, seated on a table with Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Neil Simon. When Dame Maggie Smith asked loudly “And what do you do?” He replied, simply. “Typist.”

Later, Puttnam sent him a New York Times cutting about journalists in Phnom Penh during the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. “I mean what a fucking risk he took.” And thus was born The Killing Fields.

Robinson being Robinson, success was bittersweet. He quotes the famous line by movie mogul Jack Warner — “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” “Everyone said ‘powerful antiwar film’ and then three weeks later it’s Sylvester Stallone and his massive tits rushing up the Mekong delta holding an M50 machine gun.”

He now had leverage to direct Withnail. He roped in illustrator Ralph Steadman (coincidentally a Thompson collaborator) to scare up a proposal and convinced Handmade Films to let him do it.

Withnail was never a commercial success but a film that has endured. “The only reason it survives is because every year a new mob go to university and it’s, ‘Let’s have a curry and watch Withnail and get pissed.’” Robinson raves in particular about Grant’s Hamlet soliloquy at the end. “I remember sort of having a wank while he was doing it. He’s never been better.”

But, inevitably, there is an axe to grind. Nominally, Robinson got paid one pound for the screenplay, his director’s fee then almost halved by the withholding of £30,000 as a penalty for a budgetary overspend. Yes, he got it back recently, but it’s not the point, he says. “Thirty grand was outstanding for 25 years.”

Things soured. He made an anti-Thatcher rant called How To Get Ahead In Advertising, which bombed. He was unemployed again. He was at a film festival in Toronto with his agent trying to pitch for jobs when he came up with an idea for a serial killer movie, which was surprisingly snapped up by MGM.

The resultant 1992 flick, Jennifer 8, which Robinson will only refer to as “the unmentionable” was, he explains, a disaster from the moment they cast the dashing Andy Garcia as the film’s fat, washed-up middle-aged loser of a detective. On set, during filming, studio executives would even step in to yell, “Okay. Cut. Got that," over his shoulder.

“It upset me beyond belief. I just went, ‘That’s it, I’ll never do this again. If this is what being a film director is I don’t want anything to do with it.’ And you know, I kept the promise. I didn’t do it for 17 years, until this thing came up.”

Reports of his retirement have been exaggerated. Robinson and his wife Sophie Windham have written a couple of children’s books. Moreover Robinson has bashed out scores of screenplays (all on a trio ancient IBM typewriters that have to be serviced by “a bloke with a fucking turban in Leicester who comes down twice a year.”)

If a film never gets made, no one ever knows. “I just wish I’d been a novelist rather than a screenwriter, that’s my only regret.”

Three did[ita] get produced — the atomic bomb drama, Shadowmakers, the supernatural thriller In Dreams and the Malaysian drug bust story, Return To Paradise. He groans profanely at their butchery. “They’re unwatchable films.”

He looks skyward. “Won’t be long now. I see Ezekiel beckoning.” But it’s doubtful he’ll go quietly. He is currently stalking Michael Caine to play the grandfather in his film version of Thomas Penman. “I need to have a fucking smoke and a drink with him.” He wouldn’t mind, doing some more acting after a cameo in the old rocker flick, Still Crazy.

But his big thing is his eleven-year project to expose the real Jack The Ripper in the most definitive book on the subject. “I know who he is,” he says. “The Metropolitan Police files are just complete lies.” The thousand-pager is due out in December 2013.

“Would you like a boiled egg?" he asks. They’re freshly laid. Back in the kitchen, over the cracking of shells, both Robinson and Keith (Skinner, nowadays a leading Ripperologist and not a homosexual) tell corking stories about the old days — about Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson and drunk driving around Soho with David Dundas.

The house is full of photos. Robinson looks a mere babe on the shoot of Withnail. In pride of place in the living room is a giant painting of Keith Richards by Depp, done on a canvas of Rizlas.

“Yeah, I was offered a few films to do in what they may say were ‘the wilderness years’. They weren’t wilderness to me at all. If hadn’t been for the dear old Depp... if had been anyone else… I’d have said no.”

1 comment:

  1. Good piece, very enjoyable, thank you. Would love to meet BR, though he appears to be a right old cunt. Nice one!