You Terrible Cult!

30 December 10 words: James Walker
We talk to author Colin Bacon about his new book on Vivian Mackerrell - the inspiration for Withnail and I

 

Withnail and Notts - illustration by Mike Schofield
Withnail and Notts - illustration by Mike Schofield

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? 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.

How did he react when the film came out?
He loved the fact that the film had been made. I remember the day he went down to the cinema and returned with the film poster. He was very proud of it. He was always happy to talk
about it if it came up, but he didn’t sit with an arrow pointing to his head saying ‘Withnail’. He had too much going for him for that.

In your book, he comes across as a genuinely likable guy who lacked motivation and was completely disinterested in success...
Talking to his family and others, many have said he just didn’t have the energy to make it as an actor - although he certainly had the talent. When he starred as the junior lead in Hadrian VII at the Mermaid Theatre in the late seventies, he got great reviews. They were going to tour it nationally, but he didn’t want to do it - it was too much like hard work. By then of course, he was drinking heavily and this took all of his energy up. He didn’t have the hunger.

Tell us about the Playhouse scene back then. He was on the cusp of a moment...
He was there at the opening in 1963, starring with Ian McKellen in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Coriolanus with John Neville. He also got the job as assistant stage manager, so was mixing with this hotch-potch of British talent yet to be discovered like Dame Judi Dench, Leo McKern and Steven Berkoff.

Who were his heroes and inspirations?
All the drinking actors of the sixties - Burton, Harris, O’Toole, Brando. But he adored Elvis. When Elvis died he dragged his girlfriend’s daughter out of school and made her put on something in black and said “Elvis has died, you’ve got to come home and look after me. I’m feeling so low.” 

And like Elvis, he was a man of style…
I remember him in the seventies wearing this poncho and cowboy hat with Cuban heeled boots. But in the sixties he used to wear tweed suits and old brogues. He had nice things and not just clothes, stuff around his house. He had a lovely personally made suit from Paul Smith which he washed so many times it actually went a different colour. But he had his own style.

For a man of his renowned good looks, he seemed disinterested in sexual conquests...
Yeah he didn’t really seem to care and there was some hint that he might have been bisexual. It’s a possibility. Someone told me it was definitely true, but nobody else is aware of it. Irrespective, he was fantastic-looking and a babe magnet who would get the girls interested, but he wouldn’t pursue it. He seemed almost asexual.

How did he cope with his illness?
I wasn’t present during those last few days, but I did visit him in hospital when he’d had his voice box removed. He seemed quite up about it all; he had dope blown straight through the stoma in his neck because he couldn’t inhale. He wasn’t meant to drink, but was such a charmer he could get people to smuggle drink in, even persuading a nurse. When he couldn’t drink through his throat he used a syringe to inject alcohol directly into his stomach. On one occasion they found amphetamine in there.

He doesn’t seem embittered by anything...
He certainly didn’t think anyone had dealt him a bad hand; he just wanted more drink. I guess when people were huntergatherers they hunted to live, and Viv’s purpose was to hunt out drink. I guess the drink kept him alive, as it gave him purpose.

Why do we as a nation glorify drunks?

Because we have a problem with alcohol. It’s like when they introduced all-night drinking and the government thought it would get all continental, but people just went out and got even more bladdered. It’s part of our culture - everyone says “have a drink, it’ll be fine” which it is if you do it in moderation. 

If Vivian was alive today, what do you think he’d be doing?
I think it’s pretty obvious he’d be doddering along, doing the same thing. Drinking. If a drug came along he liked the look of he’d take it. I don’t think he’d ever have his road-to-Damascus moment and stop. He would never have gone to AA.

Vivian and I is available from Quartet Books for £12.99.

Quartet Books website 

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