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Vivian Mackerrell: The Actor Who Inspired Withnail

19 November 10

Vivian Mackerrell was the jobbing actor who inspired the character of Withnail in Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I. He lived much of his life in Nottingham. Here are some quotes about him from the people who knew him best...

“I can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialised into the bravest bastard I’d ever known. It’s got to be hard to laugh when you’re dying, but I’ll always remember you laughing. That sad, brilliant, bitter face of yours laughing… Goodbye my darling friend. I know if there’s a pub in heaven you’ll be in it. And Keats will be buying the drinks.”
Bruce Robinson, in the introduction to Withnail and I: The Original Screenplay.

“He was incredibly handsome. I went out with him for a couple of months. I got fed up with it ‘cause he never seemed interested in me and the drink was a problem. He stopped washing. He had this theory that the natural oils in his body would keep him clean if he stopped.”
Denny, Vivian’s ex-girlfriend.

“I knew him originally from him coming into the Birdcage. He often wanted things that he couldn’t quite afford. I was starting to wholesale and sell my clothes to other people in ’77 and he used to help us pack the boxes…
One of the memorable things about Vivian and packing boxes, was that we’d sold about 400 shirts, which was an enormous order for us... I’d go into the back and Viv would be addressing the labels with this old traditional fountain pen, writing the address in this wonderful copperplate writing. Now it would just be a felt tip and sticker.
As we got busier, we had more people helping in the warehouse. They used the brown tape that comes on a machine, it used to be knopi tape, and he always used to pride himself on how perfectly he could do his knopis.
We used to have knopi competitions and Vivian was always the winner because of the immaculate way he could do straight lines.
That was one of the things about Vivian, the fact that whatever happened to him he was amazingly stylish. There was this exquisiteness about him. I know it might sound terribly snobbish, but there was this breeding about him.”
Sir Paul Smith talking to Colin Bacon in Vivian and I.

“In the mid 1980s I shared a house with a guy who ran the Paul Smith shop. A number of people would hang about in the back room of the shop and that’s where I first met Vivian. It was in that room, before Withnail and I came out, that I recall Vivian saying someone was writing a film about him and we just shrugged it off. But there were huge similarities. Anyone who’d met him would recognise the Withnail character. But he was so flamboyant with some of the stories he told I wasn’t sure at first whether I believed him.
He was an extraordinarily stylish person, far more so than the Richard E Grant character who looked dishevelled. His clothes were very expensive and things like the long coat and scarf were trademarks of Vivian before this character appeared on screen.
I remember when he was once going to a fancy dress party at a wealthy uncle’s house and he needed a costume and didn’t have the money to hire one. So he borrowed a baked potato costume from a baked potato seller and travelled the streets of London in it, only to discover it was actually a black tie do.
The very last time I saw him he was sat on the wall outside Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem on a hot summers day and he seemed angry. I asked him why and he said in his usual, paced tone “Our greatest sporting championship – Wimbledon - has been won by two Nazis.”
Jeremy Hague, an old acquaintance of Vivian’s.

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